A Word to Describe Chinese Society

At The International Herald Tribune’s Latitude blog, translator Eric Abrahamsen is ten times as concise as Yu Hua, explaining how the character 管 guǎn captures much about Chinese society.

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 ….

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.

See also Abrahamsen’s recent post, ‘Freedom, with bits missing‘, at literary translation site Paper Republic.

February 13, 2012 1:05 AM
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