English Adopts More Chinese Phrases

As the current lingua franca of international business, science and technology, with a vocabulary of more than one million words, English has always contained words from other languages, including languages such as Latin, German, French, Italian, and Chinese.

More than 1,000 words of Chinese origin can now be found in the Oxford English Dictionary and, since the mid-1990s, the adoption of Chinese words and phrases into English seems to have been on the rise.

Chinese words found in English are mostly direct borrowings – for example, buzheteng, literal translation running dog – and blending, such as “taikonaut”, the word for a Chinese astronaut.

Historically, many words of Chinese origin in English are popular Cantonese foods, borrowed directly from the dialect, for instance, chop suey, chow mein, or dim sum.

The South Fujian dialect, Hokkienese, is another major contributor of Chinese words. Words like typhoon have their origins in Hokkienese. It might be surprising for most Chinese people to know that ketchup, a sauce closely associated with Western fast food, comes from the Hokkienese for tomato juice. Traditional Chinese culture has also had an impact, as reflected in the popular use in English of yin yang, kung fu, tai chi and feng shui.

The 19th century colonial history brought in words like coolie and kowtow. Each word speaks of a specific phenomenon at the time. From the earlier borrowing, we can see through the lens of an English speaking world, an ancient country known for its food, tea and silk, and the image of a pigtailed China kowtowing to his bullies.

Chinese political campaigns in the latter half of the 20th century have spawned phrases literally translated into English. Expressions like “bare-foot doctor”, “little red book”, “red guards” are all associated with the “cultural revolution (1966-1976)”, while “paper tiger” “great leap forward” are associated with specific periods. During those days, these words conjured up a negative image of China in the eyes of the West.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics brought another loud and clear Chinese expression to the world’s attention: the Chinese cheer Jiayou! A rising China is undoubtedly catching more interest and sometimes concern.

When China began to open its doors, the world could finally see its real face and in addition to Chinese politics, an increasing number of aspects of China seem to have caught the English-speaking world’s attention, ushering in a flood of concepts and expressions reflective of the current affairs in China, not merely political but also socio-economic.

The Economist, for instance, has carried reports on the surplus of “bare branches” or guanggun, referring to unmarried men. The New Yorker carried a report on the “angry youth”, or fenqing, which became a manifesto for a patriotic swath of society, a self-styled vanguard in defense of China’s honor. The Guardian, the Economist, Newsweek, and the Times have all reported on chengguan, interpreting the term as referring to “local government enforcers”, “low-level officers”, or “a junior cousin to the police force”. Guanxi, personal connections, is a Chinese concept often mentioned in reports concerning corruption. Although the Economist published an article in April 2010, claiming the use of flexible networks – powered by guanxi – reduced costs and increased flexibility and is actually a Chinese contribution to frugal innovation.

In the past few years, with the rise of China as an economic and political superpower, the Western media has been paying closer attention to what is going on inside China. “Human flesh search”, first coined in 2001, refers to the Chinese online phenomena of vast numbers of Internet users hunting down people suspected of misdemeanors. A recent Economist article on the ratings war between CCTV and China’s many provincial channels featured “the rise of the vulgarians”, reflecting the new Chinese political cultural campaign against the “three vulgarities”, namely vulgar, cheap and kitsch forms of culture.

The Chinese words now being adopted into English are usually literal translations employed when the English-language media discuss concepts and phenomena related specifically to China.

As the country becomes more integrated with the rest of world, we may well anticipate English borrowing more Chinese words. The question remains, however, how many of them will survive to become fully part of the English language.

The author is an associate professor at the English Department of Xiamen University.

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