On New China Newspeak

Watching China Watching (III)

It is over half a century since I first encountered New China Newspeak in English. It was 1967 and classmate at my high-school in Sydney classmate introduced me to the clangorous prose of Peking Review. The hyperbole of Cultural Revolution China was colourful, but even at the time it was not that alien; after all, we were living in an Age of Extremes, it was the height of the Vietnam War and the Australian media bristled with Cold War rhetoric. Ideologues like B.A. Santamaria were as hysterical as any Chinese propagandist. In my senior high-school years a few years later, we studied Weimar-era German history through documents. My uncle, Hans Nossal — originally from Vienna and married to my German-Jewish refugee aunt Anneliese — shared his insights into the Nazi Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, excerpts of which were included in our textbook. The People’s Republic of China was exotic, but it was less and less foreign.

It was not until early 1974, shortly before I went to study in the People’s Republic at the age of twenty, that my teachers at the Australian National University introduced me to the full-blown version of official Chinese. In class, where we had only just been introduced to Simplified Chinese Characters 簡體字 (or what are now called ‘crippled characters’ 殘體字), we read a recently published denunciation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘anti-China’ documentary film Chung Kuo, Cina. The prose was ridiculous, over-wrought, but deadly earnest (see ‘A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks — A Criticism of Antonioni’s Anti-China Film Chung Kuo’, 恶毒的用心,卑劣的手法——批判安东尼奥尼拍摄的题为《中国》的反华影片, Renmin Ribao 30 January 1974). The film was attacked nationwide, even though virtually no one got to see it (see Isabel Hilton, Struggling with Antonioni).

Despite official Chinese protests, Chung Kuo, Cina was, however, screened on Australian public television. It was on the eve of my trip to China and, by the time I got to Beijing, Australian embassy officials were being verbally abused by the Chinese government. Even students like me caught a whiff of the sulfuric stench in the air. One of the first mainland expressions I learned was 缺席批判: to be denounced in absentia.

I never forgot those early lessons.


The following essay is a revised version of a work that originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of China Heritage Quarterly. I revised it as part of the commemoration of the centenary of China’s language reform/ new culture movement spearheaded by the publication, in January 1917, of Hu Shi’s ‘A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform’ 文學改良芻議 and discussed by Victor Mair in his Hu Shi and Chinese Language Reform.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
9 January 2018


Watching China Watching


New China Newspeak


Geremie R. Barmé






This essay is a preliminary attempt to describe what, since the 1980s, some Chinese writers have identified as ‘New China Newspeak’. This style of language is also known as Maospeak 毛語 or Mao-style prose 毛文體, although I would contend that these latter terms offer too narrow a purview of a complex array of language practices that pre-date High Maoism (c.1956-1978). This is an exercise in what I call New Sinology 後漢學 (not 新汉学, a confabulation of the Confucius Institute network in Beijing that treats Sinologues or students of things Chinese akin to useful idiots of the party-state, mimicking thereby a utilitarian approach to exploiting naïveté and craven ambition that had been devised by V.I. Lenin).

New China Newspeak is an accumulation of written and spoken styles of Chinese, it reflects both an impoverishment as well as an elaboration of Chinese as a communicative tool; it overlaps but is not quite the same as the ‘formalized language of Chinese politics’ so aptly discussed elsewhere.[1] The expression covers a wide range of prose and spoken forms of modern Chinese that have evolved and been consciously developed as the result of profound linguistic changes and experiments that date back to the late-Qing period, all of which are intimately connected with politics, ideas and the projection of power. Some of these styles reflect the militarization of Chinese in modern times (during the Republic, in Japanese-controlled Manchukuo, and under both the Nationalist and the Communist parties in the 1940s and thereafter). Added to this is the stilted diction of bureaucratese (developed on the basis of Qing-era bureaucratic usage), as well as scientific and academic jargon, to which have been added various forms of political and commercial exaggeration, euphemisms and neologisms. It mixes argot and the vernacular with the wooden language  of Communist Party discourse. In recent decades this body of language practices has been ‘enriched’ by the verbiage of neoliberal economics and revived Cultural Revolution-era vituperation.

New China Newspeak also incorporates a language of moral evaluation or judgement based both on traditional Chinese linguistic practices and those developed in the Soviet era of Chinese politics (Nationalist and Communist). It is a form of language that grew to maturity in the 1940s and one that became the mainstream official language of China after 1949. In its essence, New China Newspeak was and is used by the Party, its propaganda organs, the media and educators to shape (and circumscribe) the way people express themselves in the public (and eventually private) sphere. It has enabled the party-state to inculcate its ideology by means of relentless verbal/written imposition and repetition. In this it shares much in common with Soviet-style Russian (also known as la langue de bois), and the form of German famously termed LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii) by the philologist Victor Klemperer.[2]

New China Newspeak is not merely used for internal communicative purposes, for it is also commonly employed in creating what I call ‘Translated China’, that is the English-language Party langue that has evolved over many decades to present an official, acceptable and anodyne version of China to the outside world. For decades this mode of expression was the near-exclusive preserve of such non-Chinese language propaganda publications as China Reconstructs 中國建設 (founded in 1952 at the behest of Zhou Enlai by Soong Ch’ing-ling and Israel Epstein, renamed China Today 今日中國 in 1990) and Peking Review 北京周報 (which first appeared in 1958, later renamed Beijing Review and now part of the China International Publishing Group, or CIPG). It now also features prominently in the reporting and commentaries published by such internationally high-profile outlets as Xinhua News Agency, China Daily and The Global Times. The role of the Central Compilation & Translation Bureau 中共中央編譯局 (founded in 1953) has also been crucial in shaping the linguistic terrain of New China. The various Party mechanisms created for the formal generation and dissemination of New China Newspeak has been well described in other work on China’s ‘propaganda state’.[3]

In attempting to discuss the rather nebulous world of New China Newspeak, I am mindful that the politicization and militarization of language are hardly unique to China; both have been a prominent feature of modern English. George Orwell may have invented the term ‘Newspeak’ to describe the dystopian world of Ingsoc in Oceania (see below), but he was also the author in 1946 of an important essay on the subject of politics and the English language. My argument is not that the linguistic practices covered by the term ‘New China Newspeak’ is unique, but rather that, given the fact that the Communist Party dominates formal discourse and mass media communications in the People’s Republic today moreso than at any other time since the demise of Mao Zedong in 1976, its linguistic behaviour, and its verbal ‘tics’, demand closer scrutiny.

So, the present essay is just that, an essay: an attempt to describe in cultural and historical terms a complex form of linguistic and rhetorical practices that relate to political authority and power in China. I would hope that specialists in the history of Chinese, rhetoric, syntax, and linguistic change will shed more expert light on some of the issues raised herein. A further study of this subject would offer examples of some of the peculiarities of New China Newspeak, including KMT-era ‘open skylights’ 開天窗, the practices of bowdlerisation 篡改 and censorship 删改 during and after China’s socialist phase, as well as the Hu-Wen era favourite: ‘to harmonise’ 和諧, that is to delete, elide, disappear or otherwise censor content on the Internet, disputes in reality and even people. Developments in New China Newspeak during the era of Xi Jinping (2012-) also require an updated approach, copious reading and dedicated analysis.

New China 新華

The expression ‘New China’, Xinhua 新華, although most readily associated with the Communists since the 1940s, in fact has its origins in the early twentieth century. What is now the Lake Palaces or Zhongnan Hai 中南海 party-state leadership compound in central Beijing, for example, was renamed New China Palace 新華宮 in the early 1910s by the Republican President and would-be emperor Yuan Shikai 袁世凱. As the self-styled Hongxian 洪憲 (‘Vast Mandate’) Emperor, Yuan prepared to ascend the dragon throne formally at the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the former imperial palace in 1916, two years after having been inaugurated there as the first president of the Republic of China. The former Qing capital of Beijing would now become the capital of the Great Chinese Empire 大中華帝國. Local opposition and rebellion in the provinces, however, cut short Yuan’s reign; the new empire lasted a mere eighty-three days. All that remains of that imperial venture is the formal south-facing entrance constructed for the new palace: New China Gate or Xinhua Men 新華門, the main entry to the Sea Palaces on Chang’an Avenue. New China Gate is flanked by two slogans (‘Long Live Ever-Victorious Mao Zedong Thought!’ 戰無不勝的毛澤東思想萬歲! and ‘Long Live the Communist Party of China!’ 中國共產黨萬歲!), as well as the words ‘Serve the People’ 為人民服務 in the hand of Mao Zedong on the spirit wall that blocks a view of the compound from the street. (Here I would note that the words ‘Serve the People’ are similarly festooned on signboards and entrances to government and Party offices throughout China. Most people know all too well that, for all intents and purposes, the slogan actually means ‘Keep Out!’)

Prior to the series of events surrounding Yuan Shikai’s failed attempt to restore the monarchy, from the late-Qing period the term húa 華 had gained renewed currency in the compound expression Zhonghua 中華. It was popularized in particular by the noted thinker Liang Qichao 梁啓超 who promoted the invented concept of the ‘Chinese race’ or Zhonghua minzu 中華民族.[4] Thereafter, húa 華 would frequently be used to represent ‘Chineseness’ in various modern formulations; while today Zhonghuaxing 中華性, ‘the ineffable nature of that which is Sinitic’, has been used to denote a kind of Chinese cultural essentialism, with overtones of ‘racial’ uniqueness and cultural superiority. In the name of the new state itself ‘China’ was represented as ‘Zhonghua minguo’ 中華民國, just as Yuan Shikai’s abortive Great Chinese Empire was the ‘Great Zhonghua Empire’ 大中華帝國. From the Republican era onwards, various products have been sold under the Chung Hwa 中華 brand name, most notably books, pencils and cigarettes.

The concept of the ‘new’ 新 as opposed to the ‘old’ 舊 was central to cultural and political discussions and debates in the Republican era. Xinhua or New China Newsagency 新华社 was so named at the Communist base at Yan’an in April 1937, having previously been known as the Red China Newsagency 紅色中華通訊社 (紅中社 for short), the Party’s propaganda arm founded along with the Chinese Soviet Republic in Ruijin, Jiangxi 江西瑞金 in November 1931. A related propaganda organisation, New China Books 新華書店, was also established at Yan’an, in September 1939. Xinhua now enjoys a global reach, and its Internet presence is dubbed Xinhuanet.

The authoritative dictionary of People’s Republic-style Chinese is the Xinhua Dictionary 新華字典 (an online version is available here). That dictionary was produced as part of the language reforms launched by the government of New China in the 1950s. It built on Republican-era attempts to standardize written and spoken Chinese (in particular by reducing orthographic and pronunciation variations in subsequent editions). Such efforts were also influenced by 1920s-30s’ debates on language in the Soviet Union, and even funded by the Soviets.[5] First produced by the Beijing Commercial Press in 1957, the Xinhua Dictionary not only provided guidance on matters of mainland Chinese definitions and usage, but is also the main vehicle for the promotion of the officially approved (and evolving) orthography of the Chinese language. In recent years it has been a tool in Ministry of Education policy to reduce further the variety and complexity of Chinese pronunciation and writing, this includes a long-term policy of simplification and standardization derided by some for amounting to performing ‘cosmetic surgery on Chinese characters’ 漢字整容.[6] It is claimed that the Xinhua Dictionary, which has gone through some ten editions and over two hundred reprints, is the most widely reproduced lexicon in the world.

New Writing 新文體 and Popular Language 大眾語

‘New China Newspeak’ 新華文體 is an expression that gained currency in the 1980s among a small group of writers who used it to describe the Communist-inflected Chinese that had evolved from the 1920s, and especially during the ideological struggles of the 1930s and thereafter. It was a form of mainstream media Chinese against which these writers — mostly journalists and writers of fiction — constantly struggled in their attempts to find an individual voice after decades of living under the influence of Party discourse. New China Newspeak is a term that recalls the creation in the last decade of the nineteenth century of a form of Chinese prose that straddled the divide between the literary language 文言文 and vernacular Chinese 白話文, itself a version of what was previously known as kuānhùa 官話, ‘Mandarin’.[7] The style of exposition that featured in the press from the late-nineteenth century was popularized, in particular, by Liang Qichao. It was known as ‘new-style writing’ 新文體. Because it most frequently appeared in the pages of new periodicals that introduced concepts and ideas that challenged the status quo it was also variously known as 報章體 、時務體 or 新民體.[8]

This new style of writing was liberating for writers in the late-Qing and it helped lay the foundation for what would become the May Fourth-period cultural movement (c.1915-1927). Central to that movement was the push for clarity of expression and the modern vernacular championed, among others, by Hu Shi 胡適. Hu was famous for his interdictions against clichéd, tired and obfuscating prose (summarized in his famous list of ‘Eight Nots’ 八不主義). Hu Shi’s ‘Eight Don’ts’ or guidelines for modern Chinese were:

  1. Don’t write unless you have something to say;
  2. Don’t imitate the ancients;
  3. Don’t ignore syntax;
  4. Don’t moan and groan without reason;
  5. Don’t use old clichés or set expressions;
  6. Don’t resort to classical allusions;
  7. Don’t use couplets or parallelism; and,
  8. Don’t avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters.

In 1918, he simplified these principles in the following way:

  1. Speak [that is, speak or write] only when you have something to say;
  2. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it;
  3. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else; and,
  4. Speak in the language of the time in which you live.[9]

Despite these cautions the May Fourth era was a transitional stage in the development of various modern styles of Chinese prose. While this more demotic form of Chinese featured a new diction and imported vocabulary, over time it was most frequently used to preach new ideologies. The formulations of these were often stark and uncompromising, something that reflected an unexamined preference for old-style quasi-axiomatic expressions and linguistic habits against which Hu Shi had spoken. Similarly, the highly judgmental language of vituperation displayed during the Taiping Rebellion attacks on the Qing court in the mid-nineteenth century (which in particular featured racist taunts and highly inflammatory expressions), as well as the anti-Manchu racism of leading late-nineteenth century like Zhang Taiyan 章太炎, and Zou Rong 鄒容 at the turn of the century, found a new lease of life, as well a new political cause. Just as the literary language had accumulated various registers and styles, so the evolving ‘new writing’ would be complex, nuanced and layered.

When post-Cultural Revolution writers spoke of ‘New China Newspeak’, they identified it as being invidious to clear and honest expression. In some ways, their resistance mirrors somewhat the critiques of the old literary language of the previous century: that it was dated, obfuscating and a kind of dead-letter language. I think, in particular, of the investigative journalist Dai Qing 戴晴, who paid special attention in her own writing to challenging the norms of expression that constitute Party prose.[10] To writers like Dai, New China Newspeak was a kind of writing that was heavily influenced by May Fourth-era translationese, a style that melded clumsy European-style diction 歐化文體 with an evolving modern Chinese written language.

Language reform — whether the reform or abolition of the Chinese character in favour of romanization, or grammatical style and syntax — was a topic debated over many years. It became a focus of contention when in the 1930s, conservatives in the then Nationalist government proposed reintroducing literary Chinese as the main vehicle for written expression in schools (a topic hotly debated, under very different circumstances, in Taiwan in 2017). In 1934, the study of Confucian texts was also promoted as part of this return to ‘tradition’. The opposition to these moves, led by linguists and writers such as Chen Wangdao 陳望道, countered with a ‘popular language movement’ 大眾語運動. The ensuing debate between the rival camps was featured in the pages of the Shanghai publication Free Speech 自由談. The proponents noted that all too often the written language remained an admix of the literary and the vernacular 半文半白. In the realm of public usage the vernacular was favoured in literary and popular works that had evolved during the New Culture Movement. Meanwhile, in the legal, political and social realms, literary Chinese continued to be favoured. Over time, the advocates of ‘popular language’ triumphed and this facilitated the growing authority and prevalence of the vernacular 白話文 over literary Chinese. These developments also critically informed the subsequent language reforms of the Chinese Communist government in the 1950s.

Well may have Chen Wangdao favoured a language that, in his words ‘can be spoken, understood when heard, written down and understood when read’ 說得出,聽得懂,寫得來,看得下. Despite the debate, however, the various styles of vernacular Chinese that were being hailed as ‘popular language’ were largely inaccessible to the masses. This was, in essence, a difficult written language burdened with complex syntax and a plethora of political slogans, to which Soviet-style propaganda, including translations of Marxist as well as Leninist and Stalinist prose (as noted above, known as la langue de bois, or wooden parole [11]), were further added. The prominence of this ‘party-fied Chinese’ grew in tandem with the political rise and growing reach of the Communist Party (although in its use of language this was mirrored by its ideological competitor, the KMT). The New China Newspeak that gradually developed also continued to draw heavily on the bureaucratese and imagery of literary Chinese. The result was a linguistic concoction that was by turns dry and dull, lively and vociferous. It would underpin the official language of post-1949 China.


Mao Zedong was the master of this kind of flexible (and pedantic) prose (the famous 1960s selection of Mao quotes 毛主席語錄, the Little Red Book, was a decoction of his uses of Chinese and see also his barbed essay ‘Farewell, Leighton Stuart’ 别了, 司徒雷登, dated 8 August 1948.[12]). Some have called New China Newspeak simply Maospeak 毛語,[13] although I would argue that such a simplification quite wrongly limits our understanding of this kind of writing and speaking to a specific era, and to a specific author. From the 1940s, Mao’s secretaries and ghost-writers also contributed significantly to the evolution of New China Newspeak. Notable among these were Zhou Yang 周揚 (1908-1989), Chen Boda 陳伯達 (1904-1989) and Hu Qiaomu 胡喬木 (1912-1992), the latter two were political secretaries for Mao after 1949, while because of his persuasive (and autocratic) influence Zhou Yang would be known as New China’s ‘Cultural Tsar’ 文化沙皇. Chen was famous for the carefully honed vitriol of his 1940s writings (his ‘Enemy of the People: Chiang Kai-shek’ 人民公敵蔣介石 is an anti-KMT Party classic, while his work excoriating the nepotism and corruption of the KMT was often recalled as the Communist Party’s own red nobility emerged in recent decades) and, during the High-Maoist years, he was notorious for the rhetorical violence that characterized his writing, something that was particularly evident in the essays and editorials that he wrote in the early months of the Cultural Revolution. For his part, Hu Qiaomu was a master of carefully honed Party discourse. As propaganda chief, head of People’s Daily and as the ‘Party’s leading wordsmith’, as Deng Xiaoping called him, Hu played a foundational role in the creation of the voice of the New China Newsagency, one that underwrites the dominant discursive style of China’s party-state today.[14]

It is noteworthy that versions of New China Newspeak, a language that can mix bureaucratese with the literary and the vernacular, are constantly employed by political hacks, petitioners and others when making submissions to the authorities, be it the Party or the government. There is a feeling among those who favour this style that such prose ‘avoirdupois’, that it resonates with readers of all backgrounds as it is freighted with literary effects, orotund terms and poetic flourishes. As they vie to articulate snappy Party slogans and formulations or tifa 提法[15] think tanks and advisers 縱橫家 of various shades often favour this expository style. When reading such prose, we are reminded of Zhang Taiyan’s 章太炎 remark that: ‘the vernacular lacks a sufficiency of significance, so at times it is necessary to use the classical’ 白話意義不全, 有時仍不得不用文言文也.[16]

Party & Other Eight-legged Essays 黨八股

As we have argued, New China Newspeak enjoyed a long period of evolution before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. It developed both in China proper and ‘outside the pass’ 關外, in the realm of Manchukuo militarized Chinese (itself much influenced by imperial militant Japanese). That particular form of Chinese is known as ‘Concordia Chinese’ (協和語, or きょうわご in Japanese), and elements of its syntax and usage, not to mention vocabulary (for instance, the word for the staple grain eaten at a meal, 主食, is a Concordia Chinese term; as is hùa ‘-ize’), penetrated mainstream Chinese during the 1930s and 1940s.[17]

As early as 1942, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong would famously deride what he called ‘stereotyped Party writing’ (or ‘Party Eight-legged Essays’ 黨八股). Using the very kind of numeration that is a favoured device of such prose, he listed eight indictments against it:

The first indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it fills endless pages with empty verbiage. Some of our comrades love to write long articles with no substance, very much like the ‘foot-bindings of a slattern, long as well as smelly’. Why must they write such long and empty articles? There can be only one explanation; they are determined the masses shall not read them. Because the articles are long and empty, the masses shake their heads at the very sight of them. How can they be expected to read them? Such writings are good for nothing except to bluff the naive, among whom they spread bad influences and foster bad habits. …The same applies to speechmaking; we must put an end to all empty, long-winded speeches.

The second indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it strikes a pose in order to intimidate people. Some stereotyped Party writing is not only long and empty, but also pretentious with the deliberate intention of intimidating people; it carries the worst kind of poison. Writing long-winded and empty articles may be set down to immaturity, but striking a pose to overawe people is not merely immature but downright knavish….

The third indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it shoots at random, without considering the audience….

The fourth indictment against stereotyped Party writing is its drab language that reminds one of a biesan 瘪三. Like our stereotyped Party writing, the creatures known in Shanghai as ‘little biesan’ are wizened and ugly. If an article or a speech merely rings the changes on a few terms in a classroom tone without a shred of vigour or spirit, is it not rather like a biesan, drab of speech and repulsive in appearance? If someone enters primary school at seven, goes to middle school in his teens, graduates from college in his twenties and never has contact with the masses of the people, he is not to blame if his language is poor and monotonous. But we are revolutionaries working for the masses, and if we do not learn the language of the masses, we cannot work well. At present many of our comrades doing propaganda work make no study of language. Their propaganda is very dull, and few people care to read their articles or listen to their talk.

The fifth indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it arranges items under a complicated set of headings, as if starting a Chinese pharmacy. Go and take a look at any Chinese pharmacy, and you will see cabinets with numerous drawers, each bearing the name of a drug — toncal, foxglove, rhubarb, saltpetre … indeed, everything that should be there. This method has been picked up by our comrades. In their articles and speeches, their books and reports, they use first the big Chinese numerals, second the small Chinese numerals, third the characters for the ten celestial stems, fourth the characters for the twelve earthly branches, and then capital A, B, C, D, then small a, b, c, d, followed by the Arabic numerals, and what not! How fortunate that the ancients and the foreigners created all these symbols for us so that we can start a Chinese pharmacy without the slightest effort. For all its verbiage, an article that bristles with such symbols, that does not pose, analyse or solve problems and that does not take a stand for or against anything is devoid of real content and nothing but a Chinese pharmacy. …

The sixth indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it is irresponsible and harms people wherever it appears. …Many people write articles and make speeches without prior study or preparation, and after writing an article, they do not bother to go over it several times in the same way as they would examine their faces in the mirror after washing, but instead offhandedly send it to be published. Often the result is ‘A thousand words from the pen in a stream, but ten thousand li away from the theme’ 下筆千言,離題萬里. Talented though these writers may appear, they actually harm people. This bad habit, this weak sense of responsibility, must be corrected.

The seventh indictment against stereotyped Party writing is that it poisons the whole Party and jeopardizes the revolution.

The eighth indictment is that its spread would wreck the country and ruin the people.

These two indictments are self-evident and require no elaboration. In other words, if stereotyped Party writing is not transformed but is allowed to develop unchecked, the consequences will be very serious indeed. The poison of subjectivism and sectarianism is hidden in stereotyped Party writing, and if this poison spreads it will endanger both the Party and the country.

The aforesaid eight counts are our call to arms against stereotyped Party writing.[18]

Mao certainly ‘talked the talk’, but when it came to defeating a strain of odious, long-winded and obscurantist prose that he among others (including Lu Xun 魯迅) identified as having evolved during the May Fourth movement, Mao proved ineffectual. Indeed, in the Sinofied Soviet system that he and his colleagues championed from the 1950s the blight of ‘Party eight-legged essays’ became the norm, as indeed it remains today under Xi Jinping. Despite this, and regardless of the fact that Mao could also write the most long-winded prose, he was masterful when it came to combining Party palaver with scientific socialist jargon, demotic vulgarisms and classical allusions. The early Red Guards imitated and built on his complex linguistic style,[19] but generally speaking all that remains of the more pithy, and often cruelly humorous, langue de Mao today is the hyperventilated bombast of post-Maoists and online ‘patriotic thugs’ 愛國賊, although fans of The Global Times’ line in mock outrage can also detect shades of Mao therein. Of course, that is not to say that parodies of Party language and demeanour are uncommon.

Parody & its Enemies 反諷、惡搞、原味

The Taiwan-born novelist Chen Jo-hsi 陳若曦 was the first notable writer to depict Cultural Revolution-era China and its language (Chen had moved to Nanjing from the US with her husband in 1966 following an acclaimed literary debut in Taiwan; she relocated to Hong Kong in 1973). Her stories, the most famous of which is ‘The Execution of Mayor Yin’ 尹縣長, were published in Taiwan in 1976, and in English in 1978. In 1980, Li Jian’s 李劍 story ‘Drunk in the Rapeseed Patch’ 醉入花叢 was one of the first mainland-published works of fiction to deride Mao-era slogans via a comic description of Red Guard sex. Later in the decade, the Beijing novelist Wang Shuo 王朔 proved himself to be the master of droll spoofs of Party language and behaviour, a style popularised in the mass media by the 1992 TV series The Editors 編輯部的故事. Han Shaogong’s 韓少功 1996 comic novel A Dictionary of Maqiao 馬橋詞典 concentrated on the Cultural Revolution era, and Yan Lianke’s 閻連科 2005 psycho-sexual political comedy Serve the People 為人民服務 continued in a vein first mined by Li Jian.

Of course, Chinese art (and in particular the 1991 ‘cultural T-shirts’ of Kong Yongqian 孔永謙) has long been voicelessly riffing on Party speak, but up until the dominance of Xi Jinping and his media managers, it was Internet spoofers, novelists and essayists who pursued New China Newspeak with celebrated energy. There was Hu Ge’s 胡戈 online parody Murder by Mantou 一個饅頭引發的血案 in 2006 and the 2008 novel by the Beijing-based Hong Kong writer Chan Koon-chung 陳冠中 In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 盛世:中國、2013年 (published in English as The Fat Years). For more on language and China’s Prosperous Age, see here.

Perhaps the best-known contemporary writers to have taken Party language to task are the Shanghai essayist Han Han 韓寒 and the (now former) Beijing art-dissenter Ai Weiwei 艾未未; both are masters at producing parodies of the Party. Yu Hua’s 余華 2010 series of essays, China in Ten Words 十個詞彙里的中國 offersed another approach to how writers reflect on and tussle with New China Newspeak. The US-based Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon launched in December 2010 by China Digital Times meanwhile provides a ledger of the ongoing uses and abuses of Chinese on the Internet.[20]

Well may Mao have claimed: ‘Those who are badly infected by stereotyped Party writing do not take pains to study what is useful in the language of the people, in foreign languages, or in classical Chinese, so the masses do not welcome their dry and dull propaganda, and we too have no need for such poor and incompetent propagandists.’ Such poor and incompetent propagandists now reign in the cyber-realm as well. Paradoxically, despite its often mind-numbing effect, the logorrhoea of Chinese Party language enjoys a longevity that feeds off the very neo-liberalised economic successes of the Reform era. Indeed, as Victor Klemperer noted in his study of the evolution of the language of the Third Reich in the 1930s, the hyperbole of American advertising culture proved linguistically very attractive; and the euphemisms and technical jargon beloved of global managerial culture have given practitioners of New China Newspeak a rich new vocabulary. (In Australia, the local version of neoliberal balderdash is called the language of ‘weasel words’. This verbal thicket chokes all aspects of public discourse. Universities, for instance, celebrate ‘research excellence’ while evacuating it both of substance and of meaning; and risible euphemisms such as ‘fiscal realignment’ are employed to signal the shutting down of non-income generating teaching programs and purges of staff. For more on weasel words, see the work of Don Watson and the related site.)

Today, New China Newspeak remains not only a powerful rhetorical weapon in the linguistic arsenal of China’s party-state. It is also employed by writers and self-promoters located at various points along the Chinese political spectrum. Neo-Maoists, including individuals and groups dubbed from the early 1990s ‘red fundamentalists’ (原紅旨主義者 or 原紅教旨主義者) — the latest being the writers posting on such sites as Utopia 烏有之鄉 who were particularly outspoken from 2003-2012 — preferred as their default version of New China Newspeak the ‘big-character-poster’-style of radical vituperation and denunciation of the High-Maoist era. Even right-leaning anti-Party activists, be they adherents of Falun Gong or post-1989 ‘democrats’ often consciously or unconsciously employ New China Newspeak. A personal favourite dates from the mid 1990s.

The US-exiled democracy activist Chai Ling 柴玲 gave voice to her outrage over the film The Gate of Heavenly Peace (for which I was the principal writer) and denounced its makers at length (and later, unsuccessfully, through US courts). Party-style language came easily to the Harvard Business School graduate when she attacked the film in Chinese:

…certain individuals have for the sake of the gaining approval of the authorities racked their brains for ways and means to come up with policies for them. And there is another person with a pro-Communist history who has been hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to reveal something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white…
個別的人為了利慾討好當政者,挖空心思地為當政者出謀劃策;另一個有親共歷史的人為了謀取商業暴利推銷自己的紀錄片,斷章取義企圖要標新立異,硬要把歷史的黑白顛倒過來… [21]

Equally, if not more noteworthy, was the fact that the left-leaning thinker Wang Hui 汪晖 would also resort to a certain Maoist diction when defending himself against accusations of a conflict of interest in 2000:

Some individuals [有些人] have [deliberately] distorted the facts [歪曲事實], and have concocted things out of thin air [無中生有]; furthermore, not only have they attacked and libeled without due cause [無端的], they have directed their attacks [矛頭指向] at Tsinghua University and the other recipients of awards. [We are] startled [讓人震撼] at the extremely calculating fashion [用心之深] in which certain individuals [有些人] have exploited [利用] divisions in the intellectual sphere to confound the issues [混淆視聽]… Some websites and particular [個別] newspapers have acted as the source for such rumour-mongering [… ].

However, among the oppositionist individuals and groups who employ New China Newspeak with some of its original panache, those featured on the Utopia site remained the most colourful. Their retro-version of Maospeak reached something of a contemporary apogee around the time of the crash-and-burn fall of Bo Xilai in March-April 2012, and was tamed by the rise of Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping from later that year.[23]

Although it can often generate risible formulations, when in full flight and soaring on the wings of high dudgeon, official New China Newspeak remains an unparalleled form of global statist Chinese. As it has been argued in the above, its power derives partly from its evolution over nearly a century and from the ability of its authors to draw on a vast corpus of written Chinese and a formidable repertory of memorable, and memorized, formulations. This allows users to cut and paste as readily from pre-Qin philosophy and ancient historical texts as well as from poetry and prose drawn from any point in the country’s long recorded history. To this is added an embracing linguistic world formed from the Maoist canon, Deng-era gray bureaucratese, Jiang Zemin-Hu Jintao-Xi Jinping engineer-inspired pseudo-science discourse and, since the 1990s, statements and ideas stamped with globalized neoliberal diction. In the Internet era, New China Newspeak also boast the hubristic certitude of modern advertising copy along with the glib shorthand of text messaging.

Quoting the Chairmen 語錄體

In the latter years of the Cultural Revolution, Fudan University in Shanghai 上海复旦大学, like other educational institutions throughout the country, prominently featured a statue of Mao Zedong on campus. Most of these stodgy representations of the Great Leader were located immediately inside the main campus gate. The preferred image would generally show the chairman in a winter jacket, a corner of which would be raised slightly by an imaginary wind. The leader himself would be show gesturing in salute, greeting and call to action. At Fudan facing the chairman on a large screen wall on the other side of the road outside the campus entrance was a Mao quote. As was the fashion at the time, the quotation was written in white on a red background.



Class struggle is a net
Cast wide all is ensnared

Mao’s Selected Works 毛澤東選集 also known as 毛澤東著作/毛著, as well as the decocted version, Quotations from Chairman Mao 毛主席語錄, remain important texts for those who would understand the style and mentality that still informs contemporary New China Newspeak.



Forget Not Our Intention
Dwell Yet On Our Mission

Since the irresistible rise of Xi Jinping as China’s Chairman of Everything since late 2012, performative quotation of the Leader has once more become a feature of Chinese public (and in some cases private) life. In guarded conversations people may mock the omnipresent Xi Jinping and his peerless Thought, but in social practice, his words (engineered by Party thinkers like Wang Huning 王滬甯, a man who, having formulated ideas for three successive Party leaders — Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi — is justly celebrated as an ‘accomplished minister during three imperial reigns’ 三朝功臣) are the ‘coin of the realm’, the main form of political and cultural exchange. Those who are adept at parroting or formulating Xi Speak for their own purposes prosper, while those who lack such linguistic fluency falter.

With an ever-greater emphasis on Partiinost’ (партийность; 黨性), that is ‘Party-mindedness’, in China today new generations of young people will learns the ins and outs of New China Newspeak, just as the country’s ‘foreign friends’ and fellow travellers will, as was the case in earlier eras, adapt themselves to parroting Party parole. A failure to do so is not only politically incorrect, it will result in a failure to communicate.

The Spring & Autumn Style 春秋筆法

One of the main features of New China Newspeak is its ‘moral-evaluative’ dimension. In this it builds on patters of moral judgment used by writers in pre-modern times, be they historical, cultural or artistic judgments. And to this is added a partisan, Communist Party (formerly class-sturggle-based and Sinified Marxist-Leninist) approach to material reality. For those who would use the past as a mirror to guide present actions, evaluations and moral judgments were crucial.

It is the concern of many students of things Chinese (be they in or outside China) that the yawning gap between reality and rhetoric should, in the long run, make things untenable, or lead to some massive revision or collapse of the reasserted ideological power of the party-state. Taking a sideways glance at the parallels between Soviet and Chinese socialism, however, and if we remain mindful of the lessons that have been learnt from the Soviet collapse (and indeed the Putinesque Russian autocratic revival, see, for example, Mascha Gessen’s 2017 book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia), one could say that party-state rule in China has created a range of appealing and abiding ideological simulacra. To date these have incorporated cultural alternatives and opponents in a ‘postmodern pastiche’ of the kind originally described in the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein’s work on the former Soviet ideological landscape.[24] This kind of pastiche has also been commented on (and denounced) by China’s own New Left and retro-Maoists. In recent years, political reality, and the sheer weight of Party power, have, for the moment, swept aside such prevarications.

In his work on relativistic patterns in totalitarian thinking, Epstein analysed totalitarianism as ‘a specific postmodern model that came to replace the modernist ideological stance elaborated in earlier Marxism.’ He argued that the use of what he called ‘descriptive-evaluative’ words, that is terms that combine both descriptive and evaluative meanings or connotations — ‘ideologemes’ employed universally in Soviet speech — communicate not only information but also a specific ideological message, or concealed judgments that take the form of words. Epstein’s view of how ideologemes functioned in Soviet public discourse finds striking parallels in reformist-era China (1978-). In short, Epstein noted that a key to the function of ideologemes is that they can encompass both leftist and rightist concepts, embracing the spectrum of utilitarian shifts made within a totalitarian or rather a totalising system, that is a system that can incorporate and reconcile logical inconsistencies and opposing ideas.

The most obvious example is the expression ‘Chinese characteristics’ 中國特色社會主義. This nebulous formula has been developed since the 1980s to incorporate both post-Mao policy eclecticism, and the evolving ethos, and self-justifications of the one-party state. Under Xi Jinping, since October 2017, this has been recast as ‘Xi Jinping’s New Epoch Thinking on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ 習近平新時代中國特色社會主義思想, or Xi Jinping Thought for short. In late 2017, the authorities announced funding for an initial tranche of ten research centers that would work to explicate, order and elaborate the Chairman’s tangle of ideas — thinking that covers every nook and cranny of policy, as well as Party behaviour, cultural aspiration, social etiquette, etcetera etcetera.

Another simple example is the expression ‘socialist market economy’. It conveys the extreme contradictions within contemporary economic realities; it is an expression that allows for an ideological underpinning to what, superficially at least, appears to have been an example of the party’s retreat from its avowed state-centred Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary ideals. According to Epstein, this kind of linguistic formulation is not the result of a desperate pragmatism; rather it is the reflection of the core philosophy of a political approach which ‘uses leftist slogans to defeat the right, rightist slogans to defeat the left’, a politics that strives throughout to maintain its own primacy. This is a primacy that is not merely about temporal power, but one that is also about dominion in the realms of ideas and emotions.

Totalitarian or totalistic speech is marked by its ability to employ ideologically laden words to weaken opposing sides while taking advantage of the resulting confusion. The Chinese written language has a rich and venerable lexicon of words that have been converted under party-state rule to act as ‘ideologemes’. It is a lexicon that, according to tradition, was first formulated by Confucius when he purportedly edited the history of the State of Lu 魯國, the Spring and Autumn Annals 呂氏春秋, judiciously selecting expressions to depict political actions in moral terms. Classical scholars claimed that the Sage thereby created a ‘Spring-and-Autumn writing style’ 春秋筆法, one which relied on a vocabulary of moral-evaluative words 褒貶詞 that allowed the writer either to praise 褒 or censure 貶 the political acts and events recorded in the annals of Lu.

In modern usage, activities beneficial to the party-state are represented by words with positive connotations 褒義詞, while those that are deleterious in nature are condemned with negative verbs, nouns and adjectives 貶義詞. The growth or maturation of socialist society has led to a linguistic accretion, one that incorporates the Maoist doublethink of the first three decades of the People’s Republic with the patriotic parole of Reform, and now ‘New Epoch Xi Jinping Thought’. The general party line exists in a state of constant tension with both right and left deviations, maintaining a rhetorical and practical balance between the two. This was notably evident in the populist, and popular, ‘Sing Red Crush Black’ 唱紅打黑 campaign launched in Chongqing as part of an effort to clamp down on local mafias (as well as business and bureaucratic enemies) while extolling a nationalistic-Maoism through mass choral performances. One could postulate, as Epstein does for Soviet Marxism, that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ — the theoretical formula that underwrites contemporary China — is an enigmatic and hybrid phenomenon that, ‘like postmodern pastiche … combines within itself very different ideological doctrines’.[25]

New China Newspeak 一言以興邦,一言以喪邦

My argument then is that in China the ruling ideology has gone through a transmogrification rather than a collapse, absorbing both leftist and neo-liberal ideas in the process. The resulting ‘ultra-stable linguistic system’, to re-phrase a famous argument by the social scientists Jin Guantao 金觀濤 and Liu Qingfeng 劉青峰, has resulted in the particularities of New China Newspeak. ‘Ideology’, as Epstein puts it, ‘becomes simply a habit of thinking, a manner of expression, the prism through which all views and expressions are refracted without depending on specific views and ideas — a sort of universal network that may be compared to the advertising networks of Western nations.’ As goods are exchanged for money in a capitalist environment, so facts can be exchanged for ideas in the totalising realm. As a form of currency, ideas accrue their own ‘ideological capital’. Their value lies in their ability to shore up the ‘correctness’ of the ideology of their proponents, and it is this correctness that compensates people for their sacrifices to the cause, and can even play a role in recouping the losses resulting from policy errors.

Such ideological capital has outgrown the limitations of individual personalities and systems of ideas to ‘become an omnipresent mentality, appropriating any fact to serve any idea’. In China this linguistic practice is New China Newspeak. It has produced a skein of idea-laden language underpinned by a kind of doublethink evident in the High Mao era, and one that flourishes again today. It is a kind of language that George Orwell famously described in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.[26]

Some may object to the use of Orwellian when describing either the reality or the linguistic world of China today. Writers like Ai Weiwei would probably disagree. Linguistic convolutions offer insights into real-time power play, and they have been fodder for creative writers and artists since the early post-Cultural Revolution days. The ideological dialect behind the logorrhea of the party-state — a barrage of verbiage that is easily derided and often overlooked — is not coincidental to a system that articulates itself on the basis of a complex marriage between the territory of dynastic habit, authoritarian politics (related to the Republican period) and high-socialist doublethink.

One example must suffice here as an illustration. On 11 February 2010, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu 馬朝旭 (later China’s ambassador to Australia, 2013-2016) declared that: ‘There are no dissidents in China.’ This was, as Agence France-Presse reported it, ‘just hours after a Beijing court upheld an 11-year jail term for one of the country’s top pro-democracy voices.’ The report went on to say that: ‘Ma made the comment in answer to a question about leading mainland dissident Liu Xiaobo, whose appeal of his conviction on subversion charges was denied early on Thursday. When asked to elaborate, Ma said: “In China, you can judge yourself whether such a group exists. But I believe this term is questionable in China.” ’[27]

Shortly thereafter, the artist and cultural blogger Ai Weiwei observed of this risible statement via his Twitter feed that:

Foreign Affairs Ma’s statement contains a number of layers of meaning:
1. Dissidents are criminals
2. Only criminals have dissenting views
3. The distinction between criminals and non-criminals is whether they have dissenting views
4. If you think China has dissidents, you are a criminal
5. The reason [China] has no dissidents is because they are [in fact already] criminals
6. Does anyone have a dissenting view regarding my statement?


New China Newspeak as a Foreign Affair
Diplomatic Parlance 外交辭令

Analysis of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson-Speak:

Cordial and friendly discourse: Talks not bad.
Frank discourse: There are big differences, and we’re unable to communicate.
Exchange of opinions: Basically each states their position, with no agreement reached.
The two sides have a full exchange of opinions: The two sides argued fiercely.
The two sides’ understanding was enhanced: There are big differences.
[We are] seriously following [the matter]: Perhaps we will interfere, but it’s more likely there is nothing we can do.
[We] express great indignation: We’re at the end of our rope!


1、親切友好交談 —— 談得不錯;
2、坦率交談 —— 分歧很大,無法溝通;
3、交換了意見 —— 基本各說各的,沒有達成協議;
4、雙方充分交換了意見 —— 雙方吵得厲害;
5、增進了雙方的瞭解 —— 分歧很大;
6、嚴重關切 —— 可能要干預,但很可能歇菜;
7、表示極大憤慨 —— 拿人家真沒轍![29]

Faithfulness, Expressiveness & Elegance 信達雅

Since 1976, there has been a relative demilitarization (or ‘de-Maoification’) of language in China, but there has been only every been limited disarmament, and nonproliferation is still not on the books. Overall, Chinese rhetoric has maintained a war footing, and the ‘military-poetic complex’ which binds revolutionary firepower to poetic fancy is well-funded and widely supported in China today, and more so under Xi Jinping than his recent predecessors. International incidents leading to Chinese ‘hurt feelings’, grievance or outrage, generally result in a colourful display of this style of rhetoric, but the outrage is ‘dialled up’ when issues of Core National Interest such as the South China Sea, the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, Tibet or Xinjiang are involved. On a day-to-day basis, the militarized version of New China Newspeak is most often evident following domestic natural disasters or when the party-state deals with homegrown social or political issues. Modes of criticism, debate and public declamation, as well as Internet-based contention, still reflect to a large extent the habits of mind and language inculcated by decades of one-party rule, education and mass media propaganda, all of which long predate the Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949. The Communist Party’s organisation also makes it possible, indeed necessary, to enforce ‘unified thinking’ 統一思想 regarding key ideas and current affairs issues. The structure, power and punitive nature of this system, as described by Anne-Marie Brady, allows for a form of verbal ‘unified calibre’ 統一口徑 and the wherewithal for the party-state to require appartchiks to stay ‘on message’ regardless of what they might think, or say in private.

One example of New China Newspeak doublethink (some might simply call it sophistry by another name) can be found in the verbal contortions of the official spokesman Zhao Qizheng 趙啓正 during the media conference held at the opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress in Beijing on 2 March 2012.[30] One could argue that with the economic boom since the 1990s and the swagger of the party-state on the global stage in the second decade of the new millennium, the totalizing habits of language and thought in China have enjoyed a new lease on life. Even in an environment of guided media openness that is tolerant of certain forms of public contention, morally laden and totalizing rhetoric, along with its internally structured resistance to critical self-reflection, remains dominant. Of course, legitimating what can be said, or allowed to be said (if not being able to control or guide what can be thought) is part of a process that delegitimizes unacceptable formulations, words and expressions. As Mao Zedong himself remarked (quoting the Confucian Analects): ‘one single [correct] formulation, and the whole nation will flourish; one single [incorrect] formulation, and the whole nation will decline’.[31] Over half a century earlier, the translator Yan Fu 嚴復 had observed that ‘there are three difficulties in translation: faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance’ 譯事三難: 信達雅; none of these challenges are limited to translation.

An Ultra-stable System 超穩定性

It is perhaps ironic that the complex body of linguistic and rhetorical practices that continue to enliven and obfuscate in turns both written and spoken Chinese have allowed that language to maintain a stylistic and expressive richness that would have been impossible if the zealous advocates of romanisation and radical vernacular usage had held sway during the Maoist heyday.[32] It is also vitally important to appreciate that the registers of New China Newspeak also provide languages of resistance and opposition to those who consciously oppose the Party’s sway over the mind.

This introductory survey of New China Newspeak should be read in tandem with

Important guides to Chinese Communist Party language and ideological malleability are readily available. They include:

Other online projects follow in detail, and with considerable insight, the changing landscape of China under the party-state. These include, for example:

This essay outlines some aspects of New China Newspeak. An appreciation of, and an initiation into, the all-embracing nature of China’s official language, and its populist derivatives, is important for those who engage seriously with the Chinese party-state. An ability to appreciate the history as well as the abiding power of New China Newspeak allows us to appreciate better the ‘parallel truth’ of the Official China Story.[33]


* My thanks to Gloria Davies for her comments on the first draft of this essay, and to Linda Jaivin, Richard Rigby and Sang Ye for their suggestions, as well as to Jeremy Goldkorn and Joel Martinsen.

[1] See Michael Schoenhals’ 1992 series of essays published as Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics: Five Studies, China Research Monograph, Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1992.

[2] See Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook, trans. Martin Brady, London: Continuum, 2002. In his meticulous (and extraordinary) diaries of Germany’s Nazi era, Klemperer kept a running account of features of what he called LTI. The notes in these diaries (published in English translation in three volumes) which were marked simply LTI are scattered throughout the pages of the diaries. See, for example, Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1942-1945, trans. Martin Chalmers, New York: Random House, 1999, pp.33, 35, 45, etc.

[3] See Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, Boulder, Co.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

[4] In this context, see James Leibold, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism: How the Qing Frontier and its Indigenes Became Chinese, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; and, Thomas Mullaney, James Leibold, Stéphane Gros and Eric Vanden Bussche, eds, Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China’s Majority, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. In his chapter in Critical Han Studies, Leibold notes Liang’s coining of the term Zhonghua minzu in 1902. Leibold also refers to Liang Qichao’s ‘An Introductory Essay on Chinese History’ 中国史绪论, collected in Liang’s Yinbingshi wenji 饮冰室文集, Taipei: Taiwan Zhonghua Shuju, vol.6, p.3.

[5] See the chapter ‘Promethean Linguistics’ in Katerina Clark’s Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995, pp.201-23.

[6] See 國家語委官員稱44漢字微調不會影響生活. For the official account, see 2009年中國語言生活狀況報告. For a list of spoof terms and expressions inspired by the reform, see 為四十四個中文詞彙整容, 22 August 2009. An example of the simplification of the pronunciation of words as given in the Xinhua Dictionary is that the 禧 in the Empress Dowager’s honorific title Cixi 慈禧, formerly pronounced as xi1 is now only allowed as xi3; thus, Ci2xi1 has become Ci2xi3. My thanks to Richard Rigby for reminding me of this Communist act of lèse majesté. For an essay on the fate of the dictionary during the early 1970s at the time of the Maoist ‘literary inquisition’ 文字狱, see Fan Chenggang, 范承剛, ‘The Xinhua Dictionary Tamed’ 被馴化的 《新華字典》, in iSunAffairs 陽光時務, 6 December 2011. See also Michael Churchman, Confucius Institutes and Controlling Chinese LanguagesChina Heritage Quarterly, Issue 26 (June 2011).

[7] For an important study of this, see Theodore Huters in his ‘Legibility vs. the Fullness of Expression: Rethinking the Transformation of Modern Chinese Prose’, Modern Chinese Literature in Chinese, 10.2 (December 2011): 80-104.

[8] Liang said of this new style of writing that when he wrote for the new press he felt freed of the constraints of the old-style (which he called 古文):


For details and this quotation, see the section on Liang and Xin wenti in Yuan Xinpei 袁行霈, ed., A History of Chinese Literature 中国文学史, Beijing: Gaodeng Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1999, vol.4, pp.481-482.

[9] See Hu Shi, ‘Preliminary Suggestions for the Reform of Literature’ 文學改良芻議, La Jeunesse 新青年, no.5 vol.2 (1 January 1917). Writing nearly three decades later, George Orwell would suggest six rules for the writing of clear prose: 1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do; 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active; 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; 6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. From Politics and the English Language (1946).

[10] Dai Qing says that her own prose style developed beyond the immediate thrall of New China Newspeak because as a child she had access to the party-army leader Ye Jianying’s 叶剑英 extensive private library. See my ‘Using the Past to save the Present: Dai Qing’s Historiographical Dissent’, East Asian History, no.1 (June 1991).

[11] See Françoise Thom, La Langue de bois, Paris, Julliard, 1987; and, Christian Delporte, Une histoire de la langue de bois: de Lénine à Sarkozy, Paris: Flammarion, 2009. See also Alain Besançon and George Urban, ‘Language and Power in Soviet Society (I)’, Encounter, May 1987: 3-13. For a late-1980s parody of Chinese Party language by the novelist Wang Shuo, see my Voices from the Bamboo Grove: The Humanity of Chinese Humour in the China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 29 (March 2012).

[12] Online at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_67.htm. When leaders suddenly depart from scripted wooden language and break into colloquial language to make a point, we witness not only the operation of the Chinese vernacular, but a certain aspect of New China Newspeak, one that enables the user to cut through the verbosity of Party parole by employing direct address. It is not accidental, but part of the very rhetorical style that has built up within the corpus of New China Newspeak over the years. Mao was expert at this. Deng Xiaoping had a few shining moments, such as the time in 1984 when there was media speculation about possible plans by Beijing to station PLA units in a post-handover Hong Kong. The senior leader Geng Biao, who had denied that the Chinese army would be stationed in the former British colony, was famously and publicly rebuked by Deng for ‘talking absolute rubbish’ 胡说八道. (For a recent recounting of this incident, see Li Yigen 李意根, ‘Deng Xiaoping Fury Over “PLA Stationing in Hong Kong”: a female reporter was so startled that she couldn’t lift her microphone’ 鄧小平為」香港駐軍事件」大發雷霆:女記者嚇得舉不起話筒, Jinwan Bao 今晚報, 14 April 2012). The then still emergent Party leader Xi Jinping himself demonstrated a mild talent for directness in February 2009 when, during an official visit to Mexico, he blurted out that: ‘There are some well fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs.’ After all, he said: ‘China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else can you say?’ 有些吃飽了沒事乾的外國人,對我們的事情指手划腳。中國一不輸出革命,二不輸出飢餓和貧困,三不去折騰你們,還有什麼好說的. Former Party General Secretary Hu Jintao whose personality was as wooden as his language was less convincing when, in December 2008, he used the expression zheteng 折腾 as he called for his comrades to pursue the ‘Three Don’ts’ — ‘don’t waver, don’t slacken, don’t get sidetracked’ 不動搖, 不懈怠, 不折騰. See the entry on zheteng 折騰 in Heritage Glossary.

[13] See the chapter MaoSpeak in my Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, pp.224-227, where I also use the expression New China Newspeak. See also pp.33 & 113. In a series of unpublished talks and interviews with Chinese intellectuals in 1985-86, undertaken with the film scholar Karima Fumitoshi 刈間文俊 in Beijing, I discussed what I carelessly dubbed ‘Maospeak’ 毛語 (it can also be called ‘Mao-style prose’ 毛文體) and the conundrums it presented to those engaged with China. At the time, we found little serious interest in the subject. Subsequently, writers like Li Jie commented eloquently on the abiding influence of what in 1989 he dubbed the ‘Mao phenomenon’ (see Shades of Mao, pp.140-146). Subsequently, Li Tuo 李陀 published an interesting piece on the subject: ‘Wang Zengqi and Modern Chinese Writing — and a discussion of “Mao-style prose” ‘ 汪曾祺與現代漢語寫作 – 兼談毛文體.

[14] See Hu’s collected writings, 《胡乔木文集》, Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1994, 3 vols. See also Michael Schoenhals, ‘Direction of the Press: Hu Qiaomu’s 1955 Breakfast Chats’, in his Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics, pp.79-102. Anne-Marie Brady suggests that tifa is the Chinese equivalent of George Orwell’s Newspeak. See her Marketing Dictatorship, pp.100-101.

[15] On the significance of ‘formulations’, see Schoenhals, pp.3, 6ff.

[16] Zhang Taiyan 章太炎, ‘The relationship between the Vernacular and the Classical’ 白话与文言之关系, in Ma Yong 马勇, ed., 《章太炎讲演集》, Shijiazhuang: Hebei Renmin Chubanshe, 2004, p.220. Translated by Theodore Huters in his ‘Legibility vs. the Fullness of Expression: Rethinking the Transformation of Modern Chinese Prose’.

[17] My thanks to Sang Ye for pointing out the influence of Concordia Chinese on New China Newspeak. As Sven Saaler and Christopher W. A. Szpilman note in their Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History: 1920-Present, Boulder, Co.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, vol.2, p.164:

The Manchurian Youth League developed the idea of kyowa (xiehe in Chinese) or cooperation between races or nationalities and the rejection of colonialist attitudes. This idea was incarnated in a fascistic mass organization in Manchukuo known as Kyowakai or Xiehehui and translated into English as the Concordia Society. The association was built on a rhetoric or eternal peace embedded in East Asian ideas and a framework of mutual cooperation among different peoples. It advocated anti-imperialism and even conceived of a new type of anticolonial state that would replace all imperialist powers — including the Japanese. Increasingly after 1937, however, the Kyowakai became a propaganda machine for the Japanese army’s expansion into mainland China and Asia.

Although there has been some work on the influence of Japanese on Chinese in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the area of national language policy in Japan and how that influenced political Chinese is a topic worthy of further exploration.

[18] Mao Zedong, Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing, 8 February 1942. Although ‘eight-legged essays’ were much derided by careless critics of the literary tradition, more moderate opinion found in this exacting prose form both intellectual rigour and stylistic elegance. I was involved in creating the formulation ‘waijiao bagu 外交八股’ which was employed by the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his 2010 George E. Morrison Lecture, in which he said:

In the past, the great Chinese writer Lu Xun satirised those writers who tried to sound elevated and self-important by using fashionable foreign expressions, which simply resulted in pretentious and tortured prose. He called it ‘foreign eight-legged essays’ (yang bagu) — referring to the formulaic essays demanded of the imperial examiners in the past, the bagu wen.

In 1942, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, warned his colleagues against creating a new dang bagu, or ‘Party eight-legged essay’ — a form of writing that struck a pose merely to intimidate and obfuscate. Perhaps we too often are caught up in what I would call ‘the eight-legged essays of international relations’, waijiao bagu: that is, stereotypical responses to complex realities, simplistic knee-jerk reactions to situations that require a more layered response. In the great Australian tradition, it’s time that we all got over it.

See Kevin Rudd, Australia and China in the World, The Seventieth George E. Morrison Lecture on Ethnology, 23 April 2010.

[19] For a preliminary study of this style of rhetoric, see Lowell Dittmer and Chen Ruoxi (Chen Jo-hsi), Ethics and Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981.

[20] An English-language version of Chen Jo-hsi’s stories was published in 1978 under the title The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, translated by Nancy Ing and Howard Goldblatt, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. See also her The Old Man and Other Stories, trans. Diane Cornell and others, Hong Kong: Research Center for Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1986. For an excerpt from Li Jian’s ‘Drunk in the Rapeseed Patch’, see my Shades of Mao, pp.221-223. On Wang Shuo, see my In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp.71-79; on The Editors, see In the Red, pp.142-143; on Kong Yongqian’s T-shirts, see In the Red, pp.145ff; on post-1976 art and the Chinese language, see my History Writ Large: Big-character Posters, Red Logorrhoea and the Art of WordsPORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol.9, no.3 (2012); for Hu Ge’s ‘Murder by Mantou’, see my Eating Chinese — the History Banquet, presented on 21 April 2007 at ‘The Future of U.S.-China Relations’ at the University of Southern California; and, Chris G. Rea, ‘Spoofing (e’gao) Culture on the Chinese Internet’, in Jocelyn Chey and Jessica Milner Davis, eds, Humour in Chinese Life and Letters: Classical and Traditional Approaches, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. For Chan Koon-chung’s 2008 novel, see Linda Jaivin, Yawning Heights: Chan Koon-chung’s Harmonious China, in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 22 (June 2010). For Ai Weiwei, see Lee Ambrozy, ed., Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2011, and for a relevant essay by Han Han see A Derailed Country, translated by Matt Schrader and included in China Story Yearbook 2012: Red Rising, Red Eclipse, Chapter 9. For the ‘Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon’, see: here.

[21] Quoted in Totalitarian Nostalgia, in In the Red, p.331.

[22] Quoted in Geremie R. Barmé and Gloria Davies, ‘Have We Been Noticed Yet? – Intellectual Contestation and the Chinese Web’, in Edward Gu and Merle Goldman, eds, Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market, London/NY: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, pp.75-108.

[23] See, for example, Zhang Hongliang’s 張宏良 speech ‘Unite to Struggle for the Revival of Socialism — a speech at a meeting to commemorate the 118th anniversary of the birth of Chairman Mao’ 團結起來,為復興社會主義而努力奮鬥! – 在紀念毛主席誕辰118週年大會上的講話, 1 January 2012. My thanks to Chris Buckley for alerting me to the full text of this speech, previously published on the now-defunct Utopia website. For some early critiques of ‘red fundamentalists’ in the early 1990s, see my In the Red, pp.289, 347 & 353.

[24] This material draws on Totalitarian Nostalgia, in In the Red.

[25] Zhang Hongliang (see n.23 above) was particularly scathing in his description of the ‘socialist market economy’. In regard to the Chongqing ‘red-and-black’ campaign, see Wang Lixiong 王力雄, ‘Bo Xilai and the “Mechanization” of the Chinese Communist Party’ 薄熙來與中共「機器化」, in iSunAffairs 陽光時務, No.18 (3 May 2012).

[26] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1st World Library Literary Society reprint, 2004, p.47.

[27] ‘There are no dissidents in China’, Agence France-Presse, 11 February 2010.

[28] See http://twitter.com/aiww/statuses/8962515702.

[29] See 外交發言用詞解析. My thanks to Gloria Davies for bringing this to my attention.

[30] See, for instance, Zhao on the issue of illness-causing air-borne particulate matter (PM2.5) at: http://news.sina.com.cn/w/2012-03-02/151924048594.shtml. Here he cynically conflates the issue of industrial and motor-vehicle particulate matter, a serious topic in Beijing during 2011, with passive smoking and the smoke plumes produced by New Year’s fireworks.

[31] 一言以興邦,一言以喪邦. See Mao, ‘Zai Hangzhou huishishangde disanci jianghua zhailu, 11 May 1963’, in Zhongguo Renmin Daxue San Hong, ed., Mao Zedong Sixiang Wansui 毛泽东思想万岁!, 13 vols., Beijing, 1967, final supplement, p.120, translated in Schoenhals, Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics, p.3. The online publication China Digital Times follows the undulations in Chinese political lexicon via its frequently updated Directives from the Ministry of Truth.

[32] Writing about an earlier era in the development of modern Chinese, Ted Huters remarks:

In terms of the issues facing modern China, perhaps the most important implications residing in the questions about linguistic register in discursive expression ultimately must return to the realm of the writer rather than to the reader, and do not so much center on the issue of the broadness of the audience, but ultimately on the question of intellectual complexity and authorial initiative—who is to be able to exercise the authority to experiment with language in order to engage in the experiments that will ultimate result in original ideas? Would the ‘right’ to take intellectual initiative be restricted to intellectuals writing in complicated registers in Europe and Japan, or could Chinese writers have equal creative access to experiment with ideas, both old and new via a rich and multi-faceted language? Well aware though they were of the desperate situation of the Chinese nation, Zhang Taiyan and Yan Fu should be seen as going against the grain to maintain this initiative over discourse rather than as inflexible reactionaries hamstrung by the legacy of the past. That the ‘hard-boned’ Lu Xun in the next generation shared a number of their discontents with reducing the complexity of language offers impressive support to this view.

See his ‘Legibility vs. the Fullness of Expression: Rethinking the Transformation of Modern Chinese Prose’, ibid.

[33] In this context, see Ran Yunfei’s remarks in Ian Johnson’s Learning How to Argue for The New York Review of Books, 2 March 2012. Among other things Ran says:

The good news is that blogging and the Internet have damaged the CCP’s monopoly on information. So change is happening slowly, from the grassroots. But the damage of years of living under this system is profound. You, as a foreigner, can live here and learn to use chopsticks and learn Chinese perfectly but you might not know how Chinese people think, especially in sensitive areas. If you ask ordinary people about a sensitive thing, how they react is different than how you’ll react. It’s hard for you to imagine their sense of fear. You might be expelled but it’s not like being here. The system of language has to be analyzed. The CCP created a parallel language system (of untruth) that is on an equal basis with the language of truth. You have to analyze what it’s like to grow up in this kind of an unfree country. This is the only way to really know this country.