Lost in translation
Updated on 26 March 2008
When discussing Tibet, the Chinese government uses extraordinary terminology which has its origins in the Cultural Revolution.
It's hard to write about language when you're lost in translation, but even those of us who don't speak Chinese have noticed the extraordinary vocabulary used by the Chinese government since unrest broke out in Tibet.
The terminology has its origins in the Cultural Revolution, the era in the late 1960s and early 1970s when China tore itself apart with ideological fervour. Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party Secretary in Tibet, and widely regarded as a "hardliner" is the master of it.
"We are in the midst of a fierce struggle involving blood and fire, a life and death struggle with the Dalai clique," he said in an editorial in the Tibet Daily last week, going on to describe the Dalai Lama as "a jackal dressed a monk's robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast."
A quick trawl on the web comes up with a paper about "revolutionary rudeness" by Elizabeth J Perry and Li Xun of the University of California, Berkeley, who analyse Cultural Revolution insults. My favourites are:
'little reptile' (xiao pachong), 'big pickpocket' (da pashou), 'big black umbrella' (da heisan), 'big black hand' (da heishou), 'cow-devils and snake-spirits' (niugui sheshen) and 'evil wind' (yao feng).
The characterisation of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India as the "Dalai clique" (Dalai jituan) rekindles memories of the phrase "anti-party clique" (fandang jituan), which was used against Chairman Mao's enemies during the Cultural Revolution.
The characterisation of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India as the "Dalai clique" (Dalai jituan) rekindles memories of the phrase "anti-party clique" (fandang jituan), which was used against Chairman Mao's enemies during the Cultural Revolution, and again in 1989 against Zhao Ziyang, the party leader who defended Tiananmen Square protestors.
Then there's the habit of saying one thing, when the opposite is apparently true. Last Friday, Tibetans in Lhasa rioted, attacking property owned by Han Chinese and Hui Muslim people.
They even killed some, in what one eyewitness described to me as "an orgy of racist violence". It's well known that many Tibetans resent the influx of Han Chinese who now dominate commerce in Lhasa, as well as the Hui who have been there for many decades, running the meat trade.
So I was surprised to hear the following from "tibetologists" put up by the State Council at a press conference this morning.
"After the incident, all the Chinese people including the Tibetan people have become more united."
"The ethnic relationships in Lhasa are very harmonious."
"Unity" and "harmony" are concepts frequently cited by President Hu Jintao, so I guess this was an attempt to ensure that these buzzwords are integrated into the chosen vocabulary on Tibet.
Words define how you think, and such vocabulary is supposed to help people resist western ideas. Or, as Zhang Qingli put it, "turn the masses into a walled city."
When we were in Lhasa last August, our government minders sometimes struggled to find the correct words. Standing on the square in front of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's traditional residence, I asked one to explain a spectacularly ugly concrete statue featuring three happy Tibetans and three victorious People's Liberation Army soldiers.
"It's the statue for the... you know... in the 1950s..." she said, tailing off.
"Occupation?" I suggested, mischievously.
"Hmmm," she said, knitting her brow, and wandered off.
A few minutes later she returned.
"I remember the word!" she said triumphantly. "It's "liberation"!"