“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

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…


# 1.   

I'll put in a vote for "realm", perhaps as in "realm of the civil servant" or "realm of Government" (if you're into capitals).

Phil H, August 14, 2010, 2:31a.m.

# 2.   

It seems to me that "arena" carries the strongest competitive connotations. Since governmental administration in China is all politics, you might simply translate it as "the political arena."

 Canaan Morse, August 14, 2010, 4:49p.m.

# 3.   

This is a neat topic.

As far as "zhíchǎng" goes, I don't think one think one need use a term as grandiose as "professional arena." Often, a simple "workplace" captures the original meaning.

I would imagine you will want to define "guanchang" once in English, and use "guanchang" thereafter, given the nature of the book.

I wish I could offer a pithy definition of guanchang here, but...

 Bruce, August 14, 2010, 8:07p.m.

# 4.   

That's a tricky one, because the word "chang" suggests a defined space that doesn't really exist. It kind of makes me think of the space where the officials at court stood in front of the emperor.

I agree the term is romantic, but is it necessarily military? For as many examples of military officials, I would think we can find just as many of the separation of and , where one is in charge of the desk jockeying, and the other actually gets his hands dirty in the field.

Jeff, August 15, 2010, 8:53a.m.

# 5.   

"Arena" is good. If you want some more romance, though, tinged with some irony for the English-language reader, you could go with "battlefield," as in, "the administrative battlefield."

Also worth noting is that the fetishization of leadership at work in calling everyone "leader" (lǐngdǎo 领导), which comes from an associating all government officials with revolutionary visionaries, is also used for private enterprise bosses, is it not? It always gets on my nerves when people confuse "leaders" with "rulers." I don't think this term is used this way in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Lucas Klein, August 15, 2010, 9:26a.m.

# 6.   

The use of "X-chǎng" as a genre label has produced an interesting reanalysis of 商场: 商场小说 (shāngchǎng xiǎoshuō) refers not to books set in malls or bazaars, but to fiction involving the intrigues of high-level business executives.

 jdmartinsen, August 15, 2010, 11:52a.m.

# 7.   

I'm with Lucas and his "administrative battlefield."

I can't see using a term including "political" as in "political arena." It's all about backstabbing and intrigue among party members and officials, not "politics" as we know it in the West.

But I would still suggest defining "guanchang" and then using the word itself.

 Bruce, August 15, 2010, 5:29p.m.

# 8.   

Oops -- "backstabbing and intrigue among party members and officials" does seem rather like politics in the West, doesn't it?

But given there are no elections or involvement with the "will of the people," "guanchang" still seems far from party/government politics as we think of it in Europe/US.

 Bruce, August 15, 2010, 5:31p.m.

# 9.   

I vote for "officialdom".

Jonathan, August 16, 2010, 10:27a.m.

# 10.   

Wow, thanks for all the suggestions!

@Joel: Shangchang is definitely a better example than zhichang, that's really the right feeling.

@Jonathan: "Officialdom" is the term which has become accepted (how did that happen?) as the genre label, but I don't like it as an in-text translation of 官场. It smacks too much of "officialhood", the state of being an official, rather than the competitive aspect of it.

I like "arena" as carrying exactly the right connotations of ritualized combat, as well as hinting that the combat itself---determining who will lead---has become an end in itself, superseding the fact of leadership.

I'm also leaning towards "the XXX of XXX": I think the slightly more portentous formulation fits well with Wang's usage.

More pondering is in order...

 Eric Abrahamsen, August 16, 2010, 2:24p.m.

# 11.   

I vote for 'cadredom'. Nothing wrong with crafting a new word in English, which would then be defined (in the Anglophonic world, at least) by your translation.

Bil, October 5, 2010, 11:31p.m.

# 12.   

I'm taken with the idea of a translation that would emphasize the performative aspect of being an official, an official on display in the novel. The "official stage" would catch it, were it not for all the other meanings in English of "stage." You can use different translations on different occasions. The "official playhouse" has double meanings, too, not necessarily inappropriate--but you wouldn't want to use it every time "guanchang" pops up. "The theater of public service" has battlefield double meanings! Good luck on the translation!

Jeff Kinkley, March 4, 2011, 10:59a.m.

# 13.   

PS, just a point of information, I think you meant, in the original post, 法治, the opposite of 人治法制and 法制文学 are to be sure old terms that have been in play, since the late 1970s at least, but the nuance is different. It's interesting that the term 干部, cadres, is passe. Used to be that leading cadres 领导干部, were distinguished from plain ganbu; I was told ganbu itself was somewhat exclusive; it did not include anything below the head of a production brigade. So who are all the rest of the Chinese people, the non-ganbu, or today, those outside of leadership? It might be "the masses" 群众,but, at least in the past, "masses" was a way of speaking of commoners who were not CCP members. "The Party and the Masses." And now--the leaders and the what?

Jeff Kinkley, March 4, 2011, 11:12a.m.

# 14.   

Hey, this wouldn't happen to be the Jeff Kinkley who did the last major anthology of Shen Congwen, would it? Just curious...

 Canaan Morse, March 4, 2011, 7:26p.m.

# 15.   

Yes indeed, there are not many Kinkleys in this world, for better or worse. Nice blog!

Jeff Kinkley, April 11, 2011, 1:17a.m.


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