China has banned websites, publishers and newspapers from using “unnecessary” English words, prompting a wave of online sarcasm and criticism.
The General Administration of Press and Publication, which supervises all media in the country, said on Monday that foreign languages, in particular “English, English words and acronyms,” have diluted Chinese in recent years.
“Such abuse of language … destroys the harmonious and healthy cultural environment and causes an unhealthy social impact,” the government media watchdog said.
As a result of practices that damage the “purity of the Chinese language,” the regulator prohibited the “arbitrary” use of English words or acronyms from foreign languages mixed with Chinese. It also forbade the use of “ambiguous” words that are neither Chinese nor foreign.
When words in a foreign language have to be used, the government decreed that a note or annotation in Chinese must be added. And the names of foreign people, places and science terms also have to be translated into Chinese.
If the order was to be strictly exercised many English acronyms Chinese people often use, such as DNA, GDP, CEO and WTO, would have to disappear or be replaced by Chinese equivalents.
While decrees like this one alarm few – such government notices are rarely followed – they do elicit bouts of pungent sarcasm.
In April, TV channels were told to ban English acronyms like NBA, which translated into Chinese in as long as 10 characters: “Mei Guo Nan Zi Zhi Ye Lan Qiu Lian Sai.”
One commentator responded to the ban in April with: “Ban English acronyms? Fine, don’t call yourself CCTV anymore.” CCTV, a.k.a. China Central TV, is China’s biggest official TV service and displays its logo with four English-language letters on-screen.
The most recent notice elicited similarly acerbic responses.
“I suggest we get rid of Arabic numbers too, they’re also foreign,” one person said in the comment section on news giant Netease.com.
Another said: “Dear Administration, can you tell me how to say ‘iPad,’ ‘iPhone’ in Chinese?”
Some commentators seemed to take the issue a bit more seriously: “Tell me, in modern science, which word comes from Chinese? They are nice enough to let you use their words, and now you want to protect your ‘language purity’?”
Authorities’ obsession with power is at the root of the decision to ban English, one commentator says.
“(The government) is so proud now as China’s economy is booming,” Zhu Xueqin, a history professor at Shanghai University, told BBC News in an interview. “They think foreigners ought to learn from us, we do not need to learn from them anymore.”
It isn’t only the use of English that is imperiled, Zhu said. A large number of frequently used Chinese words in science and sociology come from Japanese, such as constitution, cadre, and socialism.
“If we are not allowed to use such words we simply won’t be able to speak anymore,” he said.
NBC’s Beijing Bureau requested an interview with the General Administration of Press and Publication but received no answer.