How to run a multinational company, Part 4

This Taiwanese Subway ad is obviously a pastiche of the old timey tv dramas. The dialogue is meaningless pseudo-antique claptrap (much like in the originals) but the basic thrust is that Subway is doing reduced-calorie sandwiches and you should buy some*. Not that I’d be able to tell you that without the subtitles, since the voiceover is so dialect that apparently even native Taiwanese have trouble getting it.

This is worth comparing with the amazing Hokkien Journey-to-the-West PSA released in Singapore recently.

In both countries the governments have spent years trying to promote standard Mandarin and discourage the use of dialects, though for different reasons. In Taiwan it’s to do with the leaders’ increasingly tenuous claims that they represent the “real” China, and that the communist government in Beijing is a temporary aberration. In Singapore it’s more to do with community cohesion and social integration.

And in Singapore the anti-dialect campaign has largely been successful. Chinese Singaporeans in their 40’s and 50’s tend to speak dialect with their parents but Mandarin or English with their children. Most people under about 30 understand little of their family’s traditional language and speak even less.

Taiwan has seen a different trend. In the years immediately following the setting up of the Kuomintang government Mandarin did succeed in establishing itself over the local dialects to a great extent. However, the most recent generation is comprised of people who have, in many cases, never visited the mainland, feel little connection to it and see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ve also reverted to speaking Hakka, Hokkien or any of the other local dialects that were common prior to the Mandarinisation of the island. Instead, they will tend to speak a version of Mandarin that has drifted away from the version used on the mainland. This is influenced by the dialects (and by English and Japanese) but also simply by the effects of time and separation.

*Long story short: Taoist Immortals don’t eat, so by eating low-fat sandwiches from Subway you’re closer to becoming one.

It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list


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.

Nailing it

New York Times nail salon protest

The grand tradition of extremely punctillious Asian protests continues

The English language press has a long tradition of poor quality reporting when it comes to anything that depends foreign language skills. From the perennial mispronunciation of Beijing, to the cheery reporting of made-up names, to the acceptance of obviously satirical stories as real.

It’s not even limited to exotic Asian languages. I have never heard an anglophone newsreader pronounce Nicholas Sarkozy’s name correctly, and he’s from a country whose language most of them studied at school and which shares a large amount of its vocabulary with English. (Hint: the stress falls on the first and third syllables, not the second.)

It’s not purely an English language phenomenon – journalists everywhere are busy people, after all, and it can be difficult to find a native speaker to check your work when you’re on a deadline. However, in many countries the mistakes will be spotted and widely ridiculed until the error is fixed and/or apologised for.

It seems as though things may be changing, however. A while back Sarah Maslin Nir published an “exposé” in the New York Times about the poor pay and conditions in nail salons, which – coincidentally – are mostly run by Asians.

However, it didn’t stop there. Richard Bernstein, a former NYT journalist, has a Chinese wife who happens to own several salons, and the claims in the articles did not sound believable to her. So Bernstein and some journalists at Reason got to work looking up the original help wanted ads upon which Nir had based a many of her claims.

Lo and behold, it turns out that the ads had been misconstrued or mistranslated. This ad:

Nail salon help wanted

Was translated as offering a salary of $40 per day. In fact, as anyone capable of reading traditional Chinese will tell you, it gives the cost of a mani/pedi at the salon in question as $40 (thus implying the availability of high tips).

This ad was quoted as offering a salary of $10 per day:

In fact, it appears to be offering a stipend of $10 per day for trainees wishing to study with qualified nail technicians after school (if you look at the magnified version, it’s not terribly clear but you can just make out “learn on the job” and “3pm onwards”).

Rather outrageously, the NYT then apparently tried to take advantage of the language barrier one more time by editing one of the salon owners’ letters it received protesting against the coverage to make it appear as though he was acknowledging the truth of Nir’s claims.

So while this may seem like another depressing incidence of a wannabe white saviour screwing things up for the people that she was aiming to help, it’s also a positive sign. Until relatively recently it’s unlikely that anyone would have gone back through the original Chinese small ads to check the truth of it. Right now there are at least three different journalists working on it (the third is Elizabeth Nolan Brown, also with Reason).

And if you want to help right these wrongs by becoming proficient in an Asian language, there’s some good news. A friend just emailed me a link to a BL-themed iPhone app for studying Japanese. Because I know I’ve never looked at a Japanese textbook without thinking “This is good, but it needs more gay porn.”

Rewriting politics

A French friend of mine just shared this video on her Facebook page. For those of you who don’t read French, the subtitles show the two participants in the discussion deriding the French for allowing themselves to be exploited by banks and capitalists and the like.

And for those of you who don’t understand Chinese, the dialogue is a discussion on China’s export-led development.

Of course it’s a scam: some earnest member of the 99% has Downfalled the vid, to make it look as though his own sentiments are shared by the Chinese media elites, because a) that presumably carries much more weight than his point of view alone and b) who can tell the difference? (Ironically, it also has a go at the masses for being silly enough to be duped by the media.)

Downfall subtitles

It’s a moderately interesting curiosity of an age of almost-but-not-quite globalised information.

Oddly enough, however, it’s not the first time I’ve run into this phenomenon.

Back in the day, when I used to do hentai translations, something similar existed. It was called “rewriting” and the people who produced them were the lowest of the low. Below scat, furries and NTR, there sits a special circle of hell reserved for the rewriters. These are people who – wanting to have a wank within the comforting pallisade of an online community but unwilling to go to the trouble of learning any Japanese – take raw scans of a hentai manga or doujinshi, empty the speech bubbles and fill them with a comic sans dialogue in English that reflects their own personal fetishes (hint: this means incest), before putting the resulting abomination online to take the food and/or kudos from hardworking translators.  I would link to proof of all this from Fakku or Ehentai or even the Land of the Sad Panda, but I don’t want my blog marked down as porno spam by Google’s bots.

This is the first time I’ve seen a political version, however.

Xi Dada

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan

Xi Jinping declined the opportunity to name Mark Zuckerberg’s forthcoming infant, and Shanghaiist reckons this is an insult:

At last week’s White House state dinner Xi was apparently unwilling to yield even an inch to the Facebook founder, declining his request to help find a Chinese name for his unborn baby.

Zuckerberg was seated at the head table with the Obamas, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan at the state dinner which was attended by numerous figures from the US tech and media sectors.

According to Page Six, Zuckerberg spoke in Mandarin to Xi, asking him whether or not he would do him and his wife the honor of giving his child an honorary Chinese name.

Xi reportedly turned down the request to put forward a name for the Facebook founder’s unborn baby girl, saying that it would be “too much responsibility.” Presumably this must have tempered his ambition to come right out and ask for Facebook to be unblocked.

You’d have thought Xi would have at least been grateful for all the good publicity that Zuckerberg has given to the Chinese president’s book The Governance of China over the past couple of years.

We’re not sure whether or not the slight came as a surprise to Zuckerberg, especially as a few days earlier he seemed to have gotten on so well with the Chinese president at the US-China Internet Industry Forum.


Possibly it’s an American thing. From a European/Asian point of view, Xi appears to have done the right thing in as graceful a way as is possible. Indeed, asking a stranger to name your kid just because he’s a VIP and you liked his book comes across as kind of… well… ass-kissy, to be frank. (Though it does depend on how he actually phrased it. If he was just soliciting suggestions then that’s ok.)

Is this a normal thing in the US? Do you guys name your children this way? I’m genuinely curious.

Bonus fun round: Xi Dada’s own daughter is called Xi Mingze (习明泽). This a pretty political choice of name. In fact, it means something like “shining grace”, but the second character in particular has a great deal of history to it. In names it generally means something like “grace” (gift, benevolence, lustre etc.), but it also carries the alternative meanings “swamp” and “moist”. It didn’t used to be used very often in names in China, though it gets more of a workout in Japan, where it generally features in toppographical surnames, taking the “swamp” meaning. Akira Kurosawa (“bright black swamp”) and Kiichi Miyazawa (“one happiness swamp temple”) are just two examples. Coincidentally, however, it features in the names of both Mao Zedong () and Jiang Zemin (), giving it a solid association with political power that has since been seized upon by parents with ambitions for their children (in Chinese, babies are seldom named after people, but they can be given a single character from someone’s name as part of theirs in hommage).

In praise of menial tasks (and literal translations)

LKY Sweeping

There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching that reads “治大國若烹小鮮” and which – with the exception of “thou shalt not kill” – must be the most frequently misconstrued piece of advice ever written down.

It translates as “governing a large country is like cooking a small fish”. Lao Tzu, being a cryptic sort of fellow, left it there, and went on in an entirely different direction talking about hungry ghosts. This left the way open for generations of befuddled academics to puzzle over the precise meaning of the phrase, while their wives and servants watched over the dinner in the next room, taking great care not to prod the small fish unless absolutely necessary.

Because that – of course – is what Lao Tzu meant. (If you’re wondering why a small fish is specified, it’s because you don’t turn big fish when you’re cooking them. Unless you’ve cut them into steaks first, you either chop and boil them, or bake them, neither of which requires you to prod at them during any part of the cooking process. For fish small enough to be fried, you cook them presentation side down first, turn them quickly and deftly when instinct and experience tells you it’s looking good, and then cook the non-visible side at a slightly lower heat to make sure the whole thing is done to a turn. Quite the gourmet, our Old Philosopher.)

The first time I ran into a misinterpretation of this phrase was years ago in an academic paper (sadly I can no longer find it online), which speculated in the footnotes that Lao Tzu could possibly have been recommending that you avoid burning it. Which, even in an era of spectacularly brutal leadership, seems to be setting the good governance bar pretty low.

Another clanger occurs in W.K. Liao’s otherwise good and useful translation of the Han Feizi, which uses a version of Lao Tzu that renders the fish line as “Govern a big country as you would fry small fish: (neither gut nor scale them).”

Not gutting one’s subjects would seem to be an idea that most of us subjects could get behind, but abstaining from scaling them? The applicability seems limited to certain kingdoms in particular.

King Triton

Now we know what the trident is for.

At least this Taoist blogger has the excuse of not eating fish:

To be quite candid, I didn’t understand the first stanza of this verse the first one hundred times I read it. As a vegetarian, I neither cook nor eat fish and so the metaphor was completely lost on me. I kept trying to ascertain what the difference was between cooking a large fish and a small fish!!

Later, after reading several commentaries, I realized that the SIZE of the fish wasn’t the operative element at all. The metaphor probably would work as intended if Lao Tzu had referred to a large fish, a pig or a cow. ; )

So, what does this famous phrase mean? As Nina Correa explains,

“If the natural progression of Dao is accepted throughout the world, the rulers can patiently allow things to take their natural course. When cooking a tender piece of fish or meat, one has to wait patiently for the flesh to congeal before trying to turn it with a fork. If one is too impatient and tries to move the tender piece of flesh too soon, it will just fall apart.”

Carl Abbott of Center Tao views the first stanza from a more personal perspective.

“The state that I’m most responsible for is myself. This directly effects how Igovern my external responsibilities. As I mature and become more gentle and patient with myself I likewise do so in my interactions with the world.

It is easy to fall into rushing. The desire to get things done pushes me to ‘turn up the heat’ and force the issue. I focus on the ‘end’ and go too fast to notice the Way (the means to the end). I trade off the Joy of doing for the promised joy of a fleeting success. I rush to get the fish cooked when I forget what I really want out of my life.”

In other words, whether speaking of a great nation or simply ourselves as individuals, the thrust of the first part of this verse highlights a recurrent theme — don’t force things; learn patience! Force generates unneeded tension and, once the tension is released, it’s almost always difficult to control and may flow off in several directions which will result in unintended consequences.
For those of you who’ve never prepared food before: no, beef does not fall apart if you poke it with a fork before it’s had time to “congeal”.

Even a lot of the inspirational quote gifs get it wrong:

Lao Tzu inspirational quote

I’m not sure what overdoing government looks like. This, possibly.

Muammar Gaddafi

If you prod him too much, your foreign policy falls apart.

I’m not saying that every interpreter of the passage has got it wrong. Even a lot of the inspirational quote gifs do, in fact, put the correct spin on the phrase. Moreover, it is difficult to entirely blame even those who do mess it up. They are probably relying upon translations. The Chinese classics tend to be laconic and abstruse by design, and there is a strong temptation for translators to paraphrase what they think the writer meant. The problem, however, is that they are not always right in their interpretations.

Basically, if you’re looking for a good translation, pick the shortest one. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for example, is frequently rendered into English in such a way that the result fills a (shortish) book. In fact, the original fits on a few sheets of A4, and by far the best translation is Lionel Giles’ extremely literal version.

And if you’re thinking that it’s extremely difficult to parse, you’re right. So is the original; that’s the point. The choice isn’t between a good-and-comprehensible translation and a bad-and-confusing one. It’s between a good-but-confusing translation and a bad-but-comprehensible one.

Nevertheless, bad translations should not take all of the blame. If you know how to cook a fish, all of the mistranslations and expert misinterpretations in the  world won’t make you misunderstand what Lao Tzu is getting at. If you don’t know how to cook a fish, well that’s your business. However, you also need to bear in mind that a sceptical audience is likely to be severely disinclined to accept dicta on leadership from someone who apparently considers learning how to do basic household chores beneath him.

More haze gags

As reported here previously, Singapore’s annual haze season is upon us. Every Autumn famrers in Malaysia and Indonesia burn new tracts of rainforest in order to plant crops. The smoke drifts over Singapore, and we all spend anything between a week and a couple of months coughing and sniffing.

Then we buy the palm oil, invest our savings in the companies engaged in jungle clearance, and the whole cycle begins again.

However, the haze season now produces another important commodity: memes. We’ve already seen the various Silent Hill and Godzilla parodies on the subject, but here’s a new gag:

Indonesia haze

The actual Chinese name for Indonesia is 印度尼西亚 (Yìndùníxīyà), and means nothing. Here, the characters read “poisonous smoke will kill you”.

Hanzi smatter: Georgian politics edition

Kakha Kaladze

Yes, it’s La Jeune Fille allongée by François Boucher Georgian energy minister, Kakha Kaladze, via Guido.

I’m more interested in the Chinese tattoo, however.

Actually, as Chinese tattoos go, it’s not bad. It actually means something for a start: eternal friendship. It’s a bit of a bland sentiment, but it’s not total gibberish, and so would be unlikely to feature on the real Hanzi Smatter blog.

On the other hand, it’s not that great either. For a start Chinese doesn’t have spaces, and for another thing it’s a terrible font. One of the basic Windows Chinese fonts like Mingliu or Simsun. Kind of like getting a tattoo in Times New Roman or Arial – it works, but only if you’re being ironic.

Also, while the characters means something, they’re not really the words that an ordinary Chinese person would use to express the concept – particularly if it was going to be with them forever. They’d be more likely to use one of the many available four-character expressions, and even more likely, in this context, to go for a huge long text from the classics (most Chinese-language Chinese tattoos are of this variety, when they’re not incomprehensible English).

So, summing up: points for effort, but not that many points, all the same.

Oh. And it’s also a nearly-naked man, if you’re into that sort of thing.