Roots of Chinese Officials’ Lies; To understand China’s politics you have to learn how her officials speak

September 19, 2013, 12:59 p.m. ET

Roots of Chinese Officials’ Lies

To understand China’s politics you have to learn how her officials speak.



Princeton Professor Emeritus Perry Link draws on 30 years’ worth of notes about the Chinese language’s quirks to construct a revealing picture of how Chinese involved in politics think. The country may have been torn apart by a century of ideological struggles, but the maddeningly malleable manner of expression known as guanhua or “official language” has united the warring factions. Mr. Link dissects the mechanisms by which the modern rulers of China both consciously and unconsciously use language to club the populace into submission. There are important lessons here for those who deal with China on any level. Take for example the tendency to lapse into sloganeering. Chinese signs recommending caution when crossing the road, or reminding lavatory users to flush, often use seven-syllable 2–2–3 rhythms called qiyan, one of the building blocks of poetry. To the Chinese ear this meter not only sounds “right” but the rhythm lends their instructions authority. This has made it popular with propagandists. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards condemned all that was traditional, Mao Zedong used the same classical form, Linghun shenchu gan geming: “Make revolution in the depths of your soul.”

An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics

By Perry Link
(Harvard University Press, 367 pages, $39.95)

Mr. Link suggests that the pull of tradition was so strong that Mao probably wasn’t even aware that he was using “old” ways of thinking to attack “old” ways of thought. Nor were the crowds of youthful acolytes who ecstatically chantedWomen yao jian Mao zhuxi: “We want to see Chairman Mao.”

Mr. Link goes on to discuss the use of metaphor, but the book’s triumph is the final section in which he reveals the inner workings of manipulative language in modern Chinese politics. Whereas in Qianlong’s time guanhua was the domain of officials, since Mao it has increasingly poisoned everyday conversation.

During Mao’s disastrous 1958–61 Great Leap Forward campaign, people had to speak in guanhua of “great and bountiful harvests” even as tens of millions starved around them. They learned to read their newspapers’ guanhua upside-down as they still do today: A claim that corruption has been curtailed indicates that it’s even worse than thought. A headline saying 100 brothels have been closed means that there are hundreds more that are still open.

Guanhua loves to takes refuge in generalities, leading to what political commentator Cao Changqing calls “fruit language.” As Mr. Link explains, “If an official says ‘fruits are good’ and it turns out that a higher-up decides that bananas are bad, the official can say ‘I meant apples.’ Fruit language preserves an official’s options and might even save his or her career.”

Intermittently enforced regulations expressed in vague and conflicting guanhua permit arbitrary accusation, disguise authoritarian behavior, and make almost everyone potentially guilty. Foreign businessmen quickly realize that it is impossible to abide by all local regulations and take comfort in the fact that most are not enforced.

But they are left with no defense when greedy officials suddenly cite lack of compliance with a particular rule to demand a fine or even outright ownership of the business.

The standard by which the rightness of official pronouncements is judged is not whether they are true but whether they serve official interests. Guanhua is more reliable than ordinary mendacity as it indicates not only what the speaker wants the listener to believe, but where the speaker’s interests lie.

Mr. Link glosses over how the gap between what is said and what is really thought has spilled beyond politics into so many other spheres. Visitors to China must quickly learn to see through falsehoods, whether they are tourists who find they can’t trust what their guides tell them, or businessmen who must unlearn their faith in the power of contracts.

Foreigners heading to China would do well to skip the copy of Sun Zi’s “Art of War” in the airport bookstore and pick up Mr. Link’s book instead. One can spend a lifetime learning Chinese and still not understand the country. The key is to crack the guanhua code.

An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics [Hardcover]

Perry Link (Author)

Book Description

Release date: March 17, 2013 | ISBN-10: 0674066022 | ISBN-13: 978-0674066021

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao exhorted the Chinese people to “smash the four olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Yet when the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square chanted “We want to see Chairman Mao,” they unknowingly used a classical rhythm that dates back to the Han period and is the very embodiment of the four olds. An Anatomy of Chinese reveals how rhythms, conceptual metaphors, and political language convey time-honored meanings of which Chinese speakers themselves may not be consciously aware, and contributes to the ongoing debate over whether language shapes thought, or vice versa.

Perry Link’s inquiry into the workings of Chinese reveals convergences and divergences with English, most strikingly in the area of conceptual metaphor. Different spatial metaphors for consciousness, for instance, mean that English speakers wake up while speakers of Chinese wake across. Other underlying metaphors in the two languages are similar, lending support to theories that locate the origins of language in the brain. The distinction between daily-life language and official language has been unusually significant in contemporary China, and Link explores how ordinary citizens learn to play language games, artfully wielding officialese to advance their interests or defend themselves from others.

Particularly provocative is Link’s consideration of how Indo-European languages, with their preference for abstract nouns, generate philosophical puzzles that Chinese, with its preference for verbs, avoids. The mind-body problem that has plagued Western culture may be fundamentally less problematic for speakers of Chinese.

Editorial Reviews


Perry Link’s An Anatomy of Chinese is original, superbly informed by living experience, full of stimulating (and sometimes challenging) insights, nourished by a deep understanding of contemporary Chinese realities. It should become recommended reading for any person who is involved with China—scholars, students, visitors, residents—and, more broadly, for all civilized individuals who feel a need to complete their own humanity by getting better acquainted with the Chinese perspective. (Simon Leys, Author Of the Hall Of Uselessness)

The most significant scholarly work in recent decades that uncovers the repressed nuances and rhythms of the Chinese language. Only Perry Link can give meaning and power so magnificently to Chinese clichés and linguistic routines. High-brow and low-brow Chinese words and syntaxes, the unacquainted speaking patterns and metaphorical structures of the East and West have finally found each other in a brilliant, first-rate comparative analysis by America’s preeminent authority on contemporary Chinese language. (Maochun Yu, United States Naval Academy)

Perry Link’s book is the first comprehensive study, in either English or Chinese, on language and politics in China. With an incredible ear for subtle twists and turns in verbal expressions, Link examines the impact of rhythm and metaphor on the rhetoric of slogans, enhancing our understanding of linguistic mechanisms that account for the power of slogans in communist politics and illustrating with a wealth of examples the intricate interactions between sound and structure in spoken Chinese. (Pang-Hsin Ting, University Of California, Berkeley)

Perry Link’s An Anatomy of Chinese is a rich, delightfully refreshing and satisfying look at features of Chinese language rarely probed in standard accounts — a feast of insights from start to finish. (Chad Hansen, University Of Hong Kong)

In An Anatomy of Chinese, Perry Link has made a fascinating discovery that those who are literate in Chinese are subliminally aware of, but which he is the first to make explicit in a lucid and illuminating fashion. Link brings aspects of the Chinese language—innate cadences, prosody—to the surface and analyzes them in such a fashion that we come to understand the structure and genius of Chinese better than ever before. It is a captivating and ingenious tale that the author spins. (Victor Mair, University Of Pennsylvania)

Link’s fascinating tour de force makes clear the many ways in which the rhythms and metaphors of written and spoken Chinese contribute to Chinese cultural formation, individual character formation and political manipulation. Insisting on using familiar terms in place of jargon, Link makes linguistics accessible and even fun for all of us. (Michael S. Duke, Author Of The Iron House: A Memoir Of The Chinese Democracy Movement And The Tiananmen Massacre)

About the Author

Perry Link is retired from a career teaching at Princeton University and now is Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside. He publishes on Chinese language, literature, and cultural history, and also writes and speaks on human rights in China.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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