By Christopher Lord

When Hong Kong’s protest movement talks about ‘democracy’, we all know what they mean. Universal suffrage, free elections, representatives of the people making the laws. But when you look at the graffiti in Chinese that is everywhere, on pavements and crash barriers, you see that it is a more complicated issue. The Chinese word that is used for ‘democracy’ is minzhu (民主). But in Carrie Lam’s legislative council, the largest party is the pro-Beijing DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong) and yes, in Chinese it is the same two-character expression. Since this party is devoted to the suppression of democracy, something has gone wrong somewhere.

It is actually a classical Chinese term. The two characters mean people and rule, which looks OK, but the original meaning is not ‘rule by the people’ but ‘ruler of the people’. It is one of many ancient expressions meaning ‘king’ or ‘emperor’. Given China’s tradition of absolute monarchy, this is just about the direct opposite of democracy.

Goddess of democracy at the 2018 Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil in Victoria Park, Hong Kong. Photo: inmediahk.net.

So how did this incredible-seeming mistranslation become established? And what does it even mean in the modern Chinese context?

The culprit is a fanatical American Presbyterian missionary called William Martin, whose main project was converting China to Christianity, in the belief that God had given America the mission of bringing the Bible to the heathens of Asia. He had, in fact, had some local success with this project, with a small group of converts and a very energetic preaching routine. He also had a good knowledge of China’s language and culture, and from about 1860 became a leading translator into Chinese.

It is a peculiarity of Chinese imperial culture that the literati were not only forbidden from teaching Chinese to foreigners, but were also forbidden from learning or speaking other languages themselves. The first recognition of translation as an official activity came only with the Qing dynasty, which promoted the very limited project of translating between the two official languages of Chinese and Manchu. This was an attempt to preserve the Manchu language which unfortunately failed. Despite a huge effort at producing documents in Manchu, hardly anyone learned to read them, and the Manchu people today all speak Chinese.

The most important translations into Chinese were therefore produced by foreigners. These were mostly religious or philosophical texts: Buddhist texts translated by Indians and Tibetans and other foreigners over a very long period, Catholic texts once the European Jesuits appeared on the scene, and then a flood of American Evangelical materials once the United States got a commercial and diplomatic foothold in China. The most notorious effect of American missionary work was the Taiping Rebellion, in which a deluded and seemingly mentally ill failed candidate for the imperial examinations, Hong Xiuquan, read some American religious texts in Chinese and decided on the strength of the mystical experience that resulted that he was the younger brother of Jesus with a mission from God to destroy the Satanic Empire of the Qing. His number two took the title of the Holy Ghost. They formed an army called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and the result was the bloodiest war of the 19th century, with 20-30 million dead, mostly through plague and famine. The American evangelists who had triggered this bloodbath were rooting for the Taipings, seeing divine providence at work. Martin: ‘A spectator must be sadly deficient in spiritual insight if he does not perceive the hand of God.’

Statue of Hong Xiuquan in Nanjing. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jakob Montrasio.

There were plenty of translations of the Bible and American religious tracts going around, then, but the Imperial Court was understandably none too enthusiastic about this. So the devious Martin came up with a cunning scheme. He had been sponsored by the US Embassy in China to produce a translation of a classic American work of legal theory, Wheaton’s Elements of International Law. The idea seems to have been that China would become part of the international community of nations and make treaties with other countries according to American standards.

The Qing court weren’t going to fall for this, but accepted the translation project because they thought it would be useful in negotiations to know what the foreign devils were thinking. They even set up a training academy in which Martin could lecture to future Chinese diplomats.

What the Chinese seem not to have realized at the time is that Martin had developed a plan for converting China based on the idea that the Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven according to Confucian tradition. His reasoning was simple enough, although he was criticized for it by other American missionaries. The Bible, he said, contained the truth about God and Heaven; Chinese culture recognized that the political and legal order in the Middle Kingdom also came from Heaven: therefore the Chinese were already Christians, and just needed the details explained to them.

His translation of Wheaton had this hidden purpose. For instance, ‘natural law’ in the English version became ‘heaven’s law’ in the translation. He made liberal use of the Biblical term ‘righteousness’. Even the title was deliberately misleading. ‘Elements of International Law’ became ‘Public Law of the Ten Thousand States’. The idea was to use deliberately old-fashioned, Confucianist-sounding language, in the hope that Chinese readers would accept this as part of their own culture.

However, ‘democracy’ wasn’t really part of this process. In the first place, China had zero experience of or interest in democracy, and in the second place, Wheaton’s book was about international law, not politics, and the point of talking about ‘democratic republics’ was to make a legal distinction: that in states without a king or emperor, sovereignty belonged to the people as a whole. This was the case in the United States. The best definition of minzhu in its new sense comes from a Japanese dictionary: ‘popular sovereignty’.

A statue of Mao Zedong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

So it is a bizarre and even ridiculous outcome. As late as 1906, the elderly Martin was still convinced that victory was just around the corner. ‘May we not look forward with confidence to a time when China shall be found in the brotherhood of Christian nations?’ he asks in The Awakening of China. And an accidental by-product of his outlandish scheme of creating a Confucian Christianity is this highly misleading word for ‘democracy’ in Chinese, which gets off to a very bad start by actually meaning the exact opposite of democracy: autocratic rule by a monarch. It is hardly surprising that people are still confused by it today.

Throughout East Asia, this has become the standard concept for democracy. This is mainly because Martin’s Chinese translation was a big hit in Japan, the main engine of modernization in the region in the late 19th century. But also, Martin eventually found an ally who is perhaps the least likely Christian Evangelist in the world: Mao Zedong.

There was a long period of chaos in China after the Empire fell, and in the Republic, they quite liked the idea of democracy, but they didn’t like Martin’s dodgy translation. Sun Yat-Sen established his five principles of popular rule, and managed to avoid the term entirely. When the Communist Party appeared on the scene, they also argued for democracy, but used a different method: spelling the word out phonetically (which is what we do in Western languages).

But when Mao gradually emerged as the final victor, everything changed. He had developed close ties with the USSR, and so it was Soviet Marxism-Leninism that first supplied a system of government. The Soviet Republic of China was declared in 1931. Soviet thinking, however, was never a very good fit with China, and the Great Helmsman decided that the Chinese Communist Party needed its own slogans and concepts. So in 1940, presumably thinking it sounded modern and scientific, but also grand and serious, he revived Martin’s terminology when he announced the scheme of ‘New Democracy’.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. File photo: S.Korean Gov’t.

Mao’s New Democracy had very little to do with anything anybody in the West might understand by the term, but then that was all Old Democracy according to the exciting new theory. So North Vietnam declared itself the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and North Korea declared itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Strangely enough, according to the original mistranslation, they are technically right to do so. The legal point is simply to do with whether or not there is a monarch. It doesn’t matter if it is an absolute monarch or a constitutional figurehead. So Japan and the United Kingdom are not ‘democratic’ by this definition.

It creates a political problem that is a real head-scratcher. What is the point of having a democracy movement in North Korea, say, if the government claims that it is already democratic, indeed that it has a new, improved form of democracy? The only way out that I can see is to adopt a new term in Chinese. If we remember that what started all this was an American law book, we can see that the democracy in question at that time was that of America. But this is not where the concept comes from. It comes from Ancient Greece, and specifically from Plato and Aristotle, the fathers of political philosophy. In Greek, the word demokratia means literally ‘power of the people’ and so I would argue that a much better direct translation into Chinese is renlidao (人力道):the way of people power. So Long Live Democracy: 人力道万岁!


Based on remarks given in Chinese at the School of Government of Beijing University in November 2019. Christopher Lord formerly taught international politics at Charles University in Prague and, speaking several languages, has worked for many years as a translator.

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