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Liang Pan

Op-Ed: Here’s a Correct Translation of the ‘Chinese Dream’

Via Flickr/BriYYZ

[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]

On November 29, 2012, at the end of his visit to “The Road to Revival” exhibition, which showcased China’s achievements in modern and contemporary history despite foreign invasions and exploitation, the newly appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Xi Jinping stated: “Everyone has his own ideals, aspirations and dreams. Nowadays, the ‘Chinese Dream’ is a hot topic; in my opinion, realizing the revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest ‘Chinese Dream.’” Four months later, in Xi’s presidential inauguration speech, he mentioned the term “Chinese Dream” nine times and indicated that his mission was to make that dream come true during his term.

Soon thereafter, the “Chinese Dream” became a buzzword in China. In the blogosphere, the Chinese people are busily making their wish lists of Chinese dreams. There are petitions for affordable housing, cleaner air and non-toxic foods; there are appeals for more political participation, freedom of speech, and transparent government; there are international wishes for a China that never has to take its cues from the U.S. and never has to hesitate to use force to assert its territorial claims.

Xi’s “Chinese Dream” rhetoric seemingly inspired the whole country to explore the outlook of a rising China. Some people have wondered whether the “Chinese Dream” will compete with the dream of the world’s top superpower: the American Dream. However, even a quick examination of the two dreams will show that the two are different concepts based on different philosophies.

The American Dream represents the individual ambitions of early settlers and later immigrants to survive and thrive through their own hard work in a virgin land, where social stratification had not yet taken form. It captures the spirit of the constitutionally enshrined truth that all men are created equal, and draws a roadmap for personal success: hard work.

The “Chinese Dream” of national revival as defined by President Xi is based on the historical grudges and unfulfilled ambitions of a once downtrodden nation. It is a patriotic sermon on collectivism. The formula prescribed by President Xi to make the “Chinese Dream” come true is the upholding of socialism with Chinese characteristics, patriotism and the unity of the nation.

The universal appeal of the American Dream is based on the fact that the U.S. is a country of immigrants. Anyone from anywhere in the world has a shot at becoming an American. The “Chinese Dream,” on the other hand, is derived from the unique historical experience of the Chinese nation and is based on the assumption that the nation is led by the Chinese Communist Party.

To a certain extent, this awkward comparison can be attributed to the misleading translation of “中国梦” (Zhong Guo Meng) into “Chinese Dream.” The word “Chinese” is somewhat ambiguous: it implies “China’s” or “the Chinese people’s.” To posit that the revival of the Chinese nation is the “greatest common factor” in the dreams of the Chinese is the result of a top-down political summation by the CCP. This so-called “Chinese Dream” has nothing to do with what the average Chinese person wants on daily basis. A more accurate translation of the buzzword might be “China Dream” or the “National Dream of China.”

In fact, China’s state-run English media initially waffled back and forth between “China Dream” and “Chinese Dream.” Later on, after President Xi Jinping stated that “the ‘Zhong Guo Meng’ is the dream of the Chinese people,” the translation “Chinese Dream,” took the lead and became the official term for the concept in the government’s international communications.

State media and CCP pundits have rushed to elaborate on the philosophical implications of the “Chinese Dream,” a catchphrase associated with no concrete matters of policy planning or legislative proposals. The Chinese people have been mobilized to carry out dream-talks, in which they are encouraged to align their private aspirations with the grand strategy of national revival. This push is similar to President Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society” campaign and President Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” campaign, propaganda movements intended to unite society and consolidate political capital for the then-leaders.

When President Xi Jinping came to power, China’s political and ideological landscape looked rugged. The fall of Bo Xilai revealed a cruel power struggle at the top of China’s political hierarchy. Vested interest groups, such as state-owned enterprises and the CCP princeling faction, were alleged to have hampered institutional reforms, and reformists inside and outside the CCP had become more verbal about their frustrations with the lack of system-wide reform for a political system that seemed increasingly incompatible with the further economic and social development of modern China. A social media-led exposé of abysmal government corruption severely impacted the Chinese people’s trust in the CCP.

To start with a clean slate, President Xi needed a campaign that could unite a politically and ideologically divided country. The “Chinese Dream” promotes nationalism, and nationalism promotes unity. Through the “Chinese Dream” campaign, the CCP explicitly summons the Chinese people to dream the same dream as the Party and shelve their differences, so that the nation can forge ahead as a united whole. But, for many, the real “Chinese Dream” may be to have a dream that is separate from the Party’s mandates, and, further, to have the resources to realize it.

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Liang Pan

Liang Pan is studying political communication at New York University. He is an Asia Foundation young diplomat fellow and a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, with a major in international relations. He worked extensively in the field of international politics and has lived in China, the Middle East and the U.S.
  • Nancy Snyder

    wow! a very in-depth and succinct analysis of the “Chinese Dream” charade! It is true that there are a lot of things lost in translation and causing confusion in different political cultures!

    • Exile

      is it really worth discussing the correct translation? Much more important in my view is what is meant and if it fits the expectations and hopes of the majority of the people.

      • Max Roberts

        There is in fact no such thing as a “correct” translation… equivalence between languages is a myth. People always thing translation is like algebra, with both sides of the equation being the same, when in fact it’s more like a cover version of a song, where the tune is the same, but the arrangement is unique.

  • Grumpy

    well said!

  • Mamiya Kusa

    I really like the author’s sarcasm,right on the point with appropriateness!

  • Pu Ming Zhi

    Liang, I gagged just a bit over the phrase, “The American Dream represents the individual ambitions of early settlers
    and later immigrants to survive and thrive through their own hard work
    in a virgin land” –54 Million indigenous people, including my Cherokee ancestors, would argue with you. I have lived in China and spent time with Tibetans…it is no better or worse to annihilate culture in North American than in Asia.

  • mikeygow

    A topical opinion piece, and some good commentary on the Chinese Dream discourse, but I wonder what theoretical position its being written from. The whole point of the American Dream is that it can be interpreted differently by different people for different reasons. The Chinese Dream is beginning to take shape, but the language used here is contemptuous of it, solely, it would appear, because of the CCP’s role in promulgating the discourse. The Chinese Dream, whatever it is, will continue to be contested and revised. That is the point of it: it has a durability which is historically and culturally rooted, yet which also looks forward to modernity, stability and national rejuvenation. It is categorically wrong to state that this is not what all Chinese people think, who can claim to know that? My own research points to it being a powerful binding narrative which calls for individual contribution to national goals thru taking advantage of personal opportunity presented by economic reform. Its powerful because it has delivered monumental improvements in the lives of a vast number of people in the PRC.