Linguistic challenges when writing about “China”

The Financial Times last month published The dark side of China’s national renewal (subscriptions required), addressing the idea that all Chinese people should help China achieve the “China Dream”:

To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.

But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.

Zhonghua minzu 中華民族 is a phrase that doesn’t translate well in English. As discussed by Arif Dirlik in Born in Translation: “China” in the Making of “Zhongguo”, the words China and Chinese are inherently invited by the West.

As Lydia Liu has observed, “the English terms ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ do not translate the indigenous terms hua [華], xia [夏], han [漢], or even zhongguo [中國] now or at any given point in history.”

Continue reading “Linguistic challenges when writing about “China””

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Chinese, Taiwanese, or Chinese Taiwanese?

There are many factors that play into how Chinese and American people see their identities. Chinese people pride themselves on being a civilization with 5,000 years of history, and hence everyone who is born into a Chinese family, no matter the geographic location, is obliged to always identify him or herself as Chinese. Otherwise it’s a dishonor to the family and what have you.

On the other hand, other than the Native Americans, the U.S. is a country of immigrants, who left their home countries in hope of finding a better life in the states. They may retain the cultural heritage of their country of origin, but they and their descendants primarily identify themselves as Americans (e.g. Asian American, African American, European American, etc.). Continue reading “Chinese, Taiwanese, or Chinese Taiwanese?”

The polite fiction of “one China”

The great obfuscation of one-China published by The Economist is an excellent, though introductory, read on the Taiwan-China-U.S. relations. Some key points from the article:

China itself does not actually have a one-China policy. It has what it calls a one-China principle, which is that there is only one China, with its government in Beijing.

America does not accept the one-China principle. Instead it has the one-China policy, which acknowledges that China has such a principle—not quite the same thing. America does not recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, nor does it recognise Taiwan as an independent state.

In Taiwan itself the one-China formula has an even stranger history. It is rooted in the fiction that the island’s first president, Chiang Kai-shek, who fled there in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists, would one day recapture the whole of China.

Among [the proportion of] people [on the island] between 20 and 30, 85% say they are Taiwanese.

The simple and natural solution is to admit there are two Chinas.

A more detailed analysis on the historical progression of “one China”: The “one China” of the U.S. is not the same as the “one China” of China (in Chinese).

Taiwanese culture?

If you are able to read Chinese, the comment section of the Facebook picture above provides a selection of fairly common (and ongoing) arguments used for and against Taiwan-independence and a Taiwanese identity. Essentially the comic argues that Taiwanese culture is not synonymous to Chinese culture, even though past and current policies have long given preference to Chinese culture while suppressing cultures of other subgroups that make up of Taiwan’s population.

Somewhat related, The Upper Han by The Economist provides an interesting read on how Han people in China view ethnicity, nationality, and the Chinese identity. This attitude helps explain the attachment many in Taiwan still have towards “China” and their disdain towards de-sinicization and a separate Taiwanese identity and culture.

Do Taiwanese people feel Chinese?

This question, along with “are Taiwanese people Chinese?”, is easy to ask, but takes a while to answer. Taiwan is an country of mostly immigrants. The original inhabitants of Formosa island today only accounts for less than 3% of the population. Similar to the United States, where while everyone is an American, most people can trace their ancestry to somewhere else. Here we use the word Taiwanese as a term for the nationality, i.e. people born and live in Taiwan and/or Taiwanese citizens. Much like trying to explain Taiwan’s political status, answering the question requires one to understand Taiwan’s history of immigration and population composition.

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Major socio-cultural groups of Taiwan, as % of the total population (~23.5 million).

Continue reading “Do Taiwanese people feel Chinese?”

Chinese Taipei?

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Every four years, whenever the Summer Olympics comes along*, I inevitably get the question, “why is Taiwan called Chinese Taipei in the Olympics?”

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Taiwan’s official flag, Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, and the Olympics rings

CNN provides an explanation for this, but I want to give it more context. Continue reading “Chinese Taipei?”