Context, not history, matters for Deng’s famous phrase

By Huang Youyi Source:Global Times Published: 2011-6-15 20:59:00

The two key parts of modern diplomacy are first, listening to others, and second, expressing yourself. 

When it comes to the Sino-US relationship, what do we hear from Americans and how should we respond to them? Domestic arguments in China and nuances of translation and discussion can severely affect the way US interest groups and Americans in general view us.

The healthy development of the Sino-US relationship cannot afford any serious misjudgements by either side. And the two sides accurately conveying their policies is a very important precondition to avoid potential problems. 

Let’s take one particular issue, the translation of the phrase tao guang yang hui (韬光养晦), “keep a low profile” in the context of China’s diplomatic policy.
The phrase was used by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s as part of a famous description of China’s foreign policy. Zhao Qizheng, dean of the School of Journalism of Renmin University of China and formal head of State Council Information Office, argues that some foreigners misunderstand the real meaning of Deng 

Xiaoping’s proposal, which he reads as meaning “observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.” 

But some foreigners read it as advocating deception about China’s true strength.

Zhao maintains that “keep a low profile” is not a trick, but an expression of a particular approach. Yet other scholars point out that in a classical context, the phrase is used to indicate a strategic ruse. 

But the key problem is not in which dynasty or in which book the term first appeared or whether the ancients used it in reference to strategic trickery. The core is how to understand the context in which Deng used the term. 

Chinese civilization is always developing and the context of the same word or idiom is changing, and our understanding of an idiom should follow its own development and changes. No matter how scholars of various dynasties understood the term “tao guang yang hui,” in the 1990s, Chinese used it to express the meaning of “maintaining a low profile,” focusing on developing China. 

The Chinese people have traditionally valued “enduring humiliation in order to carry out an important task, self-reliance, hard work and plain living.” The Chinese like to believe they aren’t expansionist, colonial, or imperial, and don’t hit out in all directions to grab and keep territory.

 The idiom tao guang yang hui could be translated as “to keep a low profile” in modern times and it could even be translated as “to be self-effacing.”
However, it could never be translated as “to hide one’s ability and pretend to be weak” or “hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time” in a modern context. 

In the age of economic globalization and high informatization, everybody knows China’s strengths and weaknesses. Nothing needs to be hidden or can be done under false pretences. 

After 30 years of reforming and opening-up, China experienced rapid developments in all aspects and grew into the world’s second largest economy. The building up of national defense has begun to be modernized and the society is more diverse. 

But our fundamental character should not change. With our growing national strength, we should undertake consequent international responsibilities. China should still stick to the principles of being modest and cautious and maintaining a low profile.

At the start of the 21st century, we should make sure this term isn’t misunderstood, or used as the basis of criticism of China. We can’t bear the international burden of being seen as plotters or as deceitful because of the mistranslation of a historical idiom. 

After all, for many years, when formally stating our country’s diplomatic policy, China’s government agencies always translated the phrase as “keeping a low profile.” They never use any words affiliated with deception or hiding in their rendition. 

The author is chairman of the International Federation of Translators and vice-chairman and secretary-general of the Translators Association of China.

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