Tao Guan Yang Hui -- what is the best translation

I had, some five years ago, introduced Deng Xiaoping's strategy of Tao Guang Yang Hui (TGYH). There had been many different translations in English, and there is no perfect one.

The best translation I found, actually, are the ones via Fareed Zakaria (a very intelligent academic whose track record has been unbiased) or Mike Phillsbury (whose knowledge in Chinese is proficient but has been arguing for China as a threat for most of the past two decades).
  • "China must "tao guang yang hui," which, literally translated, means "Hide brightness, nourish obscurity," or, as the official Beijing interpretation translates the four-character idiom, "Bide our time and build up our capabilities." -- Philsbury paper
  • "One of the Chinese expressions is just three words. It is worth learning sometime. You might want to say it. It is ”bu chu tou.” It means ”don’t stick your head up,” and Deng Xiaoping said this after the Soviet Union collapsed and a lot of other Communist Chinese leaders said to him, we are now number one of the Communist parties in the world. We need to assume world leadership of the Communist movement now that the Soviets are collapsed and are gone. This is China’s destiny. And he said, ”bu chu tou.” the meaning is, let’s not get out in front, let’s not draw the attention of the chief hegemon of the world who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is, the United States......A second expression that Deng Xiaoping drew from almost 3,000 years ago, ”tao guang yang hui.” There is no way to translate it into English. It means to put your brightness in your quiver behind your back and then to nourish your capabilities secretly. The official Chinese translation is ”bide our time and build up our capabilities.” -- Philsbury in US Congress (note: I do not know where Phillsbury get he "offical" translation from, but if there is, General Xiong is now saying that is a big mistake. According to Xiong, such translation comes from one China published dictionary.
Recently a PRC general (Xiong Guangkai) has raised the issue of how the translation was manipulated, e.g. in the Pentagon paper. In the paper General Xiong discussed how it was mis-interpreted, unintentionally, or intentional by people inside or outside China (yes, there are as many hawks inside China who would like to interpret Deng's doctrine the way pentagon tried to portray). Xiong emphasized the original Chinese phrase meant to say "hiding the light and nourish", and there is no element of "time", which is very true.

The paper below has the various translations in English texts which can be easily identified even if you do not read Chinese. Xiong advocated that "hiding one's light" is probably the closest translation. But I have always preferred the literal translation, which leaves the interpretation and imagination open. One can speculate on Deng's original intention, (e.g. some would argue the ambiguity also served to quiet the hawks within the PLA) but the literal meaning and its historical (proverbial) context are fundamental to how Deng's words could be interpreted, e.g., by the current leadership in China.

Related link: What Will China Want? (PDF) (Jeffrey Legro, Sep 2007)


p.s. The DoD (pentagon) report opens the Chapter on "Understanding China's Strategy" with the 24 words (6 sets times 4 words) by Deng

  • "冷静观察,稳住阵脚,沉着应付,韬光养晦,善于守拙,决不当头。"

and translated as
  • "observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership"
The first 2 sets (8 words) are well translate. As to "cope with affairs calmly", I may add both calmly and also "take one's time before reacting". the 4th set is TGYH which are well discussed about, and the pentagon translation is quite unfaithful (which took the extended interpretation rather than its original words), see Phillsbury above. The last 8 words literally means "be good at guarding one's insufficiency, and never stick one's head out"

Below is Xiong's essay in Chinese

熊光楷:中文词汇“韬光养晦”翻译的外交战略意义2010年05月31日 17:33公共外交季刊【大 中 小】 【打印】 共有评论1条



令人遗憾的是,多年来不少西方人士在解读“韬光养晦”一词时,或多或少存在着翻译不准确,甚至曲解的现象。这些错误的译法和解读又往往被一些别有用心的势力所利用,以此来攻击抹黑中国、鼓吹“中国威胁论”。例如,美国国防部在2002年首次公布的《中国军力报告》中,就专门引用并特别强调了邓小平同志过去提出的“冷静观察、沉着应付、稳住阵脚、韬光养晦、决不当头、有所作为”等战略方针,其中“韬光养晦”所用英文为“hide our capabilities and bide our time”,意即“掩盖自己的能力,等待时机东山再起”。此后,美国政府在2003年、2004年、2005年、2006年、2007年和2009年等六个年度的《中国军力报告》中都采用了同样的英文表述。另外,国外还有一些英文书籍或文章将“韬光养晦”译为“hide one's ability and pretend to be weak”,意即“隐藏能力、假装弱小”;“conceal one's true intention”,意即“隐藏真实目的”;“hide one's ambitions and disguise its claws”,意即“隐藏野心、收起爪子”。以上等等,不一而足,其中的潜台词无外乎:“韬光养晦”是中国在特定的内外形势下所采取的一种权宜之计,是在“隐蔽自己的真实意图”,“等待时机成熟再出手”。



应该说,“韬光养晦”之所以被西方曲解责难,一方面深刻反映了西方国家一些人士对华固有的政治战略偏见,以及少数反华势力顽固坚持的冷战思维,另一方面也与我们国内对“韬光养晦”的翻译和解释存在疏漏与偏差有关。例如,外语教学与研究出版社2006年出版的《新世纪汉英大辞典》,就将“韬光养晦”翻译为“hide one's capabilities and bideone's time”,这与美国《中国军力报告》中的译法几乎一样。外文出版社2007年出版的中英对照《生活中的中国智慧》一书,将“韬光养晦”解释为“一种为人的策略”,“在时机尚未成熟时,最好先隐藏自己的才能,等待合适的机会”。其对应的英文表述是“to conceal one's fame andability”;“temporary retirement to bide one's time before goingon the offensive”。




我还注意到,美国《新闻周刊》国际版主编扎卡里亚2008年写了一本题为《后美国的世界》的书。他在论述中国对外战略方针时也引用了“韬光养晦”,而他使用的英文译法是“hiding its light”。这一译法源自《圣经》中的一段话:“Neither do men light a candle, and put it undera bushel, but on a candlestick;and it giveth light unto all thatare in the house.”(注:giveth为古体英语,与give语义相同)中文可译为“人点灯,不放在斗底下,是放在灯台上,就照亮一家的人。”后人将上述典故引申为谚语“hide one's light under a bushel”,意指不露锋芒。不过,用“hiding its light”来翻译“韬光养晦”仍有一些不确切。尽管如此,这种借用西方文化中众所周知的典故或是按西方思维习惯翻译中国成语的做法,给我们带来了有益启示。过去,我们也曾用“keep a lowprofile”(意为“保持低姿态、保持低调”)翻译“韬光养晦”,但这离完全准确表达其内涵也仍有一定距离,国外人士还难于理解到原词中深邃的含义。

可以说,如何翻译“韬光养晦”这样涉及中国外交战略方针的词语,关系重大。应在准确把握这些词语权威解释的基础上,力争运用精致的而不 是粗疏的、活泼的而不是死板的、有亲和力的而不是生硬的外国语言,将其 应有之义准确表达出来。这对于我们更好地推进公共外交、塑造中国的良好 国际形象具有重要的意义。

熊光楷:本刊编委,中国国际战略研究基金会名誉会长,曾任中国人民解 放军副总参谋长,上将军衔。

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