"Phrenology for words"

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Jake Eberts, "Why Do Analysts Keep Talking Nonsense About Chinese Words?", Foreign Policy 7/6/2021:

Imagine that you are cornered at a party when the topic of race comes up. Your interlocutor tells you that, in the English language, “race” can refer to both a competition wherein one tries to outrun the others and a visually identifiable group of people sharing common ancestry. It is no wonder that racism has been such an intractable issue in the Anglosphere; the very word embodies a sense of competition among different peoples.

You quickly spot a friend on the other side of the room because you understand using a literal reading of a vocabulary item to explain the origins, evolution, and persistence of racism in the Anglosphere is completely ridiculous.

For Chinese speakers, however, this is a frustratingly common experience. The sheer novelty and exoticism of a character-based Eastern language to most English readers mean these spurious dissections of Chinese words can easily be passed off as impressive sociolinguistic insight.

The nature of characters themselves, and the common but wrong idea that they’re pictographs, makes this tempting. But most characters in Chinese consist of two—or more—elements: a semantic component that relates to the meaning of the word and a phonetic one that indicates how it sounds. That phonetic component has no relationship to its meaning. The word for “mother,” for instance, contains “horse” because the word for horse is ma and so (pronounced slightly differently) is the word for mother.

Throw in that many components have multiple meanings, and you get mistakes like claiming that a penguin is a “business goose.” (The component actually means “stand up”; it’s a tippy-toe goose.) On top of that, most words are made up of multiple characters, for a range of reasons.

None of this stops glib foreign analysts from making grand declarations about the meaning of Chinese words based on entirely false linguistic premises with a heavy splash of Orientalism. I just call it phrenology for words.

Eberts offers a clever and new (to me) take on the infamous crisis = danger + opportunity meme:

By far the most popular target of Chinese word phrenology is the word for crisis, 危机. There is an entire Wikipedia entry on the Chinese word for crisis, in fact, because dating back to at least John F. Kennedy, Westerners have loved to awe at the fact that the two constituent characters are “danger” plus “opportunity.” This is technically true in the same sense that the opposite of pro-gress is Con-gress: It’s a selective interpretation of morphemes divorced from actual etymology and is best left for a fortune cookie or motivational horoscope. [emphasis added]

My understanding is that "technically true" is somewhat too generous an appraisal — as the Wikipedia entry explains,

Sinologist Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania states the popular interpretation of weiji as "danger" plus "opportunity" is a "widespread public misperception" in the English-speaking world. The first character wēi (危) does indeed mean "dangerous" or "precarious", but the second, highly polysemous, character jī (机; 機) does not mean "opportunity" in isolation, but something more like "change point". The confusion likely arises from the fact that the character for jī is a component of the Chinese word for "opportunity", jīhuì (機會; 机会).

[h/t Brendan O'Leary]



  1. Conal Boyce said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 11:13 am

    This is a copy of my response to the author of "Why Do Analysts Keep Talking Nonsense About Chinese Words?", an article that appeared in the July 6, 2021 issue of Foreign Policy:

    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    Dear _______:

    Except for the part noted below, I enjoyed your article on Chinese 'word-phrenology'. I grew up in Berkeley, where I started learning Chinese at age 14, in 1957. I have a Ph.D. in Chinese Language and Literature from Harvard (1975). So I am sympathetic to the point you make about Chinese 'word-phrenology'. Who knows? On another day, I might have written essentially the same article myself! But then comes this:

    "Take the word for 'compatriot,' 同胞, used by mainland Chinese (in a way sometimes considered rather patronizing) to refer to Taiwanese people. The word is literally the combination of 'same' and 'placenta, womb.' On this basis, Conal Boyce of Century College argues in the peer-reviewed Journal of Political Risk that the term constitutes 'further evidence of a psychic illness that is built into the very bedrock of the culture, so that all Chinese are joined at the hip by a shared Same‑Womb fetish that underpins their We‑Chinese fixation.' ”

    Perhaps I've misread your intent, but it seems that you are suggesting that I'm just another 'phrenologist' with superficial knowledge of the language, one of those who keeps mining the language for new 'insights' reminiscent of the age of Orientalism and Chinoiserie, whereas the train of thought leading to the passage you quote was something very different. Disturbed by the 'We Chinese' mentality, I looked around for a way to explain what it is and why it is so dangerous to the world (ever more so, in recent months and days and minutes, "as we speak"). For 60-odd years, I had known the term 同胞 and had always read it like a native, i.e., in a bland, non-'phrenological' way. But in working on the JPR article it occurred to me that the term supports my concern about the 'We Chinese' mentality. In short, my focus on the word came about in a way that is roughly the opposite of what you seem to suggest — not as a point of departure, but of 'terminus', after the fact. As for Chinoiserie, one might even argue that you are the one indulging in it, by trotting out these fairly well-known games that foreigners play by dissecting Chinese words. To put the focus there might be described as a kind of "fiddling while Rome burns." The salient point of my article in JPR is not the lexical examples I chose but the reminder about the world-wide threat that the CCP poses to the future of humanity itself.


    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 11:20 am

    Phrenology for words – I love it! Absolutely captures the arrogant bunkum that so many people spout.

    But on the other hand, my Chinese speaking friends frequently claim all sorts of nonsense about English.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 1:10 pm

    …well, the etymological opposite of progress is regress, but the point that people don't think of -gress as a morpheme with a meaning stands, of course – and that's still true in progression and regression, to pick less rare words than regress.

  4. D.O. said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 1:27 pm

    After reading Mr. Boyce's contribution in the peer-reviewed Journal of Political Risk, I have to agree with Mr. Ebert's assessment. (Also, did you know that no language, but English, has a word for nice and the only nice people are in North America?)

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 1:41 pm

    I can see the "opposite of progress" quip back to 1961 in Google Books. It's sometimes attributed to Will Rogers, incorrectly as far as I can tell.

  6. Twill said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 2:04 pm

    Indeed, most everyone who doesn't seriously deal with languages and linguistics in their daily life probably has crude misconceptions about the nature of language broadly, including a less than critical eye for etymologies and reasoning about them. I would say that the nature of Chinese words is partly to blame, as almost every word is on first appearances a compound word as cromulent as rainbow, even when this is very rarely actually the case, but equally foreign relation researchers/reporters/wonks love to exoticize, romanticize, and otherwise butcher whichever language is at hand to signal that they not only understand the language but have tapped into a deeper psyche behind why the French are allergic to multiples of ten beyond 60 or whatever.

    On the other hand, the symbol of the dragon, famously representing power, imperium, and the Chinese nation, goes a long way in substantiating their reptilian nature, explaining their venomous in-group preference so potent it threatens humanity itself, their tawdry performance arts, and why they've taken so long to ban eating cats.

    [(myl) This vicious ethnic prejudice is beyond the bounds of what we can or should allow here. I'll leave this comment up given the response below from kltpzyxm, but anything further in this style will be deleted.]

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 2:51 pm

    Taken literally and thus risking the etymological fallacy, "same-womb" would just mean "sibling" (or I guess perhaps half-sibling with a different father?) in a literal biological sense.* But fictive kinship is a common motif in nationalist rhetoric globally and thus also in irredentist rhetoric. If 同胞 as used in PRC propaganda were translated into English as referring to Taiwanese people as "brethren" rather than "compatriots" I don't think that would seem particularly weird or jarring. There are certainly plausible reasons to think that the PRC's current mode of nationalism/irredentism is more dangerous than the average specimen, but the associated rhetoric needn't be out of the ordinary (for the genre) for that to be the case.

    *Wiktionary tells me it also has that literal meaning in Chinese and Japanese in addition to the "fellow countryman" meaning, but not in Korean.

  8. Conal Boyce said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 3:28 pm

    Let's try moving this to a more general topic for a moment: The analysis of any word in any language. Take the German word Sonderbehandlung. If I point out that someone created it by joining together the German words for 'special' and 'treatment', does this _necessarily_ mean I'm an antiquarian, wandering off into the library stacks for no good reason? Granted, it could mean that. But if someone is found focusing on that word, it is more likely because of the connotations it carried during the Third Reich. There is a book entitled Verbrannte Wörter: Wo wir noch sprechen wie die Nazis — und wo nicht (2019) by Matthias Heine. Here is the issue he raises with the word Sonderbehandlung: Should it still be forbidden (by self-censorship) since it was once a euphemism for exterminating various 'undesirable' segments of the population? Or has enough time passed that it may now be brought back into the fold as a neutral word, free of racist overtones? And so on.
    In my JPR article, my own focus was on tong2bau1 as a _single_ word that I had known for many years already. But as a courtesy to readers of the JPR journal who might not have much Chinese, I broke it down, naturally, into its constituent parts, A and B. But that act of courtesy translated to the FP author as an instance of word-phrenology. By the way, it happens that the term tong2bau1 is old; it does not just mean our 'compatriots in Taiwan or Macao'. For example, the Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (1936, 1947, Volume I, p. 848) defines it as 'same father, same country.' Fenn's 1926 dictionary defines it as 'same mother, same race.' And that's the point: In some contexts, it has overtones of racism and imperialism. It's an _inherently_ creepy word, with or without analysis by halves. It is a touchstone to a certain aspect of the Chinese psyche that should concern us all before our liberalism brings about 1984 on a global scale.

  9. kltpzyxm said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 3:29 pm


    "…reptilian nature…" ?
    "…tawdry performance arts…" ?
    "…venomous in-group preference…" ?
    "…taken so long to ban eating cats…" ?

    I can't believe I read those words attributed to an ethnic/national group. How crass and untruthful of you. The same dis-qualities could be attributed to virtually any ethnic/national group.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 4:41 pm

    But if Dr. Boyce were to be reading up on Irish history of a half century ago and come across a sentence like "Provisional Sinn Féin's Ruairí Ó Brádaigh told crowds that 'the fight by our blood brothers in the North is our fight'," would he find it peculiar that "a certain aspect of the Chinese psyche" was manifesting itself in Irish nationalism? Or would he accept that "our nation/ethnic-group is just one big family" imagery is not a distinctively or uniquely Chinese perspective, however illiberal and off-putting it may seem to certain modern Westerners in the political contexts in which it may often be deployed.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 5:43 pm

    @Jenny Chu

    "my Chinese speaking friends frequently claim all sorts of nonsense about English"

    Here's a good example which claims that English is concocted of components that were "lifted / pirated" (piāoqiè 剽竊 / 剽窃) from Chinese. You can hear the lecturer give examples of English "go" being based on Chinese "gǒu 狗" ("dog"). They show a book with the title Pòyì yīngwén mìmǎ 破譯英文密碼 (Password for deciphering English) which is full of this kind of approach to understanding English.

    See also "The Out of Hunan Theory" (9/13/19)


  12. Jerry Packard said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:06 pm

    It may be worth pointing out that tongbao 同胞 in its 'compatriot' sense was commonly used in 1950s – 1960s Taiwan to refer specifically to mainlanders. I don't recall the term being used on the China mainland to refer to Taiwanese people during that time, though I could be wrong.

  13. Noel Hunt said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:25 pm

    'Awe' as a transitive verb? The antonym of 'progress' is 'congress'—`This is technically true in the same sense that the opposite of pro-gress is Con-gress'? One supposes this passes for 'erudition' these days.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:28 pm

    Jerry Packard:

    1. Was 同胞 used to mean "mainlander" in the sense of people then living on the mainland under Communist-bandit occupation, versus the waishengren who had relocated from the mainland in '49?

    2. In either case, was this the way normal people spoke, or was it a name used in sort of a political-propaganda sort of register to signal that you were definitely not dissenting from the then-current official KMT attitude toward "mainlanders" (of either variety)?

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:47 pm

    Noel Hunt: I too was surprised and not especially pleased to see "awe" used as an intransitive verb. However, I suspect you misunderstood Eberts's analogy to the old joke about progress and Congress.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 6:58 pm

    I omitted to say that Eberts might have just omitted a word or two in that "awe" sentence, or something like that.

  17. David C. said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 7:01 pm

    Like D.O., I also read the linked article to the Journal of Political Risk and was taken aback by the types of accusations leveled against an entire people, no less vicious than what was admonished above, which I can only assume was meant as a parody.

    Many, many Taiwanese continue to identify themselves as Chinese, broadly defined, and don't necessarily object to being called 同胞. Survey results from as recently as last year show that a third of people surveyed in Taiwan consider themselves Chinese, even if they feel no affinity to the current regime in Beijing.

    Parsing 同胞 as "One-Womb" and giving it a "racist/chauvinist" flavor is exactly the type of word-phrenology described in the Foreign Policy article.

    (The people of Hong Kong are also referred to as 香港同胞 in Chinese political speeches, carried over from the pre-handover period.)

  18. Noel Hunt said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 7:03 pm

    Jerry Friedman: I have to confess ignorance of any joke about progress and Congress, but I do now see the meaning. I took 'awe at' to be some kind of phrasal verb, but you are right, it is not separable.

  19. Jerry Packard said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 7:51 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer –
    1. Yes, 同胞 was used to refer to the suffering multitudes then living on the mainland.
    2. It was not the way normal people spoke, rather, it was used more in the propaganda register, in newspaper articles and the like.

  20. Chris Button said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 8:06 pm

    The sentence “That phonetic component has no relationship to its meaning” is sorely missing the word “often”.

  21. Phil H said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 10:24 pm

    I feel like I have lots I’d like to say about this, but nothing as important as a simple, “Hear, hear!” Don’t Sapir-Whorf, ever.
    @Chris Button I think I’d resist an “often” in there. While you sometimes do find phonetics with related meanings, it’s just a coincidence; if it’s not a coincidence, then it’s not a phonetic.

  22. Twill said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 11:16 pm

    @kltpzyxm My comment was along the lines of Jerry Friedman's comment in simply underlining the remarks made by Conal Boyce in his piece (apart from actually calling the Chinese lizard men, that one was for kicks). Not that that comes across without that context.

    [(myl) Poe's Law in action…]

  23. Joshua K. said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 11:57 pm

    I think a good response to "phrenology for words" would be to say, "Yes, and the English word 'carpet' means a domestic animal who travels in an automobile."

  24. ~flow said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 3:40 am

    Just chipping in at this point to say that apparently there's more than one post in this thread where people got upset about someone saying something while totally missing that what was said was a quote or meant to be read with the sarcasm switch set to 'on'.

    I for one read that dragon-lizard paragraph that way (as being sarcastic) and was mildly shocked at the responses. Re-reading it I cannot say for sure whether it was meant to be read in a serious or a sarcastic fashion. Then again, the complaint about 'erudition these days' certainly did miss some obvious signal in the OP's presentation (happens).

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 4:07 am

    I too interpreted Twill's comments as irony — it was the "tawdry performance arts" that was the give-away for me.

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 4:49 am

    @Joshua K., are you familiar with the Uxbridge English Dictionary?

  27. Chris Button said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 8:01 am

    @ Phil H

    I think I’d resist an “often” in there. While you sometimes do find phonetics with related meanings, it’s just a coincidence; if it’s not a coincidence, then it’s not a phonetic.

    I actually disagree. The result of countless ridiculous interpretations of the phonetic component of characters on the basis of purported meanings has unfortunately been a backlash in the other direction. Nowadays suggesting that a phonetic competent might ever play a semantic role borders on heresy. Analyses of the Chinese script and its origins are all the worse for it. I find it remarkable that scholarship in that area seems to have barely progressed since Todo Akiyasu’s Kanji Gogen Jiten from 1965. Better reconstructions of Old Chinese would help too.

  28. kltpzyxm said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    ~flow, Philip Taylor, and especially, Twill,

    I am sorry I missed the sarcasm and reacted the way I did, not knowing your (Twill's) propensities. We have now been explicitly told it was meant to be read in sarcastic fashion. Unfortunately, I know individuals and blog posters who would believe and say such things without sarcastic intent. The blog monitor's response, and his comment on Poe's Law, were appreciated. i also did not interpret the 'erudition' comment as sarcastic. (references to facts reinterpreted as sarcasm studiously avoided).

  29. Twill said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    @kltpzyxm No harm, no foul. Indeed, my comment was substantially restating comments in the apparently peer-reviewed journal ("Chinese performance art" being characterised by the "vapidness of someone prancing with her twirly‑streamer" or "Why did it take that to have a law passed against eating cats (but for the city of Shenzhen only, alas)? Who eats cats?") with a degree of exaggeration, and without providing that context it's natural that it was read seriously. Really just poorly conceived snark made on the spur of the moment (isn't that what's the internet is for, anyway?).

  30. ktschwarz said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 3:07 pm

    I noticed "awe at" too, and thought it might possibly be a slip of the fingers for "ooh and aah at".

  31. AntC said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 7:30 pm

    @Twill, I didn't recognise the sarcasm when I first read your post. Re-reading it after your defense, I still don't see it. Be very careful: that comment will stand in perpetuity.

    There are ways to be sarcastic without triggering racist memes.

    I think myl would be correct to remove it, or at least severely prune it.

  32. Magnus said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 5:19 am

    About the "crisis vs opportunity" thing, I thought of a very silly analogue that might perhaps make clear that there isn't really a link there: Note that the second half of the English word "crisis" is identical to the first half of the word "sister". This illustrates the tendency of Western patriarchal culture to see women as a problem, and also hints at the breakdown of the nuclear family.

    (for avoidance of doubt, the above is satire)

  33. Chris Button said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 8:48 am

    To my comment above about Todo Akiyasu’s 漢字語源辞典, I should probably also add that Huang Dekuan’s (chief ed.) far more recent 古文字谱系疏证 does include interesting discussions at the end of each section about possible semantic associations between certain characters graphically related through their phonetic components.

  34. WGJ said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 3:07 am

    AFAIK, the original sense of 機 was the trigger mechanism of a Chinese crossbow 弩 (a weapon that predates the oracle script and is sufficiently important to be featured among the oldest Chinese characters), from which the more abstract senses were then derived.

  35. Bathrobe said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 12:57 am

    Regarding Conal Boyce's article:

    The Japanese are also prone to use 'we Japanese' (私たち日本人 watashitachi Nihonjin) in the same way that the Chinese use 'we Chinese', possibly even more. I'm not sure I'd like to make a political ideology out of it, but it always struck me as expressing an insider-outsider mentality. That is, 'we Japanese' (speaking as the representative of a united group) need to explain to you, the outsider, about 'our' thinking. I don't think we Westerners would speak like this; we would feel uncomfortable speaking on behalf of everyone in our culture or country. In fact, I think most of us Westerners would prefer to speak of 'they' when talking of other people within their own culture. 'We Chinese' / 'We Japanese' is maybe just a linguistic tic, but it perhaps does have an influence on how people from those cultures think and perceive the world.

    我国 is also found in Japanese as 我国 wagakuni (wa 'first person' ga 'possessive' kuni 'country'). I wouldn't be surprised if the Chinese got it from the Japanese, although I wouldn't like to bet my life on it. Again, the usage suggests a kind of in-group identification vs the out-group. And again, I don't know that making an in-group mentality linguistically explicit is quite as sinister as Conal Boyce suggests.

    同胞 tóngbāo 'same womb' certainly smacks of political ideology and does suggest racism. Would, for instance, Uyghurs be regarded as 同胞? Or Tibetans, for that matter. I'm not sure if most Chinese would see the Uyghurs as 同胞 because they are so clearly not 'sons of the dragon'. On the other hand, if the Uyghurs were fully assimilated and integrated, politically and culturally, into the Chinese world, I don't think that there would be any barriers to regarding them as 同胞 since the Chinese term is not necessarily racially-based — although using 同胞 in this way would probably be politically motivated. Unlike the tendency in some Western cultures where race is a more rigidly defined category, I think it's possible to become a 同胞 in China without necessarily being 'racially' Chinese.

    On this note, I would like to mention a conversation I had with some Chinese-American students and a black American (Afro-American) student some years ago in China. Speaking to the black student, I playfully used 你的同胞 nǐ de tóngbāo 'your compatriots' to refer to white American students who were studying at the same college. He shook his head and said, 他们不是我的同胞 tāmen búshì wǒ de tóngbāo 'They are not my compatriots', showing a clear understanding of the underlying meaning of 同胞 as 'emanating from a single womb'. I will leave it to the reader to consider the kind of consciousness involved here.

  36. WGJ said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 8:32 am

    @Bathrobe: _Of course_ the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and others are considered tongbao – a simple web search on 藏族同胞 or 维族同胞 would should show you that. You'll also notice that the use is even more popular by non-governmental speakers (for example, Han Chinese writing about their touching travel experiences in Tibet, Xinjiang etc.). My sense is that for the official language, tongbao doesn't carry enough affinity (as opposed to too much) towards those ethnic groups – in other words, because tongbao has been so heavily used in regard to Taiwan, it now carries some negative baggage that is purely political and not racial.

  37. Bathrobe said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 6:03 pm

    Thanks to WGJ for your comment. It suggests that Conal Boyce’s characterizing the use of 同胞 as something essential and intrinsic to Chinese culture is even further off the mark. If anything it is a politicisation of dogged territorial possessiveness, which is not unique to the Chinese.

    I belatedly recalled that the Japanese usually use the expression 我々日本人 ware ware Nihonjin ‘we Japanese ‘.

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