It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list

Link.

There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.

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