The Passive Voice of Control

Linguistics of control in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – Liz Carter

In Hong Kong, millions have taken to the streets to protest the erosion of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. In Xinjiang, over a million ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities have been separated from their families and confined in detention facilities that fit the criteria of concentration camps. But as much as these two situations are often the subject of international news coverage, something is missing.

Take the first two sentences of this article. What is missing? The active voice. Something is the agent behind the “erosion” of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Something is the force imprisoning people in Xinjiang camps. These things don’t happen by accident. But the phrasing is natural enough, grammatically correct, and not unlike what you might find in news reports or even a US government statement.

Linguistic invisibility serves many masters. Often, observers innocently leave out the active subject because it is offstage, out of sight. In some cases, journalists choose wording of this nature to avoid explicit statements of causality, letting readers draw their own conclusions (and dodging libel suits). Yet the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) use it deliberately, and often successfully, to craft a certain view of reality.

Chinese Corner

How Not to Accidentally Call Yourself a *@#$!

Corporate naming adventures in China – Eveline Chao

The annals of international marketing are filled with tales of spectacular cross-cultural name fails – a Ford car called the Pinto, for example, which turned out to be Brazilian Portugese slang for “penis.” Coming up with no name for foreign markets can be risky too. Facebook has no Chinese name, so transliterations have sprung up organically. One of them, 非死不可 fēisǐbùkě, means “must die.”

Enter Lexicon Branding. This small company, a dozen people strong, in Sausalito, California, uses linguistics to name products. They’re famous for having named the BlackBerry, Swiffer, Febreze, Pentium, and PowerBook. Occasionally, their work involves Chinese. They sometimes develop Chinese renditions of brand names: 黑莓 hēiméi for BlackBerry, and 红五工作室 hóng wǔ gōngzuòshì for computer game company Red 5 Studios – or of services, such as 有问必答 yǒuwènbìdá for Q&A.

They also evaluate possible brand names to find out what they convey in various markets. Greg Alger, Lexicon’s in-house linguist, told me they recommended against pharmaceutical name Semtris in Cantonese-speaking markets because “it triggered a relatively strong association with 心醉時 sam tsui si, which would mean something like ‘time to get seriously drunk.’”


Blood and Soil

The Chinese minority targeted in Indonesia, historically and today – Frank Beyer

The Palace Museum in Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java, is a mixed bag. The gated entrance to the Sultan’s royal palace complex, the Kraton, opens onto a large grass-covered square – a relief from hot, traffic-choked streets. Within, the museum is not very well maintained but has several interesting exhibitions, one being portraits of all the Sultans of Yogyakarta since 1755. The date of birth, length of reign and number of children of each ruler are given – one managed eighty-two offspring. Today’s Sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, gave up the tradition of having concubines and has only one wife and five children.

In contrast to the rundown Palace Museum, a nearby Chinese temple, the Vihara Buddha Prabha, looks like it just received a fresh paint job. The entrance is bright in its yellows, reds and blues – more ostentatious even than similar temples in Taiwan. Inside, there are altars featuring an array of different buddhas and deities (the cast of the Chinese heavens is hard to remember). Adding to the impressive interior are scenes from the Chinese classics painted on the walls.

Staff Picks

End of Summer Reading

Staff picks from the masthead of the China Channel

Another year behind us, and a second year of the China Channel. It has been a full and exciting year, and we’re taking a summer break next week before returning in September. First, another round of staff picks to kickstart your back-to-school reading list, from Chinese characters to Chinese cooking. Thanks for following us, and do become a patron if you want to see us continuing to publish in 2020. – Alec Ash

Anne Henochowicz – Contributing Editor
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy
John DeFrancis (University of Hawaii Press, 1984)

Whenever I hear a cringe-worthy comment about “pictographic” Chinese characters or on the “dialect” of Cantonese, I summon the spirit of the late John DeFrancis and begin my counterpoint. I first encountered Professor DeFrancis, one of the most innovative and influential modern scholars of the Chinese language, through his book The Chinese Language: part primer on spoken and written Chinese, and how the writing system spread across East Asia; part take-down of every myth and mystical notion about the language.


A Handbill of Tiananmen

Documents of atrocity, resurfacing after thirty years – by Roger Huang

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

A few months ago at a book fair, I met a book dealer who specializes in antique Chinese and Asian books. The conversation flowed to a point where I talked to them about my personal connection with the Tiananmen massacre. In my childhood, I had a family friend in the US, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who as chief surgeon on duty at the 301 Military Hospital on June 4th 1989 witnessed countless bodies pocked with live ammunition, killed and wounded in a crackdown the Chinese government would try to hide from history.

The book dealer told me that somebody had smuggled out of Beijing a cache of handbills and original documents written by students of Peking University who had participated in the Tiananmen protests – and that they were on the market now. A private owner, who didn't want their name associated with the documents, was trying to sell one of the largest caches of first-hand documentation about the Tiananmen massacre.