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Big Words

How to understand “officialese”


Big Words

How to understand “officialese”


Politicians know the importance of messaging. President Reagan was known as the Great Communicator; Chairman Mao may have spoken with a Hunan accent, but his quotations (“Power comes from the barrel of a gun”; “Chinese people have stood up”) inspired a nation.

But some modern politicians don’t seem to have gotten that memo. The recent hit series In the Name of the People (《人民的名义》) dramatized the use of “officialese”, or “打官腔” (dǎ guānqiāng, mouthing officialese), in which leaders obfuscate any substance behind bureaucratic blather. The basic characteristics of officialese can be summarized in one three-character phrase—假大空 (jiǎ dà kōng, fake, grandiose, empty) referring to boastful but hollow words.

It may seem inefficient to talk in this manner, but it can be pretty handy when you don’t want to get things done. Here’s a quick guide.


1. Flattery and formality

If a person is mouthing officialese, you should need not expect to hear anything from their heart. Of course one will usually address important people by their correct title, such as president or doctor, but one classic cue is the use of the title “Teacher” (老师 lǎoshī). In many cases, such people may not even be an actual teacher. But bureaucrats may call anyone they want to flatter “Teacher” as a way to give face.


Teacher Li, nice to meet you! I’ve long heard of your reputation, just like thunder reverberating in my ears!

Lǐ lǎoshī, nín hǎo! Jiǔyǎng dàmíng, rúléiguàn’ěr!


Teacher Wang, to have met you is the best luck I’ve had in three lives!

Wáng lǎoshī, rènshì nín zhēnshi sān shēng yǒuxìng!



2. Respect for institutional structures

When certain officials speak, words like “organization”, “leader,” and “relevant authorities” always linger on their lips. Regardless of what they are talking about, the bureaucracy is ultimately responsible for resolving any hurt feelings. Ask for a favor and they will likely try to help by refering you to a greater power:

We attach great importance to the problem you reported. The company will surely give you a satisfactory reply.

Wǒmen duì nǐ huìbào de wèntí shí fèn zhòngshì, gōngsī yīdìng huì gěi nǐ yīgè mǎnyì de dáfù.



After waiting patiently, you find there is no reply forthcoming. Inquire again and you will be told:

We are in the process of handling it.

Wǒmen zhèngzài chǔlǐ.


We have learned about your situation, but we need to report it to higher authorities.

Wǒmen duì nǐ de qíngkuàng yǐjīng liǎojiěle, dàn hái xūyào qǐngshì shàngjí lǐngdǎo.



Eventually, it turns out that the “higher authorities” can’t provide a solution, either. It’s not their fault—they are burdened with so many other great responsibilities (translation: no can do).


Your opinion is fully respected. But the leaders also have their own difficulties. We need to build up mutual understanding.

Wǒmen hěn zūnzhòng nǐ de yìjiàn. Dàn lǐngdǎo yěyǒu lǐngdǎo de nánchu. Dàjiā dōu yào xiānghù lǐjiě.



In addition, figuring out who is responsible for what requires sorting through a morass of titles and organizations that all sound alike. Good luck with your problem, Teacher Zhao!


3. Working for them is an honor

It’s very different if the shoe is on the other foot, though. When a leader wants something done, he will arrange it very straightforwardly, ideally making it seem as if making the request is a great favor.


It’s decided that you will take full charge of this matter. You should cherish this opportunity to prove yourself.

Zhè jiàn shì jiù jiāo gěi nǐ quánquán fùzé. Nǐ yào zhēnxī jīhuì, hǎo hào biǎoxiàn.



Of course, orders must be obeyed. And any resistance can be countermanded by appealing to one’s sense of responsibility.


If there is a problem, solve it. Don’t back down from a challenge.

Yǒu wèntí jiù qù jiějué wèntí, gōngzuò bùyào yǒu wèinán qíngxù.


The harder the task is, the more we need someone to stand out.

Rènwù yuè jiānjù, jiù yuè xūyào yǒurén zhàn chūlái.



4. Offer token support

Leaders are always supportive! But this is usually just lip-service.


If you have any request, just bring it up. The compay will try its best to satisfy you.

Yǒu shé me yāoqiú kěyǐ tí, gōngsī huì jìnlì bāng nǐ jiějué.


Everyone has faith in you. We will all fully cooperate with your work.

Dàjiā dōu duì nǐ yǒu xìnxīn. Wǒmen dūhuì quánlì pèihé nǐ de gōngzuò.



Those who are not senior may think their task is pointless or not worth doing. But leaders are there to remind you that your lowly status matters.


When you do something, you shouldn’t be over-ambitious. You must keep your feet on the ground.

Zuòshì bùnéng hàogāowùyuǎn, yào jiǎotàshídì.


Work only varies in its duties, not its prestige.

Gōngzuò zhǐyǒu fèn gōng bùtóng, méiyǒu gāodī guìjiàn zhī fēn.



5. Excuses, excuses

Those who work for a leader well versed in the art of empty talk, can look forward to lots of effort and little reward. This can seem unfair, and may prompt some to complain. If so, they should prepare to get schooled in the art of the excuse. The first that usually comes up is an appeal to precedent.


Everyone goes through this. Why should you be different?

Dàjiā dōu shì zhème guòlái de, zěnme nǐ jiù bùxíng?



But if the precedent is actually in your favor, then it will transpire that things have changed; and maybe you ought to as well!


That was then, this is now. We need to consider the situation case by case.

Cǐ yīshí, bǐ yīshí, wǒmen yào jùtǐ wèntí jùtǐ fēnxī.


Things are different from the past, we can’t always consider problems using old ways.

Jīn shí bùtóng wǎngrì, bùnéng zǒng yòng lǎo nǎojīn xiǎng wèntí ma.



6. Vague metaphors, classical allusions

Maybe you’re not the type of subordinate to be placated by platitudes. Still, there’s not an official out there who doesn’t have a mental catalogue of old sayings and obscure metaphors handy for any situation.


A single strand of silk is not a thread; a single tree does not a forest make.

Dān sī bùchéng xiàn, dú mù bùchéng lín.



Or a thinly veiled threat for uncooperative team members:


If the bird nest falls, will there be any unbroken egg?

Fù cháo zhī xià, ān yǒu wán luǎn?

覆巢之下, 安有完卵?


7. NOT afraid to threaten or shame

Criticizing others is routine work for certain officials. When cornered, he will first try to warn off his opponent by evoking some meaningless jargon, such as 注意团结 (zhùyì tuánjié, pay attention to solidarity). But other political phrases can be loaded with more dangerous implications: 搞特殊化 (gǎo tèshū huà, distinguish oneself) means “enjoy privilege,” suggesting decadence or corruption. If somebody breaks a rule, the criticism may imply something deeper:


You are disorganized and undisciplined, your influence is bad.

Nǐ zhè shì wú zǔzhī wú jìlǜ, yǐngxiǎng fēicháng bù hǎo.



What defines a bureaucratic speech is lack of content, boasting, and impractical argument. Still, the longer the speech, the emptier the words. But the fact is, no matter how long the speech, the master of officialese knows how to end it. One does not simply say “Let’s call it a day,” instead, a powerful declarative sentence is used to conclude the talk, and subtly imply that the listener is somehow at fault for letting the speech go on so long.


That’s all I can say. Now it’s up to you!

Néng shuō de wǒ dū shuōle, nǐ kànzhe bàn ba.


“Big Words” is a story from our issue, “Go”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.