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A Way With Words
A survey of popular Chinese words shows China's increasing influence in the world
By Pan Xiaoqiao | NO.10 MARCH 1, 2018

A group of overseas Chinese and kungfu lovers act a flash performance to celebrate China’s Spring Festival in Madrid, Spain, on February 11 (XINHUA)

Chinese pinyin, the commonly used system for Romanizing standard Chinese, is a special form of the language. Compared with Chinese characters, pinyin boasts an advantage in the process of spreading Chinese culture around the world, and recent years have witnessed a growing number of Chinese words entering the English language in their pinyin form. However, until now there has been an absence of research into the Chinese language's impact on English by any authoritative institution. In light of this, the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies (ACCWS), under the China International Publishing Group (CIPG), has conducted a survey to find out just how well Chinese is recognized outside of China.

The report was released on February 17, revealing the most recognized Chinese words overseas and that Chinese words are increasingly being used in the pinyin form as native English-speakers are developing an understanding of these words.

According to the report, words related to culture make up a majority of the 100 most recognized Chinese words, including traditional Chinese festivals such as chunjie (Spring Festival) and chongyang (Double Ninth Festival). Particularly striking is that some Chinese words that used to be translated into English are now entirely replaced by the pinyin. Take panda for example, this cute animal is now not only known by its English name, but also as xiongmao, its Chinese name. Another example is jiaozi, long known as "dumpling" in the lexicon of English speakers, but nowadays the pinyin term jiaozi is more often used by foreigners. The latest installment of the Oxford English Dictionary even counts jiaozi among its exhaustive list of English vocabulary.

According to CIPG, the survey sought to probe how well Chinese words are recognized in English-speaking countries and chart the language's future development abroad. The survey was conducted in eight English-speaking countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Philippines, South Africa, Canada, Singapore and India. Not only did the results suggest that a growing number of Chinese words are entering the English language in the form of pinyin, but it also indicated that there is rising understanding of Chinese words among foreigners.

The survey also reveals that since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), political phrases such as zhongguomeng (the Chinese dream), yidaiyilu (the Belt and Road Initiative), mingyungongtongti (community with a shared future) and fanfu (anti-graft) are better recognized and understood in other countries, which implies a better recognition of the road China is on.

The report indicates ever stronger communication and integration between the Chinese and English worlds, a natural result of globalization.

Yang Ping, Deputy Director of ACCWS, told Beijing Review that "The promotion of cultural exchange between different countries is called for by globalization, and necessitated by efforts to build a community with a shared future for mankind."

Rising influence

The list shows that the use of pinyin and Chinese words in English-speaking countries is coming into fashion, implying that China is attracting more and more attention from the wider world.

The popularity of culture-related words such as kongzi (Confucius), shaolin (from the Shaolin Temple) and gongfu (kungfu), indicates that Chinese traditional festivals, ancient philosophies and traditional foods are growing in impact around the world, and that Chinese ways of living, thinking and speaking are also influencing the lives of people in other countries.

"Not only are we seeing a rise in words related to culture, but concepts from China's science and technology, economy and politics are also being absorbed into the pool of Chinese words used in other countries in the form of pinyin," said Wang Gangyi, Vice President of CIPG.

Zheng Yongnian, Director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, said in an interview with China Central Television that, in the past, for ordinary people in many countries, China was just a concept, but now that they have more exchanges in the form of trade, investment, tourism, and so on, learning Chinese and using the language can boost their personal prospects. China is now part of people's everyday lives.

Economy in the spotlight

Another interesting discovery made by the survey is that China's economic and scientific and technological development is enriching the world's glossaries. Fifteen associated words found a place on the top-100 list, with yuan and renminbi (RMB) in the top 10 as well as being incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary.

New words like zhifubao (Alipay), hongbao (red envelope) and wanggou (online shopping), which have emerged as a result of burgeoning online payment technologies, are particularly well-recognized among younger generations. Names and words from the world of science and technology like Wukong and gaotie (high-speed railway) also featured on the list.

For the economy, renminbi, yuan and yanghang (the Central Bank) were the most recognized. This phenomenon is related to the ongoing internationalization of renminbi and hints at the expanding global influence of the Chinese economy, with both renminbi and yuan now commonplace in the English-language media.

According to the Global Language Monitor, since 1994 Chinese loan words in the English language have outnumbered all other languages. It is the country's rising international status that has so contributed to its popularity. Currently, more than 60 countries and regions including Singapore and Russia are adopting the yuan as a foreign reserve currency. Wanggou and zhifubao are so well recognized because of China's booming Internet economy, built upon e-business and mobile payment.

Although the pinyin phrase zhongguozhizao came in at 79th on the list, its English translation, Made in China, is instantly recognizable to many worldwide. In the past, it was a phrase characterized by quantity and low prices, but today the phrase is taking on a new meaning, one built on innovation and creativity that is redefining Made in China around the world.

"The 13th Five-Year Plan" also made its way onto the list, a sign that the world is looking to new opportunities from China.

"China's economic and technological progress is changing the appearance of China in the minds of people around the world. World languages are open to words born of Chinese economic and technological innovations. Not only should China keep contributing words to other languages, but it should also act as a front runner in the innovation of such words for the good of the world," said Yang.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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