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China's Farcical War Against English Acronyms

With the intention to stop the 'corruption' of the Chinese language, authorities in Beijing have been taking aim at everything from the NBA and MBAs, to iPhones and WiFi.

A Nepalese student writes Chinese characters in class in Kathmandu, Nepal, in April 2014.
A Nepalese student writes Chinese characters in class in Kathmandu, Nepal, in April 2014.
Yu Ge

-OpEd-

BEIJING — Four years ago, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television banned the use of English acronyms such as WTO, NBA, GDP in television and radio reports, interviews or film subtitles. The agency explained that more of the audience would be able to understand the broadcast programs without them, even though much of the public had become familiar with these terms and even though their absence would create wordier, more confusing translations.

Chinese viewers were suddenly forced to listen to the awkward Chinese translations of terms such as “American professional basketball,” even as the glaring English letters spelling “China Central Television” remained on display in the corner of the TV screen. It was — and is — comical. And now, an article in China’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, seems to be reinforcing this state of affairs.

The newspaper criticizes the use of English acronyms such as Wi-Fi, CEO, MBA, CBD, VIP, and PM2.5, which are commonly employed in global broadcasting and in China’s academic periodicals. Critics say the anglo abbreviations are an abuse of the Chinese language, fragmenting context and undermining the purity of Chinese.

In response, the Chinese blogosphere immediately and jokingly made up sentences avoiding the use of loan words such as Wi-Fi and iPhone. Alas, the examples demonstrated the absurdity of translating these loan words into Chinese. It makes for much longer strings of ideograms, and these IT terms don’t sound any more comprehensible just because they are translated into Chinese.

That there is a war of words, so to speak, between Chinese and foreign languages is not new. The struggle, which involves politics and culture, has been particularly intense over the past 200 years. Though we cannot determine who will be the eventual victor, what can be asserted is that the ultimate winner will be the language associated with political and cultural openness.

Judging a language by its purity is overbearing. Purity is not the first and foremost essence of a language. A closed language surely would be more pure, but it is only by being tolerant and inclusive that a language can have vitality. This is precisely the specialty of Chinese.

Chinese terms such as hu-tong, meaning alley, came from Mongolian, whereascha-na, meaning a moment, came from Sanskrit. The landscape of the Chinese language is enriched, not corrupted by these loan words.

From the purity perspective, the Chinese language has long been a hybrid. An estimated one-fourth of the Chinese we use today is made up of loan words. It is advisable to take a long perspective. Zhang Zhidong, a famous late Qing dynasty mandarin, once furiously denounced his staff for using the new term of the time, jian-kang, meaning health, because “the term came from Japan” and sounded like “the subjugation of China.”

Were there a real enemy of the Chinese language, perhaps it is actually the People’s Daily. The discourse that this newspaper relies on and develops has constituted a yoke on the Chinese language, quashing the willful freedom of Chinese people. Its habitual criticisms and tone corrupt the Chinese language far more than the people it criticizes.

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