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The rise and rise of the word 素质 / 素質 (suzhi) in Chinese

23 June 2012 (Revised and expanded on several occasions)

The other day, a Chinese friend asked me to translate this sentence into English:

人们的整体素质相当较高。而且是个现代化都市。
Rénmen de zhěngtǐ sùzhi xiāngdāng jiào gāo. Ěrqiě shì ge xiàndàihuà dūshì.

The meaning is literally: ‘The overall suzhi of the people is fairly high. And it’s a modern city.’

The two sentences themselves are not particularly difficult, but the word 素质 (素質 in traditional characters), pronounced sùzhi in Mainland Mandarin and sùzhí in Taiwan Mandarin, is a curly one. Suzhi is one of those Chinese words that are more satisfying to use than to define.

(Note: All Chinese pronunciations are for Mandarin. Taiwan in some cases preserves older or alternative Mandarin pronunciations that have been lost or abolished in China itself.)

The word suzhi is a familiar one in Chinese life. It’s commonly trotted out when a speaker wants to describe someone's behaviour as boorish, crass, or inconsiderate. Sùzhi dī (素质低, 素質低) or ‘low suzhi’ is a common criticism of conduct that ranges from rudeness, poor hygiene, lack of culture, lack of ethics, lack of respect for rules or common courtesy, or any other type of ‘low-class’, ‘uncivilised’ behaviour that displeases the speaker.

The sentence above takes the opposite tack; it implies that the citizens are civilised, polite, rule-abiding, ethical, and generally a good class of people. Whether in a positive or negative sense, suzhi is a common yardstick for evaluating people in China.

The shock of the unexpected

Having become accustomed to the ordinary Chinese implications of the word suzhi, I was rather taken aback when I came across the equivalent Japanese term soshitsu (素質) used in a totally different sense.

It came up in conversation with a close friend, a well-bred Japanese woman, about the boyfriends she had before she met her husband. I hasten to add that while this was a fairly personal conversation, it was not at all intimate or salacious and did not involve a long list of actors. What intrigued me most, though, was the reason for breaking up with one particular boyfriend, which she gave as soshitsu no mondai (素質の問題), i.e., ‘a problem of soshitsu‘.

I looked at her in puzzlement. Did he used to spit on the floor? Did he blow his nose with his fingers? Did he try and impress by pulling out thick wads of bank notes? Since she knew Chinese, she immediately twigged on to my quizzical look and managed, with some delicacy, to convey to me that the gentleman was, ahem, rather acutely under-endowed in an important aspect of his anatomy. I left the matter at that but made a mental note to be careful of the potentially different connotations of suzhi and soshitsu.

It was only later that I managed to unravel the story of suzhi and come to understand the glaring gap between ‘natural physical endowments’ in this particular Japanese context and ‘general cultural level’ in Chinese. This turned out to be a fascinating study of how concepts can develop with extraordinary speed from earlier common meanings.

suzhi in Chinese dictionaries

Chinese dictionaries are remarkably roundabout in explaining the meaning of suzhi. The standard Xiàndài Hànyǔ Cídiǎn (现代汉语词典) defines it as:

素质(1)指事物本来的性质。(2)素养:提高军事~。(3)心理学上指人的神经系统和感觉器官上的先天的特点。

Suzhi: (1) Refers to the original nature of things. (2) sùyǎng: to improve the suzhi of the military. (3) In psychology refers to the inherent characteristics of a person’s nervous system and sensory organs.

The meaning that we discussed above is represented by the word sùyǎng (素养, trad. 素養), which C-E dictionaries define as ‘qualities, level of attainments’.  () here means ‘customary, habitual’; yǎng ( trad. ) in this context means ‘to cultivate, refine’. Taken together, the two morphemes and mean something like ‘habitual cultivation, customary refinement’.

At its own dictionary entry in Chinese, sùyǎng (素养) is defined as:

素养: 平日的修养。

Sùyǎng: Everyday xiūyǎng.

This forces us to look up yet another word — xiūyǎng (修养 trad. 修養) — to figure out what suzhi is supposed to mean. Xiūyǎng is composed of xiū () and yǎng ( trad. ). The morpheme xiū () again has a broad range of meanings, the key one being, ‘to study, learn, cultivate’. Taken together, the two morphemes and can be interpreted as ‘cultivating and fostering’, especially with regard to human qualities.

The dictionary definition of xiūyǎng is as follows (taking only the sense that is relevant here):

修养 …(2)指养成的正确的待人处事的态度:这人有~,从不和人争吵。

Xiūyǎng:… (2) refers to the right attitude developed to deal with people and matters: This person has xiūyǎng and never quarrels with people.

The concept given is one of ‘cultivation’ in a more mundane sense, referring to the cultivation of the self in ordinary social interactions in everyday life. It is equivalent to ‘manners’ or ‘breeding’.

This appears to be the commonest meaning that suzhi now carries in ordinary Chinese life. It is behind the concept of sùzhi jiàoyù 素质教育 (trad. 素質教育), which C-E dictionaries call ‘quality education’ or ‘education aimed at all-round development’. The objective is not to teach students how to pass exams, but to lift their overall cultural level, including, presumably, their ability to interact in a civilised way with other people.

Etymology and history

Etymologically, the word suzhi is a combination of the morphemes  () and zhì  / zhí ( trad. ). 

As a term, suzhi has two traditional senses in Chinese: ‘white cloth’; and ‘unadorned essence’ or ‘innate quality’. While the earliest meanings refer to a white cloth, the meaning ‘innate quality’ appears quite early, being attested in the Guanzi of the Spring and Autumn period (which lasted from 771 until 476 BC).

Modern times

The meaning 'innate quality' has survived into modern times. It is reflected in the first Chinese dictionary definition given above: 'Refers to the original nature of things.'

This meaning lies behind the use of the equivalent Japanese term soshitsu (素質) to refer to the fundamental physical and mental disposition of a person before undergoing development or education. The following definition (from Kotobank) expresses this well:

そしつ素質 disposition】

個人が先天的に持っている機能の身体的ないし精神的反応傾向のこと。このうち身体的反応傾向を体質と呼び,精神的反応傾向を気質と呼ぶ。一般的に素質は環境の対立概念として用いられてきた。

The tendency to physical or mental reactions that individuals possess innately. The tendency to a physical reaction is called the ‘constitution’, the tendency to a mental reaction is called the ‘temperament’. ‘Disposition’ [素質 soshitsu] has generally been used in opposition to ‘environment’.

The Japanese definition reflects the influx of Western concepts during the 19th century, dividing the concept of 'basic disposition' between 'physical constitution and 'mental temperament' and distinguishing these innate factors from the influence of the environment. The use of soshitsu to refer to the physical endowments of the unfortunate boyfriend falls within this definition. In the sense of mental disposition, the Japanese definition also largely matches the third Chinese definition given above, that is "In psychology refers to the inherent characteristics of a person’s nervous system and sensory organs".

To be sure, ordinary Japanese dictionaries generally place greater emphasis on mental or intellectual aspects than physical ones when defining soshitsu (definition from デジタル大辞泉 Dejitaru Daijisen):

素質(1)生まれつきもっている性質。「其品行のーは決して悪性なるに非ず」<福沢・文明論之概略>(2)将来すぐれた能力が発揮されるもとのなる性質や能力。「音楽家としてのーに恵まれる」

Soshitsu: (1) Innate nature. “The innate nature of their conduct is by no means bad” (Fukuzawa “An Outline of a Theory of Civilization”) (2) Nature and abilities by which great ability will be exhibited in the future. “Blessed with the makings of a musician”.

This meaning is also found in Chinese. At Jukuu, Chinese sentences using suzhi are given as equivalents to English sentences like the following, all of which fit the Japanese meaning:

Chinese expansion of meaning

Somewhere along the line, however, the Chinese meaning broadened beyond that of ‘innate qualities’. Hudong‘s presentation of the meaning of suzhi is probably the best explanation, in fact one of the only explanations available for what happened:

素质,指先天的特点。与能力接近。素质一词原指个体在生物学上的遗传特征,指人的先天解剖与生理特点,即神经系统和脑的特性及感觉器官的特点。发展到现在,其意义已经泛化成了一个具有社会学和教育学意义的特定的概念,通常可以把它界定为:素质是个体在先天基础上,通过后天的环境影响和教育训练而形成起来的顺利从事某种活动的基本品质或基础条件。简言之,素质是先天天赋条件和后天习得才能的“合金”。

Suzhi refers to innate characteristics. Similar in meaning to ‘ability’. The term originally indicated the biological genetic characteristics of the individual, referring to congenital anatomical and physiological characteristics, the characteristics of the nervous system, brain, and sensory organs. As it has developed until the present, the meaning has been generalised into a particular concept of sociological and educational significance, which can usually be defined as: the basic qualities or conditions for successfully engaging in certain activities, formed through the action of environmental influence and educative training on innate conditions. In short, suzhi is an “alloy” of the conditions of innate talent and learned behaviour.

This sums up the basic difference between the original meaning of ‘innate qualities’ or ‘innate disposition’, and the broadened meaning of ‘innate qualities plus the effect of environment and training’.

Make no mistake, this is a striking innovation. In its original meaning, suzhi referred to raw material that could be worked on. In its new meaning, suzhi refers to the finished product.

Background of the modern Chinese usage

The reason for the expansion of meaning of suzhi can only be surmised. The concept can probably best be understood against the backdrop of China's modern history, in particular China’s ambition to modernise and grow strong. This ambition was shared by all patriotic Chinese in the 20th century and continues to resonate till the present day. It seems likely that this is how suzhi came to be used not only of individuals or organisations, but of entire populations, as in the sentence that started this post. Raising the suzhi of the Chinese people has become an integral part of the narrative of modernisation.

The new formulation is possibly also related to Marxist ideas of the ‘perfectability of man’. This is no abstract concept. In its efforts to weld people of disparate peasant backgrounds into an effective fighting force, the Communist Party faced the challenge of raising the level of people with a very poor educational and social background. These people were the ‘raw material’ of the army and it was imperative that they should be up to standard. This interpretation is supported by the existence of expressions like tígāo jūnshì sùzhi (提高军事素质), meaning ‘raise the quality of the military’, which has to do with the overall level of recruits in the army.

Whatever the background, the expansion of the meaning of 素质 to refer to the overall qualities of a population is a major departure from the meaning that is still preserved in Japanese. The New Age Chinese-English Dictionary (新时代汉英大词典) captures the multifarious applications of this word as follows:

quality: 运动员的心理~ psychological quality of an athlete / 孩子的先天~ inherent qualities of a child / 全面提高企业的~ comprehensive improvement of the performance of enterprises / 科学文化~ cultural and scientific levels / 思想道德~ ideological and ethical standards.

The last example, referring to ‘ideological and ethical standards’, underlines the ideological use of suzhi to describe ‘right thinking’ for political and ideological work required by the Communist Party of China.

Although suzhi was originally tied to the laudable goal of improving the qualities of the population as a whole for the betterment of the nation, it inevitably led to more negative uses. Confronted with egregious examples of bad manners or poor behaviour, people became tempted to resort to suzhi to lament the poor ‘quality’ of the Chinese population. From there it is not far to using suzhi as a term of criticism of individuals that are felt not to be ‘up to standard’, or simply disagreeable.

The rampant overuse of suzhi in Chinese has been taken to task in at least one lighthearted article on the Internet about the suzhi of the Chinese. The author of the article notes that the term is used to describe anything the speaker doesn’t like, coyly pointing out that Chinese who criticise people for being of ‘low quality’ (sùzhi dī 素质低) or having ‘no quality’ (méi yǒu sùzhi 没有素质) presumably don't include themselves in the description. The author identifies how ‘low suzhi of the Chinese’ is used in a variety of circumstances -- as an explanation for organised shop-lifting, a reason why the Chinese are not ready for democracy, a criticism of immigrants to Beijing, and in one case simply as a term of abuse.

There is something ironic about the evolution of suzhi from its earliest meaning of ‘white cloth’ and ‘essential quality’, through the concept that people possess physical and mental predispositions that can be further moulded by upbringing and education, through the hopeful message that the quality of human beings as a whole can be raised in support of a new and modernised China, to its current use as a term of abuse for the supposedly less ‘cultured’. The ultimate effect is to consign people to an irredeemable state that is worse than if they were simply accepted for their essential qualities.

The modern efflorescence of suzhi

The story of suzhi does not stop there. Its meaning has exploded from an earlier focus on manners and education to encompass a far more comprehensive appraisal of human abilities.

The expanded scope of suzhi can be seen in the following quotation from Hudong concerning nénglì sùzhi (能力素质 ‘ability-suzhi’):

能力素质这座“冰山”是由“知识、技能”等水面以上的“应知、应会”部分,和水面以下的“价值观、自我定位、驱动力、人格特质”等情感智力部分构成的。知识技能等明显、突出并且容易衡量,但真正决定一个人的成功机会的,是隐藏在水面以下的因素,它们难以捕捉,不宜测量。

The “iceberg” of ability and suzhi is formed of “necessary knowledge and skills” above the waterline and emotional intelligence of ”values, self-positioning, driving force, and nature of personality” below the waterline. Knowledge and skills are obvious, prominent and easy to measure, but what really determines a person’s chance of success is factors hidden below the surface, which are difficult to capture and measure.

A 2001 book on zōnghé sùzhi (综合素质 trad. 綜合素質), or ‘overall suzhi’ shows even more graphically the extent to which suzhi has become a general term for appraising the quality of people. As the Hudong article points out:

综合素质是指一个人的知识水平、道德修养以及各种能力等方面的综合素养。人的综合素质的全面提高是社会发展的一般要求和趋势,尤其是当前人类即将迈入知识经济社会,提高人的综合素质尤为迫切。

Zōnghé sùzhi refers to the overall quality of a person’s level of knowledge, moral training and a variety of aspects of overall ability. The general improvement in people’s overall suzhi is a general requirement and trend of social development. As humanity is about to enter the knowledge-based economy, improving the overall suzhi of people is particularly urgent.

The human body has not escaped this grand elevation of suzhi. In place of the 'physical constitution', which reflects the aggregate of a person's physical and psychological characteristics, including strength, health, and susceptibility to disease, suzhi as applied to the body now appears to refer to raising the 'overall level of fitness', as seen in this article on shēntǐ sùzhi (身体素质 trad. 身體素質), or ‘physical suzhi', which is focused on nutrition and training as a way of improving people's physical condition.

传统上,身体素质一般是指人体在活动中所表现出来的力量、速度、耐力、灵敏、柔韧等机能。身体素质是一个人体质强弱的外在表现。

身体素质经常潜在地表现在人们的生活、学习和劳动中,自然也表现在体育锻炼方面。一个人身体素质的好坏与遗传有关,但与后天的营养和体育锻炼的关系更为密切,通过正确的方法和适当的锻炼,可以从各个方面提高身体素质水平。

Traditionally, physical suzhi generally refers to strength, speed, endurance, sensitivity, flexibility and other functions exhibited by the human body during activity. Physical suzhi is an external manifestation of the strength of the human body.

Physical suzhi is often potentially manifested in people's living, learning and physical work, and naturally also in the area of physical exercise. The physical suzhi of a person is related to heredity, but it is even more closely related to later nutrition and physical exercise. The level of physical suzhi can be improved from all aspects through the use of correct methods and proper exercise.

The clincher is that this new approach to physical suzhi appears to have little or no connection to the constitutional 'deficiencies' of the unfortunate Japanese boyfriend that started us on our journey.


For a much deeper look at the concept of suzhi in modern China, see Civilising Citizens in Post-Mao China: Understanding the Rhetoric of Suzhi by Delia Lin (Routledge, London and New York 2017). ISBN 9781138218673

The book "examines the predominant discourse of suzhi (roughly translated as 'quality' with deeper meaning) and the cultural, philosophical and psychological underpinnings of this discourse. Using a new method to analyse Chinese governance - one that is both historical and discursive in approach - the book demonstrates how suzhi has been made into a political resource by the Chinese Communist Party-State, journeying from Confucianism to Socialism. Linking suzhi and similar discourses in post-Mao China, including those centring on notions of 'civilisation', 'harmonious society' and the 'China dream', the book highlights the ultimate question: if we cannot rely on Western models of governance to explain the Chinese Party-state, what method of analysis can we use?"


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