Chinese character of the year: mèng 梦 ("dream")

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Raymond Li has an article in the South China Morning Post (Friday, 21 December, 2012) in which he announces the results of a poll by the Education Ministry that has selected mèng 梦 ("dream") as the character of the year, ostensibly because it represents the hopes and achievements of the nation.  But mèng 梦 ("dream") is definitely a double-edged sword, and critics of the government put a totally different spin on the word.

Li writes:

The organisers said yesterday that the word reflected the good fortune the country had been blessed with this year.

"The dream for an aircraft carrier, the dream for a Nobel prize … have all come true this year," they said.

Indeed, Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader, has been actively promoting the "Chinese Dream" or "China Dream" as a sort of mantra to ensure success for the People's Republic of China.  If you search on Xi Jinping and "Chinese Dream" or "China Dream", you will find articles about this topic in all the major PRC news outlets (Global Times, China Daily, Xunhua, etc.).

But online commenters were quick to point out that the dreams of the Chinese Communist Party do not coincide with those of the citizens:

"It's a dream that housing prices could go down and a dream that we could have safe foodstuffs or clean government officials," one internet user said.

Another wrote: "It's a dream that officials could disclose their assets and a dream that people's livelihoods can be improved."

Even long before this choice of character of the year was made, critics were complaining about the government's Pollyannaish touting of mèng 梦, saying that the dreams of most people were in vain.

Ellen Li, a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation, wrote "Chasing the 'Chinese Dream'" in The Atlantic, where she opined:  "Beijing's new leaders aspire to international greatness. Ordinary Chinese just want access to untainted baby formula."  See also Scott Greene's piece entitled "Xi, Netizens Have Different 'Chinese Dream'” in China Digital Times.

In "Remarks on the slogan for the Beijing Olympics" I discussed the difference between the monosyllabic word mèng 梦 ("dream") and the disyllabic term mèngxiǎng 梦想.  When I began to learn Chinese nearly half a century ago, the former more straightforwardly signified "dream", whereas the latter had more the connotations of "reverie / revery", "idle fantasy", "cloud-castle", or "pie in the sky", though it could also mean simply "dream".  Apparently, at least on the Mainland, mèngxiǎng 梦想 has been shedding the sense of "fantasy", and so forth, and and has come increasingly to mean just "dream".  I have often wondered about the political, social, and psychological causes of such changes, but their complexity usually leaves me stumped.

In any event, I suppose it is true in most languages that dreams may represent aspirations, but they may also constitute chimeras, so the word "dream" by itself is quite ambivalent.

Incidentally, opponents of the government's stance ran their own poll for character of the year, with the result that 62 per cent of votes were for bào 曝 ("exposure"; cognate with pù 曝 ["expose to the sun"]) in the sense of making public official corruption.  This would, as it were, dash the dreams of grandeur entertained by the Party.

[A tip of the hat to Ben Zimmer]

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8 Comments »

  1. T. Zhang said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 12:05 am

    "…the dream for a Nobel prize"

    And I guess the laureate in prison does not count?

    Truly, China's current stability can be partially attributed to the fact that the middle class is making too much money to care. I shudder to think what's going to happen when that bubble bursts.

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    It may or may not be universally true that 'dream' gets metaphorically extended to cover 'aspiration'. In Romanian, at least, the ambiguity is partly resolved morphologically: vis has two plural forms, vise meaning literal night-time dreams and visuri meaning aspirations and the like.

    How you distinguish between realistic aspirations and unrealistic chimeras is probably not a topic for Language Log.

  3. Andy Averill said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    "62 per cent of votes were for bào 曝 ("exposure"; cognate with pù 曝 ["expose to the sun"]) in the sense of making public official corruption"

    Would that be the same idea as glasnost in Russian? In which case all we need is a Chinese Gorbachev.

  4. Matt said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

    Apparently, at least on the Mainland, mèngxiǎng 梦想 has been shedding the sense of "fantasy", and so forth, and and has come increasingly to mean just "dream". I have often wondered about the political, social, and psychological causes of such changes, but their complexity usually leaves me stumped.

    I wonder if in this particular case it's related to "the drift of the Chinese language toward greater polysyllabicity" (as John de Francis put it) — hijacking a disyllabic word to use as a replacement for a monosyllabic one with a closely related meaning.

  5. Foon Wong said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    Apparently, at least on the Mainland, mèngxiǎng 梦想 has been shedding the sense of "fantasy", and so forth, and and has come increasingly to mean just "dream". I have often wondered about the political, social, and psychological causes of such changes, but their complexity usually leaves me stumped.

    I am surprised to hear this as a native speaker from Hong Kong. To me, 梦想 cannot mean anything but aspiration. I did some quick searches on popular search engines (mainland) and couldn't find any examples that would support this. Meanings of vocabulary change, as all languages do, but this one seem unlikely.
    ———————————————-
    My examples:
    一个梦 – one dream – ambiguious
    1) 有一个梦,有一个梦想 – have(possess) a dream. These two sentences mean the same to me.
    梦 in the first sentence is not ambiguious because you don't own dreams that you experience while sleeping.

    2) 做了一个梦 – had(involved in) a dream.
    做了一个梦想 – Doesn't make sense in chinese – because 梦想, an ambition/fantasy, is not something you experience.
    Web examples:
    3)李章洙自曝要打造一球队击败恒大 夺亚冠圆梦
    圆梦 – dreams come true. This is common vocabulary.
    The character 圆 signifies completion. The two charcters, 圆 and 梦,specifies the meaning of each other.
    4)葛剑平:实现教育强国的中国梦我们任重道远
    中国梦 – Chinese dream. This is not standard vocabulary, but it can be easily understood.
    However, with 中国(China, Chinese) being used as an adjective, 梦 can only be understood in the sense of universal/collective hope.
    ————————————————

    I wonder if in this particular case it's related to "the drift of the Chinese language toward greater polysyllabicity" (as John de Francis put it) — hijacking a disyllabic word to use as a replacement for a monosyllabic one with a closely related meaning.

    Disclaimer: I am no chinese scholar
    Matt, I would need to see the context of that claim to understand it. What kind of Chinese language is he talking about? The transition of classical written Chinese to the modern one?

    Modern literary Chinese was popularized in the early 20th century – a form of Chinese that is more similar to prose. Its proponents argued for this modern form because of the lack of a written language that could be easily understood by Chinese people that were not educated in the classics; classical Chinese was also regarded as not flexible enough to describe the influx of foreign ideas (socially, scientifically, philosophically, and etc.).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Written_vernacular_Chinese

    We constantly create new vocabularies to describe new ideas and invention – by combining different characters in a new way. There aren’t many things that can be accurately described with single character. And we surely like to be understood clearly. I don't think we like to use more words than necessary. In fact, phrases/ vocabularies get contracted all the time if the context is sufficient.

    In my example ( 有一个梦vs有一个梦想), both sentences are equal in meaning and are used, they only differ in rhetorical effect. 中国梦 vs中国梦想, while the latter is not technically and semantically incorrect, the extra character sounds redundant, wordy and strange.

    We do create new characters. Many originated from slangs and make their way into the written language by internet communities and tabloids. Most often they are common characters modified by radicals based on their sound and meaning. Other times they are archaic words that get recycled. Sometimes niche communities adopt Japanese Kanji. These new(sometimes recycled) characters/vocabularies cannot be understood easily and universally.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    @Foon Wong

    "To me, 梦想 cannot mean anything but aspiration."

    Your examples do not support this assertion.

  7. Dan Curtin said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Knowing no Chinese, I support mèng because it looks like a starry eyed person! (More proof that ignorance =bliss??)

  8. Matt said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    Foon Wong, you can find the claim in context by using Google, etc. (although if you, like me, don't have access to a university library you might not be able to see much of the context! — I just happen to have it written down as a conveniently vague description). But, yes, he was talking about the transition from "classical" to "modern/contemporary" Chinese, and specifically the fact that most content words (nouns, verbs, etc.) in the latter are di- or polysyllabic, while classical Chinese supports a monosyllabic analysis much more readily. (I'm trying to be careful and limited in my claims here, because I'm not an expert, but I think that these general outlines are basically uncontroversial.)

    This is actually something that Prof. Mair has posted about a few times here, IIRC — especially the way that the writing system leads people to believe that, say, "梦想" is actually two monosyllabic words, rather than the single disyllabic word that the non-orthographic linguistic evidence would suggest.

    As for the reasons for this, I know even less about that, but I'm sure it has to do with new concepts as you say. I read something about sound changes in Chinese reducing the number of distinct monosyllables, too, which would I suppose also drive people towards disyllabic terms to reduce ambiguity.

    Anyway, assuming that it is true that 梦想 is starting to be used as a synonym for 梦 (I'll let you and Prof. Mair argue that one, I have no idea), I was wondering if this might be because disyllabic nouns have become the "default" pattern in contemporary Chinese for nouns (or nouns of a certain type, etc.), making 梦想 "feel" righter than 梦 to an extent that overcomes the inertia of the historical "division of labor" between 梦想 and 梦. Total speculation on my part, of course — I don't even know if the premises are true, I'm just putting together things I've read in works by people who actually speak Chinese.

    Happy solar new year to all!

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