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Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few months becomes a folk etymologist. Look: the Chinese character for “good” combines “woman” and “child”! China must be a society of patriarchal homebodies!|
Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few years tends to give it up. The history and evolution of Chinese characters is such a messy accretion of historical sediment and false cognates that even scholars of Chinese take its etymology with a grain of salt.
But language is telling, and as I translated a novel about official corruption over the past year, one character began to emerge as the linchpin of the book’s discussion of power and those who wield it. That character is 管, pronounced guǎn, with a “scooping” tone.
Originally meaning “pipe” or “flute” — the feathery bit at the top is the bamboo radical, indicating a section of bamboo culm — guǎn later evolved into a verb meaning “to manage” or “to be in charge of.” If I were given only one word to capture Chinese society, guǎn would be it.
Guǎn appears wherever authority is wielded. Besides its base meaning of being in charge, it shows up in “jurisdiction” (管辖, guǎnxiá), “management” (管理, guǎnlǐ), “supervisory control” (管制, guǎnzhì, sometimes a euphemism for a police lockdown) and “butler” (管家, guǎnjiā).
“Who’s in charge here?” (这归谁管, zhèguīshéiguǎn) is the first — alas, often the only — question asked to solve problems. Just as a king “beats” (guǎn again) a queen in a deck of cards, he who guǎns has the final say.
A common misconception about power in China is that it is totalitarian in nature — brutal, faceless and systematic. While that reality certainly exists, the majority of interactions with authority in China are of the kind embodied by the character guǎn: paternalistic, moralistic and personal. Authority can sometimes be bargained with and nudged. The image evoked is that of a local magistrate in imperial times, bending an ear to a peasant’s complaint and promising to take matters into his own hands.
In the traditional Confucian view of society, power relationships in the state are mirrored by those in the family; guǎn appears just as often in the home as in government. Pushover parents are “unable to guǎn” (管不了, guǎnbùliǎo) their unruly children. A decade later those children will loose the angst-ridden teenager’s cry: “don’t guǎn me!” (别管我, biéguǎnwǒ). Later still, when China’s tottering social welfare programs are unable to “take care of” (guǎn) the elderly, those now grown-up children may recall their filial responsibilities.
Besides its overtly political meanings, guǎn appears constantly in daily speech. A spiller of secrets is unable to guǎn his mouth. You can tell a busybody, “don’t guǎn other people’s business” (别管闲事, biéguǎnxiánshì), or wash your hands of a matter by saying “I won’t guǎn it anymore” (我不管了, wǒbùguǎnle). The word has even been abstracted from its literal meaning to play a role as a conjunction, appearing in the term for “regardless” or “no matter” (不管, bùguǎn).
Jackie Chan’s unfortunate 2009 statement that “Chinese people need to be controlled” sounds a little different when you consider that in Chinese he used the term guǎn rather than the word for “control” (控制, kòngzhì). Instead of advocating a police state, he was implying that the Chinese people need to be told what to do because they don’t know what’s best for them. Only marginally less distasteful a comment, perhaps; still, the distinction is worth making.
Contrast guǎn with zhì (治), the more abstract term for “rule,” which appears in China’s hot-button debate about the difference between “the rule of law” (法治, fǎzhì) and “the rule of man” (人治, rénzhì), as well as in official terms like “Autonomous Regions” (自治区, zìzhìqū) and “to punish” (处治, chǔzhì). This high-low distinction is evident in urban safety, where the police are in charge of “keeping the peace” (治安, zhì’ān) while employees of “city management” (城管, chéngguǎn) beat street vendors and migrant workers.
Hovering over guǎn and all its permutations is a gentle anxiety about a society ungoverned. “No one’s in charge!” (没有人管, méiyǒurénguǎn) is a phrase spoken in tones of disapproval, even horror. It’s not only Jackie Chan who believes that Chinese society needs watching over. To a certain mindset, in China everything is someone else’s business.
中国符号正在走红世界，外媒在报道一些中国新闻时，会创造中国专属的英文词汇。如 leading dragon 领头龙（中国经济在全球的地位），Peking Pound 北京镑（中国人所花的英镑）， 来看看文中都有哪些中式英语吧！
管制 supervisory control
法治 the rule of law
人治 the rule of man
治安 keeping the peace
城管 city management