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Top 10 phrases show what's on nation's mind
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-01-14 00:00

They may not represent what's on the lips of any regular Joe on the street, but they epitomize what's on the the nation's mind.

A list of the top 10 phrases of 2004, which has just been released by a consortium of language monitoring agencies and media associations, pinpoints the hot issues of the year and may suggest the direction in which the country is heading.

In the order of frequency of media mentions, the top 10 phrases are: governance capability, Athens Olympics, Liu Xiang, auditing storm, zero tariff, scientific development philosophy, subsidy for farmers who lost land, anti-secession law, Sino-French Culture Year and tsunami.

The phrases were gathered from 14 newspapers ranging from the People's Daily, Guangming Daily to the Southern Weekend and Yangcheng Daily. The selection of these media outlets was partly based on circulation, says a press release by the four organizations that compiled the list.

The phrases were chosen with the help of computers that searched a database of 490 million words and phrases. They went through a rigorous process of analysis, winnowing and approval.

"Some of the phrases refer to important news events, such as the year-end tsunami and the Olympics, where China excelled; others are key words from important government policies," said Lu Jianhua, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

It is interesting to note that the word "governing capability" tops the list, he said.

Ever since the Fourth Plenary of the 16th Party Congress defined the concept of "zhi zheng neng li" (governance capability), it has become "standard political lingo."

The evolution of popular language is a testament to the nation's rapid changes, said Shi Yanlan of Beijing Language University.

Shi cited words coined in the 1980s, such as Chinese characteristics, 10,000-yuan households, beauty salon, and those in vogue in the 1990s, such as karaoke, MBA, Internet cafe, knowledge-based economy and privacy, and all the way to words of the new century like MP3, mobile short messaging, online shopping and anti-terrorism, concluding that the history of popular wording is a faithful record of our changing social and psychological landscape.

"They not only reflect the constant rejuvenation of our ideas, but also chronicle our renewed understanding of the outside world," she said.

The compilation of the top 10 lists has been a work in progress, said Zhang Pu, president of the Application Linguistics Institute of Beijing Language University, one of the four organizations involved in the task.

It has evolved from once a year to twice a year, and from one general list to multiple lists that cover international affairs, domestic affairs, domestic economy, culture, technology and emergencies. The top 10 list for 2004's emergencies includes: tsunami, hostage crisis, bird flu, China Eastern's crash, Madrid explosions, mining accidents and fire in the Greater Xing'an Mountains.

So far there have been five releases and the process will be further fine-tuned, said Zhang.

"This list or lists partly mirror the concerns of the public," commented Lu Jianhua.

Lu saw the lists as a framework that delineate the shell but leave out the flesh. "They are by no means complete, but if you examine them together with popular phrases from the Internet, for example, you'll get a whole picture of what's going on in our national psyche."

An Internet survey of last year's most frequent online sayings yielded a quotation from the hit film cellphone, where the protagonist is advised "to be kind to others." It is now used in all kinds of situations when one should refrain from being tough and nasty.

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