Studies of grammar in prose

Use of Numbers in Chinese Slogans

15 January 2013

The use of numbers in Chinese slogans is well known and has been covered very wittily by Ted Anthony at his article on Chinese Use Numbers as Slogans. The best-known example is probably the Four Modernisations (四个现代化 / 四個現代化 sìge xiàndàihuà) — modernisation in the fields of 1. agriculture, 2. industry, 3. defence, and 4. science and technology, a core component in the policy of reform and opening up.

A more recent example is Jiang Zemin‘s Three Represents (三个代表 / 三個代表 sānge dàibiǎo), an obscurely worded attempt to broaden the party beyond its old class-struggle ideological background. The essence of the Three Represents was that the party should represent 1. the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces, 2. the orientation of the development of China’s advanced culture, and 3. the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China. The upshot of this word salad was that party membership became open to businessmen and managers.

But the predilection for this kind of terminology goes well beyond such well-known political examples. The Chinese seem remarkably susceptible to encapsulations of policy using numbers. Recently I came across several interesting examples of this phenomenon in the field of work safety.

One is ‘three-tier safety education’ (三级安全教育 / 三級安全教育 sānjí ānquán jiàoyù). This is the basic concept for conducting worker safety training in factories and mines. It refers to the requirement that new staff must undergo safety training 1) when they join the factory, 2) at the workshop level, and 3) at the job level.

Another is the ‘four new's’ (四新 sìxīn). This refers to the adoption of ‘new materials, new equipment, new manufacturing processes, and new technologies’ (新材料、新设备、新工艺、新技术 / 新材料、新設備、新工藝、新技術 xīn-cáiliào, xīn-shèbèi, xīn-gōngyì, xīn-jìshù), all of which are occasions for the compulsory training and education of workers.

My favourite is the ‘four not let passes’ (四不放过 / 四不放過 sì búfànguò), which is a principle for dealing with industrial accidents. Government policy is that no industrial accident should be allowed to pass until four conditions have been fulfilled: 1) the causes of the accident have been determined, 2) those responsible have been dealt with, 3) those responsible and the people around the accident have been educated, and 4) practical corrective measures have been implemented. This is an obvious attempt to combat lackadaisical attitudes to industrial accidents.

Finally, there is the ‘”three simultaneous” management system’ (“三同时”管理制度 / ”三同時“管理制度 ‘sān-tóngshí’ guǎnlǐ zhìdù). This is a national-level policy on pollution prevention systems which mandates that such systems should be ‘designed, constructed and commissioned’ at the same time as the main project itself (hence the ‘three simultaneouses’). The requirement is designed to ensure that pollution prevention measures are integrated into projects rather than tacked on later.

This kind of expression is not unique to Chinese. Buddhism, for one, likes to speak of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the five skandhas, the Twelve Nidānas, theTwelve Sense Bases, and other numbered classifications. What makes this kind of expression so daunting is that it verges on the totally opaque unless you have memorised all its definitions. Of course, English bureaucratic jargon is also filled with expressions that greatly strain the understanding and require a good idea of where it is coming from (what would a visitor from another culture make of ‘affirmative action’?), but a vague approximation of the meaning can generally be arrived at from the sense or etymology of the words themselves. Chinese number expressions of this kind require complete familiarity with policy to be understood at all. For example, the ‘four news’ make virtually no sense even in context unless the reader knows in specific detail what the ‘four news’ are.

In the past it would have been quite a job finding the meaning of such terms without access to official documents or people in the know. Fortunately we now have the Internet, making it possible to check the meaning with a quick search of Google or Baidu. But it is hard to imagine the Internet and all its electronic information being maintained intact for hundreds of years into the future, and one can only wonder how people will fare if they ever have to try and make sense of documents from our era.