China's New Mandarin Language Dictionary: Hair Gel is in!

When saying goodbye, people in China often say “Bye Bye.” But until this July there was no Chinese way of writing that. There is now: Beijing’s guardians of the language have deemed “Bai Bai” the correct written form, and it has been included in the new edition of China’s best-known dictionary.

Actually the linguists took the matter a step further. There are four tones in spoken Mandarin, and the character “Bai” is spoken in the fourth, which has a very hard ring to it. To soften that, the linguists came up with a tailor-made, second tone “Bai.”

This is just one example of how flexible Chinese linguists are integrating new expressions and terms in a country growing increasingly international. A dozen linguists from the Academy of Social Sciences and editors from the Beijing-based company, the Commercial Press, which publishes the dictionary, worked for eight years to produce the new (and eleventh) edition of the “Xinhua Zidian”, or “Dictionary of the New China.”

The first print run of the most influential Chinese dictionary counts 4 million copies. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, every school child has been familiar with the pocket publication, the present edition of which runs more than 700 pages. With a total number of copies exceeding 400 million (behind the bible) the dictionary is one of the four best-selling books in the world.

From the very first edition in 1953, it has mirrored social, political and economic changes in Chinese society and government. In this new edition, all terms that have anything to do with class struggle, and hence do not correspond to China today, have been deleted or somehow revisited. To take the example of the pronoun “Zanmen” (all together): in the 2004 edition, the sample given for its meaning was: “All together, we the poor have revolutionized our village.”

Seven years later that has been replaced by: “All together, we have become rich in our village.”

The word for slave (Nu) has also been given a new modern usage, one that has long been in use in spoken Chinese. The terms “Fang Nu” and “Che Nu” are used to mean slaves to one’s home or car, in the sense that someone is a slave to the debt they have incurred to acquire a home or vehicle.

Terms that are no longer applicable to modern life, like “Meiyou” (oil for petroleum lamps) or “Hezuoshe” (agricultural cooperative), have been removed from the 2011 edition. New terms include “harmony,” “media,” “good of the people,” and “migrant worker.”

“Hair gel” in Chinese

For the very first time, the notion of animal welfare enters the Chinese dictionary. The information formerly given with regard to endangered species — e.g. that they are useful to humans for meat, skin, fur, ivory has been suppressed. This applies to whales, foxes, rhinoceroses and elephants. There are new words or terms commonly used in the spoken language before that are now taken up in the dictionary: “Di Shi” for taxis, “Zhe Li” for hair gel, and “Xiu” for TV shows.

In a country where some half a billion people have Internet access, many new terms are Internet-related. Still, the dictionary has trouble keeping up, and many terms routinely used in daily life like “Weibo” (micro-blog) and “Xia Zai” (download) will have to wait until the next edition. Words like firewall and proxy server are taboo, however, for reasons having to do with Internet censorship.

The new edition of the “Xinhua Zidian” takes into account that Taiwan and Hong Kong have retained more traditional forms of writing Chinese, which were radically simplified on mainland China in 1949.

The new dictionary contains 13,000 terms, and 1,500 characters also written in the old way have been included in this edition. The Xinhua Zhou Hongbo press agency, to which the dictionary publisher Commercial Press belongs, states in a press release that the inclusion of traditional signs is to “help with cultural exchange.”

There are only a few illustrations in the dictionary. One however has stayed the same since 1953, in all 11 editions of the “Xinhua Zidian.” Under the key word “Yi Fu” (clothing) is a picture of the pants and jacket known the world over as a Mao suit. Needless to say, virtually no one wears the old-fashioned uniform any more.

Taken from Time (World): 26.07.11