This is the Chinese Dream (Zhongguo Meng)

“It is not enough to overthrow the enemy; first you have to overthrow the hold the enemies has over your dreams. You must not dream dreams which are really not yours.” –Slavoj Zizek

Dream Wars

WESTERN commentators love to translate the Zhongguo Meng as “China Dream,” thereby patronizing China’s socio-cultural originality and marketing it as just another fast-food-style franchise of the “American Dream”. But are the two civilizations really sleeping on the same pillow?

Xi Jinping never said “dream”

What is that – a ‘China Dream’ – if not first a Western translation? No one in China, not even Xi Jinping, the chairman of the CPC himself, actually said “dream.” That’s because they speak Chinese in China.

The distinction between what Western media says “China dreams” and what China is actually doing is of great significance for the future of global language. China should compete for her terminologies like she competes for everything else.

American Dream versus Chinese Meng

Everyone has heard about the overused “American Dream” that – if US policy makers had their wish come true – was now being replicated by the Communist Party to better the lives of the people. As if the Chinese could not dream up things on their own; as if a ‘China Dream’ had to be invented by the West, only to be shipped under US trademark to Asia, a boat full of freedom, equality, Hollywood, McDonalds, and other technicalities.

Can East Asia Return to World History?

China tends to be more relaxed about World history these days. The ‘Zhongguo Meng’ is about achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation back to its former pomp and glory (this element is totally missing in the “American dream”), and to inspire the Chinese people, the Zhonghua minzu, to pay lip service to oneness (tian ren he yi) and great harmony (datong): work hard, study vigorously, and get out of poverty. (A common mainland joke goes that the Beijing dream was really about getting clean air and water, but we leave that here for now.)

The Meng is pragmatic and reactionary. Martin Luther King, the great American visionary, once said that he “had” a dream.” In Chinese, dreams are not to be had; they are made, literally. Hence the common vernacular: “Wo zuo ge meng” (lit. I make a dream).” The Meng is what the Chinese dream, and let us not forget that they have memories of dynasties and emperors, of rujia, fojiao, and daojiao (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism), and that China is a spiritual wenming (a category beyond those narrow European definitions of nation, state, culture, and civilization).

The Rise of the China’s Terminologies

Little wonder then that ‘Meng’ is attached to 3000 years of a very different tradition than that of America.’ Confucian values (or shall we say priorities) differ from Puritan ones. East-Asia has a unique tradition of shengren and junzi (as strong and specialized as, say, Western philosophers and saints), and Chinese value xiao (filial piety), xue (the love for learning), li (ritual) and thousands of other non-European concepts.

We would all see that crystal-clear, of course, if translations were put on hold, if only for the weekend. Translation is a human strategy – older than the stone-age – to annihilate one’s opponent beyond its mere physical removal from the world. That’s why, by the way, linguists speak about the “death” of languages. It was never meant to be a metaphor.

Translations Distort China’s Reality

Some US scholars have argued with me that English is entirely sufficient to describe China. That is not only showing contempt for new knowledge; it is also a cultural death threat against Asia. The West only sees China through (often biblical and philosophical) European translations, and because all European vocabularies look so familiar, it has often been prematurely concluded – and indoctrinated into our students, sad but true – that China was some place of zero originality. As if the Chinese people for the last 3000 years didn’t invent a thing.

One just needs to look at this recent CCTV News Special on the “Chinese Dream” – triumphantly broadcast nationwide. There we had two Western-educated Chinese and two foreigners who discussed the “Chinese dream” all in English without using a single Chinese name or concept – but, ironically talking about how China should create its own universalisms. I say: how do you do that if you can’t even keep your Chinese names attached to your concepts? Do you think that the Germans would call in some Chinese speakers to put some Chinese names to German ideas?

Why taking away the ideas of your own people?

I have recently asked a senior editor of the Peking University News department why they never continue Chinese vocabularies into their English news. She looked at me as if a cradle had broken. The idea to adopt Chinese ideas in global writing has apparently never occurred to Peking University journalists.

This is all mind-boggling to Western observers. Imagine the Americans had named the American dream “Le rêve américain” and excitingly called in some French to explain it to them. It is often claimed that before the arrival of the Europeans, the Chinese had no sense of intellectual property rights. You can still see this ‘cultural weakness’ every second as some Chinese patriot in China gives away his name to some foreign company: “You can call me, Mike, ok?” Now, guess what Chinese are doing with their ideas.

Grand Cultural Property Theft

That language trick by the Europeans is the greatest intellectual property theft ever done to two billion East-Asians in the history of mankind. To make it worse, the less our European thinkers in the past knew Chinese, the higher they got promoted (it’s still the case with our expats in China, but let’s not digress). Cases in point are the Germans Christian Wolff, Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel who had no Chinese friends, never visited the country, never spoke a word Chinese, yet were worshiped as the global authorities on Confucian and Buddhist thought.

The English-speaking world continued this madness. If they saw a Chinese key concept, like tianxia, they rubbed it off the surface of the earth and inscribed their own name, like Heaven. It was perfectly normal for theologians and philosophers at Harvard or Oxford University to never meet someone of their object of study. They would simply talk to each other about the Chinese or Indians. There was no accountability for what they wrote; they literally translated China in whichever way they wanted.

Stop Translation, Create Global Language

Of course, this is all history now and we cannot change the past. But China must tighten security to its genius and must accommodate the global future: If ‘Meng’ were to become a key Chinese terminology of the 21st Century, why translating it American? Does this look Western to you: 中国梦 ? No? That’s because it isn’t. [BACK TO MAIN]

Versions of this diary entry have been featured in Global Times, Shanghai Daily, and Big Think.