British "gentleman" in China

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Will Spence has an article on "Why 'gentleman' matters" in Caixin Online, part of a Mainland media group, with the following lede:  "The Chinese government often says it wants to build up its soft power, but for this to happen it may have to embrace its heritage and adopt a gentler approach".

A key passage is the following:

It is interesting to note that the the word itself is rarely translated – it is much more common to hear "gentleman" than to hear shenshi or junzi – suggesting that there is something uniquely British about the notion, in a similar vein to English adopting the words of Chinese concepts like taichi and yin yang.

While it is true that shēnshì 绅士 is often translated as "gentleman" (refers to the superior qualities of an individual), and vice versa, the meaning is closer to "gentry" (member of a certain elite class).  Jūnzǐ 君子, likewise often translated as "gentleman", and vice versa, is an ancient term laden with Confucian connotations ("a man of honor / noble character").  So, if we're trying to express all the nuances of the British usage of the term during recent centuries, neither shēnshì 绅士 nor jūnzǐ 君子 quite suffices.  Consequently, I can understand why Chinese who admire and aspire to (British) gentlemanliness, or are amused by it, might just want to use the English word directly.  But I do wonder how those Beijing cabbies mentioned by Will Spence pronounce the word "gentleman", and whether they really have a sense of "the subtle but strong notions of Britishness it invokes."

[Hat tip John Rohsenow]



  1. Michael Rank said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    For what it's worth, Mr Liu, a Chinese squillionaire posing as an English gentleman, translates the term as 绅士. He should know, he has a statue of King Arthur in the garden of his mock generic European mansion, see

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    It seems clear from the above Youtube clip that Mr Liu yet lacks one characteristic of a British gentleman: modesty.

  3. Matt said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 8:13 pm

    What you say about shēnshì is quite interesting because in Japanese, shinshi (紳士, same characters) is understood to correspond precisely to the contemporary "meritocratic" understanding of English "gentleman" — so much so that, as in English, it is used in expressions as an honorific variant of "man", e.g. most department stores will have a 紳士服 "gentlemen's clothing" section.

    My understanding is that shinshi is "pegged" to English "gentleman" — its usage has been revised over the years as Japanese speakers have observed the evolution of the English word.

  4. David Morris said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

    "Definition of a 'gentleman' – someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but doesn't," – Ronnie Corbett.
    I am obviously not a gentleman.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

    A street art vendor in Shanghai used 'gentleman' as a term of address to me; she clearly meant to be saying "sir". This was in the context of speaking English, but it might inform other Chinese uses of the word.

  6. Jerome Chiu said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    Mr. Liu is still stranded in the "ostentation" stage. The next stage for him and his squillionaire friends is likely to be "failed attempts to fake subtlety".

  7. julie lee said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    @ Eric P. Smith:
    Some of the marks of the English gentleman is grace and graciousness, traits which include modesty. "Grace" and "graciousness" are hard to translate in Chinese, as is the term "Your Grace". The closest adjectives I can find for "gracious" in Chinese is 和藹 "kind" and wenwen ruya 溫文儒雅 (literally "mild-gentle-(Confucian) gentlemanly-cultured"). Wenwen ruya is used as one word. There are numerous four-word Chinese phrases used as one word.
    I've always found it interesting that "Your Majesty", addressed to the king or sovereign, in Chinese would be "Bixia陛下“ (literally,"below the steps [to the throne]", referring to the fact the speaker was [anciently] kneeling with his head below the steps to the throne)), and "Your Excellency" (or "Your Grace") would be Zuxia 足下 (literally "below your feet", referring to the fact that the speaker would anciently be kneeling and perhaps bowing or kowtowing). Even as late as the early 20th century, courtiers had to kneel when speaking to the Empress Dowager. Only when Li Hongzhang was old and had distinguished himself as the greatest man in China did she grant him the honor of sitting down when speaking to her.

  8. Michael W said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    I'm curious if this has any relation to Korean usage, thinking particularly of Psy's 'mother-father gentleman'. I think he said that he used 'sexy' (in Gangnam Style) since he felt Korean doesn't have a good equivalent, and maybe he has the same sense for this word.

  9. Sima said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 5:38 am

    I'm a little surprised to hear that gentleman is "rarely translated". I'm British, and have lived in NE China for 10 years. I'm pretty sure I have never heard the English word gentleman used outside an English or mixed (Chinese-English) conversation. Presumably, it would be pronounced 真头们 (zhen-tou-men) without much difficulty. But I don't remember ever having heard that.

    Any time I tell someone where I come from, there seems to be a better than 50-50 chance I'll hear 英国绅士 (Yingguo shenshi) parroted back at me. I hear it several times a month, and have done throughout my stay here. Whilst I don't spend a lot of time in the capital, I do visit from time to time, and I've not observed any difference there.

    I suppose I ought to be grateful to the British Government Propoganda Department, but it does get a little tiresome, to tell the truth. Now if they could just upgrade to 君子 (junzi)…

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    Even within Europe (where each society no doubt had a somewhat similar concept) the specifically English/British notion of the gentleman had considerable cultural power from the 19th century on – this is one of the themes of Ian Buruma's book Anglomania, which has in its intro a lovely anecdote by a fellow who recalls an encounter he had had as a young dissident intellectual in the grim environment of Communist-ruled Romania with an elderly survivor of the ethnic-Magyar Transylvanian gentry, who as a young man 50 years previously had gone to England to study at Cambridge and somehow still conducted himself with a certain grace and gravitas amid the squalor and brutality of the Ceaucescu regime. (I can't cut and paste the whole thing, but you can find it via google books – the passage begins "How to be a gentleman after 40 years of socialism?" and ends "This was the first time I saw a tweed jacket.")

    I suppose one question for the Chinese context (which I do not know the answer to) is whether on the mainland actual living examples of the old Confucian ideal still survived to be role models for emulation or whether instead both the length of the Maoist interlude (and particular brutality of the Cultural Revolution) combined with the decades of chaos/warlordism/Japanese-invasion that had preceded it meant that the living tradition was broken and one needed to imagine out of old books what fellows like that had actually been like, which is at least as much work as borrowing an imported Western role model.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    Re: Michael Watts' point. It is perfectly idiomatic in English (well, in my variety and afaik in most if not all varieties) to say vocative-plural "Gentlemen" or more informally "Gents" when addressing multiple men at once, but unidiomatic to the point of ungrammaticality to use the singular when addressing only one man. This seems like exactly the sort of arbitrary oddity that native speakers have internalized to the point where it doesn't seem odd, but that L2 speakers might get confused by. Note by contrast that when addressing females in (my variety of . . .) English you can use singular "lady" as a vocative form of address, but it's highly informal, perhaps to the point of rudeness ("why don't you watch where you're going, lady?"), whereas plural "ladies" can be as formal as plural "gentlemen." I can also easily imagine vendors etc. in foreign countries with limited English using vocative "lady" to address female Anglophone prospective customers without understanding its informal-to-rude undertones.

  12. hector said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    "Mr Liu yet lacks one characteristic of a British gentleman: modesty."

    Well, perhaps. This comment made me think of my late Aunt Gladys, an Irishwoman through and through, seeing Prime Minister MacMillan on TV: "Look at that stuffed shirt MacMillan," she said, and cackled away.

    All that stiff-upper-lip rulers-of-the-universe crap didn't appear modest to their social inferiors.

  13. julie lee said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    J.W. Brewer:
    As to "whether on the mainland actual living examples of the old Confucian ideal still survived to be role models for emulation",
    my answer is a resounding "Yes". Rather than calling it the "old Confucian ideal", I would just call it the "old Chinese tradition" of grace, graciousness, and gentlemanliness. I have seen it very much in evidence among people in China today, ordinary people, and I was at first surprised because I thought Communism and Maoism would make the Chinese people behave quite differently from us here in America. I was amazed at how ordinary people in China are very much like us here in America, and in fact very much like the pre-Mao Chinese people I knew, and I realized that grace, graciousness, and gentlemanliness do not belong to the English or the Chinese, to pre-Mao or post-Mao, but are qualities admired by human beings everywhere–and ideals that even Mao couldn't wipe out.

  14. jon livesey said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    Spot Hector's begged question. Macmillan was a politician, and so about as much of a gentleman as Obama is a law Professor.

    On the other hand, if you think he was just a stuffed shirt, read his wiki bio, among other things, paying attention to his record in the Great War.

  15. William Locke said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 11:54 pm

    This is tangentially related, but in high school I watched the 2001 TV rendition of Xiàoào Jiānghú 笑傲江湖 (English title: Laughing in the Wind) with English subtitles, where the characters would frequently refer to each other as “Chivalry,” e.g. “Chivalry Linghu.” It took me awhile to realize that this was an honorific and probably stood in for “Sir,” e.g. “Sir Lancelot.” It wasn’t until many years later, after studying Chinese (spurred in part by that TV series) that I finally recognized the original Chinese term as xiá 侠 (or some variant like dàxiá 大侠), which probably could be translated as “chivalry” in another context! I just always thought it was an interesting miss.

  16. Ted said,

    April 17, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    jon livesey: Macmillan was educated by private tutors, at Eton, and at Balliol, where he joined the Oxford Union. When he was wounded in the trenches, he read Aeschylus in the original Greek while he waited to be evacuated.

    He married the daughter of a peer, and was himself created a peer. He was High Church. "He took refuge in West End clubs to an almost pathological extent: Pratt’s, Athenaeum, Buck’s, Guards, the Beefsteak, the Turf, the Carlton – he was in and out of them every day," according to the London Review of Books. He retired to his country house.
    He joined HM Government later in his career (where he filled government posts with 35 Old Etonians, seven of them in Cabinet), and his family money may have come from trade rather than land. But it's hard for me to understand what you'd consider a marker of English-gentleman status if Macmillan's CV doesn't suffice,

  17. W. Sun said,

    April 17, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    Chinese netizens sometimes use this expression "写作绅士读作变态" (written as gentleman, pronounced as pervert). See the third meaning for 绅士 in
    The phrase originated from the ACG subculture (Anime and Computer Graphics) , but I think there's already the association of gentlemen as oddballs to begin with to make that connection.
    Speaking of perverts, China is 扫黄打非ing again. This time some internet novel websites are also affected, including one of the oldest internet novel website 翠微居, and one of the largest, 煙雨紅塵; these are not just slash fiction websites, these are publishing portals.

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