How to un­der­stand “of­fi­cialese”那些年我们听过的“官腔”

The World of Chinese - - ZOETROPE - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

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”( d2 gu`nqi`ng, 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( ji2 d3 k4ng, 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.


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 l2osh~). 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! L@ L2osh~, n!nh2o! Ji^y2ng d3m!ng, r% l9i gu3n 0r!李老师,您好!久仰大名,如雷贯耳! Teacher Wang, to have met you is the best luck I’ve had in three lives! W1ng L2osh~, r-nshi n!n zh8nsh# s`nsh8ng y6u x#ng!王老师,认识您真是三生有幸!


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. W6­men du# n@ hu#b3o de w-nt! sh!f8n zh7ngsh#, g4ngs~ y!d#ng hu# g0i n@ y! g-m2ny# de d1f&.


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. W6­men zh-ngz3i ch^l@.我们正在处理。We have learned about your sit­u­a­tion, but we need to re­port it to higher au­thor­i­ties. W6­men du# n@ de q!ngku3ng y@j~ng li2oji0 le, d3n h1i x$y3o q@ngsh# sh3ngj! l@ngd2o.我们对你的情况已经了解了,但还需要请示上级领导。

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.

W6­men h0n z$nzh7ng n@ de y#ji3n. D3n l@ngd2o y0 y6u l@ngd2o de n1nch&. D3ji` y3o xi`ngh& l@ji0.我们很尊重你的意见。但领导也有领导的难处。大家都要相互理解。

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!


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. Zh- ji3n sh# ji& ji`og0i n@ qu1n­qu1n f&z9. N@ y3o zh8nx~ j~hu#, h2o­h2o bi2ox­i3n.这件事就交给你全权负责。你要珍惜机会,好好表现。

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. Y6u w-nt! ji& q& ji0ju9 w-nt!, g4ngzu7 b%y3o y6u w-in1n q!ngx&.有问题就去解决问题,工作不要有畏难情绪。The harder the task is, the more we need some­one to stand out. R-nw& yu- ji`nj&, ji& yu- x$y3o r9n zh3n ch$l1i.任务越艰巨,就越需要有人站出来。


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. Y6u sh9nme y`oqi% k0y@ t!, g4ngs~ hu# j#nl# b`ng n@ ji0ju9.有什么要求可以提,公司会尽力帮你解决。Ev­ery­one has faith in you. We will all fully co­op­er­ate with your work. D3ji` d4u du# n@ y6u x#nx~n. W6­men d4u hu# qu1nl# p-ih9 n@ de g4ngzu7.大家都对你有信心。我们都会全力配合你的工作。

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. Zu7 sh# b& n9ng h3og`o w&yu2n, y3o ji2ot3 sh!d#.做事不能好高骛远,要脚踏实地。Work only varies in its du­ties, not its pres­tige. G4ngzu7 zh@y6u f8ng4ng b&t5ng, m9iy6u g`od~ gu#ji3n zh~ f8n.工作只有分工不同,没有高低贵贱之分。


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?

D3ji` d4u sh# zh-me gu7l1i de, z0nme n@ ji& b&x!ng?大家都是这么过来的,怎么你就不行?

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. C@ y# sh!, b@ y# sh!, w6­men y3o j&t@ w-nt! j&t@ f8nx~.此一时,彼一时,我们要具体问题具体分析。Things are dif­fer­ent from the past, we can’t al­ways con­sider prob­lems us­ing old ways. J~nsh! b&t5ng w2ngr#, b&n9ng z6ng y7ng l2o n2oj~n xi2ng w-nt! ma.今时不同往日,不能总用老脑筋想问题嘛。


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.

D`n s~ b& ch9ng xi3n, d% m& b& ch9ng l!n.单丝不成线,独木不成林。Or a thinly veiled threat for un­co­op­er­a­tive team mem­bers:

If the bird nest falls, will there be any un­bro­ken egg? F& ch1o zh~ xi3, `n y6u w1n lu2n?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( zh&y# tu1nji9, pay at­ten­tion to sol­i­dar­ity). But other po­lit­i­cal phrases can be loaded with more dan­ger­ous im­pli­ca­tions: 搞特殊化 ( g2o t-sh$hu3, 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. N@ zh-sh# w% z^zh~ w% j#l_, y@ngx­i2ng f8ich1ng b&h2o.你这是无组织无纪律,影响非常不好。

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! N9ng shu4 de w6 d4u shu4 le, n@ k3nzhe b3n ba!能说的我都说了,你看着办吧。

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