Wanting to show off its cosmopolitan modernity while maintaining tight control over what the Chinese are allowed to say in public, China has banned Chinglish, the oddly-phrased, unintelligible, and often unintentionally funny English translations of Chinese signs that have been proliferating in the capital in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
For example, there’s the bus sign that announces pregnantly in English lettering under the Chinese, “Offer the Seats to the Old, Weak, Sick, Cripple, and Gravid,” or the awkward but apt warning on the gasoline tanker, “Dangerous Goo Keep Clear.”
It’s not just the signs. Chinese menus in the city abound with English translations like “young chicken without sex.” More adventurous diners at the same restaurant can order “stewed chicken with sex” from the adult menu (under 17 not admitted).
To prepare for the anticipated English invasion, plus the hordes of tourists who will fall back on English when the Chinese don’t understand their Swedish, Russian, German or Romanian, the Chinese government’s new “Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages” office wants to have one-third of the city’s 15 million residents and all of its taxi drivers speaking English by game time.
To that end, it has released an official list of approved English phrases for public signs, and it’s requiring all cabbies to pass an English test before their mandatory pre-Olympics license renewal. The Chinese government expects close to 100% compliance with the English reform.
Resistance may be futile, but if translations that already comply with official standards are anything to go by, tongue twisting will remain an Olympic sport in China, and visitors to the summer games will continue to be diverted by government road signs warning, “Change Lane Notice Behind,” a phrase which seems to mean, “Look before changing lanes,” or pedestrian admonitions like “Slip Carefully.”
China employs 30,000 Internet police to keep the nation’s websites free of content embarrassing to the government -- references to Tiananmen Square, Taiwan or the Falun Gong -- yet Chinese cyberspace abounds with photos of signs and menus that make the Chinglish cited here seem tame in comparison. In contrast to its well-manned Web Squad, China has hired only 35 English specialists (many of them not native English speakers, but Chinese) to police the use of English in public spaces.
It’s not likely that so small a taskforce will be able to clean up the streets of Beijing. While the Chinese government may control the English signage at Tiananmen Square as easily as it can censor Chinese web sites referring to the notorious protests held there, even Beijing English tsar Liu Yang admits that Chinese taxi drivers are managing to pass the English tests and still not understand English-speaking passengers. Liu also acknowledges that the official "little red book" of English translations is not entirely idiomatic, and that the English competence of Beijing’s 5 million English “speakers” is very low and likely to remain that way. It’s clear too that regulating menus will remain a public relations issue since most of the city’s restaurateurs speak only Chinese.
Liu shouldn't worry, though. English was suppressed for years as the language of the capitalist enemy, so it’s not surprising that once China began re-engaging with the West that it had shunned for so long, sporting a knowledge of English, however minimal, has become a symbol of upward mobility -- Chinglish is the cultural revolution of Beijing’s new capitalists, or entrepreneurial capitalist wannabes.
The proliferation of Chinglish is actually a sign of linguistic vitality, not ignorance. But language learning is a slow process, and putting a quick end to Chinglish may not be a realistic goal for the Chinese Olympic Committee. Fortunately, the Chinese are focusing on other ways to make the Olympics more attractive to visitors. According to a second bulletin on the Beijing Olympics home page, the city has already taken a giant stride toward making Beijing’s toilets more user friendly. Free toilet paper is now available at restrooms on two of the city’s busiest subway lines. All that remains is to fix the sign that says “Genitl Emen.”