Your country: pronominal resistance

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When Westerners begin to study Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, a small obstacle that confronts them is the fact that the words for "my / our country" in these languages usually have to be translated as "China", "Japan", and "Korea" respectively in English.  As a colleague who knows all three languages put it, "I'm always struck by the oddness and even slight ungrammaticality of the English usage 'in my country' that you hear from C J K speakers."

We looked at this phenomenon in some depth a couple of years ago:

"My country" (1/23/13)

Now an extremely interesting new twist with regard to this concept of "my / our country" has arisen in China that merits another look.

First, a review.

Traditionally, the Chinese have said wǒguó 我国 ("my / our country"), the Japanese have said wagakuni 我が国 ("my / our country" — 我が国 / 我国 / わが国 are all orthographically acceptable, and 吾 is sometimes substituted for 我) for Japan, and the Koreans uri nara 우리 나라 ("our country" [the morphemes are both indigenous Korean, not Sinitic]).

I have all along felt that one day, someone who wanted to opt out of the inclusive "my / our country" paradigm would start referring to "your country".  This has now happened, with people invoking the striking term "your country" (nǐguó 你国) to other Chinese, with startling repercussions.

Alexa Olesen has written a brilliant piece on this:

"China's Your Country, We Just Live in It:  Tracking a viral, slightly subversive meme in Chinese cyberspace" (6/25/15):

… The meme of the moment on Chinese social media is ni guo — which means "your country" but is best translated as "your China." Deployed as a hashtag or embedded in a social media post, the phrase is a sarcastic retooling of the ubiquitous Communist Party phrase wo guo, which literally means "my country" but has the flavor of more nationalist phrases like "our China" or "our motherland." Web users can find "my country" peppering official rhetoric on state mouthpieces like People's Daily, official sites of the Chinese Communist Party, and even the National Bureau of Statistics. On Twitter and on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, the converse, "your country," appears to have taken off in the last several months, and is new enough that many people are only now asking what it means.

…When "your country" is deployed on Chinese social media, it usually involves an embarrassing internal news event, such as a June 11 panic run on salt in central China's Hubei province, or the dumping of milk in areas around Beijing and other parts of China after the price of milk plummeted. A post on the latter showed a photo of farmers watering their plants with milk. The comment: "Your country's social construction has reached a relatively new stage." On June 25, one Beijing Twitter user described it in a post as "a tongue-in-cheek way of distancing oneself from" the government.

The phrase has been popping up as a hashtag in posts or embedded as a subversive barb. But Xiao [Qiang] said the term is mostly used by "politically liberal, pro-human rights" and pro-democracy netizens, and that it is deployed against opponents who are "pro-[party], nationalistic netizens." Xiao said it's a way to battle the propaganda that assumes a Chinese citizen is a party supporter. In short, it's a way of saying, "Your China is not my China."

But it's definitely confrontational, even trollish. As one person noted on question-and-answer site Zhihu on Feb. 25, you'd never use it in normal conversation. "When you see this phrase, it's not offensive, but it is like a sign that a 'bitch slapping' is about to begin." One 18-year-old female commentator from Heilongjiang province in far northern China posted an essay on Weibo about the "your country" camp on May 31, saying that she'd started to notice the phrase everywhere and was fed up with it. "If you despise China so much, you should go abroad as soon as possible," she concluded. But, the reality is that Chinese, like people everywhere, contain multitudes. A joke going around on Twitter imagines a person accidentally using "your country" in a government work report and "my country" in an online chat group, rather than the intended reverse. The first mistake endangers the government worker's iron rice bowl; the second one, his or her online street cred. "Both consequences," read the punch line, "are quite serious."

Compare this satirical use of "your country" (nǐguó 你国) with the sarcastic use of the highfalutin term guìguó 贵国 ("[your] honorable country") — with the implication that it's not mine, since I'm just one of the pìmín 屁民 ("[lowly] fart people").

Somebody asked me how to translate "#你国".  I told him I would render it as "YOUR country" or "your country" or "your country" or "your country".

[Thanks to Bill Hannas, Bob Ramsey, Nathan Hopson, Haewon Cho, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and Hiroko Sherry]



29 Comments

  1. Thomas Bartlett said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    我國 is found in some early classical texts dated to the pre-Qin era. When I lived in Taiwan 1967-72, many people commonly used the phrases 我們中國 and 你們美國, which seems to express a similar mentality, without ironic or particularly emphatic implication. I don't think 貴國 is always used sarcastically; I believe it's the appropriate term in certain formal situations.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 5:51 pm

    @Thomas Bartlett

    I by no means intended to imply that guìguó 贵国 is always used sarcastically. Indeed, as explained in the "highfalutin" link, it has only sometimes taken on that implication in recent years.

  3. Chris said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    A somewhat similar English usage, perhaps, can be found in Living Colour's "Which Way to America?" (1988): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VufacXIcHuA

  4. Edward Lindon said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

    In democratic Taiwan, 我國 is frequently found in newspapers of all stripes. From what I understand, it doesn't have a tone of nationalism, tubthumping rhetoric or official jargon as it might in the PRC. It's just a convenient synonym for 台灣.

  5. DG said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 8:31 pm

    Interestingly, there is a similar thing going on in Russia. The dichotomy there is between "this country" (anti-government, pro-western) and "our country" (pro-Putin, patriotic). If you write a post on a Russian site with something like "in this country" in it, you are almost sure to get flamed and told to emigrate to some other country, since this one is apparently not yours.

  6. KWillets said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    Koreans use 우리 for their country, language, etc., and I've noticed that they use it with celebrity names as well, so they'll say "our [name]" instead of just "[name]" for some public figures.

    I haven't figured out how far this pattern goes though, or whether they use it for people they don't like, for instance.

  7. ahkow said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 10:42 pm

    我國 is also used by the Chinese language media in Malaysia and Singapore to refer to the respective countries.

  8. K Chang said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 12:50 am

    Always thought wo guo is diplo-speak, as there wasn't that many occasions one must refer to one's own country this way, and it sort of implies that the person is both a citizen AND currently resident in the country to refer to the country that way. Hmmm…

  9. K Chang said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 12:59 am

    Speaking of which, what constitutes the Chinese equivalent of Rodina (motherland, in Russian) or Vatherland (Fatherland) in WW2 Nazi Propaganda? I was drawing blank and eventually I thought of 神州 as "Ancestral Nation" 祖國 is a bit too… literal?

    https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%A5%9E%E5%B7%9E

  10. John said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 2:21 am

    Edward Lindon: My impression as a Taiwanese is that the use of 我國 in Taiwan is often to avoid the thorny political question of whether to refer to the country as 台灣 or 中華民國.

  11. GH said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 3:26 am

    @ K Chang: The use of Vaterland was not restricted to the Nazis, and AFAIK it does not carry strong National Socialist associations in German, and is still in use. (And similar terms are found in a host of other languages, from patria on.)

    A similar sentiment to that described in the post is perhaps expressed more bluntly in the American "not my president!"

  12. John Walden said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 3:52 am

    Similar subtleties can be achieved with "Los Españoles somos/sois/son…." and by calling the country "El estado Español" rather than "España", which does sound as if it's being pronounced by some patriots with an exclamation mark, or two: ¡España!.

    With less finesse there is the difference between the current autonomous region "Euskadi" and the aspiration of some nationalists, the border-straddling "Euskal Herria". This is a bit like how you might guess a person's views by their use of "Ulster", "The Six Counties", "The North" or "Northern Ireland".

  13. JB said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 4:57 am

    Given the resurgence of terms such as 貴國, it would be interesting to see if 敝國 makes a comeback too…

  14. V said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 6:34 am

    "Koreans use 우리 for their country, language, etc., and I've noticed that they use it with celebrity names as well, so they'll say "our [name]" instead of just "[name]" for some public figures."

    I susect Russian does this also, because in sloppy translations from Russian into Bulgarian, which are very common (sometimes they are barely comprehensible, or not at all), they say things like that.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 7:40 am

    @JB

    Good point!

    With the proviso that highfalutin bìguó 敝國 ("[my] humble country") is not equivalent to the sarcastic usage of guìguó 贵国 ("[your] honorable country"). In the complex of subtleties and nuances surrounding national pride and embarrassment, bìguó 敝國 ("[my] humble country") has quite a different role to play than either the direct or sarcastic usage of guìguó 贵国 ("[your] honorable country").

  16. Jean-Michel said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

    When the great Japanese filmmaker Ōshima Nagisa died a couple of years ago, a number of obituaries mentioned that he always referred to Japan as この国 kono kuni "this country" instead of the usual 我が国 "our country," as a way of underlining his iconoclasm.

  17. raempftl said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

    @K Chang and GH

    The second and the last line of the German national anthem are:

    Für das deutsche Vaterland!
    Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!

    The "deutsche/s" preceding Vaterland is not superfluous because on its own Vaterland just means country where one was born and grew up. Every country is a Vaterland.

    http://dict.leo.org/ende/index_de.html#/search=Vaterland&searchLoc=0&resultOrder=basic&multiwordShowSingle=on

    http://www.dwds.de/?qu=Vaterland

    The second link says it was coined after lat. patrie and has the same meaning.

  18. Jongseong Park said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 6:10 am

    This discussion reminds me that Fatherland, the alternative history thriller by Robert Harris where Hitler has won WWII, was given the Korean titles 그들의 조국 Geudeul-ui joguk "Their fatherland" and 당신들의 조국 Dangsindeul-ui joguk "Your fatherland" in translation. I was only familiar with the latter title, but I just discovered that the former title was the first to appear in Korean translation before the publisher went under and the rights went to another publisher. Note that in both cases, the translator added pronouns not in the original title.

    조국 祖國 joguk is Sino-Korean for "ancestral land", and is the standard translation for "fatherland". 그들 "they" is indigenous Korean, but 당신들 dangsindeul is a combination of Sino-Korean 當身 dangsin and the plural marker 들 deul, where dangsin is a rather literary way to express "you". Originally a quite formal pronoun, it is often used nowadays between spouses for example, or even between strangers who are fighting. It is not easy to characterize the nuance in each case, but in the case of this translated title, I take it as a more antagonistic "you lot" that emphasizes that it's your fatherland, not mine.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

    The following article (in Chinese) gives a good idea of how polarized the ("your country") issue has become:

    http://www.aboluowang.com/2015/0628/577119.html

  20. Martin said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

    Why not use 本國?

  21. Michael Watts said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    The first mistake endangers the government worker's iron rice bowl; the second one, his or her online street cred.

    Sloppy journalism there. Let's note that 铁饭碗 "iron rice bowl" is glossed in various dictionaries as "stable employment" — in fact, this is the only gloss I can see.

    For example, the xiandai hanyu guifan cidian gives this as the only gloss: 比喻非常稳定的职业和收入(跟"泥饭碗"相区别) ("metaphor for an extremely stable job and salary (opposite of "泥饭碗" [lit. clay rice bowl; glossed insecure job])")

  22. Jongseong Park said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 5:52 pm

    @Martin, I can't speak for Chinese or Japanese, but in Korean the word 본국
    本國 bon'guk usually means "country of origin" and in most contexts would refer to countries other than Korea, e.g. 그들은 한국 방문 후 본국으로 돌아갔다 Geudeul-eun Han'guk bangmun hu bon'guk-euro doragatda "They returned to their country of origin after their visit to Korea". It would only be in extremely formal contexts that 본국 bon'guk would ever be used to mean "this (my/our) country".

    By the way, in my romanization of Korean here I've decided to use the McCune–Reischauer-style apostrophe to mark potentially ambiguous syllable division in 본국 bon'guk instead of the optional hyphen of the Revised Romanization, which I'm otherwise following, because I'd prefer to reserve the hyphen to separate particles from the words they modify.

  23. Hans said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    On German Vaterland: As has been said, it doesn't have a Nazi connotation, but using it unironically nowadays would mark you as politically conservative.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    What is an "iron rice bowl"?

    English Wikipedia

    Chinese Wikipedia

    BBC News

    Foreign Affairs

    Time

    Financial Times

    Le Monde diplomatique

    images (English)

    images (Chinese)

  25. Martin said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

    @Jongseong

    The Cantonese TV station here (in Canada) uses 本國 for Canadian news and 本地 for local news, I just assumed they'd be analogous.

  26. Jongseong Park said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 4:34 am

    @Martin, interesting. In Korean, 본국 本國 bon'guk also is used to mean "home country" from the perspective of overseas posts and colonies or of overseas diasporas, so Koreans would most likely not immediately understand 本國 as used by the Cantonese-speaking community in Canada as referring to Canada. So the word isn't used the same way in the two languages.

  27. Jean-Michel said,

    July 2, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    The most common use of 本国 in Chinese seems to mean "domestic." For example, this article is headlined "本国品牌占据韩智能手机九成市场," which means "Domestic brands (本国品牌) hold 90% of the South Korean smartphone market." This report on the economy of Oman begins "阿曼《观察家报》消息,2015年一季度,阿曼私营企业本国劳力数量已达214130人," which means something like "The Oman Observer reports that Oman's private domestic labor force reached 214,130 in the first quarter of 2015," where "本国劳力数量" means "domestic labor force." This article on the U.S. Navy's decision to accompany American vessels through the Strait of Hormuz is headlined "美海军将伴航本国商船," or "U.S. Navy will escort its country's merchant ships (本国商船)." This usage isn't exclusive to mainland sources: this Hong Kong article is headlined "津巴布韋宣布放棄使用本國貨幣 Zimbabwe announces abandonment of domestic currency (本國貨幣)." So the Canadian Cantonese channel's use of 本國 to refer to domestic news makes sense, though mainland Chinese media sources normally place domestic news under the category 国内 (literally "in the country"). But in Hong Kong, news is usually divided between Hong Kong and the rest of China, the latter being referred to with such labels as 內地 "interior," 兩岸 "cross-straits" (referring to both the mainland and Taiwan), or even 中國 "China," so there isn't really room for categories called 國內 or 本國.

  28. MikeA said,

    July 2, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

    On "Our [celebrity]" : Stan Kelly Bootle at least once referred to Paul McCartney as "Our Paul". Both Liverpuddlian songwriters (among other things), so I don't know exactly which circle of "our" he was referencing.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    "Word of the Week: Your Country"

    http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2015/07/word-of-the-week-your-country/

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