China Bans English Word Imports

by Translation Guy on January 5, 2011

The use of English words in Chinese publications is trashing the Chinese language and must be stopped, ruled the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the government body who’s recently announced diktat will restore the imperiled purity of the Chinese language and bring an end to the foreign words and abbreviations that have caused so much confusion by “abusing the language.”

All these foreign words have “severely damaged the standard and purity of the Chinese language and disrupted the harmonious and healthy language and cultural environment, causing negative social impacts,” announced the Chinese language lords on their website.

“It is banned to mix at will foreign language phrases such as English words or abbreviations with Chinese publications, creating words of vague meaning that are not exactly Chinese or of any foreign language,” it said.

“Publishing houses and the media must further strengthen the regulated use of foreign languages and respect the structure, glossary and grammar of the Chinese and foreign languages.”

GAPP said companies that violated the regulation would face “administrative punishment,” without offering specifics.

English can be used only “if necessary,” and must be followed by a direct translation of the abbreviation. English abbreviations such as NBA (National Basketball Association), GDP (gross domestic product), CPI (consumer price index) and WTO (World Trade Organisation) are commonly used in Chinese publications, according to the SMH.

Language has been the sandbox of the Communist Party since it seized power. To get things started, they rewrote most Chinese script to “simplify” it. Now foreign terms have been purged. I mean, I like revolutionary purity as much as the next guy, but man, come on, can’t you give the intelligentsia a break? Wait, wrong question. Who cares if a bunch of newspaper reports have to watch their Ps and Qs? Correct answer: Keep them on their toes. It reminds the intellectual class of whose vanguard is whose.

And all language purity lovers have to do is look across the Formosa Strait to see what a mess the Chinese can make of their language when they use if for their own profit and amusement. In Taiwan, Chinese speakers are busily globalizing their language into an alphabet soup of Chinese and Roman script. I did a post on this a while ago.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in the Far East. Publishers have incorporated the ABC into native character sets for generations, and governments with the clout have been trying to stop it for just as long. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Japanese authorities purified Japanese through the removal of foreign words root and branch.

Both Koreas remain obsessed with the purity of the language. In North Korea “tens of thousands of common vocabularies and terminology have been purified from Chinese and foreign words.” This is because “Chinese and Japanese words had been brought into the Korean language in the past owing to the flunkeyism of feudal rulers and the Japanese imperialists’ moves to obliterate the Korean language.”

The feudal flunkeys in the South have been trying to recapture Korean purity too, but with less success, with English loan words only the latest wave in foreign language immersion. Before that there was Japanese during a 50-year occupation, then centuries next door to China. Chinese characters have been mostly eliminated from Korean publications, but English loan words are proving more difficult to eradicate.

Only time will tell if China’s foreign word ban will stick. It may be that in the future, fans of Chinglish will have to start smuggling their favorite phrases to the other side of the Great Firewall. Something like this: “Psst. Buddy, come here. Listen to this. ‘Shangri-la is in your mind, but your buffalo is not.’ Pass it on.”


  1. Ian Palast says:

    Is this mean’t to be the beginning of an English/Chinese cold language war? :-/

  2. Gimme a break, these guys are going waaay too far now!

  3. Tom Lackman says:

    When detailing what must not be done, the Notice explicitly states “in Chinese-language publications”. This makes sense since the starting point of critique is the “arbitrary mixing of English or other languages with Chinese”. Therefore, I assume that “monolingual” articles and publications are not affected. Thoughts Ken?

    • Ken says:

      Keeping Chinese Chinese is the stated goal. What speakers of inpure languages are saying is beyond the interest of the Chinese government, since there interst lie in now they can use the politics of language to advance their own agendas.

      I am always struck by the eagerness of elites to tell others what they may say, and now they may say it. I suppose once you have hold of their tongues, hearts and minds will follow.

  4. Prohibiting English acronyms is what raised most of the outcry in China and several newspaper articles critical of the measure were published, indicating that enforcement of this part might be temporary only. Understandably – who would like to say “United Nations International Children’s Education Fund” instead of just UNICEF?

    • Ken says:

      I’m wondering how rigorous enforcement will be.

  5. Why was the Notice published just now? My understanding is that no special reason was given, except that the use of foreign words is increasing and severely harming the Chinese language’s standardization and purity. The Notice also refers to the 10th anniversary of the promulgation of the “National Common Language Law of the PRC”.

  6. Amy Sicro says:

    In April the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) had passed a similar “Notice” and later publicly stated that it was misunderstood: “Gao Changli, a deputy inspector from SARFT said their intention was to standardize the use of foreign words. “We are not banning the use of English abbreviations; we just want to standardize the usage and we don’t rule out alien culture,” Gao said.” (China Daily, 15 April 2010,

  7. The BBC’s catchy headline certainly did its part initially, and probably many readers stopped right at the headline. I also assume that on Twitter many retweeted the headline without having taken a look at the article at all.
    But GAPP is also to blame for the outcry from guys like you Ken, they should have foreseen how such a topic would be received in China and abroad. More clarity would have been helpful.

  8. John Bash says:

    I bet you would really enjoy this LinkedIn group Ken – check it out.

    • Ken says:

      Thanks, John. I hope to return the favor…..someday.

  9. Kirti says:

    This is related to you entry on Google Translate Is Finished

    I think you miss the fact that everybody involved with SMT knew that this was a point that was going to be reached at some point. Google reached the limits first but that does not mean they have run out of options to drive further improvements.

    There are many initiatives that are exploring adding linguistics into the raw data approach. At some point some of these will make breakthroughs but you are right is saying that the free MT is likely to slow down in terms of continuing improvements.

    On the customized MT front we are just beginning and you can get a sense for how we will move forward here:

  10. Mr. Medical says:

    Do you people have a facebook fan page? I looked for one on twitter but could not discover one, I would really like to become a fan!

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