China Purges 'Absurd' Foreign Words, But 'Kala-OK' (Karaoke) Still Lives On
BEIJING — Once again, in its long struggle to preserve the purity of its culture against "barbarians," China has joined a new battle against foreign invaders.
Recently, Beijing's arbiters of correct thought put businesses on notice that Western names considered offensive to the national culture would not be allowed. About 2,000 businesses, from among 20,000 scrutinized, were forced to change names.
Among the offenders were an entertainment center in Wuhan used the name Formosa, a 17th-century Portuguese name for Taiwan, which China claims as a renegade province. Another Wuhan club known as "Pirate Ship" had to switch to "Island Ship." A ceramics company in Jiangsu Province was slapped down for promoting an unspecified new product under the name, "Adonis." The crackdown reflects the longstanding Chinese worry that the sanctity of its language and culture is under attack from abroad.
A tide of overseas investment in recent years has triggered a Chinese eagerness for foreign products and name brands. That is undermining both sales of Chinese-made consumer products and overall confidence in Chinese culture, government officials say.
Almost 36 percent of registered Chinese trademarks have Western-sounding names, invoking the "prejudice of status-conscious people" who like foreign goods, chided the official English language China Daily.
"Names containing vulgar, feudalistic, bizarre, and absurd content and Western-sounding color must be banned," the newspaper said. "Though some names reflect the features of Western business, they could have an adverse effect on children."
With new urgency, amid a wave of nationalistic feeling, China's ruling Communists are trying to check foreign influence and promote a standardized Chinese. That is intended to shore up national unity and, in the process, their own uncertain hold on power, foreign diplomats say.
Just as France has passed legislative protections for its language, so has China approved a law to prevent more erosion of its written and spoken word. A campaign is under way to standardize the multifarious Chinese language and establish as the national tongue Putonghua, standard Chinese that is based on the Beijing dialect. Putonghua was adopted as China's official language 40 years ago, although Chinese remains a mixture of dialects.
Officials are also determined to keep foreign words from encroaching further. Already, a lot of English technical terms have crept into everyday Chinese, given the difficulty in translation. In telephone-short China, a beeper is known as a "BP" plus the word ji, meaning machine. A compact disc, translated as ji guang chang die or "laser singing disk," is generally known by the simpler CD. A nightclub is not a ye zhong hui but a nightclub. And popular karaoke bars bear signs reading, "kala-OK."
In the southern city of Guangzhou, near English-speaking Hong Kong, foreign words like taxi, film, and baby, spoken with a heavy local accent, are increasingly common, according to the official Chinese press.
In the official "Chinese-English Dictionary," many technical and business terms have been adopted. "Most of the new words added are generally related to trade, computer techniques, and law," says Ying Manrong, an editor working on the dictionary.
Foreign linguistic intrusions concern the government guardians of the Chinese language, from two perspectives. Beijing frets about the growing influence of Western, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong pop songs, obscene colloquialisms, and what it sees as other forms of language abuse.
The government also has commercial worries. Mobilizing advertising to promote its products, foreign competitors such as Coca Cola, Colgate, and other Western name brands are edging out Chinese products. Language purists pinpoint advertising as a culprit in "adulterating" Chinese.
"Foreign words should not be allowed in school books, official newspapers, children's books, and government reports," says Yuan Zhongrui of the State Language and Characters Regulatory Commission.
"They are concerned about the cultural imperialism of the West," says an Asian diplomat. "Just like other Asian nations, China worries about the negative aspects of popular Western culture swamping its own culture."
The shifting political lexicon also mirrors a China in flux. Just 20 years ago, terms like "capitalist roader" and "rectification" were rolling off everybody's tongues. Now, Chinese talk about "jumping into the sea" of capitalist enterprise. The government speaks of "fine-tuning" policies rather than revolution. And jobless people are now called "unemployed," rather than the socialist euphemism, "people waiting for work assignments."
Despite official efforts to stem the language rot, Chinese and Western analysts insist that, in trying to create a pure Chinese, the government aspires to revive something that never existed.
"As China opens, it is inevitable that more foreign words will come in and the language will evolve," says a senior Beijing writer. "Chinese as spoken on the mainland has been deadened by the Communist propaganda, slogans, and jargon. The language is just starting to recover."