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Understanding China Means Understanding Chinese

Ciara Morris | China Fellow

Image credit: In 30 Minutes Guides

The July meeting on the sidelines of the G20 between Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first high level diplomatic meeting between the two nations in three years. The anticipation was as high as the stakes.

Minister Wong released a very brief statement on the meeting that same day. However, most Australian media reports came after the Chinese embassy in Canberra had posted its own statement 24 hours later. Unfortunately, the English translation of that statement in Australian media was less than perfect.

Common diplomatic rhetoric in Chinese is often misinterpreted and mistranslated into English. The effects can vary from an amused chuckle amongst Chinese speakers in the know to anti-China media sensationalism and bilateral tensions.

For example, most native English speakers are taught from a young age to soften our requests with polite terms like “please”, “would you like to”, or “you may consider”. It can be a culture shock for English speakers to learn that, in Chinese, these softeners don’t exist. Often Chinese speakers will ask you to “come”, “sit”, or “do” something without any seemingly polite buffers. It can make simple requests seem like impolite demands, when that isn’t the intention.

Chinese Government ‘proposals’ are thus often mistranslated as ‘demands’ or ‘requirements’ in English media, like this particularly unhelpful title from The Australian: “China issues new demands to restart ties with Australia”. In fact, Minister Wang had said the Chinese side was committed to a review of their Australian policy, and Minister Wong reported the meeting was “a first step for both our nations”.

Former senior Australian diplomat Professor Jocelyn Chey argues that “failure to recognise linguistic nuances partly explains the misinterpretation of the meeting by [Australian] journalists”.

Misinterpretations and mistranslations like this have been kindling the fire of anti-China rhetoric in the Australian media for decades.

Language and translation of language does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Translators and people using translations to inform reporting or policymaking need to be aware of the cultural and political nuances that language carries from year to year and speaker to speaker.

For example, the Chinese word “fazhi” (法治) which literally means “law-based governance” is often incorrectly translated as “rule of law” in English. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the legal system is under the leadership and supervision of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Fazhi is not synonymous with the liberal democratic concept of the rule of law we’re accustomed to (for the most part) in the West.

Sometimes translations aren’t actually inaccurate, but incomplete. The Chinese word “hezuo” (合作) is usually translated into “cooperation”. However, the term hezuo is much broader than the English word cooperation. It can mean any interaction between two or more parties. For example, two Chinese state-owned enterprises participating in foreign trade and investment can be reported as hezuo and translated into English as international cooperation.

One more example is the use of the Chinese word “minzu” (民主) or “democracy”. Minzu is one of the 12 core socialist values of the CPC. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs attests that “China's socialist democracy is the broadest, most genuine, and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people”. It is not uncommon to hear Chinese people assert that their daily lives are freer and safer under this version of democracy than, for example, the lives of Americans, where on average over 100 people are shot and killed with a firearm everyday. As a young Australian women, I can’t dispute I have felt safer walking the streets of Beijing than New York.

Despite this, the Chinese concept of minzu is not synonymous with the kind of democracy we’re accustomed to in Australia or how most English speakers intend the word to mean. Although Article 2 of the Constitution says Chinese citizens can vote delegates to the People’s Congress, the elections are neither verifiably free nor fair.

When Australian and Chinese diplomats lecture each other on the rule of law or international cooperation or the importance of democracy, it is vital to understand how these terms differ in each language. Otherwise we end up talking past each other like two passionate but stubborn tennis players playing from opposite sides of two very different tennis courts; an unproductive and confusing game for all.

It is in our national interest for Australian public institutions, governments, and media companies–both public and private–to hire employees who understand Chinese. We need accurate translations of Chinese policy documents, media, and online opinion. But we also need a greater appreciation of the diversity and depth of cultural nuance in language. Only then can we make truly informed decisions in our relations with the PRC.

Ciara Morris is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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