New dictionary defines a changing China

The New China dictionary is the closest China has to an official dictionary and its new entries reflect many of the social changes that are sweeping the country.

BEIJING // Until last month, if you had looked up the character "nu", or "slave", in China's best selling dictionary, the definition would have been infused with Marxist rhetoric.

The example given was the two-character word "nuli", defined as "a person with no freedom, who was suppressed and exploited in old society".

If you look up the same character today in a new edition of the Xinhua Zidian, you would see the additional example of "fangnu" - a person who struggles to pay the mortgage on a house or apartment.

Another is "chenu" - a slave to repayments on one of the million plus new cars hitting China's roads each year.

The New China dictionary, as the book's name translates, is the closest China has to an official dictionary and the new entries are among a raft of changes the country's linguistic guardians have made during the 11th, and largest, reworking of the text since it was first published in 1953.

The new edition, which was released last month, contains definitions for about 13,000 commonly used Chinese characters and took 12 linguists from China's Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, and a team of editors from the state-owned publisher, the Commercial Press, eight years to compile.

"New phrases are appearing every day," Cheng Rong, a linguist at the academy, said in an interview. "The dictionary is a reflection of social change."

Mandarin Chinese, the official language in China, has undergone huge changes since the country started to liberalise its economy in the late 70s, many of which the dictionary - which is the best selling book in the world after ideological and religious texts such as Mao's little red book, the Bible, and the Quran - has failed to account for in its pages.

The latest edition of the dictionary, which is now used mainly by students, is the publisher's attempt to remedy that and to make sure the book, which was the first of its kind to deal with modern rather than classical Chinese, does not lose market share to more progressive titles.

Thus, as well as car and apartment slaves, expressions that have become popular in recent years include "shareholder" and "netizen" - of which there are now 457 million in China.

The term "hair gel" also makes its debut, as does "fenhong" - to receive a bonus. Previously the verb "fen" - meaning "to be divided" - was illustrated by the sentence "to be assigned work or rations".

While words such as "shareholder" have long been overdue inclusion, there is no delay in adding certain political buzzwords, with President Hu Jintao's "Harmonious Society" - unveiled in 2005 -- already making it into the dictionary.

The dictionary's editors also acknowledged for the first time in this edition that many Chinese now say "bye bye" rather than the traditional "zai jian". They also assigned a character "bai", with the original meaning "to do obeisance", so it can now be written as well as uttered.

Other changes include the omission of old terms for food, medicine or clothing.

The old entry for shark says "an animal whose fin is an expensive delicacy" but now describes the animal as "a violent ocean dwelling fish".

Equally interesting are the commonplace terms that have not made it into the dictionary and the dated expressions its editors still choose to include.

Surprisingly, given the attempts to remove overtly Marxist or old-school socialist expressions elsewhere in the dictionary, the character for "struggle" is still accompanied by the model sentence "to hold a struggle session" - a Maoist era phenomenon where crowds gathered to humiliate, beat and sometimes kill people deemed to be class enemies.

And despite the word "internet" making it into the last edition in 2004, the latest edition does not include words for "micro-blog" or "blogger" - of which there now an estimated 300 million in China - as well as download, censorship or firewall.

Ms Cheng says part of the problem is that the Chinese language is generating new words at such a fast rate it is difficult to know which ones will stand the test of time.

One group of words deemed to have passed that test are the 1,500 traditional characters that are being reintroduced. China simplified the characters as part of language reforms in the 1960s but there is growing movement to bring back the long form version that is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Similarly, the editors also took the decision to include more rare characters as more Chinese are choosing to give their children unique names.

Despite all of the changes, however, one thing has remained constant throughout all 11 editions of the dictionary.

Under the entry for "yifu", meaning "clothes", there is a picture of the matching trouser-and-jacket outfit known throughout the world as a Mao suit - a uniform that even China's top leaders now largely shun in favour of western-style office attire.

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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