"Common sense" in Chinese and in English

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Long Ling has an essay about an exam given to prospective civil servants in Chinese:

What Really Happened in Yancheng?” by Long Ling, the London Review of Books, 42.2 (1/23/20).  Translation by Jonathan Flint.

This essay, written by a government official in Beijing — presumably writing under a pseudonym — describes the civil service examinations used to select personnel in China. Conventional problem-solving makes up about half of the test, with ideology making up the other half. The author zooms in on the degree to which the exams require regurgitating Marxist ideology: essentially, a test of one’s ability to follow the party line.

One section of the exam is supposed to measure "common sense".  John Rohsenow, a long-term, dedicated reader of Language Log, has some comments about that:

Does chángshì 常識 = "Common sense"??

Google translate gives: common sense, general knowledge, elementary knowledge

Most English native speakers generally (rightly or wrongly) understand "common sense" as something that one is (hopefully) born with / innate; my grandmother used to say: "S/he doesn't have the sense that God gave geese." But when many Chinese use this English expression, what they really mean is "general /elementary knowledge", the secondary readings that Google gives above.

It is true that when pushed on the subject, English speakers will admit that lots of what we mean when we say 'common sense' in fact also includes generally accepted rules of social behavior, which are 'of course' learned in one's culture; I think it is significant that knowing"what to do" / how to behave in certain social situations [cf. Chinese dǒngshì 懂事] is equated with knowing things like if you upend a bucket of water it will pour out on someone / thing (which are 'of course' also 'learned' after birth — like that fire is hot, etc.) [And I AM aware of the significance of the expression "of course" — I think it reinforces my point.] But in general use English speakers use 'common sense' as though it means 'innate knowledge' people are born with.

This is most apparent when beginning Chinese students write 'common sense 'in English when what they mean would be better expressed as "general / common knowledge", which I think would be a better translation than 'common sense". I would really like to see the original Chinese of this sentence in Long Ling's essay: "The correct answers to the 'common sense' section cannot be achieved just by using your common sense."

I also understand the following: "…In fact a large portion of 'common sense' comes down to party dogma. Confucianism defined common sense for more than a thousand years but the party has determined it since 1949", but again I would prefer 'common (or general) knowledge' to 'common sense" in this sentence.

I did (of course) enjoy Ling Long's article (and Mr.Flint's translation thereof) and the larger points that she is making. I hope my observations on this small point are not "xiǎotídàzuò 小题大做" ("making a big fuss over a minor issue; making a mountain out of a molehill").

In closely examining what we mean when we say "common sense", I don't think that John is "making a big fuss over a minor issue" or "making a mountain out of a molehill".  This kind of nuanced scrutiny is particularly necessary when we are translating from one language to another.

One thing I do know from reading Long Ling's essay is that the civil service exam she describes amounts to a sort of Party "eight-legged essay":

The eight-legged essay (Chinese: 八股文; pinyin: bāgǔwén, literally "eight share text") was a style of essay that exam-takers wrote to pass the imperial examinations during the Ming and Qing dynasties in China.


In other words, the PRC's civil service exam is an ideological straitjacket.


  1. Bathrobe said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 12:54 am

    It's long been pointed out that 常識 jōshiki in Japanese is different from 'commonsense' in English, having a meaning similar to the Chinese. 常識 jōshiki refers to socially sanctioned behaviour or 'accepted wisdom' and doesn't necessarily refer to ordinary 'nouse'. The two should not be equated.

  2. B.Ma said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 1:17 am

    In the PRC being Chinese = being Communist is "common sense". Outside the PRC the same statement but with ≠ is common sense.

  3. J Rohsenow said,

    January 19, 2020 @ 12:29 pm

    Victor wrote: "One thing I do know from reading Long Ling's essay is that the civil service exam she describes amounts to a sort of Party "eight-legged essay"….In other words, the PRC's civil service exam is
    an ideological straitjacket."

    Just to be clear for those non-Sinologist readers of Victor's many enlightening posts (surely there are some such ;-) the so-called "Eight Legged Essay" required on the Chinese civil service examinations was not only a 'straight jacket' in terms of form ( essays were required to be written in eight lines of eight characters each), but more importantly had to be based solely on, and show a deep familiarity with, the Confucian Classics — thus "an ideological straitjacket" in terms of both form AND content. — At least the CCP-based civil service exams may now be
    written in the more colloquial 'baihua' style, rather than the "wenyan'
    classical Chinese language style required under the old Imperial Examination System.

  4. Reid Mitchell said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 6:30 am

    I believe many years ago Clifford Geertz wrote a very good essay entitled something such as "The Ideology of Common Sense."

  5. Rodger C said,

    January 20, 2020 @ 8:46 am

    Then there's Gramsci's "bad common sense," which I think about every time I hear Joe Buttigieg's son go on about things.

  6. Suburbanbanshee said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 10:57 am

    "Common sense" was a Scholastic philosophical term for the sort of thinking and problem solving that was held by all humans in common (absent problems), much as "natural law" was a philosophical term for moral principles held in common by all humans (absent problems).

    So it isn't the same as "general knowledge," but you can see why people might think so.

  7. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 9:22 pm

    The eight-legged essay reminds me of the dreaded five-sentence paragraph, which is used to construct the lamentable five-paragraph “essay” demanded in standardized tests in the U.S. Educators and examiners seem to gravitate to such rigid forms, confusing creative writing (or even merely adequate writing) with structures that can be graded by counting.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 11:59 pm

    An article exemplifying what 'common sense' means when sitting for exams to enter the Chinese bureaucracy:


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