The Language of Politics: China

by Translation Guy on January 22, 2013

Last week we looked at the strange French dialect spoken only by the government of François Hollande, at least according to The Economist. This certainly isn’t the first time that politicians have been accused of talking a good game. George Orwell said that “in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

But if the particular regime gets repressive enough, it will drive its own citizens to similar constraints. That’s certainly the case in China, where protests over the lack of press freedom came to a head earlier this month at Southern Weekend (also referred to as Southern Weekly), a lively Guangzhou weekly.  Protesters lined up against police and government censorship, and Chinese officials have been scrambling to keep this matter from public attention.

Kai-Fu Lee was the founding president of Google China until 2009. His Sina Weibo microblog has a big following. Last week, with regard to the Southern Weekend protest, Lee’s post showed only a picture of a tea set captioned “From now on, I will only talk about East, West and North. And I will only talk about Monday through Friday.”

As deciphered by The Economist, “Taken all together, the cryptic message would make perfect sense to many of the millions who follow his feed. The phrase ‘to be invited to tea’ is a common euphemism for a non-voluntary chat with the police, and the fact that he could now talk about everything except for ‘South’ and ‘Weekend’ left little doubt as to what he might have been warned against chatting about.”

The China Media Project offers up another example, this time a story on porridge written in support of Southern Weekend protesters.  Journalist David Bandurski calls it “a classic example of the time-honored practice of conveying deeper meaning through sublime and ambiguous writing, or chunqiu bifa (春秋笔法).”

“The piece is a loving tribute, yes, to porridge. In particular, to the porridge of the south. But it is really a song of love and support from The Beijing News to similarly embattled colleagues at Southern Weekly.”  Both papers are part of a new wave of publications more interested in testing boundaries than an entrenched old guard media.

Bandurski explains, “In Chinese, the word for “porridge,” zhou (粥), is a homophone of the first character in “weekend,” zhoumo (周末), the second half of Southern Weekly‘s publication name. The shorthand for Southern Weekly is nanzhou (南周), which sounds very similar to “porridge of the south,” or nanfang de zhou (南方的粥).”

From The Beijing News article: “Just a bowl of porridge, but in this bitter winter, we gather round this bowl of porridge and warm ourselves. This food bears the weight of hope.”

Sublime? Yes. Ambiguous? Not very. So how did this porridge piece get by the government censors? Are they only interested in enforcing the letter of the law, or is it a deep game, with officials allowing a little steam to vent for the intelligentsia? Stupidity is probably a safer bet. It usually is. Reader thoughts?


  1. Lord. The “to be invited to tea” line is just incredibly ominous, and at the same time ridiculously laughable. How is this the world we live in?

  2. How in the world does China continue to behave in this manner, inviting people for tea? I thought this kind of behaviour was suppose to have gone the way of the dinosaur with the fall of the Berlin Wall, seems the world will never really change.

    • Ken says:

      When they kick out your front door
      How you gonna come?
      With your hands on your head
      Or on the trigger of your gun

      When the law break in
      How you gonna go?
      Shot down on the pavement
      Or waiting in death row

      The Clash, Guns of Brixton

  3. Lynda says:

    Bravo to these intrepid freedom fighters.

    • Ken says:


  4. I think the PRC has to allow a certain level of resistence, these people are far from stupid, there has to be a velvet glove over the iron fist.

  5. Beverly says:

    That fellow is lucky he is the president of Google China, otherwise he would find out what the conditions in Tilanqiao prison are like.

    • Ken says:

      A Google princeling?

  6. I’m surprised actually at the level of resistence the PRC is allowing these days.

    • Ken says:

      I’m curious to know how they manage it.

  7. Amy Sicro says:

    I’m assuming Sina Weibo is something like Twitter?

    • Ken says:

      Twitter meets Facebook, kinda, I think. I’ve been meaning to sign up.

  8. Greg says:

    Eventually, and even the Chinese party cadres realize this, information finds a way to get out, change is inevitable. So the Party, probably views this as some sort of long game, hang on to as much power as possible for as long as possible, while slowly allowing somedissent in combination with incremental movement towards reform that will allow for the continuation of the power structure in a post transition China.

  9. Not very subtle, these guys, might want to work on that considering how the Chinese aren’t the most forgiving of regimes.

  10. Adeline says:

    Those are possibly the greatest words ever written about porridge.

  11. Steve Corser says:

    Governments being stupid, seems like the most likely scenario.

  12. While betting on stupidity is usually a pretty safe move in most regards, the Chinese Communist Party didn’t get where they are by ignoring subtle forms of dissent, these people should certainly be wary of the day this story has passed from the collective forefront of everyone’s mind, that’s when the crackdown will come.

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