Official Chinglish, with a note on North Korean Juche

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What would you think if you encountered terms like this?

Two-oriented Society

Three-zation / Threezation

You might wonder if the people who dreamed them up were high on something when they produced these opaque, unidiomatic renderings.  Yet such terms are official translations of Chinese expressions.  As such, they have entered the stream of global English.

The first item is the Chinglish rendering of liǎngxíng shèhuì 两型社会.  It refers to a "resource-conserving and environment-friendly society".

The second item is the Chinglish rendering of sānhuà 三化, which refers to "new industrialization, new urbanization, and agricultural modernization".

Here the "threezation" policy is linked to a "three-driven" strategy.

When I try to grapple with such Chinglish expressions, I experience a feeling of disorientation in my own language.  I get a similar feeling when I confront key concepts in North Korean ideology, such as the famous doctrine of Juche.  This seems pretty innocuous when rendered as "self-reliance", which is the usual translation, but I don't think that's what Kim Il-sung had in mind when he first pronounced this doctrine on December 28, 1955, which is why it is sometimes referred to as Kimilsungism.

Despite the fact that the North Koreans have tried, as much as possible, to purge their language of Sino-Koreanisms, this is a clear example of such vocabulary.  In Hangul, it would be written 주체, but in Chinese characters it is 主體.  In Mandarin, that would be pronounced zhǔtǐ and would have meanings such as these:  "subject; main body / part; principal part; mainstay".  In philosophical discourse, Juche would convey the idea of "subjectivity" or "agency".  In political parlance, however, Juche has the connotations of "self-reliance" and "independence".  But the North Koreans seem to have run with the term and put their own stamp on it to such a degree that I find it very difficult to grasp the meaning of Juche, much less render it into transparent English.

Summing up:

liǎngxíng shèhuì 两型社会 ("two-oriented society")

sānhuà 三化 ("threezation")

Juche 主體 (""subject[ivity]" –> "self-reliance" –> "independence" –> "Kimilsungism")

If such terms of political and intellectual discourse come to us with ready-made English renderings, should we go along with them, or should we provide our own more idiomatic and felicitous renderings for them?

Not to mention "running dog", "paper tiger", and many other Chinglishisms that are already firmly embedded in current English.

Cf. "Xinhua English and Zhonglish" (2/4/09)

"Hurt(s) the feelings of the Chinese people"(9/12/11)

"Chinese loans in English"  (7/10/13)

[Hat tip Tansen Sen]



  1. Daniel Rocha said,

    November 22, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

    Isn't that the right of self determination, by lenin?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

    With the help of Google Translate:

    Engl. self-determination –> Russ. samoopredeleniye самоопределение

    Russ. samoopredeleniye самоопределение –> Kor. jagyeol 자결

    Kor. jagyeol 자결 –> Engl. self-determination


    Kor. juche 주체 –> Engl. subject

    Kor. juche 주체 –> Russ. tema тема

  3. hwu said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 12:44 am

    In my mind "三化" was known as "Institutionalization, standardization and normalization", which was put forward by Hu Jintao before 2012. Chinese governors are so obsessed with journalese that they invent similar items every year, most of which never have a chance to spread in the western world.

    Here is a series of Chinese jokes about "二十三干" (well, not 23 f***):

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 7:57 am


    That's a great joke about "二十三干". I'm sure that LLog readers who don't read Chinese would greatly appreciate it if you or someone else would translate the whole thing into English. The last part is hilarious, but the leadup to it is also funny.

  5. Q. Pheevr said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 11:20 am

    Henrik Ibsen had Kim Il-sung's number:

    DOVREGUBBEN: Derude, under det skinnende hælv,
    mellem mænd det heder: «Mand, vær dig selv!»
    Herinde hos os mellem troldenes flok
    det heder: «Trold, vær dig selv — nok
    «주체», min søn, det kløvende, stærke
    ord må stå i dit våbenmærke.

    (Peer Gynt,

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    @Q. Pheevr

    same request I made to hwu

    I just spent 10 minutes tracking down the Peer Gynt passage you quote.

  7. Matt said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

    It's interesting that the weirdness mostly stems from the use of native English (Germanic) number words instead of the Latinate vocabary we tend to prefer for such tasks.Renderings like "dually patterned society" and "triply oriented development" wouldn't be unnatural at all. (They would be opaque, but then so is the Chinese.)

    Perhaps the lack of such obvious strata in the Chinese lexicon makes it less likely that translators will think of such things, instead just going with "two" and "three" as the most direct translations of the morphemes involved (when considered in isolation).

  8. hwu said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 5:51 am

    Huh, as an engineering researcher, I am meanwhile a bad translator. Anyway, below is the Chinese joke and my translation as a practice:


    After school, students gathered in the playground, only to be lectured by their headmaster. The headmaster first talked about student safety then negative things around school then anything he could think of. As the speech became boring and unfocused, students losed their patience and began to chatter.

    Seeing this, the headmaster gave everyone a 10min break, so teachers joined the noisy crowd too. their topic started with headmaster's jabber, then changed to some former shameless commune secretary, to some female mayor's speech "日进度慢/working with little progress", and finally to some Party secretary's speech "大干、苦干加23干" (do big work, do hard work, and do 23 work).

    Well, everyone knew what "do big work" and "do hard work" means, but what about "do 23 work"? If it meant "23 kinds of work", then why the Party secretary didn't mention a single one of the "23 kinds of work" in his speech?

    Here's the truth: the party secretary's speech draft was written by hand by his assistant, and that sentence should be "大干、苦干加巧干" (do big work, do hard work, and do smart work). However, the assistant's careless handwriting made "巧" look like "23", so, the fact was the Party secretary never read his script before the speech, and had mistaken "巧干/do hard work" for "23干/do 23 work".

    A picture of "巧" in Cursive scripts (行书):

    For all practical purposes, mistakes like this are no longer existent now. The IQ improvement of government officers, if any, have nothing to do with the avoidance of such mistakes. It's just because everyone uses printed drafts now, not hand written ones.

  9. Lars said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    In re Peer Gynt:

    THE TROLL KING. […] Out yonder
    Under the skies men have a common saying :
    " Man, to thyself be true! " But here, 'mongst Trolls,
    " Troll, to thyself be enough! " it runs.
    " Enough," my son that word so fraught with meaning
    Must be the motto written on your buckler.

    (Translated by R. Farquharson Sharp – no date in book, but WiPe's quote from his introduction is dated 1936).

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Kimilsungism is actually 김일성주의 金日成主義 Kimilsŏngjuŭi in Korean (using the McCune-Reischauer romanization). It is a term used by the North Korean regime itself. I don't have the patience to read up on the political philosophy to be able to tell you whether it can be considered interchangeable with Juche ideology.

    Despite the fact that the North Koreans have tried, as much as possible, to purge their language of Sino-Koreanisms, this is a clear example of such vocabulary.

    I don't think you can say that they tried to purge their language of Sino-Koreanisms, which would be like purging English of Latinisms. North Koreans tended to prefer pure Korean terms over Sino-Korean terms or loanwords more than South Koreans, so this is a huge area of difference between the North and the South. That is why it is remarked on a lot when such differences are discussed. But that doesn't mean that North Korea ever went far as to envision ridding the korean language of Sino-Koreanisms. It's a huge leap from preferring pure Korean terms where possible to saying that we should only ever use pure Korean terms.

  11. Richard W said,

    November 25, 2014 @ 12:14 am

    A delightful rendering of the joke, hwu. Take a bow! And your "cursive 巧" image illustrates the problem perfectly.

    I like the way the joke itself rambles a bit (越扯越远 *), just like the principal's lecture.

    "23干" is embedded deeply in the narrative: it's a slogan within a speech within a conversation in an intermission in a lecture. The joke spirals in to its punchline.

    * I've suggested "扯远" be added to CC-CEDICT with a definition such as "to go off on a tangent".

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