Don't get confused by "hidden rules"

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-8-11 20:22:21

By Rocky Wen

Illustration: Liu Rui

The phrase in English “hidden rules” (for example, the “hidden rules” of diplomacy, referring to unwritten but widely understood social codes) has taken on new connotations in China, and a native English speaker using the words “hidden rules” may inadvertently cause embarrassment in conversation, as the phrase has been mixed-up with the Chinese expression qian guize.

Qian guize, which literally means “hidden rules,” is an expression coined by Wu Si, a journalist turned historian. In a series of articles published in 1999, Wu illustrated, through a variety of examples, that there were a set of unspoken rules of officialdom in ancient China.

For example, one such rule was that an official should give gifts of value to his superiors on various occasions, such as when the superior visited the official, or on the superior’s birthdays.

Though these “hidden rules” were viewed as illegal or immoral and conflicted with the official rules, all but a few abided by these qian guize in order to safeguard their interests. Those who ignored the qian guize were usually punished or disfavored.

Shedding new light on some phenomena in China, the expression has since gained popularity. A search for qian guize brought up about 70,600,000 hits on Google.

Apart from being referred to when talking about corruption, the phrase is often used in the entertainment industry.

Thanks to several high-profile actress “whistleblowers,” the public has come to know that “sex for roles” is a qian guize in the media and entertainment industry.

Qian guize also doubles as a verb. If a news report states that an actress was qian guized (bei qian guize le), it probably means that she had to trade sex for a role in a movie or TV show. Qian guize has become a buzz word on the Chinese mainland.

Since qian guize has become such a popular Chinese expression, it was inevitable that the term would be translated as “hidden rules” and edges its way into the Chinese produced English-language media in China. However, herein lays the rub. In English, the expression “hidden rules” does not necessarily suggest impropriety, whereas the same word qian guize in Chinese is loaded with negative connotations.

Therefore, ever since qian guize made its way into the English-language media in China, there have been two different meanings for the words “hidden rules” – the innocuous one, and the “Chinglish” one with all its shady connotations. In common usage in China, it seems that the Chinglish one prevails.

Confusion over the usage and meaning of “hidden rules” is rife. It appears that the Chinese expression qian guize has been liberally translated into English as “hidden rules”, and the English phrase “hidden rules” has also been liberally translated as qian guize by the Chinese too.

In a classic example of a mix-up in usage, a Chinese expatriate in Australia comments in a blog that there are some “positive” qian guize, such as a “hidden rule” in Australia that not paying attention to other people when meeting them is rude. Alas, the blogger seems unaware of the distinctly negative connotations that qian guize carries in modern Chinese vernacular.

In conclusion, a piece of advice for expatriates in China: be careful when you use the expression “hidden rules,” especially when talking to an official; here, the expression is not the one you are familiar with back at home.

The author is an in-house lawyer in Beijing

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus