China’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, published a piece this past week arguing that Chinglish and Chinese loanwords are “sweeping around the world” as foreigners appreciate China’s national power. Citing examples such as “shuanggui / quasi-investigation”, “We two who and who? / We are good friends”, and “dama / elderly woman” the author goes onto trace a familiar narrative about the interrelation of language and power. “The more civilized, more advanced and more attractive the country is, the more influential the language gets,” argues Meng Dehong, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University quoted by the paper.
That I have never heard any of these phrases used by English-speakers living in China, let alone those in other countries, immediately set off my bullshit detector.
Indeed, publications that aren’t state-sponsored mouthpieces seem to disagree with the People’s Daily. Economist’s Johnson column on language penned an article a few months ago titled “Why so little Chinese in English” arguing precisely the opposite point. Aside from turn of the century loanwords borrowed from Chinese immigrant like “long time no see 好久不见”, “gungho 工合”, and “to shanghai”, almost no words have made it into English. The reason, the Economist argues, is that we just haven’t waited long enough yet. Johnson writes, “It seems likely English will borrow from Chinese, too, as trade, cultural and personal connections between China and the west grow.”
As much as I usually salivate over Economist’s Johnson, I’m going to have to quibble with the overall argument here. While token words like “guanxi” may make it into the English language, I don’t think these or the growth of Chinglish itself will necessarily herald China’s greatness. In some ways, I see the appropriation of these words and the attention to ridiculous Chinese translations as a sort of condescending Chinoiserie — the idle collection of cultural and linguistic relics from the “Far East”. As James Hevia wrote in ‘English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth Century China’, understanding Chinese in previous centuries was actually part of a pedagogical framework for colonizing it and not a celebration of China’s power.
In short, it’s going to take more than white folks saying chengguan and guanxi every once in a while for the west to see the PRC as a cultural or moral leader in the world. Creating a free press, being a responsible international actor, and maybe even letting two or three of those hundred flowers bloom would do more than building any number of Confucius Institutes.