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  • 中国大陆改革开放新词语 Zhongguo dalu gaige kaifang xin ciyu (A glossary of new political terms of the People's Republic of China in the post-reform era)
  • Jing Li (bio)
Li Gucheng (Li Kwok-sing) , compiler. 中国大陆改革开放新词语 Zhongguo dalu gaige kaifang xin ciyu (A glossary of new political terms of the People's Republic of China in the post-reform era). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2006. lxvii, 634 pp. $39.00, ISBN 962-996-258-6.

The Chinese love set phrases. This may have something to do with their character-based language, which gravitates toward succinctness in expression. Another factor is the Chinese emphasis on conventions and tradition—once authoritative ideas are formed, they are widely shared and quickly spread in society. Thus, the use of correct terminology is particularly important in Chinese life. Confucius famously declared that, for one to speak properly, he must first "rectify names" (正名), an effort we may generalize to mean getting any significant concepts right.

As China went through drastic transformation in the modern age, new terms and phrases depicting changing conditions in the country appeared in large numbers, gaining broad currency. This is the case with China under Mao, and it is the case with China in the Reform Era.

For those who intend to learn about China in the past thirty years by looking at official jargon and popular lingo, Li's book is a good source. After combing through official documents, leading periodicals, as well as reference works, the author selected 1,295 Chinese expressions from the period to present, with explanations of their meanings and origins. The result is a collage that well illustrates the dynamic life of China from 1978 to 2005.

One cannot miss the key phrases that mark the crucial political changes China experienced during the period. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping was just initiating his reform, any Chinese who paid attention to larger events in the country must have heard or read the declaration Shi jian shi jian yan zhen li de wei yi biao zhun—"Practice is the sole criterion to determine truth." Obscurely philosophical at first glance, the idea was a lethal weapon in the hands of Chinese reformists at the time, who used it to compel Maoist hardliners to acknowledge the terrible failure of Mao's Great Cultural Revolution. The reformers won this round of the combat, but the road ahead of them was far from smooth. In the middle of the 1980s, Deng was using the expression "One hand strong, the other weak"—Yi shou ying, yi shou ruan—to criticize Chinese officials who succeeded with economic reform but overlooked the important task of maintaining political and ideological control over the country. The conflict between the new economy and old politics was, however, too severe for Deng and the Communist Party to resolve. The quandary soon led to the turmoil that culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crisis.

Having barely survived the troubles of 1989, Chinese leaders continued their quest for ways to rationalize their contradictory policies, putting forward terminologies [End Page 230] that became new watchwords of the country. For General Secretary Jiang Zemin, the key concept was san ge dai biao—literally "three represents"—the idea that the Chinese Communist Party represents the productive force, progressive culture, and fundamental interests of the Chinese people. Again, the seemingly bland expression denotes a supremely critical endeavor—the legitimization of the Communist Party that now heads a largely capitalist economy, where, even by the furthest stretch of reason, the Party could no longer simply claim that it is the vanguard of the Chinese proletariat bent on the destruction of capitalism.

In the same spirit, when Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin to lead the Chinese Communist Party, he offered the country catchphrases such as he xie she hui ("harmonious society") and ke xue fa zhan ("scientific development"). These ideas have one thing in common: they avoid the unpleasant dissection of Chinese society in terms of classes or interest groups and instead emphasize a common bond among all Chinese. China has certainly come a long way from the Mao era, when a popular saying was Jie ji dou zheng, yi...


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