Pure Chinese?

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Ads for the Confucius Institutes show up all over the Web. At times they seem to be virtually ubiquitous, at least on sites that I visit. One that I've been encountering frequently of late shows a sculpture of Confucius, at the bottom of which are written the words "Kongzi Xueyuan" 孔子學院, translated below that as "Confucius Institute," followed by the words "Teach you pure Chinese."

Aside from the fact that "Teach you pure Chinese" as a whole strikes me as an odd locution, the notion of "pure Chinese" by itself gives me pause. If the Confucius Institutes are going to teach you "pure Chinese," they must have in mind one or more kinds of "impure Chinese" that they do not want you to learn. Are there opposing institutions that are out there teaching "impure Chinese"?

Since "Teach you pure Chinese" sounds strange, both grammatically and conceptually, I thought for a moment that perhaps it may be the result of overly literal, direct translation from Chinese, in which case it would be a candidate for designation as a specimen of Chinglish. If I were going to back translate "Teach you pure Chinese" into Mandarin, the result would be something like this: "Jiào nǐ chúnzhèng de Pǔtōnghuà" 教 你纯正的普通話 (or Zhōngwén 中文 or one of the many other possible names for "Chinese"). This actually occurs once on the Web, though it is part of a longer sentence: "Zházhá néng jiào nǐ chúnzhèng de Pǔtōnghuà hé Shànghǎihuà!" 扎扎能教你纯正的普通话和上海话! ("Zhazha can teach you pure Putonghua and Shanghainese!").

Despite my skepticism that Zhazha can teach you pure forms of both Putonghua and Shanghai(n)ese, the addition of a subject and an auxiliary verb at the beginning of the sentence makes me feel more comfortable with it, just as it would to modify "Teach you pure Chinese" thus: "Sarah (or Zhazha or whoever is capable of doing it) can teach you pure Chinese."

"Chúnzhèng de pǔtōnghuà" 纯正的普通話 ("pure Putonghua"), without the preceding "jiào nǐ (teach you)," yields 921,000 Ghits, whereas "biāozhǔn Pǔtōnghuà" 標準普通話 ("standard Putonghua"), which sounds more natural to me, yields only 181,000 Ghits. "Biāozhǔn Pǔtōnghuà (standard Putonghua)" emphasizes standard pronunciation, which is based on that of Beijing. To tell the truth, I'm not sure what exactly is meant by "chúnzhèng de Pǔtōnghuà (pure Putonghua / Chinese)," nor who are its model speakers.


  1. Outis said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    Just so you know, the reason you see this ad all over the Web isn't that it's ubiquitous, but because you fit the ad's target audience very well. All praise AdSense user-tracking (or whatever service it's on).

    As for the phrase:
    The chinese equivalent of the phrase doesn't necessarily need an object. How about 正统普通话教学 标准汉语教学 纯中文教学 etc.

  2. Peter said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    How is one intended to actually parse the phrase, in English? I have a very hard time with it, to the point that it seems not only awkward but incorrect.

    As a full sentence, it could just about be an interrogative inversion (="Do you teach pure Chinese?"), an emphatic interrogative (="Teach pure Chinese!", with the "teach you" paralelling eg "Go and do thou likewise"), or a (rather awkward) reflexive interrogative (="Teach yourself pure Chinese"). Only the last of these seems to fit the context, and even then, not very well.

    Slogans in English don't have to be full sentences, of course, but when they're not, they're usually (potentially) appositive phrases: "Finger-lickin' good", "Probably the best lager in the world". I can't see how to make this into anything like that, though. (From eg the list at adslogans.co.uk.)

    My best guess is a sentence with an implicit subject: "[Our teachers] teach you pure Chinese.", or, as you suggest, with a modal verb as well: "[Our teachers will] teach you pure Chinese.". These seem like the most economical way to justify it grammatically, afaics?

  3. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    @Peter: I don't think it would have to be an emphatic imperative; ads use imperatives all the time ("Come see the softer side of Sears!", "Try one today!", "Just do it!", "Visit one of our locations near you!", "Learn more at our website!") without it being particularly emphatic. But as you say, that doesn't make sense here: they mean "We'll teach you pure Chinese." The appropriate imperative would be something like "Learn pure Chinese!" (though that one probably requires some context, lest it come off as an actual command).

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    Oh, or are you saying that imperatives with (some types of) undropped subjects are emphatic?

  5. groki said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    I read it as somewhere between "[We] Teach you pure Chinese" and "[To] Teach …": that is, between an imperative-to-ourselves/assurance-from-us-to-you hybrid construction*, on the one hand, and an infinitive/always-been-that-way/state-of-the-world claim, on the other.

    but maybe (on the 3rd hand) it's a British-inflected plural-verb-agreement-for-a-company construction, of the kind that in American English would be stated: "Confucius Institute Teaches you pure Chinese."

    *similar slogan strategies might be a restaurant that has "Feed you full!" as a tag line, or a holistic medical center using "Heal you whole"; these have a "we promise to do something for you" vibe that makes a kind of sense (well, to me :) as an imperative aimed backwards, toward the sloganer, to bring about a better situation for the sloganee.

  6. NV said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    The institutes who are not "teaching you pure Chinese", by analogy with mathematics and chemistry, must be teaching you applied Chinese.

  7. onw said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

    So, I don't know about the "pure" word choice, but grammatically, my interpretation of the ad goes along with the old "Confucius say… " jokes. Then the ad seems to be a Chinese person speaking in 'stereotypical' broken English: "Confucius institute teach you pure Chinese!" This would be analogous to an Italian course being advertised as "Leonardo will-a teach-a you!" Could that be what they're going for?

  8. arthur waldron said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    What I sense here is the idea of "real" Chinese as spoken in the "real" China and distinct from guoyu in such things as he/han etc. Or Chinese as taught by university china programs, or programs not officially sponsored by China, etc. PRC has the idea that it is the "real" China, very little perspective on its own or Chinese history. Given that putonghua is an artificial language the whole thing becomes even more complex. I think having Victor teach it would give the course more intellectual and linguistic respectability.

  9. Anthony C. Yu said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    The 1st commentator suggests "zhengtong" as "pure"–an adj. applicable only in political discourse ( would he or she use it in describing detergent"?" As a life-long student of pre-modern culture and a rebel/critic thereof, I shy away from any use of the Chinese graph, "zheng". I trust my readers who have some knowledge of Chinese language past or present will ponder the implications of that graph.

    The second comment directly stems from my own history of studying in the US and teaching here for 4 decades before retirement. It is a simple assertion–certainly to be contested by readers who may disagree–that no linguistic signs of any culture or language can be "pure," or "uncontaminated" by ideas, in the sense that the Chinese–for other nationalists–would like to use it. Linguistic pollution will stay with us till the end of time!

  10. Jason Eisner said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    If the Confucius Institutes are going to teach you "pure Chinese," they must have in mind one or more kinds of "impure Chinese" that they do not want you to learn. Are there opposing institutions that are out there teaching "impure Chinese"?

    My guess: If you go to one of those other schools, you will emerge speaking broken Chinese (e.g., contaminated by your native language). But if you attend the august Confucius Institute, you will learn to speak pure Chinese.

    It's not that the other schools are trying to teach you any kind of impure or broken Chinese. That's just what they sadly end up doing.

    This interpretation only works if the X in "teach you X" denotes what gets learned, rather than what gets presented. Roughly, "teach you pure Chinese" = "cause you to learn to speak pure Chinese." Is this plausibly how 教 is used or can be used?

  11. Therese said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 12:57 am

    Given that the Confucius Institute is but one hand of the PRC government, obviously the only teachers of pure Chinese are those teaching from the Ministry of Propaganda's standard textbooks.

  12. Proud Singaporean said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    To see "pure Chinese" is quite an insult to "overseas" Chinese [that's the term they used for those born outside or generations away from China. With a bad connotation too, like as if we have an obligation to support and fight for China in all manners].

    I said that because it is also an implication that the Mandarin or Putonghua — or what Singaporean ETHNIC Chinese termed as Huayu —
    1. taught outside China is of inferior or dodgy standard; and thenceforth
    2. "overseas" Chinese are not qualified whatsoever to teach foreigners Putonghua

    How do they know for sure that "overseas" Chinese speak IMPURE Chinese? Who are they exactly to judge "overseas" Chinese according to their standard? It is no different from Americans, British or any other "Native" English speakers elsewhere telling me that I cannot possibly speak or write PURE or Standard English. Just because I am not Caucasian.

    Maybe Victor has a point. It could have been a POOR translation from Chinese to English. Hence PURE Chinese. If otherwise and it is intentional, it is PURE arrogance on the part of the Confucious Institute. I can safely say that if they do speak or write English, theirs is IMPURE English.

  13. H said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 1:48 am

    When I got applauded by native Mandarin speakers about my Putonghua (I come from Hong Kong, they have much lowered expectations), they used phrases like my accents being pure "您的口音挺純正; and Putonghua being standard "您的普通話挺標準". "純正的普通話" (pure Putonghua) sounds odd, if only for the reason that probably all colloquial Putonghua speakers would mix in at least some form of dialect (pronunciation / word choice) in daily conversations.

  14. Kate said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    As both a linguistics grad student and assistant in a Confucius Institute, I find this blog post and comments very humorous. Good points (including the pointless linguistics ones) all around. 谢谢 for posting :)

  15. a George said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    I do not think the sentence is gramatically correct in English; if anything it should be "teaches", irrespective of the construction. However, I do not think "pure" relates to "Chinese" at all, but to the prospective students. Only YOU, the PURE are eligible for this tuition.

    I would consider it less likely that "teach you" is simply a primitive way of saying "teach yourself", making it synonymous with "learn".

    Both proposals avoid value judgments on the Chinese taught or learnt.

  16. TonyK said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    I agree with groki: this looks like a verb-agreement mistake. "Manchester United teach you the meaning of football" is OK in British English, but "Confucius Institute teach you pure Chinese" is not. I can't explain why not, so I'm not surprised that a non-native speaker got it wrong.

  17. hanmeng said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    I agree with arthur waldron. I imagine their version of "pure Chinese" means Chinese taught by instructors vetted by the Chinese government: people who speak a prescriptive version of 普通话 without any local accent or vocabulary, and 官話 emphasizing (for example) that Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea have always been and always will be part of China.

  18. Craig said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    I rather like @TonyK's suggestion that "Confucius Institute" might be understood here as a collective noun, perhaps to be parsed as "[The staff of] Confucius Institute teach you pure Chinese."

    As an aside, many of the ghits for the construction "At X University, we teach you Y" refer to things that could only be loosely termed educational opportunities:

    And at the Renegade University we teach you
    At Melaleuca's Financial Freedom University, we teach you
    At our “Trainer University”, we teach you
    At the ETMC Diabetes University, we teach you
    At Strip Tease University we teach you
    At Donkey University we teach you

    Those are respectively a "network marketing" group, an MLM, a fitness franchise, a medical center, an "event planner", and an online poker class.

  19. blahedo said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    So @Kate, as someone who actually works at a Confucius Institute, can you tell us what is meant by the slogan? Has this ever come up? Are they aware that it reads as broken English?

  20. Gakudo said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    The slick looks like it was made in Adobe Acrobat. I have not used the writer, but shouldn't it have a checker that can catch this howler? If it doesn't, there's the answer.

    My suspicion is that this is a clever marketing ploy. I think everyone here has heard the "Confucius SAY…" statements. Are these admen (likely a bunch of interns at the Institute) trying to piggyback on that orientalism?

    Furthermore, I would like to see the advert in its German and French forms. Maybe a repetition of the error speaks to something fundamental.

  21. Gakudo said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 3:47 pm


    Do you guys get your marketing materials from a central office or do you produce them internally for each region? I suspect the latter. So can we rule out a translation error?

    If it was just a simple goof, you can rest assured that your embarrassment pales in comparison to one who confused ancestor and descendant.

  22. Leander Seah said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Oh dear. I guess my Chinese is not "pure" then (whatever that means), since I didn't learn it at a Confucius Institute (I am Singaporean). Perhaps the Confucius Institutes might consider issuing certificates in "pure Chinese" upon completion of their courses.

  23. Linda Greene said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    By "pure," could they possibly mean "with no trace of the accent of your native language"? That was my first impression. If there's one thing I've learned about Chinese, it's that it's extremely difficult to speak it as a native speaker.

  24. William Page said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 1:17 am

    A weighty subject indeed. Speaking as a foreign devil, I have to say that when I was studying Mandarin at the U.S. Army Language School (now the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey way back in 1960, the US Army, whose infallible wisdom is not to be questioned by civilian types, had decreed that the Beijing dialect was standard (and presumably pure) Chinese. That meant that instead of saying "sz busz?, dzdao budzdao? tsz huan," etc. (isn't it? do you know? eat rice), you had to say "shr bushr?, jrdao bujrdao?, chr fan"–all pronounced with the tongue rolled back against the top of the mouth. And if you could throw in a "Beijing R" at the end of a word ("yidyar" instead of "yidyan" (a little bit), so much the better.

    I am sure the Beijingers (or Beijirngers) liked this, but it left everybody south of the Yellow River speaking an inferior dialect. My fellow students and I called it Nanfang hwa, Southern dialect. In fact, although our teachers taught us the Beijing dialect, many of them were southerners who would sometimes inadvertently slip into Nanfang hwa.

    Being a curmudgeon and a reactionary, I still champion the Beijing dialect as pure spoken Chinese, and the old characters still used on Taiwan as pure written Chinese, as opposed to the crude and barbarous short forms introduced by the Communist government on the Mainland and still prevalent today. In terms of romanization systems, I still favor the Yale system used at Monterey as opposed to the Russian-based pinyin system now used on the Mainland. (What foreigner, reading the word "Cesuo" on a toilet door, could possibly guess that it is pronounced "Tseswo"?)

    Syesyer and dzaijyar to orl.

  25. minus273 said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    As a native Mandarin (MSM/Sichuan) speaker, I found "纯正的普通话", "纯正的汉语" etc completely intuitive and stylistically preferable than "标准".

  26. Boris said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    Nonsense in marketing is seen all the time in native texts. I find The following two especially annoying and unparsable:
    "Heroes happen here" (Microsoft). How can heroes happen? It just makes no sense.
    "Rethink possible" (AT&T). So are we supposed to rethink what's possible? I don't think that's an acceptable deletion. Maybe rethink the meaning of the word "possible"? Or a rethink (is there such a noun?) is possible?

  27. Richard said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    I'm surprised that no one yet has pointed out the irony that

    1. As a written form, simplified script is extremely new, and not only wouldn't have been regarded as "pure" by any Chinese person 60 years ago, but also would have been seen by them as being butt-ugly.

    2. Bejing Mandarin is the newest/has changed the most from the Tang dynasty standard of any regionalect, or indeed, or any type of Mandarin. In fact, the tongue-rolling in Beijing dialect that most foreigners who learn Chinese regard as standard/pure is due to purely foreign (Altaic) influences.

    Well, I guess whoever owns the guns gets to set the standard and say what is "pure".

  28. John Cowan said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Many standard simplified forms are "grass" forms that have been around for centuries in handwriting.

  29. Greg Morrow said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    The advertisement may be intended as "Learn Pure Chinese", and the translator lacked both ready access to the specific word learn and firm control of imperative syntax. The learn/teach pair is, as I recall, modestly unusual, with the teach lexeme occupying the place of an expected cause-to-X sense of learn (cf. dial. "I'll learn you not to sass your momma"). Perhaps this pure Chinese of which the ad speaks has a single lexeme for both learn and cause-to-learn? That would make the translator's hypothesized error easier to make.

  30. Richard said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    John Cowan,

    True, but no one used those forms in kaishu, which should be the standard because it's clearer & easier to read (and learn, IMHO). No English newspaper (or anything semi-formal) prints out in cursive using abbreviations or shorthand ("thru", "tho" "Feb", "ty", esp", "govt", "b4", "f2f").

  31. gao said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    come on guys… this is a very incorrect (maybe machine) translation. The "teach you pure Chinese" should be "all-Chinese classes" that means the teaching is done in Chinese. The CHUN2 character can mean either "pure" or "complete, 100%".

  32. Hung Lee said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    FYI — I got somewhat different search results from Google:

    "纯正普通话" About 14,800 results
    "纯正的普通话" About 345,000 results
    "标准普通话" About 931,000 results
    "标准的普通话" About 2,610,000 results

  33. Sébastien said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    It has been said that the Confucius institutes had been set up to counter the influence of traditionnal (=Taiwanese) characters in the education system of some countries.

    Despite the Chinese population being some 50 times bigger than the Taiwanese one, Taiwan being opened to the world since much longer ago and the Taiwanese being overall more eager to travel the world and experience cultures other than Chinese, have led to Taiwanese teachers being as numerous as Chinese, and sometimes prominent, in the Chinese departments of many institutions of learnings (I can definitely certify that this is the case in some French universities, and was even more a few years ago), thus setting the traditionnal writing as a standard (I also testify), greatly infuriating the CPoC and prompting it among other motives to open Confucius Institutes worldwide… but especially in some countries.

    I don't know to what extent this is true, but I couldn't fail to think about this story when I stumbled upon this ad earlier today. A quick Google search taught me that I wasn't the only one to find the catch-phrase heavily connoted.

    And as Richard said (30 August), if there IS an implicit, it is all the funnier because the simplified Chinese closely associated with the CPoC and the Confucius institutes doesn't exactly match what one would expect of "pure" Chinese, if pureness can be.

  34. Mneo said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 2:11 am

    Minor point, pure Chinese is the kind of Chinese that is pure, which is defined in the "pure" entry as "not mixed with anything else". While the hallmarks of all other forms of Chinese, namely Englese, Ameridarin, etc. can be boiled down to "impurity". They don't teach you "native" (of course if the teachers they hired are Chinese) "standard" (like some outdated textbook Chinese awaiting you) or "Putonghua" (focused on reducing hometown accents of NATIVE SPEAKERS) for respective reasons. The slogan is indeed stripped-down and to the point.

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