Political slant undeniable in respected lexicon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am

Oxford Chinese Dictionary
Chief editors: Julie Kleeman, Harry Yu
(Oxford University Press)

The new Oxford Chinese Dictionary is a long-awaited reference book for many a user, Chinese and non-Chinese, student and professional alike. The 2,064-page heavyweight provides both English-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-English words and phrases, totalling some 670,000 entries, the most among any existing English/Chinese dictionary.

The book is the result of an intensive project involving 60 British, American and Chinese editors over six years. As such, its publication conjures up high expectations as the first single-volume Chinese-English dictionary on such a scale undertaken by a top reference books publisher.

What makes the new edition extraordinary is that it comes just after the publisher said there will be no further printed versions of its flagship Oxford English Dictionary due to increasing demand for online and electronic versions. Apparently, the China market of 1.3 billion potential buyers is an exception.

The publishers of any book in Chinese must first decide who the target users are - whether they are Chinese on the mainland, or in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Set in simplified characters, this volume is unmistakably targeted at mainlanders. In fact, of 1,098 new additions of fashionable terms and expressions, only 5 per cent are from Hong Kong, such as ziyouxing (free individual travel). The rest are mostly inputs from Beijing and the rest of China, such as fangnu (literally mortgage slave), fenqing (angry youths), shanzhai (knock-off), and so on.

The choice of new words, the publisher says, was free from political consideration and based on how widely those words are used among the media in a pool of seven Chinese-speaking cities, including Beijing, Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore. But a few politically sensitive terms fail to make their way into the edition, despite vast use outside the mainland.

The most conspicuous omission is liusi (June 4), the date of the 1989 Tiananmen bloodshed. Falun Gong, the banned cult, is also nowhere to be found. Even jiuqi (97), the year of Hong Kong's handover, did not make it. But wusi (May 4) and yierjiu (December 9) are included. The latter, a student protest movement in 1935 against the Nationalist government's inaction toward the Japanese invasion, is described as an event 'under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party'.

However, the party's role in the protest is debatable. Statements like this reflecting a political view and subject to debate are rarely found in reference books, much less those published by Oxford.

Similar built-in political messages that appear to toe the official line can be found elsewhere in the volume, some subtly and some explicitly. A glaring example is the new term qu zhongguohua, which is translated as 'desinicise', a term often used to describe attempts by former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian to uproot Chinese culture on the island. To illustrate the use of the expression, the book offers the following sample sentence: 'The policy of desinicisation is very unpopular.'

Such a pro-regime stance is a common feature among reference books on the mainland. The 1995 revised edition of A Chinese-English Dictionary is one such book. Its publisher, the Beijing-based Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, is the Chinese partner for the present Oxford volume.

This background might shed light on the language which comes with a political agenda. 'Maoism', for example, 'embodies the collective wisdom of other Chinese communist leaders such as Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, etc'.

With mainland language setting the tone, non-mainland users - particularly those in the West - would need to exercise discretion in using this book. Wujiang simei, translated as 'five stresses and four beauties', is referred to as a 'proverb'. It is, in fact, a slogan (plus 'three loves' to complete the seven-character phrase) from a 1983 national propaganda campaign, not a Chinese proverb in the traditional sense of the word.

Qu Yuan, the patriotic poet and third century BC official who drowned himself to protest against corruption, is described in the book as 'a romantic poet'. The Tree-Planting Day of March 12, which the book says has been a national holiday since 1979, actually dates back to 1925 when Sun Yat-sen, founder of Republican China, died on that day.

On the English-to-Chinese section, which takes up the first 940 pages, a higher degree of neutrality is maintained befitting a reference book. It calls Mao Zedong, for example, a 'Chinese politician'. Under 'Cultural Revolution', the Chinese translation is prefixed with 'China's'.

Perhaps the real value of the volume lies in a series of useful appendixes offering hands-on reference and samples of letter and memo writing, telephone greetings, SMS abbreviations, internet phrases, a timeline of British, US and Chinese history, holidays, measurements, and even a kinship tree of a traditional Chinese family, all bilingually presented.

The aim of combining both English-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-English versions in a 2,000-page volume seems to be commercially driven. Most users would have one or the other. But now they have no choice but to buy a single, weighty volume. With free online dictionaries available at a mouse click, it might need more than the Oxford brand-name to sell.