CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Zheteng | China Heritage Quarterly

Zheteng 折腾 / 折騰

Geremie R. Barmé

An immediate origin of the China Heritage Glossary stems from the need to formulate a translation for the expression 'houzheteng shidai' 后折腾时代 used by Chan Koon-chung 陳冠中 in his 2008 In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 (《盛世:中國、2013年》; an English version of the novel appeared in 2011 under the title The Fat Years). In formulating a term to convey some of the sense of zheteng, I wrote the following:

No single English word or expression can adequately convey the cluster of meanings inherent in zheteng. For 'to zheteng' is to be unsettled, to struggle, to get by, to try and achieve something but possibly to fail to do so. It means to be exasperated but to battle on regardless. It is to engage with the world uneasily, to sit uncomfortably and to annoy others/oneself/the system/the status quo by one's tireless squirming and restlessness. It is to buck the system, but to believe nonetheless that all resistance is futile; it is to rage against the dying of the light, but to have no confidence that there was any light or that the impending gloom is really all that bad. It is to be ill-at-ease and, by one's efforts, to make others feel the same way. When Linda Jaivin was writing her review of Chan Koon-chung's 2008 novel In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 (陳冠中著 《盛世:中國、2013年》) for China Heritage Quarterly, I suggested that she translate the expression 'houzheteng shidai' 后折腾时代 that he used to describe China's near future as the 'Age of Complacency', that is, a time when people have found that the struggles and ventures of the 1980s, be they meaningful or merely vacuous performances, are spent and that an era of quietude, a time after zheteng now reigns supreme. With energy spent and wills weakened, all that people have to console themselves with is impotent complacency. They find themselves in a 'time when even to zheteng is nugatory—houzheteng shidai 后折腾时代. Middle-age world-weariness awaits senescence.

In December 2008, the Party General Secretary Hu Jintao called for his comrades to pursue an approach encapsulate in terms of what were called the 'Three Don'ts': 不动摇, 不懈怠, 不折腾 (bu dongyao, bu xiedai, bu zheteng). Writing for Danwei, Joel Martinsen noted that the official translation of the 'Three Don't's was 'don't waver, don't slacken, don't get sidetracked' (see Joel Martinsen, 'Interpreting the Wisdom of Hu Jintao', 31 December 2008). Given the preceding paragraph related to the cluster of meanings attached to zheteng, one could also suggest 'sit still!', 'keep focused', or even 'don't fiddle'.

Not long after my note on zheteng appeared in the June 2010 issue of this journal, the China correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos, chose to call his regular online Letter from Beijing 'The Age of Complacency'. In that virtual letter dated 28 July 2010 Evan, winsome as ever, decided to quote my definition of houzheteng shidai in full, calling this wordy attempt to come to grips with the expression zheteng an 'heroically detailed footnote'. This serendipitous New Yorker connection brought me back to Lin Yutang, a man who in 1930s Shanghai founded a number of urbane literary journals that he modeled along the lines of The New Yorker, or Niuyue Ke 紐約客 as it is known in Chinese.

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