China would really like you to stop saying “tofu”

What should we call this?
What should we call this?
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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This item has been corrected.

This year, the Chinese government announced that it would up the ante in its long, hard battle against Chinglish. No longer would it accept the humiliation of tourists ridiculing poor English translations—especially for the foods of China’s storied cuisine.

Image: Reddit

The government’s policy to clean up English took effect at the beginning of this month. It issued official translations for 3,500 phrases covering 13 topic areas, including this list (Chinese) of words and phrases for the topic “accommodation and catering.” That all-important section is also oddly political; several translations on it suggest that China is looking to wrest ownership of some Asian foodstuffs from competing nations and languages.

Here is the list:

Image for article titled China would really like you to stop saying “tofu”
Image: China Standardization Administration

“Overall, I think they have done a decent job in coming up with acceptable English equivalents for hundreds of terms that foreign visitors to China are likely to encounter,” writes Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

But consider “tofu.” That term, which has become natural to English speakers, comes from the Japanese “tōfu.” The Chinese government insists it be referred to as “doufu,” the Mandarin pronunciation, even though “tofu” would be clearer for travelers in China.

For other terms in the list, the translations try to make it clear that the foods come from China. One example is “Sichuan pepper,” referring to the numbing spice often used in Sichuanese cuisine. The Chinese term for this is hua jiao, which just means “flower pepper,” and is not tied specifically to Sichuan. This might have been a good opportunity to provide a more generic translation, which would be useful because these “peppers” (they are technically a member of the citrus family) are not exclusively used in dishes from Sichuan. But putting a Chinese province in the name does emphasize their Chineseness.

One last thing. In some cases, it looks like China wants to try to make people more familiar with the sound and pronunciation of Mandarin, by opting to use the actual term and not a translation. That is the case for “lamian noodles.”

“Lamian” is a cognate with Japanese “ramen.” Using “ramen” could be confusing, as Mair points out, because the dish is prepared differently. Yet it’s strange that Beijing ignores the common English translation “hand-pulled noodles” for “lamian.” Using the Mandarin term, “lamian,” instead of using “hand-pulled” emphasizes that this is an official and China-specific dish.

Exposing people to Mandarin is probably a good thing. Many English speakers have a sense of the sound and feel of the Japanese language, for example, through popular culture, food, and other sources, but Mandarin remains a bit of a mystery.

That said, China will certainly have a hard time getting tourists to say “doufu” instead of “tofu.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly equated lo mein with lamian. The two are in fact different dishes.