Today’s Reading Assignment– China in a Word

Have you ever wondered if there is one word that pretty much sums up Chinese society? It's a silly question, I know, but Eric Abrahamson has written a great piece on the Latitude Blog of the International Herald Tribune casting his vote for the word guan ( 管). Here's a taste of what he says:

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).

He goes on to give other common uses for the word guan in everyday life, ending with this conclusion:

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.

Bingo!

As they say, click on the link and read the whole thing.

Oh, and getting back to my original question — what one word do YOU think best describes Chinese society?