Excessive quadrisyllabicism

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Many readers of Language Log will remember the visit of China's former internet censor-in-chief, Lu Wei, to the headquarters of Facebook, Apple, and Amazon in late 2014.  Those were his glory days, but now his star has fallen in a most spectacular fashion:

"China's 'tyrannical' former internet tsar Lu Wei accused of trading power for sex in long list of corruption charges: Lu accused of a range of crimes from abusing power for personal gain to disloyalty", by Frank Tang (SCMP [2/13/18])

"China's former chief of internet regulator expelled from Communist Party" (Reuters [2/13/18)


As is customary in the internecine struggles that plague the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), when a powerful member is brought low, he must be denounced in the most vitriolic terms imaginable, as though he broke every rule in the books.  Lu Wei is no exception.

What is conspicuous about the language used to censure Lu is that the most damning parts consist of one four-character phrase after another.  In the following newscast announcing Lu's dismissal from the Party, even if you do not understand Mandarin, you will still probably be able to pick up the string of quadrisyllabic phrases in the announcer's litany of charges brought against Lu (0:17):

So ridiculous does the piling up of four-character phrases become that China's netizens wasted no time in satirizing it, as in this rap version of the announcer's spiel (0:04):

As Don Clarke puts it, "the 4-character phrases… just come streaming out like vomit at a frat party".

You can see the diarrheic flow of four-character phrases visually lined up in these texts:  here (2nd paragraph) and here (3rd paragraph).

Speakers of Sinitic languages are exceedingly fond of quadrisyllabic phrases, especially when they lapse into a rhetorical mode or when they want to impress others as being elegant or learned.  See

"Mistakes in English and in Chinese" (2/13/18) — the last paragraph

[Thanks to Yixue Yang.]



12 Comments

  1. David Moser said,

    February 17, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    Very fascinating post! Such a string of 4-syllable offenses is obviously irrefutable. The prosody seems well crafted and artfully done, and the announcer seems like she practiced her lines particularly well. Lu Wei really must have done something to piss off Xi to merit such a tsunami of vituperation. This rhetorical style of political attack was a standard feature of the Mao era, but the Party can always haul it out and employ it whenever they want.

  2. Kaleberg said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 12:00 am

    Around 1979, there was a humorous book about the upcoming 1980s. I don't remember much about it save for China going capitalist and having ads to avoid "the jackal eyed spectre of dishpan hands". I presume that would have been four syllables in Mandarin.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 7:29 am

    These two videos saved my day, and I didn't even understand one of the accusations! The rap version is really well made.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    Thank you, David Marjanović. That's high praise from you.

    I have to say that this is one of my favorite posts ever. I had so much fun writing it. Every time I watch that second video, I roar with laughter.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 10:10 am

    From Scott Savitt:

    Matthew Robertson and I do a lot of translating together, and find "The structure of much of the eight-legged essay included heavy parallelism and redundancy, rhetorical features that survive in modern Chinese expository writing" (from the Wikipedia article on the premodern Chinese civil service examination requirement known in English by that quaint name) to be painfully true. We're so lucky to have Perry and Victor, and they're exactly right in re: Chinese THINKING (which precedes writing), it's so heavy on 套話 (stereotyped expressions) that it presents significant challenges to original thinking. It makes the CCP's present ethno-nationalistic indoctrination/incitement SO much easier! Since shortly after the end of Mao's Cultural Revolution, my American friends and I living in Beijing used to comment: "If these people don't reflect on what they just went through, there's a real danger of it repeating." I believe that in Xi we're witnessing a new Mao, and all the terror that entails.

  6. the Viking Diva said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

    Why do you call the second version 'rap'? I'm having a hard time finding anything in common with the American art form.

  7. julie lee said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

    Now I know why I've always liked Classical Chinese parallel prose
    and modern prose with strings of 4-character phrases, idioms , and proverbs—because it's rap !!

    Thanks, Victor. The second video, with the announcer's indictment of Lu Wei set to a thumping beat is very clever.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 5:25 pm

    I believe that in Xi we're witnessing a new Mao, and all the terror that entails.

    Nah, he's more like Putin…

  9. David Marjanović said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

    Closer to the topic, the second video really beautifully illustrates what stress sounds like in a tone language.

  10. Alex said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 12:10 am

    @David Marjanović

    agree with analogy.

  11. Derek B said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 10:28 am

    A little more detail on the second video. The song that is being used is the pop-rock song 紅日 (Red Day) by the Cantonese singer 李克勤 (Eng: Hakken Lee). The song was originally released in 1992. It's a pretty interesting song to choose as the background.

    I'm not sure about the policy on links so I'll err on the side of caution, but it's easy enough to find the song on Youtube.

  12. Eidolon said,

    February 23, 2018 @ 8:07 pm

    @David Marjanović

    But Putin is just the new Stalin. Or so the popular 套話 goes.

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