"Beautiful" in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party

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James Wimberley notes that, among the recent additions to the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, is this section:

The basic line of the Communist Party of China in the primary stage of socialism is to lead all the people of China together in a self-reliant and pioneering effort, making economic development the central task, upholding the Four Cardinal Principles, and remaining committed to reform and opening up, so as to see China becomes a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.

James continues:

English translation by Xinhua here [pdf] page 4. They will have hired the best for a document of this importance. My emphasis.

Is there anything linguistic we should know about this? Where does the Chinese term fit in the thesaurus of possible meanings? Compare the Romantic disquisitions on the Sublime and the Beautiful, starting with Burke. How does the change fit in with Xi's cultural conservatism and appeal to Confucian values?

At all events, the addition is striking and unusual. It's evidence for the hope that Xi Jinping is serious about the environment. Given the importance of China in the world economy, and Xi's preeminence in China, a lot is riding on this question.

To answer James' questions, we first have to determine the Chinese original for "beautiful" in the English translation. It is měilì 美麗 / 美丽.  Here's the clause in which it occurs:

fùqiáng, mínzhǔ, wénmíng, héxié, měilì de shèhuì zhǔyì xiàndàihuà qiángguó 富强、民主、文明、和谐、美丽的社会主义现代化强国 ("a strong, modern, socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful").

Below, we will take an in-depth look at just what měilì 美麗 / 美丽 means and does not mean.  Before that, we should note that my translation of this clause differs in several respects from the official PRC version.  I won't quibble over the order of the modifying words and phrases, since that is a matter of style and sprachgefühl.  But I will go through each of the disyllabic adjectives, both for accuracy and to make a mental scorecard of the degree to which they apply to the PRC.

fùqiáng 富强 ("prosperous; rich and powerful") — rich (certain segments of the population); powerful (yes, militarily speaking)

mínzhǔ 民主 ("democratic") — no, that will never happen while the CCP rules over China; Communism and Democracy are antithetical (remember your basic Communism — "dictatorship of the proletariat")

wénmíng 文明 ("civilized") — think for a moment why the official translation avoids this long established equivalence (wénmíng 文明 is actually a borrowing of the Japanese neologism bunmei 文明 coined to match "civilization"; instead of "civilized", the official PRC translation gives "culturally advanced", probably to avoid the stench of the lurking opposite, yěmán 野蛮 ("brutal; barbaric; barbarous; cruel; uncivilized"), in light of the constant injunctions in China to be wénmíng 文明 ("civilized")

"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)

"Signs from Kashgar to Delhi" (10/11/13)

"Civilized language" (6/26/15)

"Civilized urinating" (10/31/17) — with references to many earlier, related posts

héxié 和谐 ("harmonious") — no; this is actually a very sensitive term in post-Hu Jintao times; see here and here

měilì 美丽 ("beautiful") — no, not now, though I grant that the CCP may aspire to improve the quality of the environment (whether they achieve that goal or not is another matter)

Note that, as a rhetorical progression, the five modifiers from "rich and powerful" to "beautiful" become increasingly abstract, with "beautiful" amounting to an unassailable purified truth.  Not only does it describe a desirable state, it also adopts a philosophical high ground that claims absolute authority.  However, the alleged cultural conservatism of this attitude is but a veneer.  The CCP is not genuinely concerned with culture per se.  The so-called traditional, Confucian cultural values they promote are filtered through communist ideology.  "Beautiful", as newly advocated in the CCP constitution has nothing whatsoever to do with aesthetics or sublimity.  Rather, it is functioning as a concept on an ideological level in service to state propaganda.  Such concepts that are lacking actual referential objects are extremely easy to manipulate and are very attractive when deployed in the media.

In conclusion, the newly added měilì 美丽 ("beautiful") in the Party constitution is completely unrelated to the abstract ideal of "beauty" of the Platonic or Aristotelian sort.  In modern Chinese and Japanese, that exalted notion is expressed by the single character měi / bi , the etymology of which I shall briefly discuss below.  Both in modern Chinese and in Japanese, this měi / bi 美 constitutes the core component of their neologisms for "aesthetics" — měixué / bigaku 美学.

The graph already existed on the oracle bones ca. 1200 BC and depicted a person wearing an ovicaprid skin with the horns (the latest interpretation, though I used to hear it said that it depicted a large ovicaprid).  In classical texts from the third c. BC, it meant "beautiful; pretty; attractive; good-looking".  From no later than the Tang period (618-907), měi 美 could signify a "beautiful / pretty woman".  See Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 9.164ab.

Similarly, the graph lì 麗 ("beautiful; magnificent; elegant"), also already existed on the oracle bones and depicted a cervid with prominent horns.  See Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 12.1294ab.

The central place of pastoral / nomadic ovicaprids and hunted cervids in Sinitic cultural values is remarkable in light of the fact that the East Asian Heartland has been occupied by settled agriculturalists for the last three millennia and more.

"Year of the ovicaprid" (2/15/15)

To complement the preceding post, I will write an essay about a certain famous deer around Yuletide.

It is indeed striking that the revisers of the CCP constitution saw fit to insert měilì 美丽 ("beautiful") in the new version.  What this rhetorically impressive term will amount to in actual government policies and actions remains to be seen.

[Thanks to Xiuyuan Mi, Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, and Jinyi Cai]


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    But a number of Communist regimes have/had no problem with the term "democratic" even if they weren't democracies in the Western sense of the term — think the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Ethiopia under WPE rule 1987-1991).

  2. WSM said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 9:56 am

    Yeah in line with Jonathan's comment it's not hard to see how 民主 / "people-controlled" could be reinterpreted in a manner more consistent with the concept of "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", even while it putatively means "democratic": the irony being, in the Chinese case, that now it means none of the above.

    A welcome call for rectification of names (正名) in the pompous, pseudo-Communist rhetoric that is increasingly (and dismayingly) reminiscent in tone of the thousands of years of Imperial propaganda that preceded it: the pigs have clearly finished moving into the house.

  3. ajay said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

    I am just struck that "wearing a sheepskin with the horns still attached" was a synonym for "beautiful woman".

  4. Dan said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

    Not a communist, but the nature of what Marx meant by a "dictatorship of the proletariat" has been a matter of debate since the 19th century. The way that the Bolsheviks (Lenin especially) interpreted it had a big impact on future communist developments, but remember that the Mensheviks, Rosa Luxemburg, and (most of his life) Trotsky were opposed to Lenin's form of 'democratic centralism.' Remember that the German SDP was heavily Marxist and yet committed to parliamentary politics. More recently Communists in Kerala have used electoral politics to further their goals for decades. And if you read modern, western Communists like Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin, you know that democracy is first and foremost and that Soviet-era authoritarianism is rejected. In the USSR as in China, the revolutionary ideologues slowly became replaced by aparatchiks and technocrats. Look at the bios of any center-right or hard-right President or PM of a certain age in post Soviet Eastern Europe and you'll usually see they were members of their local Communist Party, some time Communist officials, until the curtain came down.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    I am just struck that "wearing a sheepskin with the horns still attached" was a synonym for "beautiful woman".

    Much larger semantic shifts than that are the norm over an 1800-year period. The go-to example for English tends to be "silly".

  6. Anonymous Coward said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    The trans-Sea-of-Japan counterpart: 美しい国, which seems to reflect the same kind of rather repulsive politics.

  7. Tom Dawkes said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    Further to Michael Watts: "silly" might be challenged by "nice": the OED entry has 14 main definitions, with 40 separate sub-headings.

    The OED comments: "The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear."

  8. Michael Carasik said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

    I can only think of my socialist grandfather and the slogan (in his day, at least) of his beloved Workmen's Circle: a shenere, bessere velt (א שענערע בעסערע וועלט) — "a better, more beautiful world."

  9. Chris Button said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    I am just struck that "wearing a sheepskin with the horns still attached" was a synonym for "beautiful woman".

    While the analysis of some OBI forms of 美 as 大 (person with outstretched arms) with 羊 (sheep) on top is not incorrect, other forms of the graph just show some kind of plumage above 大. This suggests that the association with 羊 is just a result of graphic convergence (probably facilitated by the association of sheep with wooliness); I actually discuss this briefly in my "Phonetic Ambiguity" monograph. I haven't covered 美 in my dictionary yet, but when I do, my hunch is that I will find associations with characters like 尾, 眉 and 微.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 5:42 pm

    @Tom Dawkes, @Michael Watts:
    For me, the all-time semantic shift champion in English is check (including British cheque), allof whose meanings go back – via chess – to the Persian word for 'king' (shah). The OED's entry makes all the connections clear.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

    Sorry, I miss the preview function too. I only meant to boldface all.

  12. James Wimberley said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

    Thank you, Victor, for the enlightenment! Though as you say, we won't know for a while whether Xi means anything operational by the word. At least he is not promising unicorns – two horns are the ticket to an oligarch's heart.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

    Authoritarians of all sorts have claimed to have mystically become one with the Will of the People, to the effect that elections are no longer necessary to determine what the people really want.

  14. Chau said,

    November 23, 2017 @ 8:02 pm

    @Michael Carasik:
    I don't know Yiddish, but judging by its closeness to German, I guess "shenere" means 'more beautiful' (as you translated). I would like to know what its base form (the "positive form" in grammar) is.

    In Harbin or Dongbei topolect, 水靈 [shuĭ līng] or 水靈兒的 means 'beautiful and bright'. In Taiyuan (太原) topolect, it is 水靈靈, duplicating the second syllable. In Taiwanese, it is súi, suggesting that the second syllable [ling] "靈" has been lost.

    For comparison, German schön 'beautiful' < Middle High German schæn(e) < Old High German scōni. English sheen (poet.) 'beautiful, bright' < Old English sćēne, West Saxon sćīene. When we compare the Germanic vs. Sinitic, we see that the glide -u- is an infix in the Sinitic.

  15. Ion Straub said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 4:29 am

    Jonathan Badger, a number of "Communist" regimes also have had no problem with describing themselves as "Socialist" or even "Communist". You've found yourself tricked by their description of themselves as "Communist" because you are likely unfamiliar with Marx. However your familiarity with Western bourgeois democracy has shown you that they are not democratic either. You've only won half of the battle.

  16. Max said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 5:22 am

    @Chau, where Michael Carasik has "shenere" I would have said "sheynere, שיינערע", with base form "sheyn, שיינ" (probably this is a difference of dialect rather than just transcription). See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%99%D7%9F and the song "Bei mir bist du sheyn"

  17. António Campos said,

    November 24, 2017 @ 8:12 am

    In fact, 美 also can mean good and glory, and 麗, magnificent.
    I believe that a better translation of the phrase would probably be: «a strong, modern, socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and glorious».

  18. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

    Notes about the advent of Aesthetics in China compiled by Yao Dehuai and Huang Heqing (personal communication):

    1. A systematic discipline of aesthetics was developed in Europe, led by A. C. Baumgartern, in the mid-18th century.

    2. The German missionary, Wilhelm Lobscheid, in his English-Chinese Dictionary 《Yīng-Huá cídiǎn 英華詞典》(1866) had an entry on shěnměi zhī lǐ 審美之理 (“aestheticism”).

    3. In 1873, Ernest Faber (Hua Zhian 花之安) had a note on the term dānqīng yīnyuè 丹青音樂 ("painting and music") to the effect that Èr zhě jiē měixué 二者皆美學 ("both are [part of] aesthetics").

    4. It seems that, for twenty-three years after Faber, nobody in China mentioned aesthetics (měixué 美學).

    5. During that period, Japanese scholars referred to aesthetics as bigaku 美学, shinbi 審美, and so forth.

    6. Around 1900, the Chinese scholars Kang Youwei and Wang Guowei used terms like měixué 美學 and shěnměi 審美 for aesthetics in their translations and in the dictionary called Xīn Ěryǎ (New Erya).

  19. BZ said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    The Soviet Union considered itself and its satellite states as the "real" democracies as opposed to the "supposed" democracies ruled by elected officials.

  20. Nicki said,

    December 1, 2017 @ 1:02 am

    I've noticed that the term 最美 or most beautiful is often applied in China to people who are selfless, kind, and heroic. I'm wondering if there might be some of these shades of meaning in the use of the term "beautiful" as applied to China here.

    Some examples of this usage of most beautiful:




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