Romancing the Office Chair
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
I planned to write a bit about whatever translation-related issues of interest cropped up in the midst of Notes of Civil Servant, and as it happened I barely got through the preface before I reached the first hard-to-crack nut. So here is Imponderable Number One: the word 官场 (guānchǎng), guan indicating government officials or officialdom, chang here meaning "field" or "arena". I suspect that this term is a derivation of 战场 (zhànchǎng), "battlefield", which gave birth elsewhere to 职场 (zhíchǎng), "professional arena" or, as we prosaic Westerners might call it, the employment market.
It's precisely the touch of martial romance inherent in the term that is significant. Your typical North American or Western European civil servant is anything but romantic. Dull of eye and stunted of fancy, clad in the sober weeds of duty, they do one thing and they do it, if not well, at least doggedly. They are cogs in the machine, possessing perhaps even less moral agency in their day-to-day decisions than your average voter/taxpayer.
Not so your Chinese civil servant! The metaphor of the battlefield is not lightly chosen. The cultural and historical ghosts that haunt the halls of Chinese politics are those of Cao Cao, who calmly played the qin as his enemies were routed, or the ancient eunuchs who schemed and plotted and brought down emperors. In Wang Xiaofang's world (which can't be too far from the real world; Wang once served as secretary to the infamous Mayor Ma Xiangdong of Shenyang, turning to fiction when the latter queued up for a bullet), Chinese officials spend their days swearing to blood allegiances and committing monstrous betrayals; hatching plots that take years to bear fruit; satisfying personal appetites that would make a Mongol horseman blush; alternating between barbarian yawps and Machiavellian cackles; and in general striding the field of life with the wind in their hair.
You will notice that actual governing didn't make an appearance in that list, and this, too, is significant. The ruling body of any country tends towards insularity, but in China the process has gone so far as to produce a nation within a nation, a proud and separate race whose members always appear nonplussed when asked to attend to some item of national business. (I really enjoyed Richard McGregor's book The Party on this subject.)
But the really surprising thing is the ethical burdens that are still (theoretically) located on the shoulders of the officials. Under the Confucian regime the ruler was a moral role-model more than a simple functionary, and the fact that most modern officials fail completely in that role has so far not been cause for anyone to give up the ideal. The Chinese official, incredibly, is still expected to be of higher moral calibre than your average man-on-the-street. Men and women who would be called "politicians" within the Western framework are referred to as "leaders" (领导) in Chinese, and the government slogan "people first" (以人为本), meant to emphasize the centrality of the masses, can easily be read as a commentary on political structure. One of the reasons the government proclaims "rule of law" (法治) so stridently is because, in fact, what they've still got is "rule of man" (人治) [an embarrassed thanks to Jeff for pointing out the error in characters].
So, while no one believes there is much regard for morals or ethics in today's government, the feeling seems to remain that certain moral or ethical issues cannot be located anywhere but in the realm of politics. There is a general reluctance to give up on "leaders" and accept "politicians", because "rule of law" seems removes the human element from governance. Better to fail at the ideals you've got, perhaps, than to abandon them altogether.
Meanwhile, I get to come up with a translation for guanchang that puts some of the romance back into politics…