Incoherence is in our DNA

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Commenting on Victor Mair's reference to Xi Jinping's statement that "There is no gene for invasion in our blood", Bob Ladd wrote

Surely what Xi meant was simply "It's not in our DNA to invade others and seek hegemony over the world". People say things like that in English all the time without being genetic determinists (or indeed, without even having much of a clue what DNA is).

I agree with Bob that people do say things like that in English all the time these days. The Oxford Dictionaries (American English) entry gives the gloss "The fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable", and the examples

diversity is part of the company’s DNA
men just don’t get shopping—it’s not in our DNA

But that's not the whole story. A bit of web search revealed that the interpretation given to "DNA" in such statements is a strange blend of ideas about essential character, effortful transformation, and contagious inspiration. This popular adaptation of the term "DNA" is simultaneously essentialist, Lamarckian, and not only seen as determinative of culture but as essentially equivalent to it.

Let's start with the DNA == culture idea, which is especially strange given the literal meaning of the words:

Company culture is real and has great impact (positive or negative). Think of a company like an organism and culture as its DNA.

Compensation programs should be linked with the company's DNA (culture) to have the desired impact.

Repsol Culture is the company's DNA.

Company culture is an interesting topic and is becoming a bit of a buzzword but what does it actually mean? Well, essentially it can only be described as the company’s true DNA and as with real DNA, it is unique to each company.

The culture handbook is far more just another presentation.  It is the definitive guide to the company’s DNA and all aspects of how the company behaves can be traced back to their culture handbook.

Your company’s DNA is the culture many companies define and fewer actually live by.

The performance driven culture which is in our company’s DNA has made us world renowned and the preferred supplier of choice to global diamond conglomerates.

How about the Lamarckian aspect — the genetic incorporation of acquired characteristics?

He underscored that it is the repeated behavior that makes a shift in culture part of the company's DNA.

Find out about the Coty culture and the key factors that have created our company's DNA, as well as the Coty philosophy based around our motto Faster, Further, Freer.

By sending a clear, consistent and constant message of hypergrowth, the focus on revenue became a daily responsibility of EVERY associate, and it was was incorporated into our company’s DNA.

Cataphora started life in the aftermath of the Internet bubble. We did not expect an easy ride and we did not get one. However, we learned from the experience and the lessons remain deeply rooted in our company’s DNA.

 Our mission to achieve a deep understanding of our customer's corporate culture made our own culture customer-oriented in which we constantly strive to excel on behalf of our customers. This is our company's DNA.

Every day, there is another new story about Comcast and our employees helping to make a difference in the communities where we live and work. We are proud that this commitment has become part of the culture of Comcast and part of our company’s DNA.

For Zynga, that meant if you can't measure something, don't build it. If you couldn't measure the results, don't try it. Because how do you know it's working? How do you know it isn't? Especially in the early days, it was hard to be true to that value. But what it did was it instilled in our culture, in our company's DNA, a real significant emphasis on metrics.

And the essentialism:

Products, services and strategies can all evolve over time, but the essence of Nemetschek Scia comes from what never changes: our Company’s DNA, which is based on our Core Purpose and Core Values.

As we grow as a company, it has become increasingly important to specifically define who we are and what we stand for as an organisation. We believe that culture is the single most-important thing in any business. And that everything else – great customer service, a strong brand, passionate employees and loyal customers – flow on naturally from that. Our culture is our company’s DNA. It is what we live and breathe every day. It means we could throw out our policies and procedures and still know what to do in a given situation. These are the core values we live by…

At CrossGlobe, we talk a lot about our company's DNA and what that means. Simply put, we believe character, ethics, honesty and safety are more than just words–they are fundamental values of life and are deeply embedded in our culture.

And just to make everything even less coherent, DNA in this usage is sometimes presented as a sort of guiding spirit endowed by a founder or leader and inherited by his or her successors and followers:

Innovation is in our company’s DNA – as it’s in our CEO’s nature to be innovative, the culture is set from the top down. 

Founder Everett Alvarez became known as the first POW shot down over Vietnam. His character sustained him through his long detainment; this determination is evident throughout his distinguished career and is a cornerstone of the company. “Our employees embrace Everett’s philosophy—its part of our company’s DNA.  As we head into our next decade, our future has never looked brighter.” Hanson said of Everett Alvarez’s legacy.

Just as your DNA may determine your destiny, a company's organisational DNA may determine its destiny. "The DNA of Leadership" helps readers understand how to shape their company's genetic code for success. Expert author Judith E. Glaser identifies the 7 vital leadership practices that can reshape an organisation into a WE-centric culture – a culture that will enable people to effectively work together during times of organisational change. "Graft" these 7 practices onto meetings, conversations and strategic initiatives, so that managers can leverage talent, maximise results, and boost profits in amazing ways.

Through the years, certain phrases and words have stood out that describe our culture, shape our DNA, and focus our movement. In some ways, these phrases have become true of who we are as a community and in essence are values for our church. These are not the values that we’ve declared for ourselves, but the values that we sense that God continues to declare over us. Through situations, experiences, and lessons-learned, God has brought these phrases to the forefront within the life of ROCKHARBOR. These are the things God has sealed in our minds, shaped into our hearts, and inspired us toward, and they’re the things for which we continue to reach as we follow God’s Spirit. No matter where He leads us, these are markers of who we are called to be along the way.

 Although the word "DNA" is recent, I suspect that this incoherent amalgam of concepts is similar what people used to refer to as "character".

Update — Nancy Friedman notes that she was (as often) way ahead of us here: "What's in Your Genes?", Fritinancy 7/6/2006.


  1. Leon said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:43 am

    Running through many of the examples above seems to be a notion of teleology (which is interesting given the also-confused relationship between teleology and natural selection).

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:47 am

    I agree with Bob that people do say things like that in English all the time these days
    It's so common that UK satirical/muckraking magazine Private Eye has a regular feature at the moment collecting the more absurd/unfortunate examples of it.

  3. Breffni said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    In the DNA = Culture quotes, there's a difference between the first six and the last one: "The performance driven culture which is in our company’s DNA…". This one I can make sense of – culture is IN the DNA, i.e., the company is an organism, and its DNA codes for the trait of being performance-driven (and maybe for other things too). The rest are saying that the culture IS the DNA, which requires quite a bit of work to untangle.

    [(myl) Probably all typos for DMA = "deoxyribomemetic acid"…]

  4. flow said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 7:39 am

    i've always found it interesting and confusing how people talk about DNA and how little mankind understands it. if we take the stance that the DNA of an individual is all-important for what ever becomes of that individual, that very individual would still not come about without the very environment, a.k.a. The World around it. you can't just put chicken DNA onto the Moon and boom! lots of chicken spring up. you can't even do that on Earth. it takes a subtly concerted effort to accomplish that feat, an effort that does not end once the shell is broken and the chicken emerges; even after that, you need air to breathe, the sun to shine (but not too much of it!), and people around you (people at least need other people; we're a social beast). it is an unproven conjecture that (1) (e.g.) plants have specific genes to accomplish specific things (like resistence to a pest, or amount of crop value grown), that (2) those genes function like an aircon knob that you can turn to regulate temparature at will in a pretty linear fashion, and, finally, that (3) messing with those genes will (a) not influence / impact other aspects of that individual and (b) not lead to consequences in the environment of that plant. actually, plant engineers explicitly do *not* subscribe to 3b—all they *want* is consequences (for mankind at large, for their employers, and their own careers). so they go and say, hey, here's this intricate mechanism of Nature, which has taken billions of years to come to the present state, and still this stupid flower has yellow petals, not red ones! so let's throw clogs into the gears until those flowers bloom red! which strikes me as a dangerously myopic view of the world. we've now come to inundating our fields in toxic substances to grow plants that are engineered to survive that attack. then we go and eat those plants. god is laughing at our plans.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    myl's "DMA" point may be on to something. The notion that cultural practices are propagated by entities called "memes" which can profitably be analogized to "genes" may contribute to a lot of other sloppy analogies of a similar sort. Or it may just be the sort of situation where a cool-sounding technical term from science (think "quantum leap" for example) takes on a significantly different meaning in common usage and as long as everyone understands that it is not identical to or even a particularly coherent extension of the technical scientific meaning we can all just live and let live.

  6. Mara K said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 10:40 am

    Where's the line between Lamarckian metaphors and epigenetic metaphors?

    [(myl) Epigenetic effects are basically heritable changes in gene expression, which may implement responses to environmental conditions. But if the relevant system for regulation of gene expression isn't there, no amount of individual striving will create it.]

  7. Jon said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    'Feedback' is another example of a technical term commonly adopted and misused. In electronics, negative feedback is desirable, and positive feedback generally leads to disastrous runaway conditions.

    But I think these common (mis)uses of technical terms are fair enough. After all, scientists often adopt common words like power or fruit and redefine them for their own purposes, then pedants bellyache if anyone dares to use them in their original senses.

  8. Tim Morris said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    All I can say is that today's corporate world must be full of clones :)

  9. Lon Thomas said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    There is an example of this in a very recent story in the The New Yorker about the forced expulsion of Crimean Tatars in the 40's.

    But I worry about the entry in the last:

    "Founder Everett Alvarez became known as the first POW shot down over Vietnam."

    Really? The North Vietnamese allowed their POWs to fly airplanes? Remarkable that Everett didn't take advantage of this and just fly away.

    Or maybe he was OUR POW?

  10. Joe said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    DNA is the new logos.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    "Feedback" in the rock music context is a variety of positive feedback (in the technical sense Jon refers to) that electrical/recording engineers historically viewed as a problem to be avoided at all costs but that some more creative types eventually decided could be a feature rather than a bug:

  12. Howard Oakley said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    flow and myl allude to one of the most bizarre aspects of all this. To have something in your genotype may be completely silent and irrelevant if gene expression does not occur, and that characteristic is reflected in the phenotype. None of the quotations show(s) the slightest understanding that the genotype is nothing more than a constructional encyclopaedia for proteins. To say that something is 'in the DNA' does not even suggest that it may have been expressed – and without that expression, the presence of the characteristic would be hidden.
    One day education may actually get this sort of fundamental message across, perhaps.

  13. Mark F. said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    If you push a metaphor too hard, it always falls apart. It isn't crazy to say that a company's culture is its DNA, although it's probably overstating things. And it's also not crazy to use DNA as a metaphor for that-which-makes-us-what-we-are, and then talk about consciously trying to improve that essence, or about that essence springing from the ideas of a founding figure or group. Of course, DNA itself doesn't work that way, but perhaps the corporate analogue of DNA does.

  14. Yet another John said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

    @Howard Oakley: It would be great to hear something like,

    "Honesty and integrity have been a part of Acme Corp's genes since the very beginning. Regrettably, this has not always been evident from our phenotype, since they come from genes that are more facultative than constitutive. As your new president, I hope that I can be the RNA polymerase that will finally transcribe the latent honesty genes hidden within our company's DNA."

  15. Nancy Friedman said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    Re "determinative of culture but … essentially equivalent to it." When I researched the subject in 2006, I learned that corporate DNA was a miraculous substance: It could be changed, built, rebuilt, engineered, explored, and have stuff baked or infused into it.

    The earliest usage I found of "corporate DNA" is in a 1998 book, "Corporate DNA: Learning from Life."

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    For the record, Chairman Xi said, "The blood of the Chinese nation / people does not have the gene for invading others and seeking hegemony over the world…." He did not say, "The Chinese people do not have the DNA for invading others and seeking hegemony over the world…."

    If Xi wanted to refer to DNA, he could have said "tuōyǎng hétáng hésuān 脫氧核糖核酸" ("deoxidized — ribose — nucleic acid") or simply "DNA" (it is quite common in current Chinese to use the acronym "DNA", e.g., "wǒmen de DNA lǐ 我们的DNA里" ("in our DNA") (115,00 ghits); cf. "wǒmen de tuōyǎng hétáng hésuān lǐ 我们的脫氧核糖核酸里") ("in our DNA") (4 ghits!).

    Compare "wǒmen de jīyīn lǐ 我们的基因里" ("in our genes") (386,000 ghits).

    I'm also posting this as a comment to the "Nicholas Wade: Genes, culture, and history" thread.

  17. Dan H said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

    For the record, Chairman Xi said, "The blood of the Chinese nation / people does not have the gene for invading others and seeking hegemony over the world…." He did not say, "The Chinese people do not have the DNA for invading others and seeking hegemony over the world…."

    I'm not sure that matters in this context, since evidence that "DNA" is commonly used as a metaphor for "structure or nature" by English speakers speaking English presumably wouldn't be evidence that Chairman Xi was using it metaphorically in Mandarin anyway.

    It seems reasonably plausible that he might have been speaking metaphorically, but evidence to that effect would presumably have to come from examples of people using genes/DNA in this metaphorical sense in Mandarin.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    @Dan H

    Too many instances of "not sure", "presumably", "plausible", etc. in what you've written. Moreover, it's not clear what point you're trying to make in response to what I wrote.

    I simply wanted to point out that Chairman Xi was talking about genes, not DNA. I wasn't making a statement about whether he was or wasn't using genes in a metaphorical sense.

  19. Jongseong Park said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

    Look up Cesc Fabregas and DNA in your favourite search engine to find quotations about Spanish footballer Cesc Fabregas having Barça (FC Barcelona) in his DNA from his transfer saga a few years ago, which turned into a minor meme ("He has Arsenal in his DNA", "Does he have any Madrid DNA?", etc.; these are all football teams).

  20. D.O. said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

    I was tempted to say that DNA is a new incarnation of the outmoded notion of soul, but a few attempts of simple substitution like "Or what will a corporation give in exchange for its DNA?" and "For what shall it profit a corporation, if it shall gain the whole world, and lose its own DNA?" convinced me that it is a bit premature.

  21. D.O. said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:55 pm

    I am not about to make a full throttle (or even a half-throttle) comparison of company's DNA and company's genes, but here are few examples.

    At Honda, speed is in the company's genes. Founder Soichiro Honda had a personal love for motorcycle and race car driving and pushed his young company to …

    Complacency spores are in every company's genes. Companies fail to keep those spores in check when they spend their training and learning budgets too …

    Culture is like a company's genes or personality. Often it isn't formally captured in documents or processes, but it is the cement that holds an enterprise together …

    Innovation has a long tradition at Carl Zeiss: it is in the company's genes.

    BLOCK brings together research, development and production under one roof. From coiled goods, right up to electronic switch mode power supplies, software development and cast resin optimisation, our company’s genes flow into every single wire. [Wow! But it's a German company…]

    Passion, innovation and courage have been in the company’s genes since its founding. … For Axelle Beauchamp, a senior manager of Human Resources in Boudry, Switzerland, the creative employees who collaborate toward a common goal are the critical Celgene elements—the genes that make up the company.[I am running out of wows.]

    Custom cabinetry is in The Kueffner Company's genes.

    We like to talk about learning and language. It’s in our company genes.

  22. Dan H said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 6:45 am

    I simply wanted to point out that Chairman Xi was talking about genes, not DNA. I wasn't making a statement about whether he was or wasn't using genes in a metaphorical sense.

    My mistake.

    I think when I read Bob Ladd's original comment that "Surely what Xi meant was simply "It's not in our DNA to invade others and seek hegemony over the world"" I assumed he meant something like "Surely Xi was speaking metaphorically, as English speakers do when they talk about things being 'in our DNA'" rather than literally suggesting that Xi had meant to use the *word* DNA.

    In this context, I read your comment as suggesting that because Xi had used the word "genes" rather than the word "DNA" that he was therefore not speaking metaphorically. As it turns out you were actually just clarifying that Xi had used a specific word, and that had he intended to use another word, that word would have been available for him to use.

    So, umm, sorry for misreading you.

  23. ajay said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    the sort of situation where a cool-sounding technical term from science (think "quantum leap" for example) takes on a significantly different meaning in common usage

    Particularly good example, because "quantum leap" in scientific terms means "the smallest change it is physically possible to make". So "our new corporate logo represents a quantum leap for this company!" may well be true, but it isn't what the speaker thought he meant…

  24. Bob Ladd said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    @Dan H – Thank you for getting my point in my original comment. Your paraphrase is exactly what I meant.

    @Victor Mair – Since you specified Chairman Xi's exact words in your original comment on the Nicholas Wade post, I have to say I read your comment on this post in the same way Dan H did.

  25. Breffni said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    Maybe the point, for the early adopters of 'quantum leap' as a metaphor at least, is less the size of the change than the fact that the leap is an abrupt and discontinuous change between discrete states rather than a gradual change along a continuous scale; so more like a sudden qualitative change than a slow quantitative one.

  26. Brett said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:45 am

    @ajay: Actually, the colloquial use of "quantum leap" makes a pretty accurate metaphor, based on what the term means in physics. The point (to elaborate on what Breffni just wrote) is that a "quantum leap" in physics is an abrupt, discontinuous change of state. The change from state A to state B is made without passing through states intermediate between the two.

    As a physicist, I would never use (and I don't think I have every heard used by another scientist) "quantum leap" to refer only to the smallest possible change in a system. However, I have seen this "correction" a couple of time online now. I think the misconception that "quantum leap" means only the smallest change come from misinterpreting "quantum" as a noun. "Quantum" as a noun does mean the smallest unit of something. Usually, the something is charge, but occasionally it's energy (or even something else). However, the word is not used commonly with energy though, because few systems have equally spaced energy levels (photons being a rare case where there are equally spaced energy levels), so the "quantum" of energy is not very useful as a unit.

    This noun use is not the use of "quantum" in "quantum leap" though. There "quantum" is essentially just short for the adjectival phrase "quantum mechanical," and that is true of most usages of "quantum" by physicists.

  27. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 9:24 am

    I find it interesting to contrast the amused tolerance with which descriptivist linguists like Mark Liberman or Victor Mair discuss the non-scientific (and often not exact) use of terms like DNA (or quantum leap or light year or epicenter) with the indignant condemnation that they (most notably Geoff Pullum) bring to similar use of terms from linguistics, like "passive voice" (or, God forbid, "passive tense") in the (sometimes vague) sense of "impersonal language".
    It can be argued, of course, that in the former case the reference is not to cells (or subatomic particles or stars or earthquakes), so that there is no room for confusion, while in the latter case the reference is to language. But then linguists (like other scientists) have coined technical terms (like pidgin and creole) from the general language, leading to such assertions as "Hawai'ian Pidgin is a creole not a pidgin". Why not come to terms with the fact that "passive voice" has come to mean something different from its purely grammatical meaning?

  28. Yet another John said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    @Coby Lubliner:

    But I think there's an important distinction between the metaphorical usages of "quantum leap" and "the company's DNA" (which everyone understands to be vague metaphorical usages) and the kind of usage of "passive voice" that Geoff Pullum rants against, wherein the writer seems to believe that the phrase denotes some precise feature of the syntax which they feel is wrong, when in fact it seems that most of the writers complaining about "passive voice" are merely signalling some kind of negative attitude about the writing style.

    With many of the non-technical uses of "passive voice," I think there's an interesting intellectual illusion going on where the complainer really thinks that they are referring to some exact feature of the syntax that they could identify, but if they are pressed to identify it, they cannot coherently say what it is that they are complaining about. Probably this happens a lot in discussions about art but usually passes unnoticed.

  29. Paul said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    @Yet another John @Victor Mair

    I think that's what's interesting about President Xi's remarks. If he were speaking on behalf of a (presumably genetically diverse) American company, one would naturally assume that he's using the term in a general, non-technical way, because it would be absurd to claim a genetic basis for a company's behavior or activity. Since he's speaking on behalf of the Chinese people/nation*, which by any interpretation is overwhelming Han Chinese, the technical definition is not absurd way to interpret his statement.

    @Victor Mair
    Perhaps this is another conversation entirely, but what's the significance of the two terms Xi appears to use interchangeably, Zhōnghuá mínzú and Zhōngguó rénmín? I was under the impression that at least the first was including China's 55 recognized minorities, but that would obviously date that usage to the PRC era and I have no clue what it would mean before then.

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

    Yet Another John:
    It may well be that, as you write, "[w]ith many of the non-technical uses of 'passive voice' […] there's an interesting intellectual illusion going on where the complainer really thinks that they are referring to some exact feature of the syntax that they could identify, but if they are pressed to identify it, they cannot coherently say what it is that they are complaining about." Like the illusion, perhaps, that Obama (or any politician ones doesn't like) makes inordinate use of the first person singular. But while the latter illusion can readily be demonstrated to be one (as has often been done by Mark Liberman), I don't know of any evidence for the illusion you cite. How do you know that what "the complainer really thinks"?

  31. Breffni said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    To make Yet Another John's point in a slightly different way, I'd be prepared to bet that the complainers think they mean the same thing by 'passive' as grammarians do, which would distinguish it from jumbled but transparently metaphorical metaphors like DNA.

  32. Dan H said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    More generally, I think there's a difference between a term which has a technical meaning in one field being used with a different meaning in a wholly different field (like using "quantum leap" to mean "large sudden change" or using "DNA" to mean "character") and using a term with a technical meaning incorrectly in the same field.

    For example, while it might sound a bit annoying, most scientists wouldn't object to a CEO saying something like "we need to make a quantum leap in our company's DNA" to mean something like "we need to radically change our company's culture". But many scientists *would* object to an alternative medicine practitioner saying that their particular cure "uses quantum energy to heal tangled DNA", because here the words "quantum" and "DNA" are being used in their scientific senses, but being used incorrectly.

    When people complain about the "passive voice" they are invariably making a claim *about language*, so they are actively misusing a term of art within the discipline they are trying to discuss.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 6:29 pm


    Thank you for understanding the situation with regard to Chairman Xi's use of the word "gene" in relation to "nation / ethnos (minzu)" (he wasn't talking about a company!).

    As for your excellent question about the difference between Zhōnghuá mínzú ("Chinese nation / ethnos") and Zhōngguó rénmín ("Chinese people"), the former leans more toward the cultural and ethnic side, while the latter is more toward the political side.

    Zhōnghuá — "Central Florescence"

    Zhōngguó — "Central Kingdom / Country"

    I asked a number of native speakers from the Mainland the following questions:


    Is there a substantial difference between Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族 and Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民?

    Do either of them equal Hànzú 汉族 ("Han ethnicity")?

    Do either of them include the shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("minority ethnicities")?


    So far I have only received one response (it's a sensitive question), this from a very open individual of Han ethnicity:


    Almost equal. I think the official media are purposely blurring their difference for a reason that we all know. For example, in 莎車 [VHM: Yarkand, in Xinjiang], I saw "十二木卡姆是中華民族的藝術瑰寶" [VHM: "The 'Twelve Muqam' is an artistic treasure of the Chinese nation / Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族"]… but I doubt whether people outside of 新疆 [VHM: Xinjiang] know what 十二木卡姆 [VHM: the "Twelve Muqam"] is…

    VHM: On the "Twelve Muqam", an important musical tradition of the Uyghurs, see


    If I receive other responses, I'll share them.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

    This new response fits well with what I said myself and is compatible with what the previous correspondent wrote:


    To my understanding, the expression Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族 emphasizes more on the aspect of ethnicity, which conveys the idea that all the Chinese have similar ethnic characteristics. The expression Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民 emphasizes more on the aspect of politics, which refers to the people under the rule of the Chinese government. Therefore, they should not be considered as equal to Hànzú 汉族 [VHM: Han ethnicity], and should include the shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 [VHM: "minority ethnicities].


  35. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 10:06 pm

    BTW, I should mention, it is not so common in China for representatives of businesses and other organizations to talk about their DNA or their genes, so when China watchers heard Chairman Xi make his remark about the nation / people not having the gene for aggression / invasion, they were stunned, not just because of China's actions in recent months.

    Now here is the third response to my three questions that I received from a Mainlander. This individual is very patriotic and is training to become an official, most likely in China's foreign service. As with the former two responses, I have added transcriptions and translations when I thought that they would be useful for those who are not literate in Chinese.


    According to Baidu, the definition of Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族 is : Shēnghuó zài Zhōnghuá dàdì shàng de suǒyǒu mínzú jí hǎiwài Huáqiáo de tǒngchēng 生活在中华大地上的所有民族及海外华侨的统称 ("collective term for all of the ethnicities living in the land of China and Overseas Chinese"). It includes shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("minority ethnicities").

    As for Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民, it's a little bit complicated because rénmín 人民 ("people") in China is distinguished strictly from gōngmín 公民 ("citizens").

    Gōngmín 公民 ("citizens") refers to whoever has the citizenship of the PRC, while rénmín 人民 refers merely to citizens who are in favor of the country and the party, and who make contributions to the development of the country. Therefore, criminals, prisoners, terrorists, corrupted officials and people like them, are not included in the range of rénmín 人民. So, Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民 is a much narrower and subjective range.

    So in this perspective, generally speaking, shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("minority ethnicities") is included in Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民 ("the Chinese people"),but it also depends on whether they do good or harm to the country.


  36. D.O. said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 11:05 pm

    Gōngmín ("citizens") refers to whoever has the citizenship of the PRC, while rénmín refers merely to citizens who are in favor of the country and the party, and who make contributions to the development of the country.

    This reminds me of the old Soviet distinction between гражданин (citizen) and товарищ (comrade). Someone under arrest could not be called товарищ and became гражданин. But the latter was sometimes used in more official contexts even when no adversity was implied.

  37. Bob Ladd said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 1:26 am

    @Paul @Victor Mair
    OK, got it now.

  38. Jeff W said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    the interpretation given to "DNA" in such statements is a strange blend of ideas about essential character, effortful transformation, and contagious inspiration

    I guess I view this group of statements as being the opposite of what you’re saying they are. The meaning in the statements of DNA is something more like what the dictionary meaning says: “fundamental, distinctive, unchangeable.” They might be referring to “essential character, effortful transformation, and contagious inspiration” as “DNA” (or being in the DNA) but that just means they’re referring to different things—some of which, like “culture,” are at odds with the original biological reference—as “fundamental, distinctive, unchangeable.”

    In other words, the people making those statements aren’t giving those interpretations to “DNA”—we are. It’s an “incoherent amalgam” only if you view “DNA” in the context of biology and evolution but obviously the people making these statements aren’t. That’s not to say there isn’t some linguistic significance to the—ahem—evolution of the use of the term, it just means that question is not how do we make sense of these “incoherent” “interpretations” but rather how did the meaning of “DNA” get pared down to something that could be used in different contexts, some very much at odds with the original meaning.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

    Fourth response, this one from a graduate student from the PRC:


    1.I am not sure whether there's a substantial difference between the two. It seems to me that they both mean the people of PRC, but from different perspectives: Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华名族 ("Chinese nation / ethnicity") refers to all ethnic groups, Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民 ("the Chinese people") refers to all citizens.

    Xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn 现代汉语词典 (Dictionary of Modern Chinese) defines Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族 ("Chinese nation / ethnicity") as:

    【中华民族】 ZhōnɡhuáMínzú Wǒguó gè mínzú de zǒngchēng, bāokuò wǔshíliù gè mínzú, yǒu yōujiǔ de lìshǐ, cànlàn de wénhuà yíchǎn hé guāngróng de gémìng chuántǒng 我国各民族的总称,包括五十六个民族,有悠久的历史,灿烂的文化遗产和光荣的革命传统 ("comprehensive term for all of the individual ethnicities of our country, including the 56 [minority] ethnicities, having a long history, brilliant cultural heritage, and glorious revolutionary tradition").

    There is no entry for Zhōngguó rénmín 中国人民 ("the Chinese people"), but I suppose Zhōngguó 中国 ("China") refers exclusively to PRC. Rénmín 人民 ("people") is defined as:

    【人民】 rénmín Yǐ láodòng qúnzhòng wéi zhǔtǐ de shèhuì jīběn chéngyuán 以劳动群众为主体的社会基本成员 ("the basic members of society with the working masses as the main bady")

    2. Based on the dictionary entries, I would come to the conclusion that neither of them equals Hànzú 汉族 ("Han ethnicity").

    3. Yes, both of them include shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("minority ethnicities").

  40. Keith Clarke said,

    May 30, 2014 @ 8:45 am

    Panda's Thumb has been having a giggle over Bryan College's insistence that the academic staff sign up to the literal existence of Adam and Eve. The brief article includes

    "Others argue that a college is not a church and should not prescribe doctrine, but the trustees are determined to enforce their policy. The president, Stephen D. Livesay, noted

    "But this is Bryan College, and this is something that’s important to us. It’s in our DNA"

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