How Beijing’s Guardians Of The Language Are Redefining Modern China

The latest edition of China’s best-known dictionary shows how the country has changed -- and not changed. Terms included for the first time include “TV show’’ and “migrant worker.” The word “firewall” is not.

New ways and old (
New ways and old (
Johnny Erling

BEIJING - When saying goodbye, people in China often say "Bye Bye." But until this July there was no Chinese way of writing that. There is now: Beijing's guardians of the language have deemed "Bai Bai" the correct written form, and it has been included in the new edition of China's best-known dictionary.

Actually the linguists took the matter a step further. There are four tones in spoken Mandarin, and the character "Bai" is spoken in the fourth, which has a very hard ring to it. To soften that, the linguists came up with a tailor-made, second tone "Bai."

This is just one example of how flexible Chinese linguists are integrating new expressions and terms in a country growing increasingly international. A dozen linguists from the Academy of Social Sciences and editors from the Beijing-based company, the Commercial Press, which publishes the dictionary, worked for eight years to produce the new (and eleventh) edition of the "Xinhua Zidian", or "Dictionary of the New China."

The first print run of the most influential Chinese dictionary counts 4 million copies. Since the founding of the People's Republic, every school child has been familiar with the pocket publication, the present edition of which runs more than 700 pages. With a total number of copies exceeding 400 million (behind the bible) the dictionary is one of the four best-selling books in the world.

From the very first edition in 1953, it has mirrored social, political and economic changes in Chinese society and government. In this new edition, all terms that have anything to do with class struggle, and hence do not correspond to China today, have been deleted or somehow revisited. To take the example of the pronoun "Zanmen" (all together): in the 2004 edition, the sample given for its meaning was: "All together, we the poor have revolutionized our village."

Seven years later that has been replaced by: "All together, we have become rich in our village."

The word for slave (Nu) has also been given a new modern usage, one that has long been in use in spoken Chinese. The terms "Fang Nu" and "Che Nu" are used to mean slaves to one's home or car, in the sense that someone is a slave to the debt they have incurred to acquire a home or vehicle.

Terms that are no longer applicable to modern life, like "Meiyou" (oil for petroleum lamps) or "Hezuoshe" (agricultural cooperative), have been removed from the 2011 edition. New terms include "harmony," "media," "good of the people," and "migrant worker."

"Hair gel" in Chinese

For the very first time, the notion of animal welfare enters the Chinese dictionary. The information formerly given with regard to endangered species -- e.g. that they are useful to humans for meat, skin, fur, ivory – has been suppressed. This applies to whales, foxes, rhinoceroses and elephants.

There are new words or terms commonly used in the spoken language before that are now taken up in the dictionary: "Di Shi" for taxis, "Zhe Li" for hair gel, and "Xiu" for TV shows.

In a country where some half a billion people have Internet access, many new terms are Internet-related. Still, the dictionary has trouble keeping up, and many terms routinely used in daily life like "Weibo" (micro-blog) and "Xia Zai" (download) will have to wait until the next edition. Words like firewall and proxy server are taboo, however, for reasons having to do with Internet censorship.

The new edition of the "Xinhua Zidian" takes into account that Taiwan and Hong Kong have retained more traditional forms of writing Chinese, which were radically simplified on mainland China in 1949.

The new dictionary contains 13,000 terms, and 1,500 characters also written in the old way have been included in this edition. The Xinhua Zhou Hongbo press agency, to which the dictionary publisher Commercial Press belongs, states in a press release that the inclusion of traditional signs is to "help with cultural exchange."

There are only a few illustrations in the dictionary. One however has stayed the same since 1953, in all 11 editions of the "Xinhua Zidian." Under the key word "Yi Fu" (clothing) is a picture of the pants and jacket known the world over as a Mao suit. Needless to say, virtually no one wears the old-fashioned uniform any more.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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