“There are too many Chinese!”

The lesson in class this week is about China’s population issues, 马寅初, and the One Child Policy. Many times I’ve heard a Chinese person say:

“中国人太多了!”
Zhōngguórén tài duō le
(There are too many Chinese!)

We told our teacher it kind of makes us uncomfortable when we hear Chinese people say that — first that they would imply that some people are superfluous, and second that they’d have such a negative attitude toward their own race! Sometimes when people say this to me, I object and say things like, “China has a lot of people” or “China’s population is too big” because those phrases feel different from just saying “there are too many Chinese” (so we ought to just get rid of some??). Our teacher listened, and then smiled when she wrote on the board:

“中国,人太多了”
Zhōngguó, rén tài duō le
(In China, there are too/so many people.)

She explained that people were probably meaning the second sentence, but of course when speaking fast (and being heard by a language student) it sounds like they’re saying there are just too many Chinese. It’s one thing to say a county is overpopulated, it’s another thing to say there are too many of a particular race and imply that we’d all be better off if some people hadn’t been born.

Another friend disagrees and says that when Chinese people say this, they really do mean that there are too many Chinese. However both the friend and my teacher thought that the comma makes a difference.

These two signs promoting the One Child Policy and raising daughters are from Happy Forest village:

The one on the left says:

“[…], the One Child Policy depends on everyone”
婚育新风进历家,计划生育靠大家
hūnyù xīn fēng jìn lì jiā, jìhuàshēngyù kào dàjiā

And the one on the right says:

“Establish civilized marriage, nurture a new atmosphere;
Walk the Use-science-and-technology-to-get-rich road”
树文明婚育新风,走科技致富之路
shù wénmíng hūn, yù xīn fēng;
zǒu kējì zhìfù zhī lù

(PS – may not be the best translations in the world!)

17 thoughts on ““There are too many Chinese!””

  1. I’ve heard the old 中国人太多了 lament far too many times to imagine it means anything but a complaint about there being too many Chinese people. Who is kidding whom?

    But why should foreigners get upset about something Chinese people take for granted? It’s not as if all the taxi drivers in the country are advocating genocide.

    Even given that your teacher is just trying to save face, its sort of hilarious that the best explanation she can come up with implies that her fellow citizens can’t string together a proper sentence. Quick thinking on her part though – someone needs to get the woman a job in PR.

  2. Sometimes I wonder if our teachers feel like PR is half their job description. Especially with the text we’re using now, which is really interesting but also maybe a little uncomfortable for the teachers, since each chapter highlights a different Chinese social problem (changing views of sex and marriage, abortion, One Child Policy, etc.).

  3. the topic of overweight pressure in population is not fashionable in China now. it’s a difficult problem haunting through quite a long time,which however,our government has began to do something about it,for instance,the one child policy. It is better to get faith and look forward to the future,not keep complaining all the time,just do sth as you can.

  4. Everytime I go out the door in Shanghai I think there are too many Chinese people! One can never be alone – it really is oppressive!

  5. I think I have an explanation why this may sound self-insulting to the laowai ear. Your translation may be slightly off. “Tai” in Chinese sometimes means “too” but sometimes is closer to the English “so”. In this case 中国人太多了 might be better translated as “There are so many people in China”. Have you ever noticed how Chinese speakers of English often misuse “too”, as in “I went to the party and there were too many people.”, the speaker actually doesn’t mean “too” he/she means “there were so many people” (Anyone teaching English in China will know what I mean.) The native Chinese speaker is thinking in Chinese and taking “tai” and translating it as “too”. Likewise, the non-native speaker of Chinese might take “tai” and too literally translate it as “too”. You should think of 太 sitting on a fence ready to be bumped either to the side of “too” in some contexts or to the side of “so” in other contexts…我可能写太多了, 可是我太高兴能参加。。。
    (Perhaps I have written too much, but I am so happy to participate…)

  6. I think you’ve got a good point (and isn’t it fun how teaching ESL/EFL can give insights into learning Mandarin?), and maybe in some cases your interpretation is correct. I’m going to make a change to the second translation, but not the first.

    But in addition to the literal meaning of the words, we have to consider the way it’s said, the negative tone, other nonverbals (of course, easy for foreigners to misread), not to mention the current daily social context that’s deeply impacted by the One Child Policy, I think it’s more likely that most of the time people are thinking “too many” rather than “so many”; the nonverbals and context often bump “太” over onto the negative side of the fence. The people I asked both assumed a negative interpretation of “太……了” in the first sentence.

    Someone ought to write about learning Chinese by teaching ESL. It’d be funny, and enlightening!

  7. Haha, you made me remember a funny Taiwan memory: the only time I heard one of our Taiwan friends say anything like this was when some friends took us to hike Yangmingshan near Taibei, and there were couples making out at all the scenic spots. Our friend Angel would look at them and say under her breath, “Taiwan is too small!”

    Yeah, I assume they’ve grown up with that “we’re too many” idea. Sure would have liked to see China in the 80’s…

  8. Good points Joel. It got me to thinking how no one EVER says that in Taiwan. I only heard that when I first went to mainland China (1989… they were even saying it then) and pretty much ever other person said it at one point or another in conversation. I think it must be part of their one-child policy campaign to convince people really “we mean one child… there are too many of us”

  9. Joel,
    I think that you are putting words into the mouths of the people. You are being too analytical. You see and hear things that are not there. Often when I’m in a crowd I think to myself. “Damn, there are just too many Chinese.” Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there are superfluous ones and these ought be be eliminated. Nor do I believe that is the what the natives wish to convey.

    Also, the comment by Rachael defining TOO and SO and their proper usage is at best an attitude that modern linguists find pedantic. The example of “I went to the party and there were too many people.”, may use TOO correctly, if the room were overcrowded….moreover, who is the judge? the person making the comment not someone who is nitpicking their language skills. I think too is indeed correct. I think Rachael is assigning a value of importance far too great to the word too than is warranted. Maybe I’m just too (so?) ignorant (I can’t) to understand? Does it matter?

    Puts me in mind of the Clinton impeachment. Well, says Bill, it depends on your definition of “is.” Here’s what Clinton told the grand jury (according to footnote 1,128 in Starr’s report):

    “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

    Uh, right Bill.

    Just my two cents worth.

  10. One sentence causes different understandings, which reflects the difference of culture and language using habit. The Chinese famous and efficient one child policy, but it is unfamiliar to foreigners, which implies the significance of culture communication and comprehension. For Chinese, we’d better speak English carefully in English way. For foreigners, you’d better take phrases or sentences into some certain contexts when you learn Mandarin or want to understand Chinese English and also Chinese culture.

  11. Never meant to imply that Mainlanders complaining about their population size in any way implies that they are (consciously or subconsciously) actually in favour of eliminating part of their race! By including those impressions I just meant to describe the experience of hearing this complaint as a language student, and how it can feel awkward, especially since language students are unavoidably overly-tuned in to the literal aspect of communication, and especially since we need to make a reply right then and there (“I agree, there are too many Chinese in the world! It’d be better if there were less of you guys!”). Being raised in an overly p.c. environment where we’re hesitant to discuss race much also might have something to do with the awkwardness, at least for me. I don’t mean to say that’s it’s a horribly awkward or uncomfortable situation; just saying that you do notice at the time.

    Foreigners brought the “too/so” distinction into this, but it was my Chinese teacher and other Chinese friends who brought up and confirmed the difference that the comma makes in the two sentences.

    (big tangent) I don’t personally read a whole lot into this particular common complaint, other than see it as a symptom of China’s current social issues, modern history, and traditional culture. A separate but tangential discussion would be Mainlander attitudes toward the value of people. It’s long been said by Chinese and foreigners that “people are worth less in China,” meaning that in general Chinese cultural places less intrinsic value on the individual. Lin Yutang gets into this when he discusses the general lack of a basic “Good Samaritan” ethic/civic consciousness in Confucianism and Chinese society. Foreigners bump into this when they see how unapologetically heartless strangers can be toward the suffering of another (in N.America we at least feel the need to make a caring gesture, genuine or not). Traffic accident crowds, the utilization of abortion… there are many aspects of Chinese society that may or may not be shaped by this. Anyway, this tangent would be really interesting for a future post, but it would need to be hosted by someone who’s got much more of a clue than me! My “Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics” post has been in the draft folder for ages, waiting for the day I learn enough to at least make it worth posting.

  12. After I read the passage, I began to think about the population problem of China again. Although there are some negative aspects of the One Child Policy, this policy is suitable for China in my opinion. For it can really help the government to give people a more satisfying life. What we can do is to get faith and look forward to the future, don ‘t keep complaining all the time. We ‘ d better say ” In China, there are so many people.” instead of “There are too many Chinese ” from now on.

  13. Msuoon,

    Thanks for writing. I have a question for you. You say we should “get faith” and 往前看, but that’s not very specific. Get faith in what? What should we get faith in?

  14. It is true that China has too many people .I dare say it .But it is not anyone’s fault .In our country ,there are too many people who may have little knowledge or have much money bear more than 2 children as they wish .It is unfair .We should hold the one chile policy .We should come up with a policy that can punish those have more than 2 children .After all ,the basic population in China is so big .We should control it .But one child is too cruel .What if an old couple lose their only child in an accident ?Our country should think of how to improve the life condition in stead of taking back the right to give birth to child .

  15. First, I want to say sorry to you, for I haven’ t check my e-mails for a long time. And now I want to answer your question. What we should get faith in? I think we should get faith in our governmnt first, because China really know that the problem of overpopulation is the key obstacle that sabotage chinese eonomy development. It is difficult to take charge of such a big country with so many problem. One child policy can help deal with the problem to a large degree. But it takes time. Second, we should get faith in our Chinese people, especially those people in rural places. Because the problem there is really serious. Those villagers lack of some kind of recognition about this problem, so they may do something wrong. However, we should still have faith in them. We should believe that given time, they would realize what they did will have a great influence on themselves, too. I hope you can buy my idea. Maybe some of what I said will confuse you. But it’ s just a college student’ s opinion.

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