My country

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Sima (long-term resident in China) from writes:

I've been a regular Sina Weibo [VHM:  PRC clone of Twitter] user for some time and enjoy default news updates on my phone. Each update usually has two stories and, of late, almost invariably, one is about the outing of a corrupt official (cash, apartments, mistresses) and the second is about the latest 'play' over those rocks in the sea near Taiwan.

My latest update says:


[VHM: wǒ hǎi jiān chuán zài rù Diàodǎo jùjué Rìběn kàngyì
literal rendering of each syllable or word:  I / We sea surveillance ship(s) again enter Fishing Island reject Japan protest]

Whilst I'm used to expressions like 我国 [VHM:  wǒguó {"my / our country"}], which I wilfully employ when talking about 'my England', much to some people's disgust, and 我校 [VHM:  wǒxiào {"my / our school"}], which I actually write in articles and official documents relating to the school cricket team [VHM:  in China] (which I may have bored you about at some time), I'm not accustomed to such flexible employment of 我.

Do you know whether this use of 我校, 我国, etc. has a long history (i.e., pre-1949, or pre-1919)? Can 我 be freely applied? Is there a name for this phenomenon?

It reminds me a little of Western attitudes to sports teams; 'we won the world cup', when obviously said cup was won by eleven or so over-paid men who kick balls for a living, and not (usually) by the speaker himself.

It is obvious that the Weibo update quoted by Sima is highly compressed.  In fact, we may think of it as a type of headlinese.  Whether or not it is also a kind of Chinese crash blossom is debatable.  The fact that there is no punctuation doesn't help matters.

Most Chinese newspaper readers don't have much trouble reading this type of abbreviated language, but when asked to expand it, there is considerable variation in how different readers unpack the truncated clauses.

I asked a number of colleagues who are Chinese teachers or scholars (all highly literate native speakers) how they would express that Weibo update in fuller, more natural Mandarin.  Here are the answers I received (all transcriptions and intentionally spare translations are by me):


Wǒguó hǎi jiān chuán zàicì shǐ rù Diàoyúdǎo hǎiyù jùjué jiēshòu Rìběn kàngyì.

Our country['s] ocean surveillance ship[s] again sail into Fishing Island waters refuse to accept Japan's protest.

It seems that the subject 海监船 cannot 入 the location 钓岛. So I added 海域 (“waters”) for it,
Wǒguó hǎi jiān chuán zàicì dàodá Diàoyúdǎo hǎiyù, bìng jùjué Rìběn kàngyì.

Our country's ocean surveillance ship[s] again arrive at Fishing Island waters, moreover reject Japanese protest.


Zhōngguó zhèngfǔ bùguǎn Rìběn kàngyì, Zhōngguó hǎijūn hǎi jiān chuán XX hào zàicì jìnrù Diàoyúdǎo.

The Chinese government disregards Japanese protests, Chinese navy ocean surveillance ship[s] number XX again enter Fishing Island.


Wǒguó hǎi jiān chuán zàicì shǐ rù Diàoyúdǎo hǎiyù, Rìběn kàngyì, dàn bèi wǒ fāng jùjué.

Our country's ocean surveillance ship[s] again sail into Fishing Island waters, Japan protests, but is rejected by our side.


Wǒguó de hǎi jiān chuán zài yīcì jìnrù Diàoyúdǎo hǎiyù, jùjué Rìběn zhèngfǔ de kàngyì.

Our country's ocean surveillance ship[s] once again enter Fishing Island waters, reject Japanese government's protest.

Add a comma after 钓岛 [Diàodǎo {"Fishing Island"}], then insert something like 我方[wǒ fāng {"our side"}] before 拒绝 [jùjué {reject; refuse"}]. Strictly speaking, 钓岛 [Diàodǎo] should be expanded to 钓鱼岛海域 [Diàoyúdǎo hǎiyù {"Fishing Island waters"}].

This sentence is highly compressed. Unpacking it, we have:

我 -> 我国 wǒ -> wǒguó ("I / we -> my / our country")

海监船 -> 海洋监测船 hǎi jiān chuán -> hǎiyáng jiāncè chuán ("marine surveillance ship")

再入 -> 再次进入 zài rù -> zàicì jìnrù ("again enter")

钓岛 -> 钓鱼岛
Diàodǎo -> Diàoyúdǎo ("Fishing Island")

To read this headline-like update, we at least need to add a comma:

我海监船再入钓岛,拒绝 日本抗议

Wǒ hǎi jiān chuán zài rù Diàodǎo, jùjué Rìběn kàngyì.

Our ocean surveillance ship[s] again enter Fishing Island, reject Japan's protest.

More fully amplified, the sentence reads thus:

我国海洋监测船再次进入钓鱼岛,日 本就此提出了抗议,而我国严正拒绝了日本的无理抗议。

Wǒguó hǎiyáng jiāncè chuán zàicì jìnrù Diàoyúdǎo, Rìběn jiùcǐ tíchūle kàngyì, ér wǒguó yánzhèng jùjuéle Rìběn de wúlǐ kàngyì.

Our country's marine surveillance ship[s] again entered Fishing Island, Japan brought forward protests against this, but our country solemnly rejected the unreasonable protests.

[VHM:  This colleague decided to reply in English.]

I understand the first half of the sentence pretty well, but I have a problem with 拒绝日本抗议 [VHM:  jùjué Rìběn kàngyì {"reject Japan protest"}].

I'm traveling in Thailand now, and I don't have a good dictionary with me. Please bear with my rough translation:

"The inspector ship from our sea territory entered Diaoyu Island again, rejecting Japanese protest."

I think I had a thought about the word kangyi in this context when I first saw the news, and I'm not comfortable with it. [VHM:  My suspicion is that this colleague was uneasy about who or what was doing the rejecting, surely not the Chinese surveillance ships!]

The question remains whether expressions like wǒguó 我国 ("my / our country") and wǒxiào 我校 ("my / our school") were used early on in Chinese texts.  My initial impression was that such terms were much more frequent in Japanese than in Chinese during the past 150 years or so and that this usage may have come into Chinese from Japanese.  However, we already find a Chinese example in the first century (40 A.D.):  Yuèjué shū, juǎn yī:  “Wǒ bāng suī xiǎo, yǔ zǐ tóng yǒu zhī. Mín suī shǎo, yǔ zǐ tóng shǐ zhī. 《越绝书》卷一:“我邦虽小,与子同有之。民虽少,与子同使之。”  (Book on the Excellence / Demise of Yue, scroll 1:  Although my state is small, I will share it with you.  Although my people are few, I will employ them with you.)

Apparently, this usage of "I" was later adopted by the Japanese.  Once it became a part of their vocabulary, it was very widely used.  Google-fu has revealed that 我国 and other 我 phrases were certainly used in the Kojiki 古事記 (711-712) and the Man'yōshū 万葉集 (sometime after 759, though the poems collected in it go back to earlier times).  Many of the verses in the latter contain "わが this" and "わが that" phrases, i.e., "my this" and "my that".

万葉集 → Search  我が国 on this page
古事記 → Search  我國 on this page

Thus, the use of 我国 ("my country"), 我校 ("my school"), 我が家 ("my house"),我妻 ("my wife"), etc. in Japanese is very old.

The GA in WAGA ("my") corresponds to contemporary Japanese NO (the particle denoting possession) and this particle can easily be dropped in the context of KANJI compound + NO + KANJI compound, such as sekai no jōkyō 世界の状況 ("situation of the world") = sekai jōkyō 世界状況 ("world situation") and seisaku no henkō 政策の変更 ("shift of policy") = seisaku henkō 政策変更 ("policy shift").  In Chinese, something similar happens when the possessive signifier de 的 is omitted:  wǒ de guó 我的国 –> wǒguó 我国 ("my country") and wǒ de péngyǒu 我的朋友 –> wǒ péngyǒu 我朋友 ("my friend").

So, my answer to Sima is that these wǒ / waga 我 ("my / our") constructions are indeed highly productive in Chinese and Japanese, and that they go back to ancient times in both languages.

[Thanks are due to Sanping Chen, Huang Heqing, Grace Wu, Liwei Jiao, Melvin Chih-Jen Lee, Yunong Zhou, Gianni Wan, Fangyi Cheng, Jiajia Wang, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Sherry, and Nathan Hopson]


  1. Sjiveru said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    The difficulty in the Japanese text is that 我國 can very easily be read as 'waga kuni', with the が just left unwritten – I doubt many people would have read it as 'gakoku' unless it was in the context of a kanbun text (in which case it's Chinese being written rather than Japanese anyway). 我(が) itself isn't really a prefix, it's just your average possessive pronoun (albeit archaic now), so saying usages like '我が家' are very ancient is only really relevant when you're talking about the history of the words 我 and 我が – even conversationally, no one would have said it any differently. Usages like 我が社 are a bit more interesting in modern Japanese, where a more conversational alternative would be something like 私の会社, but it's an example of fossilisation rather than a special form of anything.

  2. Sjiveru said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    To clarify a bit, the words 我 and 我が have basically nothing to do with Chinese, and the use of 我が wasn't loaned – it was the default possession strategy to begin with.

  3. Carl said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

    我国 in Japanese sounds pretty nationalist to me. Is that a shared feeling?

  4. Sjiveru said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 11:47 pm

    I think 我が国 is still a valid way for a diplomat to refer to his home nation (especially as a translation for English 'we' when speaking for it), but yeah, a regular citizen probably wouldn't ever say it – he'd probably just say Japan.

  5. Peter said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 2:41 am

    Prof. Mair, I hope you read sinoglot on occasions other than those where Sima emails you. It's a great community for linguistically inclined learners/observers of the Chinese language(s).

  6. Sima said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    Thank you for your analysis, Victor.

    I'm interested that one of your correspondents had a problem with 拒绝…抗议 jùjué…kàngyì "reject…protest". This strikes me as very uncomfortable, not because of who/what is doing the rejecting, but because of what is being rejected. I just can't quite trust my non-native language 'instincts' on this.

    @Carl, I certainly perceive 我国 wǒguó as somewhat nationalistic in Chinese, though I'm not sure that many native speakers would agree. I guess that in some cases, 我国 could be equivalent to 'the nation' or 'national'. 我校 wǒxiào is used very much as 'the school' (the college, the university) might be in English, though it seems not to be used in casual speech, and it does (to me) seem calculated to instil a sense of belonging. Clearly, as a non-native, there is no acceptable way I could use 我国 wǒguó.

    If anyone's interested to see the full article, it can be viewed here.

  7. J. Marshall Unger said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    I recall Jim McCawley in a lecture long ago referring to a paper by Paul Postal in which Postal examined the use of personal pronouns as articles. E.g. "zero/The/We/You/(*)Them Germans have invaded Poland." (Cf. "We, the People," which is clearly an apposition.) I think there are similar things in other European languages that have definite articles.

    Perhaps wǒ in such Chinese compounds is an article, but since Chinese doesn't have overt definite or indefinite articles and does not consistently mark pluraltiy, it might not be easy to develop this hypothesis.

  8. Brian Baker said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    "The GA in WAGA ("my") corresponds to contemporary Japanese NO (the particle denoting possession) and this particle can easily be dropped in the context of KANJI compound + NO + KANJI compound, such as sekai no jōkyō 世界の状況 ("situation of the world") = sekai jōkyō 世界状況 ("world situation") and seisaku no henkō 政策の変更 ("shift of policy") = seisaku henkō 政策変更 ("policy shift")."

    I would hesitate to call this "particle dropping". I think the alternation between NO and zero is better thought of as the alternation between modifying a NP with a genitive NP (the NO case) and creation of a compound word from two nouns (the zero case).

  9. Matt said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

    I agree with Sjiveru; in fact, the hit for 我が国 in the MYS is actually written "我國" in the original text. (And we know that it was pronounced /wa ga kuni/ because of line length.) There are lots of other instances in the MYS where /wa ga/ is represented by simply 我 or 吾:

    我大王 = /wa ga ohokimi/ (my great lord) (poem 0003)
    吾代 = /wa ga yo/ (my life) (poem 0010)
    吾勢子 = /wa ga seko/ (my beloved) (poem 0011)
    吾欲之 野嶋 = /wa ga horisi nosima/ (Noshima, which I wanted [to see]) (poem 0012)

    Note that in the last case, the /ga/ functions to mark the subject of the verb /horu/ in a relative clause; it wasn't exclusively a possessive marker.

    The fact that this construction (and related ones, e.g. /na ga/ and /kimi ga/ from the words for "you" and "my lord" respectively) are so common in the MYS suggests very strongly that this was a feature of Japanese pre-Chinese contact.

    Of course, they had no way of writing it back then, so it's quite possible that representations like 我大王 and 吾代 were based on examples like the one from the Yuèjué shū. But there is also another possibility…

    One other interesting thing about /wa ga/ in the MYS is that the lack of an explicitly written /ga/ contrasts quite dramatically with other particles that are written. For example, if I requote my four examples above at length:

    我大王乃 = /wa ga ohokimi no/
    吾代毛 = /wa ga yo mo/
    吾勢子波 = /wa ga seko ha/ (my beloved)
    吾欲之野嶋波 = /wa ga horisi nosima ha/

    … We can see that the particles /no/, /mo/, and /ha/ ARE written out explicitly. This may indicate that /wa ga/ was indeed understood as a "declension" of the pronoun /ware/, which corresponds intriguingly to the fact that the pronouns and demonstratives were unique in having both a "long form" (e.g. /ware/) and a "short form" (e.g. /wa/) which had clearly separate uses: /*ware ga/ is an error, you must use /wa ga/. On the other hand, /ware no/ is correct, and /wa no/ is an error. So it is quite possible that /waga/ was seen as one word, sort of like "my", and that's why the ending doesn't get its own character.

    Here is some other evidence for that possibility: an even fuller version of my quote from poem 0010 is:

    君之齒母 吾代毛 = /kimi ga yo mo wa ga yo mo/ (both my lord's life and my life)

    So in the phrase /kimi ga yo/, i.e. when it is not attached to a pronoun, /ga/ DOES get its own character (之).

    Here are some statistics from simple searching:

    – Number of poems with /wa ga/ but without the string 我之 or 吾之 = 670
    – Number of poems with /wa ga/ and with the string 我之 or 吾之 = 8
    – Number of poems with /kimi ga/, without /kimi no/, and without the string 君之 or 王之 or 公之 = ca 100
    – Number of poems with /kimi ga/, without /kimi no/ and with the string 君之 or 王之 or 公之 = ca 150

    This search is totally unscientific and brute-force, and doesn't even begin to take into account the wide range of orthographic styles in the MYS, but it seems to suggest that the /ga/ in /wa ga/ was treated differently from the /ga/ in generic /X ga/. The interesting question then is whether that mirrored Chinese practice. If it didn't, then it may simply reflect native speaker intuition that /wa ga/ was qualitatively different from generic /X ga/.

  10. minus273 said,

    January 25, 2013 @ 6:08 am

    Only “我” for “我国” is ancient-ancient-ancient. A text every schoolchild knows begins with "十年春,齊師伐我 [The State of Lǔ]".

  11. John G said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 9:59 am

    I feel that the 绝日 could be dropped, and the space saved used to add the 国.


    I don't know about nationalism or anything, but in English language press don't they usually just say (The) Army or Navy or RAF or Marines or something with an understanding that if the country is not specified, it refers to the country of the newspaper?

    What would be the effect of dropping the 我 entirely (and the space saved used to add 海域 to make it sound a bit more natural)?


  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    From Chau Wu:

    The use of wo 我 as a plural pronoun for 'we' dates back to the Shang dynasty as evidenced in oracular inscriptions. The attached picture (below) of the ink rubbing of an inscribed tortoise plastron has a sentence 我受年 (Wo shou nian) 'We (will) receive harvest' which I have highlighted in a red rectangle and which should be read from left to right. The opposite side has a negative oracular divination 我不其受年 'We (will) not perhaps receive harvest' (not highlighted).

    The ink rubbing can be found on the Academia Sinica website and its relevant information is copied below:

    龜腹甲卜辭 (《乙編》867, R044852)

    Tortoise plastron with oracular inscription (Part2 (《乙編》) 867, R044852)

    Excavation date: 1936, 13th Xiaotun excavation

    Place of excavation: Xiaotun, Anyang County, Henan Province

    Object dimensions: length 20.3 cm, width 11.7 cm

    Rubbing dimensions: length 20.54 cm, width 12.31 cm

  13. Matt Anderson said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    Chau Wu makes a good point about 我 in Shang inscriptions. Disregarding instances where Wǒ is used as a place name or a personal name, in every example I can think of off the top of my head the word is used by the king himself, with the meaning either 'we' or 'our'. Phrases like wǒ tián 我田 'our fields', wǒ běi tián 我北田 'our northern fields', and wǒ dōng bǐ 我東啚(鄙) 'our eastern borders' frequently occur— in these cases clearly refers to the Shang state (in the person of the king), very closely paralleling the of wǒ guó 我國.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    From Gianni Wan:

    The graph 我 is also used in divinatory records regarding warfare.

    HJ 6057 front (Jing 1.1) (for photograph of rubbing, see below):

    癸巳卜㱿貞:旬亡[卜 inside of a box]。王XX曰:㞢〔㣇〕,其㞢來㛸。乞至五日丁酉,允㞢來〔㛸自〕西。沚XX告曰:土方征于我東啚,〔XX〕二邑。XX方亦XX我西啚田。

    [VHM: The XX represent special forms that, try as I may, I could not get them to appear in this comment.]

    Guisi bu, ke zhen: xun wu jiu. Wang zhan yue: you sui, qi you lai qi. Qi zhi wuri dingyou, yun you lai qi zi xi. Zhijia gao yue: Tufang zheng yu wo dongbi, zai er yi. gongfang yi qin wo xibi tian.

    Cracking made on day guisi, Ke divined: "Will there be calamity in the following ten days?" The king thereupon prognosticated: "There is evil. There will be upcoming trouble. Till the fifth day dingyou, there will be trouble coming from the west as expected. Zhi Jia thereupon reported: Tufang raided at our eastern border, attacked two settlements. Gongfang also invaded the fields at our western border.

    This record is important because it showcases that WO was used not only by the "central" Shang court but also by their tributary, 沚 Zhi (or Zhifang), led by Zhijia. This, perhaps, is the earliest record of WO used by the "periphery" in the East Asian tributary system.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

    From Michael Carr:

    Not to mention

    VHM: Well I'll be! That looks like a native / indigenous Korean expression, not Sino-Korean

  16. Richard Sears said,

    January 29, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    Are there any places in the oracle bones where the character 我 is used as in is original form, I guess it is a "rake"? Is there a modern equivalent character you know about that indicates the tool?

  17. Sima said,

    January 29, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    So are these early examples of the royal we?

    Richard, is the "rake" character not the one used in the above images?

  18. David W. Goodrich said,

    January 29, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

    Is this the "rake" character? Also, for those who are interested, Keightley transcribes and translates the passage as OBI # 322A in his Working for His Majesty, UCIEAS, 2012, p. 321.

  19. David W. Goodrich said,

    January 29, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

    Rats. The preview showed the SVG for the rake character available at, but it disappeared once I pushed "Submit." I hope the bare URL survives.

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