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Language and Literacy

The Intricacies of the Chinese Language

Head Broken, Blood Flows

President Xi Jinping exhorting the Chinese people — CCTV image screen capture by author


RECENTLY Chinese President Xi Jinping used a term <头破血流*> (it literally means * “Head Broken, Blood Flows”) to stress a point in his July 1st hour-long speech and address to the 1.4 billion Chinese people. Earlier this year, in the city of Anchorage on March 2021, Chief Chinese Diplomat Yang Jiechi, facing directly US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, strongly retorted with the phrase <我们不吃这一套**>, after he pointedly told Blinken that the US no longer has the right to speak to China from a position of strength.


The terms and phrases used by both the Chinese leaders are deliberate. In the Chinese language, they are well-understood terms that when spoken, will conjure certain images and can even stir up certain emotions. Such expressions are commonly found and used in Chinese writings and verbal retorts and they are powerful actions to help put your points across.

The carefully chosen phrases and terms went viral on social and the mass media the next day for both cases, creating the desired nationwide impact and emotional response. Entrepreneurial Chinese businessmen immediately use the phrases to print on bags, T-shirts, smart phone covers etc, to sell and cash in on the viral hit.

Chinese leaders are clearly the masters in making such winning political moves, playing with the words in the Chinese Language, whenever they find the need to stir up emotional responses in the population.

The Chinese Language

The commonly spoken language <PutongHua 普通话> used by the mainland Chinese is a very colorful language. It is also an ever-evolving one, as the Internet Generation of today drives and shape this language with some new interesting variations, to communicate with each other in this fast-moving age of smart handphones, intelligent tablets and advanced mobile devices.

The Chinese language, both written and spoken, are rich in proverbs, idioms and catch-phrases, commonly used for generations by the Chinese. They are taught in the school systems, spoken and employed by journalists and reporters in the news and social media. The mastery of these will spice up your writings tremendously.

The written Chinese fonts 中文字體 consists of a huge set of mono-syllabic single-characters, estimated to be 50,000 characters in total. Each Chinese character has its unique meaning that all Chinese kids must learn and master from young in school — to memorize, pronounce, speak and write.

To have a fluent command of the Chinese language, you will need to know 8000 characters, but to read a newspaper, 2000–3000 or so of the frequently-used Chinese characters will probably be sufficient.

The Richness of the Chinese language — Photo by Marco Zuppone on Unsplash

By combining the single-characters, the meaning will be extended. It may even become the name or description of something new.

Take for example the two characters 太 (tai — meaning ‘very’ or ‘extreme’) and 空 (kong — meaning ‘empty’ or ‘emptiness’). Put together it is 太空 (tai-Kong = extreme+emptiness ).

In Chinese, outer space is 太空 (pronounced as tai-Kong).

Now you know as well, why the Chinese astronauts are also called “Taikonauts “.

(Note: China calls their astronauts “航天员” - which is also a combination of 3 characters, each with their own unique meaning)

The Language’s role in Chinese Civilization

The Chinese written language is a language form that has remained consistent and largely unchanged practically throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history, ever since it was invented. It has survived and outlasted all the emperors and imperial dynasties to this day. So it has been said that the fact that the Chinese race and Civilisation have remained strong today as one big nation, is largely due to the unifying force of a common written Chinese language. Because it is robust, widely used, and understood by every educated Chinese, it makes Chinese culture and China’s recorded history easily identifiable, teachable, as well as transmissible by each generation of Chinese to the next.

In the case of the European Union countries, the people living there now may share historical blood lineage and are quite connected to each other geographically in one big continent, however, they ended up as different scattered clusters, divided by different languages and cultures — English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swiss, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, etc.

Alexander the Great Conquerer fought and conquered many parts of the ancient world to establish his vast Macedonia empire in 330 BC, but had never had the foresight to introduce a common written or spoken language amongst all his vassal states and huge empire. Otherwise, there could have been a second ‘China-like’ big and homogeneous civilization in existence today.

The Versatility and Richness of the Chinese Language

Today’s Chinese youth are quick to discover their mother language’s versatility and ability to morph if need to. They have therefore innovated and adapt it constantly, to introduce more variations into it — to make their phrases current, hip, and cool for their generation.

  • We now see new Chinese terms such as pronounced ‘ku’ ) to mean ‘cool, man!’
  • You also have new contemporary terms such as 万人迷 literally means ‘intoxicated by 10,000 persons’ ) depicting a female who is popular and stunningly beautiful.
  • For those who are yet single, the best catch for a female will be a 高富帅 (literally means ‘tall, rich, handsome’)
  • … and for a male it will be a 白富美 literally means ‘fair, wealthy, stunningly beautiful)
  • 压力山大 means ‘under great pressure’’
  • 太牛逼了! means ‘you are great!’ …….. and so on.
China’s internet generation — Photo by Owen Winkel on Unsplash

While the older Chinese generation, as well as the mainstream media in China do not normally emulate the use of ‘hip and cool phrases’ of PutongHua created by the internet youth, they will still celebrate the versatility of the Chinese language, by using popular idioms and traditional phrases. These Idioms, proverbs, and traditional catch-phrases abound in current Chinese writings and in media usages. When added to a piece of writing or a verbal presentation, they will usually add richness and clarity in meaning to the writing or reporting that can make them stand out.

Because they are easy to relate to and can even strike a chord in the Chinese reader or listener, many politicians and government spokespersons use Chinese idioms and catchphrases quite liberally in every public occasion, meeting, press briefing, or release, speech, etc. This fact reflects the inherent beauty and richness of the Chinese language and they can become a distinct value-add feature as well when used appropriately.

The Anchorage Moment <我门不吃这一套**>

Take, for example, the translated message conveyed by Ambassador Yang Jiechi in Anchorage in his reply to Blinken: “ the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people“.

The western media will know from the tone and expression of Yang, that he uttered those sentences to express China’s indignation with the US’ earlier direct accusations of China for its policies.
By adding the follow-up phrase <我门不吃这一套**> he has added a deeper, more profound statement to his earlier remarks, one that only a Chinese who is listening can fully grasp the meaning of and can truly resonates with it.

PUT SIMPLY, by saying that phrase, Ambassador Yang laid bare the decades, possibly a Century of unfair, demeaning treatment the Chinese had suffered and put up with, at the hands of the bullying foreigners who came to China as colonialists and imperialists, during those dark periods of Chinese history.

** “We will not accept any of it! We have had enough !’ is the key meaning behind this follow-up phrase <我门不吃这一套**>.

Unfortunately, such a priceless gem of a response was totally lost in the tame translation to English.

The Chinese declare once again that the Century of Humiliation of China and its people by foreign outsiders is truly over.

How the US Views their Own Position

The US does not equate their current actions and attitude towards China with any background events of history that it feels can be of any significance.

History is the past and has little relevance for the present, so the West’s stand is very much one of current pragmatism. It is a straight-forward pragmatic way of making a stand on America’s priorities and principles, totally without any historical baggage attached — “What we see is a China embarking on a path that upsets the established rule-based world order. It is not good for the world, it is not good for the growth of democracy. It must be stopped”.

This is a significant difference from the way the Chinese view any matter. The Chinese will use the past, examine their relevance to the present, and then determine a position they feel is acceptable. The past can present a learning opportunity and past mistakes must never be repeated. In addition, as the Chinese often articulates, it is within their absolute right to chart their own course for its future — outside interference is not welcomed.

Therein lies the big insurmountable gap in starting positions, asides from having key ideological differences of democracy versus autocratic socialism. These major obstacles to a better relationship will not be easily resolved in the foreseeable future.

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Edmund Tham

Edmund Tham


A keen observer and student of the global impact of geopolitical development, with focus on Asia and China