Recently I have been busy collecting common “society” concepts in Chinese that are difficult to translate due to social, cultural and political differences that exist between China and the West.
Here’s the results of my research.
20 Common “Society Concepts” in Chinese
1. 社会保障 (lit. “social ensurance”): social security
2. 社会安全 (lit. “social safety”): national security
3. 社会实践 (lit. “social practice”): work experience
4. 社会风气 (lit. “the atmosphere of society”): social morality; social standards
5. 社会热点 (lit. “the hot point of society”): hot topic
6. 社会渣滓 (lit. “the dregs of society”): the scum of society
7. 社会名流 (lit. “the famous people of society”): celebrities; public figures
8. 社会青年 (lit. “the youth of society”): uneducated and unemployed young people
9. 社会效益 (lit. “social benefit”): positive effects on society
10. 社会群体 (lit. “social group”): different groups in society
11. 社会团体 (lit. “society organistion”): community organisation
12. 社会新闻 (lit. “social news”): human-interest stories
13. 社会调查 (lit. “social investigation”): research into social trends
14. 社会利益 (lit. “social interest”): the public interest
15. 小康社会 (lit. “xiaokang society”): a developed, middle-class society
16. 上流社会 (lit. “upstream society”): high society; upper class
17. 下流社会 (lit. “downstream society”): the underworld
18. 整个社会 (lit. “the entire society”): society as a whole; society at large
19. 社会的阴暗面 (lit. “the dark side of society”): social evils/ills
20. 社会不安定因素 (lit. “unstable factors of society”): factors leading to social instability
I should also acknowledge that there are actually plenty of collocations which happen to exist natively in both English and Chinese. I’ve gathered 20 of the most common ones:
20 Common “Society Concepts” That Exist in Both English and Chinese
1. 现代社会: modern society
2. 主流社会: mainstream society
3. 原始社会: primitive society
4. 奴隶社会: slave society; slavery
5. 封建社会: feudal society; feudalism
6. 资本主义社会: capitalist society; capitalism
7. 共产主义社会: communist society; communism
8. 开放社会: an open/progressive society
9. 封闭社会: a closed/conservative society
10. 社会福利: social welfare
11. 社会工作: social work
12. 社会阶层: social hierarchy
13. 社会平等: social equality
14. 社会改变: societal change
15. 社会因素: societal factors
16. 社会秩序/稳定: social order/stability
17. 社会企业/事业: social enterprise
18. 社会准则/规范: social norms
19. 社会动乱/动荡: social disorder; civil unrest
20. 社会意识: social awareness; public awareness
Some of these concepts are naturally much more commonly used in Chinese than English. The term 封建 for example is used broadly in Chinese, as it can not only refer to societies, but also to overly conservative behaviour in general. In English this word while appear in history textbooks, but rarely in conversation.
The following are 10 concepts which are common in Chinese but will sound strange or overly technical to the average native speaker of English.
10 Common “Society Concepts” in Chinese That Sound Technical in English
1. 社会现象: social phenomena
2. 社会关系: social relation
3. 社会规则: social rules
4. 社会公德: social ethics
5. 社会保险: social insurance
6. 社会管理: social administration/policy
7. 社会分工: division of labour
8. 社会总需求: aggregate demand
9. 小社会: society-in-miniature
10. 和谐社会: harmonious society
Note here that some of these can be subsituted with more common words and concepts in English to make them easier to understand. For example, while “social phenomena”, “social relation” and “social rules” are concepts understood by sociologists alone, you could consider replacing them with “social issues”, “relationships” and “social conventions” respectively. This would probably make you better understood by average speakers of English.
One last thing. Anyone who has learnt Chinese to a certain level knows that Chinese people often talk about society in a way that sounds quite strange to a non-Chinese’s ears. In particular, Chinese people often talk about society as if it was no longer an abstract concept, but rather something that can be interacted with. The following are some common examples of this.
10 Ways Chinese People “Interact” With Society
1. 进入社会 (lit. “to enter society”): this usually refers becoming an adult and/or joining the work force
2. 回报社会 (lit. “to repay society”): in other words, to “give something back to society/the community” as we say in English
3. 跟不上社会的潮流 (“lit. to be unable to keep up with the trends of society”): usually refers to being unable to adapt to modern changes and innovations in society, such as fashion, new technology, etc.
4. 被社会淘汰 (lit. “to be eliminated by society”): this is the unfortunate consequence of being able to “keep up” with society, meaning become irrelevant to society, to “lose out” in the fast-paced development of society
5. 和社会脱节 (lit. “to drop out of society”): similar to being “eliminated” by society
6. 被社会接受 (lit. “to be accepted by society”): refers to public acceptance of a person or concept
7. 引起社会的关注 (lit. “to attract the attention of society”): in other words, to become a hot topic, a subject of debate
8. 报复社会 (lit. “to take revenge on society”): when a member of a marginalised group decides to take “revenge” against society because of their contempt for it, e.g. by going on a killing spree, robbing a bank, etc.
9. 跟社会接触 (lit. “to connect with society”): to engage with mainstream society or connect with “civilisation” as we call it in English
10. 建设和谐社会 (lit. “to construct a harmonious society”): the simultaneously Confucian and Communist concept of creating a society which is stable and peaceful
Now It’s Your Turn
Dear readers, can you think of any other examples of how Chinese people talk about society that differ to the way Westerners talk about society? Or vice versa? I look forward to hearing your feedback!