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.
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]