Chinese dream may get lost in translation

By Thorsten Pattberg Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-2 22:38:02

Western commentators love to translate zhongguo meng as "Chinese dream," thereby patronizing China's socio-cultural originality and marketing it as a franchise of the "American Dream." But are the two civilizations really sleeping on the same pillow?

What is that - a "China Dream" - if not first a Western translation?

Few people in China, not even President Xi Jinping, actually said "dream." That's because they speak Chinese in China.

The distinction between what Western media thinks China dreams and what China is actually saying is of great significance to the future of global language. In fact, China should compete for its terminologies like it competes for everything else.

Everyone has heard about the brand "American Dream" which - if US policymakers had their way - is now being replicated by the CPC to better the lives of the people.

As if China could not draw up designs on its own; as if a "Chinese dream" had to have its epistemological roots in the West, only to be shipped under trademark to Asia, a ship full of freedom, equality, Hollywood, McDonalds, and other Western technicalities.

The zhongguo meng is about achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, an element that is totally missing in the "American Dream."

Chinese people are expected to pay lip service to oneness (tianren heyi) and great harmony (datong): They work hard, study vigorously, and try to climb out of poverty.

The meng is what the Chinese dream, and let us not forget that China has memories of dynasties and emperors, of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and that it is a spiritual wenming, a category beyond the narrow European definitions of nation, state, culture and civilization.

Little wonder then that meng is attached to centuries of a very different quality and color than that of the US.

Confucian values and priorities differ from Puritan ones. East Asia has a unique tradition of shengren and junzi (archetypes of wisdom as unique as, say, philosophers and saints), and Chinese value xiao (filial piety), xue (the love for learning), li (ritual) and thousands of other non-European concepts.

We would all see Chinese creativeness crystal-clearly if translation were put on hold, if only for a few years.

Translation is a human strategy - older than the Stone Age - to annihilate one's opponent beyond the mere physical removal of his body from the world.

That's why, by the way, linguists speak about the "death" of cultures. It was never meant to be just a metaphor.

Some scholars have argued with me that English is entirely sufficient to describe China.

After all, it's just a silly "dream," right? That is not only showing disregard for new knowledge; it is also a cultural death threat against Asia.

The West only sees China through often biblical and philosophical European translations, and because all European vocabularies look familiar to Westerners, it has often been concluded, prematurely, that China was some place of zero originality. As if the Chinese people for the last 3,000 years didn't invent a thing.

It is often claimed that before the arrival of the Europeans, the Chinese had no sense of intellectual property rights. This "cultural weakness" is observable - every second in China as some Chinese compatriot gives away his name to some foreign company: "You can call me Mike, ok?"

Of course, that's all history and we cannot change the past. But China must tighten security to its genius and should accommodate the global future.

If meng were to become a key Chinese terminology of the 21st century, why translate it into American? Does this look Western to you: zhongguo meng? No? That's because it isn't.

The author is a research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University.

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