"Language cancer"

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David Bandurski has posted a fine article about "The 'cancer' of all things Western" on the website of cmp (China Media Project), at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.  (3/24/15)

Bandurski draws the inspiration for the title of his article from a February piece in the Beijing Daily, in which the Taiwanese poet and critic, Yu Kwang-chung, is quoted as warning against a yǔyán ái 语言癌 ("language cancer") eroding Chinese literacy through èxìng xīhuà 恶性西化 ("malignant Westernization").

Bandurski briefly discusses, one after another, the following areas in which China is being ravaged by the cancer of Westernization:  diet, ideas, law, education, festivals, values, modernization, and especially economics.  All of these maladies have been extensively covered in Chinese publications in recent months.  In this post, however, I'd like to go back to the Beijing Daily article which focuses on "language cancer" to give some specimens for discussion on Language Log.

In point of fact, the author of the Beijing Daily piece, Huáng Ānjìng 黄 安靖, is mostly just ranting against the invasion of English, but he doesn't provide many concrete examples.  Here are the sorts of things he is inveighing against.

Huang doesn't like terms such as běnxiàng 本项 ("item in question"), yùxiàng 喻项 ("item compared"), and xìxiàng 系项 ("related item"), which he considers to be xīn tífǎ 新提法 ("new formulations") and xīn gàiniàn 新概念 ("new concepts").  Instead, he would prefer the tried and true běntǐ 本体 ("noumenon"), yùtǐ 喻体 ("vehicle"), and bǐyùcí 比喻词 ("metaphor").  The fallacy of this argument is that the latter three terms themselves all belong to an earlier stage of borrowing Western philosophical and rhetorical terminology that were absorbed into Chinese during previous generations.  Moreover, it is difficult to pin the blame for terms such as those discussed in this paragraph squarely on English, because innovative Chinese thinkers and writers nowadays are perfectly capable of coming up with interesting new terms entirely of their own volition and with their own resources.

Other facile complaints include the author's disapproval of terms like kètǐ 客体 ("object") and zhǔtǐ 主体 ("object"), shíxiāng 实相 ("reality") and xīnxiāng 心相 ("mental construct / phenomenon").  All of this resistance to new, abstract terminology reminds me of the Confucian and Taoist opposition to the tens of thousands of words and usages that entered the Chinese lexicon with Buddhism during the last two millennia, all the while themselves selectively employing Buddhist vocabulary and concepts, though often with interesting interpretive twists and turns (e.g., Neo-Confucian vocabulary and thought).

Even more outlandish is Huang's allegation that English has encouraged Chinese to use ludicrous circumlocutions such as "dùzi li yǒu yī zhǒng xiǎng jìnshí de shēnglǐ fǎnyìng 肚子里有一种想进食的生理反应" ("in one's stomach there is a kind of physiological response whereby one wishes to ingest food") for è 饿 ("hungry").  That's really crazy; there's no way this artificial concoction can be attributed to the pernicious influence of English.

The author is also unhappy with the use of verbal constructions in Chinese that mimic English verb inflections.  I'll spare you the strained examples.

Basta!  I'll end by translating Huang's final paragraph:

"Language cancer" is right now invading the whole of the Sinosphere, and it has already caused widespread concern in society.  The author hopes that every Chinese speaker will develop a plain style of speech, writing, and learning that is correct, standard, and graceful when they use Chinese, so as to consciously resist the invasion of "language cancer".  At the same time, the author also hopes that the concerned parties will concentrate and mobilize their strength to effectively prevent the metastasis of "language cancer", and furthermore to strengthen research so as to find an effective prescription that will thoroughly cure "language cancer".

Where have we heard this kind of indignant, impassioned talk before?

[h/t John Rohsenow]


  1. Sockatume said,

    March 25, 2015 @ 8:38 am

    Perhaps this is an ambiguity of the translation, but if "every Chinese speaker" were to separately develop a mode of speech and writing that is "correct, […], and graceful", I would be deeply surprised if they were in any way similar to one another and therefore meet any reasonable sense of the word "standard".

    As per usual I suspect that "the author hopes that every Chinese speaker will develop a plain style of speech, writing and learning that is similar to the author's own".

  2. APOLLO WU said,

    March 25, 2015 @ 8:48 am

    As far as I know, Chinese language has far less foreign loan words than the Japanese. It reflects the fact that Japan had much more contacts and rapid absorption of western things and culture. Because Chinese characters convey meaning, in order to avoid meaning interference, transliteration has often been avoided. Language provincialism and xenophobia would only reduce the richness of a blooming Chinese vocabulary. Instead of opposing foreign expressions, I would like to see the naturalization of the alphabet and use the name of the president of the United States, Obama directly instead of creating a Chinese equivalent 奥巴马。 It is like keep creating new key for that of foreign origin while the new key is much less useful in opening external information source.

  3. John said,

    March 25, 2015 @ 8:49 am

    Yu Kwang-chung's comments were probably sourced from this United Daily News article from December 2014:


    I remember this article attracting quite a lot of discussion on the Taiwanese internet a few months ago. For instance, there was this rebuttal on Thinking Taiwan:


    (Interestingly, the Thinking Taiwan article traces the "language cancer" term back to a Hong Kong 潮語, "語癌.")

    However, the invective against "language cancer" in the Taiwanese press was more about the evils of the Internet and the degeneration of Kids These Days, with Yu's remarks about westernization mostly ignored. Beijing, of course, with its different ideological needs, takes a different tack.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 25, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    Even absent loanwords of the sort common in Japanese, I would naturally expect the recent dramatic increase in the number of Chinese speakers with knowledge of English and contact with the wider world to result in new Sinitic turns of phrase or lexical items that are calqued from English or otherwise causally attributable to the impact of English. Does that actually not happen (which itself would be interesting) or did this guy just do a really lousy job picking examples when he could have come up with better ones (obviously leaving aside the question of whether such examples are evidence of anything horrible)?

    And what Bandurski said re Marxist polemical prose style (even if used to condemn "Western" things) pretty obviously not being an indigenous Chinese development.

  5. Dave Cragin said,

    March 26, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

    One of the things I’ve really liked about learning Chinese are the many examples of parallel construction of words.

    For example the Chinese words for superman, supermarket, supersonic, supernatural, all use the Chinese word for super, 超 chao.

    Or micro, as in microwave, microchip, microscope, microscopic, microprocessor, all use the Chinese word for micro 微 wei.

    Is this is “bad” or cancerous? Whether a person is Chinese learning English or an English speaker learning Chinese, this type of parallel word construction makes language learning easier for both.

    To me, this has always been a particularly interesting part of learning Chinese, i.e., despite being a very different language, many ways of expressing oneself are similar.

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