CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


Introducing the China Heritage Glossary | China Heritage Quarterly

Introducing the China Heritage Glossary

Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage Quarterly

This Glossary has its origins in adolescent readings of Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895-1976), the not uncontroversial essayist, editor and translator. In his 1938 book The Importance of Living, Lin included a critical vocabulary of key Chinese terms which he hoped would help elucidate certain aesthetic concepts discussed in that book. As a bilingual writer of great talent, Lin knew all too well the fraught nature of translating ideas, words and sentiments across cultures.

Other works, such as those of Jacques Gernet (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures; originally published as Chine et christianisme: action et reaction, 1982) and Pierre Ryckmans (in particular his translation of and commentary on Shitao's 石濤 Hua Yulu 畫語錄, Les propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-amère, 1970) also form the basis for this glossary, as does the concept of 'keywords' both in international scholarship, and as part of attempts by scholars of the Chinese world to deal with vocabularies and clusters of concepts across both time and space. Early attempts in this regard, such as James Dyer Ball's 1893 Things Chinese: being notes on various subjects connected with China, and more recent au courant endeavours that concentrate on what some call 'translingual practice', are also relevant to this evolving undertaking.

A more immediate origin of the Glossary stems from the need to formulate a translation for the expression 'houzheteng shidai' 后折腾时代 used by Chan Koon-chung 陳冠中 in his 2008 In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 (《盛世:中國、2013年》; an English version of the novel appeared in 2011 under the title The Fat Years). In formulating a term to convey some of the sense of zheteng, I wrote the following:

Zheteng 折腾 / 折騰

No single English word or expression can adequately convey the cluster of meanings inherent in zheteng. For 'to zheteng' is to be unsettled, to struggle, to get by, to try and achieve something but possibly to fail to do so. It means to be exasperated but to battle on regardless. It is to engage with the world uneasily, to sit uncomfortably and to annoy others/oneself/the system/the status quo by one's tireless squirming and restlessness. It is to buck the system, but to believe nonetheless that all resistance is futile; it is to rage against the dying of the light, but to have no confidence that there was any light or that the impending gloom is really all that bad. It is to be ill-at-ease and, by one's efforts, to make others feel the same way. When Linda Jaivin was writing her review of Chan Koon-chung's 2008 novel In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 (陳冠中著 《盛世:中國、2013年》) for China Heritage Quarterly, I suggested that she translate the expression 'houzheteng shidai' 后折腾时代 that he used to describe China's near future as the 'Age of Complacency', that is, a time when people have found that the struggles and ventures of the 1980s, be they meaningful or merely vacuous performances, are spent and that an era of quietude, a time after zheteng now reigns supreme. With energy spent and wills weakened, all that people have to console themselves with is impotent complacency. They find themselves in a 'time when even to zheteng is nugatory—houzheteng shidai 后折腾时代. Middle-age world-weariness awaits senescence.

In December 2008, the Party General Secretary Hu Jintao called for his comrades to pursue an approach encapsulate in terms of what were called the 'Three Don'ts': 不动摇, 不懈怠, 不折腾 (bu dongyao, bu xiedai, bu zheteng). Writing for Danwei, Joel Martinsen noted that the official translation of the 'Three Don't's was 'don't waver, don't slacken, don't get sidetracked' (see Joel Martinsen, 'Interpreting the Wisdom of Hu Jintao', 31 December 2008). Given the preceding paragraph related to the cluster of meanings attached to zheteng, one could also suggest 'sit still!', 'keep focused', or even 'don't fiddle'.

Not long after my note on zheteng appeared in the June 2010 issue of this journal, the China correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos, chose to call his regular online Letter from Beijing 'The Age of Complacency'. In that virtual letter dated 28 July 2010 Evan, winsome as ever, decided to quote my definition of houzheteng shidai in full, calling this wordy attempt to come to grips with the expression zheteng an 'heroically detailed footnote'. This serendipitous New Yorker connection brought me back to Lin Yutang, a man who in 1930s Shanghai founded a number of urbane literary journals that he modeled along the lines of The New Yorker, or Niuyue Ke 紐約客 as it is known in Chinese.

Other worthy collections aimed at explicating Chinese terms, from the simple to the bizarre, exist. There are, for instance, glossaries of defunct (and now obscure) Maoist-era political terms, as well as glib compendia of contemporary slang expressions and all manner of verbal ephemera, along with more estimable efforts such as the lively Internet glossary produced by China Digital Times, 'Grass-Mud-Horse Lexicon'.

China Heritage Glossary is a more modest endeavour, one through which we hope to add in our own way to the nuanced understandings of the Chinese world and its linguistic universe. Whereas Lin Yutang's 1930s list of 'Chinese critical vocabulary', as he called his glossary, concentrated in particular on pre-modern aesthetic terms and categories, China Heritage Glossary will reflect a more rambunctious Chinese reality, along with its concomitantly rich terminology. As with other aspects of China Heritage Quarterly, this Glossary too will pursue what we call New Sinology (Hou Hanxue 後漢學/ 后汉学).

From March 2012, our e-journal will feature China Heritage Glossary in the menu bar of the site. New words, terms and expressions will accrue with each issue. In some cases we will revive old definitions, in others we will offer explications of complex, vexatious or simply near-untranslatable new as well as recondite terms. The Glossary will act as a means to delve into, as well as to navigate through, what long ago was called the Chinese 'Sea of Words' (ci hai 辭海). In keeping with the publication-by-invitation style of China Heritage Quarterly, we will also solicit entries. In the meantime, our consideration of West Lake and its heritage provides an ideal opportunity to publish our first Glossary entry, a discussion of the term Jing 景 (scene, site, vista) by our contributing editor, Duncan Campbell.—The Editor

A Chinese Critical Vocabulary

Lin Yutang introduced his own glossary in The Importance of Living (London: Heinemann, 1938) with the following remarks:

Fig.1 Lin Yutang's seal
Fig.2 The Importance of Living cover image
In my efforts at translation of Chinese literature, for instance in the translation of The Epigrams of Chang Ch'ao [Zhang Chao 張潮, Youming Ying 幽夢影, a Qing-era work that was rediscovered and republished in the 1930s. For an online Chinese text, see: —Ed.], I have constantly run across phrases or terms that are extremely difficult to render into English. This has made me think that perhaps a list of Chinese critical terms with explanatory comments will be both useful and enlightening. It will also be enlightening because the Chinese critics seem to have evolved a technique for the enjoyment of nature and art and literature, and an examination of their critical vocabulary will reveal this technique and their aesthetic feelings about things. One is often forced to write bad English in trying to express such Chinese aesthetic ideas or notions, as for instance when one speaks of 'enjoying the snow', 'singing the wind', 'awaiting the moon', 'playing water', 'facing wine', 'sleeping flowers', 'pacing the moonlight', 'pacing spring', 'pillowing water', 'lying down travelling', and so on. One needs to explain that 'awaiting the moon' means that one goes out to the courtyard after supper to look at the crescent moon, but it has not yet come up and so one has to wait for it, or that 'lying down travelling' means mentally travelling while lying in bed. And when one speaks of 'the moon being suspended at the roof-corner' or 'over the tree-tops', of course the phrase is figurative. But there are more abstract and elusive ideas that are more difficult to paraphrase, as for instance when a Chinese artist speaks of the 'five grades of ch'ing' ('purity'): 'pure and inspired', as when one looks at the moon over the hills and is disgusted with the busy life and thinks of going away to be a recluse; 'pure and charming', as when one has books in one's study and has flowers well arranged in his vase; 'pure and poor', as when one is somewhat sad and forlorn living out in a dreary valley and forsaken by his relatives; 'pure and crazy', as when one loves secluded spots and rare persons and books; and 'pure and rare', as when one has read the classics of the ages and finds himself at home among rocks and springs, and 'his writing smells of haze and coloured clouds, and his conduct is far removed from the dusts of the busy world.'

[…]The list is, of course, far from complete and deals chiefly with the most characteristic aesthetic ideas. But while an intensive study of this critical vocabulary will increase one's understanding and enjoyment of Chinese paintings, a great majority of the terms have moral connotations also. All human personalities can be described in aesthetic terms, and they usually are in the Chinese language.

China Heritage Glossary: Jing

Duncan Campbell

'[I]in certain words, tones and rhythms', argues Raymond Williams in the 'Introduction' to his Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1976), 'meanings are offered, felt for, tested, confirmed, asserted, qualified, changed.' His influential book was intended as 'the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary', understood in two senses: 'the available and developing meanings of known words, which needed to be set down; and the explicit but as often implicit connections which people were making…again and again, particular formulations of meaning—ways not only of discussing but at another level of seeing many of our central experiences.'(p.15)

As noted in the above, Lin Yutang speaks of the particular difficulties of vocabulary encountered when working between languages: 'In my efforts at translation of Chinese literature…I have constantly run across phases or terms that are extremely difficult to render into English. This has made me think that perhaps a list of Chinese critical terms with explanatory comments will be both useful and enlightening'. One word that Lin defines plays a particular role in the present issue of China Heritage Quarterly with its focus on West Lake in Hangzhou. That word is jing 景, 'scene/scenery/vista':

Jing 景: a picture, a scene, particularly a beautiful scene, as of summer clouds or stars at night. This idea of 'picture' is highly subjective, and borrows its charm from human thoughts and sentiments. If one determines to see as a picture, then it becomes a picture. A story of convalescence or of a night on the desert or storm at sea is often more beautiful than the experience itself.
—from Lin Yutang, 'A Chinese Critical Vocabulary'.[1]
Fig.3 Flyleaf from The Importance of Living

Here Lin Yutang seems much influenced by the influential Qing-dynasty critic Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-92) in whose Notes on Poetry from Ginger Studio (Jiangzhai shihua 薑齋詩話, Item A16) we can find the following passage:

Although the Visible World (景) focuses the poet's Feeling, [they are not unrelated but rather are] magnetically pulled to each other like amber and the blade of grass. And in spite of the fact that one of them rests in the poet and the other lies outside, the Feeling and the Visible world do engender each other. Whether the Feeling is joy or sorrow, and whether the Visible World thrives or withers, they meet each other, and enter into each other's habitat. In the interaction between natural Feeling and the reality of things, joy and sorrow are equally possible, equally inexhaustible, so long as the interaction continues to flow without stagnation. Some men do feel exhausted and stagnant, but that is only because they are unwise.[2]

This understanding of the terms was later emphasised also by Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) in his Notes on the Lyric Poetry of the Human World (Renjian cihua 人間詞話):

…when the ancients discussed poetry they made a distinction between scenic description and expression of emotion. What they did not realise was that all scenic description involves expression of emotions.[3]

More recently in a series of articles, Zou Hui has addressed the issue of the term jing in the context of the aesthetics of garden design. On the basis of his philosophically informed reading of classical sources, Zou defines the term jing as being a 'bounded brightness'.[4] Etymologically, the character is understood to represent the sun at its highest point and can mean—according to the Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典—variously: light, the sun, brightness, situation or circumstances, scenery, scenery (of a theatre), section of a play where, in the same scene, the scenery is changed, time, large, to look up to, auspicious sign, an outer layer of clothing to protect the wearer from the dust, and teats of a bell.[5] The character, classically, was also understood to be interchangeable with the term Jing 京 (capital) and, more resonantly, Ying 影 (shadow, reflection).


[1] Lin Yutang, 'A Chinese Critical Vocabulary', The Importance of Living, p.476.

[2] From Siu-kit Wong, Notes on Poetry from the Ginger Studio, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1987, p.52. Wong's discussion of the terms 'Feeling' (qing 情) and 'Visible World' (jing), both here and in his earlier article on the topic in Adele Rickett, ed., Chinese Literary Criticism from Confucius to Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, is excellent.

[3] Adele Rickett, trans., Wang Kuo-wei's Jen-chien Tz'u-hua: A Study in Chinese Literary Criticism, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1977, p.71.

[4] Hui Zou, 'The Jing of a Perspective Garden', Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 22.4 (2002):293-326; and, 'Jing (景): A Phenomenological Reflection on Chinese Landscape and Qing (情)', Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 35.2 (2008):353-68.

[5] Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典, Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Chubanshe, 1997, vol.2, p.3060.