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素质 / 素質, quality, and natural endowments

23 June 2012

(Revised and expanded on several occasions)

The other day, a 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 sùzhì xiāngdāng jiào gāo. Ěrqiě shì ge xiàndàihuà dūshì.

The meaning is literally: ‘The overall sùzhì 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 (Trad. 素質), pronounced sùzhì in Mainland Mandarin and sùzhí in Taiwan Mandarin, is a curly one. Sùzhì 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 sùzhì is a familiar one in Chinese life. It’s trotted out when characterising boorish, crass, or inconsiderate behaviour. Sùzhì dī (素质低) or ‘low sùzhì’ is a common criticism of people for behaviour ranging 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, sùzhì 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 sùzhì, 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 the list of boyfriends was short. But the reason she gave for breaking up with one of them was intriguing. She attributed it to 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 physiology. I left the matter at that but made a mental note to be careful of the different use of sùzhì vs soshitsu.

It was only later that I managed to partially unravel the story of sùzhì and the glaring gap between ‘natural physical endowments’ and ‘general cultural level’.

Sùzhì in Chinese dictionaries

Chinese dictionaries are remarkably roundabout in explaining the meaning of sùzhì. 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。

Sùzhì: (1) Refers to the original nature of things. (2) sùyǎng (‘qualities, level of attainments’ , [see below]): to improve the sùzhì 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 meaning is ‘habitual cultivation, customary refinement’.

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

素养: 平日的修养。
Sùyǎng: Everyday cultivation (=xiūyǎng).

This forces us to look up yet another word — xiūyǎng (修养 trad. 修養), which I’ve tentatively glossed as ‘cultivation’ — to figure out what sùzhì is supposed to mean. Xiūyǎng is composed of xiū () and yǎng ( / ). The morpheme xiū () again has a broad range of meanings, the key one being, ‘to study, learn, cultivate’. Taken together, the two morphemes 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 sùzhì now carries in ordinary Chinese life.

Etymology and history

The word sùzhì is a combination of the morphemes  () and zhì  / zhí ( trad. ). 

As a term, sùzhì 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 (i.e., 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 Japanese use of the equivalent 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’ has generally been used in opposition to ‘environment’.

This explanation matches the third Chinese definition: "In psychology refers to the inherent characteristics of a person’s nervous system and sensory organs". While perhaps a little forced, the use of soshitsu to refer to the physical endowments of the unfortunate boyfriend also appears to fall within this definition.

However, ordinary Japanese dictionaries generally place greater emphasis on mental or intellectual aspects when defining soshitsu:

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 the future. “Blessed with the makings of a musician”.

This meaning is also found in Chinese. At Jukuu, Chinese sentences using sùzhì 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 sùzhì is probably the best explanation, in fact one of the only explanations available:

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”。

Sùzhì 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, sùzhì 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, sùzhì referred to raw material that could be worked on. In its new meaning, sùzhì refers to the finished product.

Background of the modern Chinese usage

The reason for the expansion of meaning of sùzhì 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 sùzhì came to be used not only of individuals or organisations, but of entire populations, as in the sentence that started this post. Raising the sùzhì of the Chinese people has become an integral part of the narrative of modernisation.

The new formulation possibly arose from 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 sùzhì (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.

(One problem with this interpretation is posed by the use of the broader 'mass' meaning in Taiwan, suggesting either that the expansion of meaning preceded the establishment of the New China and was taken to Taiwan by the KMT, or that it arose on the Communist Mainland and later crossed over to Taiwan.)

Inevitably, this use of the term sùzhì to appraise the qualities of the population has led to its use in a negative sense. Confronted with egregious examples of bad manners or poor behaviour, people are tempted to resort to sùzhì to lament the poor ‘quality’ of the Chinese population. From there it is not far to using sùzhì as a term of criticism of individuals that are felt not to be ‘up to standard’, or simply disagreeable.

The rampant overuse of sùzhì in Chinese has been taken to task in at least one lighthearted article on the Internet about the sùzhì 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’ (sùzhì dī 素质低) or having ‘no quality’ (méi yǒu sùzhì 没有素质) presumably don't include themselves in the description. The author identified ‘the low suzhi of the Chinese’ 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 sùzhì 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 sùzhì

The story of sùzhì does not stop there. Its meaning has already expanded from a focus on manners and education to encompass a far more comprehensive appraisal of human abilities. It is contained in the concept of sùzhì 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.

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

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 quality 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 sùzhì (综合素质 trad. 綜合素質), or ‘overall quality’ shows even more graphically the extent to which sùzhì 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 sùzhì 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 quality is a general requirement and trend of social development. As humanity is about to enter the knowledge-based economy, improving the overall quality of people is particularly urgent.

This definition is notable for its concern with the qualities of the population as a whole, not merely those of the individual. Sùzhì is indicative of the total ‘quality’ of a person or even an organisation. The New Age Chinese-English Dictionary (新时代汉英大词典) captures all of these aspects in the following entry for sùzhì:

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 sùzhì to describe ‘right thinking’ for political and ideological work required by the Communist Party of China.

The physical aspects of sùzhì have by no means been cast aside but have not escaped the emphasis on raising standards. An article on shēntǐ sùzhì (身体素质 trad. 身體素質), or ‘physical qualities' shows a shift in meaning from ‘physical constitution’ to training as means of improving physical condition.

The story of soshitsu and sùzhì is an object lesson in the ways that concepts have developed with extraordinary speed from earlier common meanings and fractured into quite different meanings in modern languages.


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