Chengyu for Superpowers

05 Sep 2005

A reader of mine is working on her thesis, and she needs help. She’s looking for chengyu or other Chinese quotes to add some flavor. She needs your help ASAP! Leave your suggestions in the comments.

The thesis is basically about where China stands in relation to superpower status. So the first half of the thesis involves discovering what exactly a superpower is, and how the concept of superpower changes in relation to contemporary world order. And the second part is applying the conclusions of the first part to China and seeing how it fares. I’ve divided it into 5 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, so to be able to use chengyu or other phrases/quotes I need to have one for each. This is the breakdown of chapters:

1. Introduction. In this section I point out that a lot of what is written about China these days as a rising superpower is vague, inaccurate or in some cases alarmist. I explain my basic justification for the thesis, which is to see where China stands in relation to what a superpower is. So I’d like to put something at the start that would suggest that things are not always what they seem, something about the problem of exaggeration etc.

2. What is a superpower? In this chapter I present the development of world power from the inception of the term superpower in 1944 up to the present day, and use this to chart how the concept of superpower has changed. Then I discuss a few theories about the current world order, and on the basis of that decide what forms of power a state must possess in order to be a superpower. These are grouped into military power, economic power, political power, and domestic cohesion, which is the basis for the next four chapters. The only things I can think to use at the start of this chapter are 水落石出 or 画龙点睛. Of these the first is probably better, but I’m sure there’s others out there about power or strength, and the importance of power.

3. Military power. I assess the military development and capabilities of China, including also its natural sources of power: population, natural resources, geography. I thought Mao Zedong’s quote that 抢杆子面出政权 would be good here, but any suggestions are welcome. I read an English translation of a quote by Sun Tzu from the Art of War about how the acme of skill is not to win 100 battles, the acme of skill is to defeat the enemy 100 times without fighting. I’ve tried to find it in Chinese, but the Chinese version I found (on didn’t seem to have the
same connotations.

4. Economic power. I look at the growth of the Chinese economy, and how that gives them international power. There’s also a bit about the importance of indigenous technology, and a sound industrial base, as well as something on the impact of multi-national corporations. I found a quote by Deng Xiaoping encouraging people to push ahead with market socialism: 无论黑猫白猫,抓到老鼠就是好猫. But again, any suggestions of chengyu about money, the power of money etc are very welcome.

5. Political power. This is discussion of China’s political role at an international level, including its overwhelmingly realist approach to international relations, its involvement in regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and ASEAN, its leading role in the 6-party talks about North Korea etc. A major point of this chapter is that a superpower is only a superpower if it is recognised and treated as such by the rest of the world. And I have no ideas in relation to a
suitable chengyu about the power of politics.

6. Domestic Cohesion. In this chapter I argue that states cannot project power on an international level if they are not stable at a domestic level. So I look at China, especially with reference to the income divide that is building between the wealthier coastal provinces and the inland provinces, the common occurrences of civil disturbances/protests in recent years, and the problem of uniting a nation when market socialism goes against the tenets of communism. These are contrasted with rising nationalist sentiment as a way of uniting the state, and the attempts by the leadership to slow growth in the eastern and southern provinces while fostering growth inland, so as to counteract the growing inequality. I’m sure there are lots of phrases in the general style of an apple looking lovely on the outside but not necessarily on the inside, or some such sentiment. The only one I know is 驴粪蛋表面光 – although I like it a lot, it’s probably a bit cheeky!

7. Conclusion. A general summing up, my basic conclusion being that although China has or is developing great military power, is an increasingly central economy in the world, and is more and more being treated as a political power, it probably does not yet have these types of power to an adequate extent to merit it being labelled a superpower. And its main challenge in coming years will be to maintain domestic stability. I suppose 画龙点睛 would probably do here, although something to do more with looking at everything as a whole would probably be better.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. China is nowhere near being a superpower. The term is commonly misused these days, or else its original meaning has been lost. The correct term, geopolitically speaking, is “regional power”. SCO, ASEAN, and the 6-party talks are all wholly Asian affairs. The day that the Chinese Navy patrols the Mediterranean, or Chinese sitcoms are wildly popular the world round, or Chinese language is taught in primary schools in Africa, then perhaps China can be called a “superpower”.

    Surely, China is a force to be reckoned with, but it has not even surpassed countries like France in global reach. Perhaps in 20-30 years, assuming the banking system doesn’t collapse and America keeps consuming titanic volumes of exported goods on credit.

  2. Here are my thoughts for your friend’s reference.

    1 Introduction

    表里不一 for ‘ things are not always what they seem’
    危言耸听,言过其实,杞人忧天 for ‘something about the problem of exaggeration ’

    2 What is a superpower?

    I don’t think either 水落石出 or 画龙点睛 is good one for this chapter. But, because I don’t see the context, it is hard for me to tell.

    3 Military power
    I think that 不战而屈人之兵 is similar to what your friends are looking for.

    4 Economic power

    5 Political power
    务实避虚 for its overwhelmingly realist approach

    6 Domestic cohesion
    金玉其外,败絮其中 for an apple looking lovely on the outside but not necessarily on the inside

    I would not use 驴粪蛋表面光 in formal writing. It is slang, not chengyu.

    7 Conclusion

    I haven’t come up any chengyu or quote for the last part.

  3. Without the capability of projecting and safeguarding power through military strength, a country cannot be a true ‘superpower’. In conclusion, China won’t be a superpower for at least another fifty years or so.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: September 5, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    Trying to figure out whether China is or will be a “superpower” or not is, IMHO, a pointless exercise. It’s all just semantics, after all. It’s like trying to figure out whether Tony Leung is good-looking or not. Some would say he is, others won’t. Since there’s no clearcut defintion of “good-looking”–just like there’s no clearcut defintion of “superpower”–then what’s the point? For example, I think a major category is missing from this thesis–namely, cultural domination (the ability to project one’s culture onto the rest of the world).

  5. Taranaki Boy Says: September 5, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    A useful chengyu that I’ve used in the situation where there is no clear definition for something & everyone has their own opinion is 盲人摸象

  6. In addition to what Carl said, until a country can make decent chocolate, they can not be considered a superpower. And by decent I mean decent—no waxy layer on the roof of your mouth as you are eating it. In conclusion, China won’t be a superpower for at least another 1000 years or so.

  7. Oh, and Tony Leung is gorgeous.

  8. I may be working out of ignorance here, but would Moa’s “Little Red Book” offer anything?

  9. Ooops! Guess that should be “Mao’s”.

  10. Personally, I don’t really care whether China is a superpower or not. I just hope there are no wars (although having good Chinese chocolate would also be nice).

    Xicheng, thanks a lot for all the chengyu suggestions!

  11. I don’t understand why chengyu’s are necessary for this thesis. unless it is to make the thesis more “chinese” (with heavy quotes)

  12. John, 有个小失误。

    杆子里面出政权。 是 “枪”,不是“抢”。

  13. Agreed. Cliches are bad writing (don’t know if this applies to chengyus) and should be given a miss in academic writing.

  14. Somebody has got to clarify the difference between cliches/sayings and 成语, though.

    In Chinese writing, spouting chengyu makes you sound intelligent because it shows that you’ve read all these obscure books where classical authors use the phrases. In English, spouting cliches shows that you’ve spent too much time on the street picking up slang and not enough time hitting the books and learning new, creative ways to frame things with words.

    If you accept the cultural differences between China and the West (stability, nail that sticks up, creativity, etc) then it’s pretty clear that, while chengyu and cliches/sayings are similar in idea, they serve different purposes within different cultures and the difference can be appreciated.

    On the other hand, if you try to shoehorn the linguistic practices of one culture and language into another, then you will find yourself criticizing things that don’t need to be criticized, and sound silly.

    So yes, cliches are 俗 and shouldn’t be used in English academic writing but chengyu, while structurally similar, serve a different purpose and so can be used in Chinese academic writing.

    Anyway, I think the person just wants clever little saying to stick at the head of each chapter, right? I see that a lot in scholarly books.

  15. Oh yeah, and…

    Mmmmm, chocolate.

  16. In Chinese writing, spouting chengyu makes you sound intelligent because it shows that you’ve read all these obscure books where classical authors use the phrases. In English, spouting cliches shows that you’ve spent too much time on the street picking up slang and not enough time hitting the books and learning new, creative ways to frame things with words.

    In Western philosophy, sporting military (and other) mights makes you sound important because it shows that you’ve bettered all those pitiable neighbors where whimsical wind chasers (and bankers) view the worlds. In Chinese philosopy, sporting powers shows that you’ve paid too much attention to the superficial mustering pride and not enough time becoming a stealth and learning real, fundamental ways to protect things with lasting economics. 树大招风 (shu4da4zhao1feng1, the bigger tree stands out to attract wind).

    Mmmmm, chocolate.

  17. Hmmm, unknowingly I invoked a Chinese chengyu, 树大招风, that would be interpreted sharply differently.

    In Chinese, it means the bigger tree is subject to the hazard (more likely to suffer) the fate of being broaken or uprooted, so don’t be that bigger tree. On the other hand, a westerner (perhaps from a superpower) upon hearing this saying might think great, that’s what a tree wants in life, standing tall and being noticed and chased by wind, all other trees bowing with envy, so the bigger tree is exactly what I want to be. See what I mean?

  18. accept the cultural differences between China and the West

    I 早已经 saw what you mean. But I know that there are people who don’t.

  19. Hi, I’m the reader with the superpower thesis. Now that’s it’s finished I finally have time to reply to some of the comments…

    Krovvy, I don’t agree with you that the term superpower is commonly misused. It just has a different meaning today than it did originally. Language evolves, and what constitutes a superpower now is different to sixty years ago.

    Da Xiangchang, I did address cultural domination in my thesis, but decided that it really doesn’t add very much to a superpower’s power. I don’t think big macs have very much to do with intergovernmental relations. And really, the argument that the United States has widespread cultural influence because it’s a superpower is just as convincing (if not more so) than the argument that it’s a superpower because it has cultural influence. And I agree with you that my thesis could be called a “pointless exercise” – but then most academic work is pointless really. And at least this one will get me a few letters after my name.

    Doom, I like the chocolate argument! But in that case the United States wouldn’t qualify at all, decent chocolate is in short supply over there.

    Xicheng, Taranaki, Tim P, thanks for the suggestions! And Da Sade, thanks for the correction, that was my mistake, not John’s.

    Ark, yes I suppose the chengyus did make my thesis more “Chinese”, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s not about being smug because I know some Chinese (after all if I had decent Chinese I wouldn’t have needed help! And I also acknowledged all the help I got), but to show that I didn’t pick this topic because I thought that it was easy or because my supervisor told me to, but because I’m really interested in it. And hey, it looks good too!

    Thanks for all the suggestions, and again John, thanks for doing this.

  20. Jennifer,

    Did you use any of Xicheng’s suggestions?

  21. The force of eight bulls and two tigers : 九牛二虎之力

  22. Yes, I used 表里不一 and 不战而屈人之兵 and I also used Taranaki Boy’s suggestion 盲人摸象. I found another one for the domestic stability chapter: 水可载舟,也可覆舟 :o)

  23. i was thinking of 突飛猛進 for china being a super power

  24. ghirardelli chocolate is made in San Francisco and it it decent. I think Wilson will back me up on that.

  25. As well as the term superpower, I think the term “superpowers” is misused a lot. The ability to bench 300lbs is not a superpower in itself, however, to bench 300lbs while shooting rays out of your eyes would qualify as a superpower.

  26. Where can I find a copy of Mao’s little red book? In English. Does such exist?

  27. Yeah, you can get it at Shanghai bookstores but it’s HELLA expensive (by Chinese standards). It’s also available at Black Mask Online – basically a mirror of Gutenberg, with the files formatted to work with ebook readers and HTML and all that. They have some Chinese classics if you ever find yourself in such a mood.

  28. Pepper – yes, and it’s rubbish.

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