And Finally

What does it mean?

New words added to China’s official dictionary point to social changes

Word up

Two decades after China allowed its citizens to start buying and selling stocks, the word fenhong, or dividend, has finally been included in the country’s leading dictionary.

The Xinhua Zidian, or New China dictionary, was ground-breaking when it was first published in 1953. Part of the new Communist government’s drive to educate the masses, the book was the first of its kind to deal with modern rather than classical Chinese.

The dictionary, now largely used by students, has sold more than 400 million copies over the years, making it one of the world’s bestselling books after religious and political texts such as The Bible and Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’.

But over the years it has lost much of its ideological edge. Mandarin Chinese began to change rapidly as China moved to a new economic model in the eighties, yet Xinhua Zidian was still full of terms harking back to a more socialist era.

Now, as part of the eleventh, and largest, reworking of the dictionary – designed to coincide with the start of the school year this month – China’s linguistic guardians have sought to purge the dictionary of some of its more overtly Marxist heritage, as well as include, somewhat belatedly, more up-to-date terminology.

Thus, the noun hezuoshe, meaning a cooperative, has been removed, as has the word fandong, meaning anti-revolutionary.

New entries include: wangmin, meaning netizen, of which there are 485 million in China; fangnu, literally a house slave, or someone who struggles to make mortgage repayments; and the suffix –men meaning gate, now attached to words to create names for scandals, as in Watergate.

Other newer terminology has failed to make the cut this time. Weibo – the word for microblog – has not been included, even though there are more than 200 million microbloggers in China. Perhaps less surprisingly, ‘The Great Firewall’ doesn’t get a mention either.

Strangely, under the character dou, meaning to struggle, the example offered is still “to hold a struggle session” – a Maoist era phenomenon where crowds gathered to humiliate, beat and sometimes kill those deemed to be class enemies.

The authors at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argue that words like weibo haven’t made it this time because they need to pass the test of time.

But there is clearly less of a waiting list for the political catchphrases of the moment. China’s current guiding philosophy of a “harmonious society” – which President Hu Jintao first made reference to in 2005 – has already made it into the dictionary’s revised pages.


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