Thought panzers

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Vacillating Chinese terminology for think tanks

Mark Metcalf wrote to tell me:

Global Times*just ran an article that might be of interest regarding PRC think tanks and a new book related to this topic: “Researchers, scholars explore methods to boost China’s influence of thoughts”.

*an appendage of People's Daily

I was caught up short by the clumsy expression "influence of thoughts".  But something else about this new development bothered me much more.  Mark tracked down the title of the book in question:

《Sīxiǎng tǎnkè: Zhōngguó zhìkù de guòqù, xiànzhuàng yǔ wèilái 思想坦克:中国智库的过去、现状与未来》("Thought tanks [armored vehicles]: the past, present, and future of China's wisdom warehouses"]) [VHM — intentionally awkward translation for special effect, to be explained below]

What jumped out at me in the title was the use of tǎnkè 坦克 for (think) tank. In my Chinese studies, I learned that tǎnkè 坦克 was a military weapon and not a repository. And when you Google images of tǎnkè 坦克, all you see are images of tracked vehicles. That's how all my Pleco dictionaries translate the term, as well. However, when you put the term into Google Translate, it provides both the tracked vehicle and an alternative translation: "a large receptacle or storage chamber, especially for liquid or gas" with yóuxiāng 油箱 ("oil / gas[oline] / fuel tank") as a synonym. Yet GT can't translate the term sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克.  [VHM:  And well it should not.  See more below.]

Going out on a limb, could the expression sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克 have the dual meaning (i.e., a pun) for an offensive organization ("vehicle") that is used to control / defend the narrative of the CCP?

As soon as I read the expression "sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克", I had the exact same impression as Mark.  It sounded bièniu 彆扭 ("awkward"), weird, unnatural.  But I don't think the person who translated the English term "think tank" into "sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克" was clever enough to add the extra military dimension consciously, though they may have done so sub/unconsciously .

Let me start at the beginning of my qualms about "sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克" ("thought panzer").  Henceforth I will use the German word "panzer" (short for Panzerkampfwagen ["armored combat vehicle"], which is an expansion of Kampfwagen ["combat vehicle"]) to render the "tǎnkè 坦克" component of "sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克" into English. 


From Middle High German panzer, panzier, from Old French panciere (“coat of mail to protect the belly”), from pance (“paunch, belly”) (compare Medieval Latin panceria, pancerium), from Latin pantex (“paunch, belly”). See also Pansen.


It was the British who invented the armored vehicle that came to be known as the "tank".  How that happened is all very convoluted and hush hush (the group charged with developing these tracked, armored battle vehicles first gave them nautical and marine names [landcruisers, destroyers, water carriers, etc.]).  I won't go into the whole story here, but you can read about it in Wikipedia.

The word "tank" came to be used for such vehicles throughout the English speaking world, but in other countries at first they were often called something else.

In France, the second country to use tanks in battle, the word tank or tanque was adopted initially, but was then, largely at the insistence of Colonel J.B.E. Estienne, rejected in favour of char d'assaut ("assault vehicle") or simply char ("vehicle"). During World War I, German sources tended to refer to British tanks as Tanks and to their own as Kampfwagen. Later, tanks became referred to as "Panzer" (lit. "armour"), a shortened form of the full term "Panzerkampfwagen", literally "armoured fighting vehicle". In the Arab world, tanks are called Dabbāba (after a type of siege engine). In Italian, a tank is a "carro armato" (lit. "armed wagon"), without reference to its armour. Norway uses the term stridsvogn and Sweden the similar stridsvagn (lit. "battle wagon", also used for "chariots"), whereas Denmark uses kampvogn (lit. fight wagon). Finland uses panssarivaunu (armoured wagon), although tankki is also used colloquially. The Polish name czołg, derived from verb czołgać się ("to crawl"), is used, depicting the way of machine's movement and its speed. In Hungarian the tank is called harckocsi (combat wagon), albeit tank is also common. In Japanese, the term sensha (戦車, lit. "battle vehicle") is taken from Chinese and used, and this term is likewise borrowed into Korean as jeoncha (전차/戰車); more recent Chinese literature uses the English-derived 坦克 tǎnkè (tank) as opposed to 戰車 zhànchē (battle vehicle) used in earlier days.


That's a very brief summary of how an armored battle vehicle came to be called a "tank".  Now, how did a large container for liquid come to be called a "tank"?

From Portuguese tanque (“tank, liquid container”), originally from Indian vernacular for a large artificial water reservoir, cistern, pool, etc., for example, Gujarati ટાંકી (ṭā̃kī) or Marathi टाकी (ṭākī). Compare the Arabic verb ⁧اِسْتَنْقَعَ⁩ (istanqaʕa, “to become stagnant, to stagnate”).

VHM:  so our word "tank" meaning "container for water" ultimately derives from a Prakrit word for "cistern; reservoir; pool".

I remember quite well my puzzlement when I was living in South Asia and learned that ponds and reservoirs were called "tanks"

In the sense of armoured vehicle, first attested in 1915, prototypes were described as tanks for carrying water to disguise their nature as well as due to physical resemblance.  [VHM:  To build such a bulky, technologically complex weapon in secret and ship them around to allies was no mean feat, so the engineers who did so had to resort to clever euphemisms and circumlocutions.]

There are at least twenty extended meanings for "tank" ultimately deriving from this meaning — container for a liquid (source).

Now, how did a group of individuals assembled to use their noggins to solve specific problems come to be called a "think tank"?

According to Wiktionary, it derives from the use of think tank or think box in the 19th century to refer to the human brain.  All other languages that use this expression borrowed it from English.  (A forthcoming LL post will be titled "shoebox skull" and will describe it as a "braincase".)

Etymonline:  1959 as "research institute" (first reference is to Center for Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, Calif.); it had been colloquial for "the brain" since 1905.

Now, already from the late 80s, I was keenly aware of the term zhìnáng tuán 智囊团 as the Mandarin equivalent for "think tank".  Since that expression literally means "intelligence bag / sack group", I thought that was a quite clever and good translation of the English original.  I knew this Mandarin expression well because it was used with regard to the mostly young, bright advisers assembled by the progressive Premier (1980-97) and General Secretary (1987-1989 [N.B.]), Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005).  I personally knew several of the most influential members of this group.  The injection of their brilliant thought into the political discourse of the day, in my estimation, was directly related to the dissident movement that ultimately brought about the crackdown resulting in the Tiananmen Massacre (6/4/89) — 4 members of my family were present when the shooting started and witnessed it firsthand.  Several of the leading figures of Zhao Ziyang's think tank managed to escape.  Six of them came to Penn and met with me in Room 843 directly across from my office in Williams Hall.  Some went to Princeton afterwards, where they were joined by other prominent dissidents whom I met from time to time at various places in the United States.

In my estimation, the single weightiest contribution of this assemblage of great Chinese minds writ large during the latter part of the 80s was "River Elegy" (Héshāng 河殇).  This was a six-part documentary aired by China Central Television on June 16, 1988 that employed the Yellow River as a metaphor for the decline of Chinese civilization.  Because I strongly believe that it was this artistic production created by Zhao Ziyang's zhìnáng tuán 智囊团 ("think tank") in an inclusive sense that precipitated the Tiananmen protests and massacre one year later, I will give here a synopsis of "River Elegy".

The film asserts that the Ming dynasty's ban on maritime activities is comparable to the building of the Great Wall by China's first emperor Ying Zheng. China's land-based civilization was defeated by maritime civilizations backed by modern sciences, and was further challenged with the problem of life and death ever since the latter half of the 19th century, landmarked by the Opium War. Using the analogy of the Yellow River, China was portrayed as once at the forefront of civilization, but subsequently dried up due to isolation and conservatism. Rather, the revival of China must come from the flowing blue seas which represent the explorative, open cultures of the West and Japan. Authors also cite several narratives to make arguments, including the "oriental despotism" and the "hydraulic empire" from Karl August Wittfogel, "Eurocentrism" from Hegel, as well as the "decline of Chinese civilization and remaining of Western civilization" from Arnold J. Toynbee.


These were learned Chinese men and women with deeply powerful minds, and they shook the PRC to its political and philosophical roots dating back more than two millennia.

As such, I am confident in referring to them as constituting a zhìnáng tuán 智囊团 (2,320,000 ghits).  Since they almost brought down the CCP, the idea of zhìnáng tuán 智囊团 left a bitter taste in the mouths of the communists.  Consequently, I did not hear much, if anything, about think tanks by any name until about the 90s, when the name zhìkù 智库 (62,500,000 ghits) was applied to them.  And now we have this bizarre, ungainly "sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克" (358,000 ghits) popping up.


I thought that perhaps doing a Google ngram search for these three terms would give a better idea of the period of their usage.  Despite the generous help of Mark Swofford, I was unable to get a useful result.  It seems that the relevant data just are not available.

In the several enjoyable days I have spent researching this post, perhaps the most delightful memory-moment I shall take away from all that I have discovered in the process is the realization that German panzer ("armor") is cognate with English ("paunch").

Imagine that!

But it fits so well with the images of medieval armor collections that I have bemusedly surveyed at the Met and other museums around the world.  The vision is especially striking when one beholds enormously rotund suits of armor and can compare them with visual and textual descriptions of known historical figures.

In this context, I can't help but think of Sancho Panza, with whom I became enchanted in 1959.

I'd better stop now before I become yet more deeply enmired in quixotic wondering / wandering.


Selected readings

  • "Dung Times" (3/14/18)
  • "Shoebox skull" (forthcoming)
  • Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, Deathsong of the River: A Reader's Guide to the Chinese TV Series Heshang, translated by Richard Bodman and Pin Pin Wan. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1991. ISBN 0-939657-54-6


  1. Carlana said,

    February 24, 2024 @ 9:01 pm

    In Japanese, a tank is a 'war cart' 戦車 sensha. Funny that Chinese would use a transliteration.

  2. Martin Schwartz said,

    February 24, 2024 @ 9:11 pm

    Interesting entry. New Ind0-Aryan comparanda with "tank", from Arabic
    istanqa6a. The latter is a verb with a reflexive sort of meaning
    (pattern istaCaCaCa) whose C-C-C root is n-q-6 'to soak, steep, drench' intrans.; the associated noun is mustanqa6 'pool'.
    Now for a compulsive gratuitous doggerel:
    A panther's pouncing is quite effective;
    a Panzer's bouncing–alas, defective.

  3. DCA said,

    February 24, 2024 @ 10:32 pm

    I knew the usage of tank in for reservoir in Ceylon/India but didn't know this is where the word came from. This post makes me really want to warch River Elegy-any suggestions for an translated or subtitled English version?

  4. John Swindle said,

    February 24, 2024 @ 10:47 pm

    Are PRC think tank members tankies? Maybe it varies. Interestingly, Merriam-Webster and Cambridge online dictionaries have no entry for this word. Collins online has it as a new word suggestion submitted in 2015 meaning "obsessive fan of Thomas the Tank Engine."

  5. David said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 4:24 am

    There's a 1-hour abridged version of River Elegy with English subtitles on YouTube.
    The only translation of the complete series I could find was in Cantonese.

  6. Abbas said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 5:32 am

    Regarding the origin of tank from Portuguese tanque (“tank, liquid container”), originally from Indian vernacular, and the arabic istanqaʕa, “to become stagnant, to stagnate”) it is worth mentioning that, in Spanish, estanque is a common name for a pool or other artificial small body of water used to store irrigation water, fish rearing or merely for ornamental uses.
    The Royal Academy of Language considers it a derivative from the verb estancar, meaning to slow the flow of a liquid, to stagnate, and suggests the following etymology: from vulgar Latin *extancāre, and this form the celtic *ektankō meaning fix, hold.
    The earliest attestation of estanque in Castilian comes from an anonymous text from circa 1223, Semejanza del mundo, reading “…es vn estanque que dizen en latin lacus…” (there is a pond which in Latin they say lacus”. The word tanque is first attested in a play printed in 1540.
    So, the Indian connection could be still possible through Arabic, but perhaps there is an older, common origin. Work for Indo-Europeanists.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 7:47 am


    In the "Selected readings" at the end of the O.P., see the third item.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 7:50 am


    Your linkage of Portuguese, Indian vernacular, possibly Arabic and Spanish, is much appreciated. Something for the IEists to gnaw on.

  9. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 8:05 am

    Spanish, estanque is presumably cognate with French étang.
    The etymologies I've managed to find on this say it's from OF, although from what period, I can't find.
    Some allege it's from Latin stagnum, although others disagree.

  10. Abbas said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 3:00 pm

    More on tank and celtic: Muller (2017) proposes a relation with Welsh tanc “peace, truce”. About the cognate words atancar and estancar she comments that

    They are part of a large family of words spread throughout Romania. The etymology of this group, whose central idea seems to have been "to close", is uncertain, probably pre-Roman, perhaps from Celtic *tankō 'I subject, I fixed'. This Celtic word would pass into Vulgar Latin giving it a *tancare 'fix, hold', which would easily explain the romance tancar 'to close' and es-tancar 'cover the exit'. Also, it is possible, and even plausible, that the derivative *ektankō was already formed in Celtic, and that here, with different romanizations, they came out *extancare (to stagnate) and to attack.

  11. Philip Anderson said,

    February 25, 2024 @ 3:35 pm

    I am not a Romance specialist, but I do wonder if Spanish estanque is cognate with French étang: Vulgar Latin est- usually gave êt-, while st- gave ét-. Moreover, I think the primary meaning of étang is a coastal lagoon, which fits with a stagnum origin, with reservoir as secondary.
    Similarly with Portuguese tanque-; if it isn’t found before Portuguese contact with India, an Indian origin seems more likely than the loss of an initial es-. Plenty of Portuguese words do include that opening.
    Yes, all these words have similar meanings, but not identical and coincidences exist.

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    February 26, 2024 @ 3:05 am

    @Philip Anderson, Spanish phonotactics don't allow a word to begin st-: Latin words beginning st- become Spanish words beginning est-. And Spanish estanque can also mean a coastal lagoon. E.g. there's one near me called the Estanque de Pujol (or Estany de Pujol in the local dialect of Catalan).

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 26, 2024 @ 10:37 am

    Estany de Pujol in the local dialect of Catalan

    Looks like perfectly standard Catalan to me.

  14. Philip Anderson said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 2:11 am

    @Peter Taylor
    Sorry, I wasn’t clear above that I was referring specifically to the French reflexes of st- and est-. Yes, st- gave est- in Spanish, but the claim is that estanque came from estancar, with an initial ‘e’ (from Celtic?), so I would have expected ê- in French. It’s possible that both French and Spanish came from stagnum and are cognate.
    Latin st-, sc- and sp- gained a preceding vowel in a number of languages, including y- in Welsh.
    I hope your last sentence wasn’t saying that Catalan is a local dialect of Spanish?

  15. Peter Taylor said,

    February 27, 2024 @ 5:43 am

    I was trying to avoid the issue of language politics around the classification of Valencian relative to the dialect of Catalan spoken in Barcelona, but maybe I should just have said Valencian and left it at that.

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