Explaining the politics behind Chinese language translation: The year of “Loong”

Public domain image via Karen Arnold from publicdomainpictures.net. Free to use

After mainland Chinese official media outlets started calling 2024 “the Year of Loong” instead of the Year of the Dragon, the word “loong” and its homophones have become a popular meme among Hongkongers on social media, representing the government's shift toward nationalistic policies and language.

The Year of “Loong”

This year, major Chinese state-affiliated media outlets have abandoned the term “dragon” and adopted the word “loong”, an uncommonly used transliteration of the Chinese word 龍 (dragon in English), to refer to the 2024 Chinese Zodiac. The alteration was later explained in numerous media commentaries, including the Chinese state-sponsored China Daily.

These commentaries argued that in Chinese culture, the image of the mythological animal is very positive and divine, while its Western counterpart is a negative “monster”. They also contended that the mistranslation of the Chinese word into “dragon” is a cultural distortion and misinterpretation.

In recent years, China has started using standard Putonghua pinyin to replace the English translation of Chinese words in its public signs in major cities in order to symbolize the country's cultural confidence and strength under leader Xi Jinping. For example, “road” was replaced by “lu” and “museum” by “Bó wù guǎn” on public signs — leading to confusion among foreigners who do not speak Putonghua:

The argument of state-funded media outlets won popular support from mainland Chinese online nationalists. Some even suggested that “loong” should become a standard English term to refer to a Chinese dragon. On X, formerly Twitter, many pro-China social media influencers, such as Shanghai Panda, also promoted the new term to non-Chinese speakers:

However, there were also disagreements and pushback.

Nick Kapur pointed out on X that in Chinese mythology, the dragon is associated with natural disasters:

China Digital Times highlighted a comment circulated on WeChat by Chén-fēng lao-yuàn (晨楓老苑) criticizing the official argument:

Discursive power is important, but it should come from strength, not volume; from respect, not insistence. In the case of Loong and Dragon, the ambiguity comes not from the Chinese and Western signification of the dragon symbol, but from deliberate misuse [of the symbol]. It is China's image that determines whether the Chinese dragon is good or bad, not the other way around.

Linguistic confusion

Moreover, the politically correct choice has resulted in linguistic confusion. First, it has confused the function of translation and transliteration — the process of representing a word or phrase in a different script — as pointed out by X user @languagediarya1:

“Sau pei lass pok kaai zai” is written as 收皮啦仆街仔. The Chinese words don't make sense to non-Cantonese speakers as the phrase is Cantonese slang which means “Fuck off, asshole.”

Such confusion was ridiculed by the following viral cartoon, which suggests that the translation of the English word “Dragon” into Cantonese should be 姐緊 “jie-gan”, a nonsensical term that means “sister-ing”:

Even if people accept using transliteration for the English translation of the word 龍, the romanization of “loong” still causes confusion. In the mainland Chinese standard pinyin, 龍 is romanized as “long” instead of “loong” — a transliteration originated from British missionary Joshua Marshman (1768–1837). However, most contemporary sinologists have shifted to mainland Chinese standard pinyin in recent years to avoid confusion. 

Currently, “loong” as the transliteration of 龍 is mostly used among overseas Chinese in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and Singapore. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s name is one such example.

Yet, this “loong” transliteration has little to do with daily interaction among overseas Chinese as the pronunciation of the word 龍 in Hokkien, a popular Chinese dialect spoken by more than 47 million people in Fujian, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, is transliterate as lêng, liâng or liông. As for Cantonese, while the pronunciation of “loong” is similar to 龍, the standard romanization is lung4 or long2 (the number represents the nine Cantonese intonations). 

The pick of the fading transliteration “loong” is likely to avoid the misinterpretation of the Putonghua pinyin “long” into the common English word “long”. Yet, it does not really facilitate cross-cultural communication. After all, English speakers often use the word “long” in their everyday expressions. 

“Loong”: overburnt, loan and alone

When Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee used the term “the year of ‘Loong’” in his welcoming address at a tourism event during the Lunar New Year, many Hongkongers raised their eyebrows as they perceived the choice of political correctness would further harm the reputation of the international city which is coined as a conduit of Western and Chinese culture.

Instead of open criticisms, some started using “loong” homophones that have negative connotations, such as 燶 (overburnt), “loan”, and “alone” on their social media posts. Even now, some still use “loong” as a hashtag for economic bad news as the Cantonese term 燶 is often used to describe losing money in the stock market:

Below is a viral image on this year's Valentine's Day depicting a dragon being left “a-loong”:

Sometimes destructive and horrific images of dragons can bring happiness and laughter to people, as suggested by Surrealhk’s Photoshop image of the Japanese dragon Godzilla:

For now, it seems the Chinese government will continue to politicize the Chinese language and its transliteration, meaning it will be a “loong” year.

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