As I read through the Chinese media last week and saw the remarks of a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs attacking the United States over the coronavirus epidemic, there was one word in particular that popped out. Here is an image of a related report from Xinhua News Agency, published on April 22.

The word I’m talking about here is fèngquàn (奉劝), which essentially means “to offer a bit of advice”, or to “advise.” But the tone, far from being constructive or consultative, is withering. The headline reads: “Foreign Ministry Advises Certain People: Put More Energies into Doing Your Own Business Well.” It advises, specifically, against talk of China paying reparations over its role in the COVID-19 epidemic.

The tone is also very familiar. Below you can see another article, this time an editorial dating back to December 12, 1957, and appearing in the People’s Daily.

In this case, the editorial addresses former UK Labor party leader Hugh Gaitskell, who at the time spoke on the issue of Taiwan, incurring the outrage of the Chinese Communist Party. The two reports are separated by a space of 63 years, but they assume the same tone and use the same language. There are many other reports in China’s state media that employ similar discourse – what we might characterize as an “advisory vocabulary” (奉劝体).

The word fèngquàn (奉劝) is an ancient word in Chinese. Consult your Chinese dictionary, and you’ll find that fèng (奉) originally had the same meaning as the word gōngjìng (恭敬), which in adverb form means “deferentially” or “respectfully.” Fèngquàn originally had the sense of speaking in such a way as to respectfully advising or persuading someone. For example, one could “advise” others to drink wine at a formal banquet by using the word fèngquàn.

With the development of the Chinese language, however, the word fèngquàn gradually came to shed its sense of respect, morphing into a word having the sense of advising, or guīquàn (规劝), with more satirical overtones, to eventually bearing an unmistakable sense of warning or admonishment (警告). This transformation, and linguistic use, is shared whether one is in mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

When we look at the use of fèngquàn in China after 1949 to see who exactly was on the receiving end of such “advisory” language from the Chinese Communist Party, we find that the list is very long indeed.

In the 1950s, we find that the CCP most often advised both the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan and the United States. At the National People’s Congress in July 1957, one delegate was quoted as saying: “I sincerely advise military and government officials in Taiwan: How can Taiwan have freedom under the tightening control of the United States? I hope you can cast aside your concerns and quickly render a decision, striving for the peaceful liberation of Taiwan to reach true freedom.”

The US president too was subjected to such advice: “Eisenhower, I am truly ashamed for you!” raged a September 1958 poem by Guo Moruo (郭沫若) published in the People’s Daily. “You have no need again to lose face on behalf of the American people. I advise you to seek healing for your brain post haste. The American people are equally in search of peace, and I believe they will not embrace such a cheat as you!”

In addition to the US and Taiwan, advisories in the 1950s targeted the UK (as shown above), the actions of a French general in Tunisia, the words in support of Taiwan spoken by Japan’s ambassador to India, an Indian National Congress politician, the Dalai Lama and others. The Chinese military commander Chen Yi (陈毅), then China’s foreign minister, wrote a poem in 1959 urging the Dalai Lama, by that point already in exile, not to think of returning: “I have advice for you,” he wrote. “Do not stop on your way home. The CCP Central Committee has always been lenient. The Buddha said that looking back [and correcting one’s mistakes] is the way to the shore.”

There was of course also a great deal of “advice” directed internally. Rural landlords were “advised” in the midst of the land reform process in the early 1950s, and various “reactionaries” (反动分子) of all stripes (but particularly so-called “rightists”) were “advised” in the midst of repeated political movements.

There was even a case during the Great Leap Forward of the “advising” of unspecified “idle” (懒惰) women. Here is how the People’s Daily spoke in May 1958 of such women: “During the say they rest in bed with their eyes open, and in the middle of the night they get up to make fried rice that they gobble down; when you tell her to produce she won’t go, but says: ‘I won’t go even if the emperor calls me.’ These lazy women are advised to quickly set their bad habits in order!”

Not surprisingly, Mao Zedong could also be found “advising” the Chinese people on the correct path for the country. In 1955, he wrote of the experiences of a number of collectives, and encouraged cadres to go among the masses and learn from these experiences, saying: “This is effective medicine to cure stubborn right-leaning tendencies, and I advise people to give it a try.” By the end of the decade, Mao’s prescription for the country would prove disastrous, as the people’s communes and the ill-advised Great Leap Forward led to mass starvation.

In the 1960s, as relations with the Soviet Union soured, it was time to advise another external adversary. From September 6, 1963 to July 14, 1964, a series of nine strongly worked editorials appeared in the name of the editorial departments of both the People’s Daily and Red Flag magazine that criticized the “revisionism” (苏联修正主义) of the Soviet Union. The word “advise” appeared in each of the last three of these, later collectively known as the “Nine Commentaries” (九评).

“We wish to advise the leaders of the Soviet Union to consider cool-headedly what will ultimately be the result of the revisionism and separatism you encourage,” said an editorial on February 4, 1964. “We wish to advise the leaders and comrades of the Soviet Union to consider how many opportunists and revisionists have in the past been thrown onto the trash heap of history, and must you follow in their footsteps?” said another on March 31, 1964. And the final volley came on July 14, 1964: “Concerning the Soviet Union’s restoration of capitalism, how great are the hopes embraced by imperialism! How delighted they are! We advise the lords of capitalism to revel in their delight. Even if Khrushchev’s revisionist clique serves you, this cannot save imperialism from the inevitability of its destruction.” Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the “social imperialism” of the Soviet Union became China’s number one enemy, and the object of much “advising,” including over China’s border war in Vietnam and Laos.  

When it came to political unrest in 1989, the blame was thrown again in the direction of the United States. An article in the People’s Daily in July 1989, more than a month after the crackdown, resorted to two advises: “We advise the American government and people at all levels of society to prioritize the overall state of US-China relations, not to interfere in China’s internal affairs, and also not to harbor vain hopes of fomenting a ‘peaceful evolution’ in China. The counter-revolutionary chaos in China’s capital has already quieted, and those who orchestrated the chaos have been defeated. We advise people not to have a myopic view of China.”

And as political change swept through the Eastern Bloc, Premier Li Peng (李鹏) felt in November 1989 that he had to “advise certain people not to be prematurely delighted with changes in Eastern Europe.”

In the 1990s, there was a downturn in the use of “advise” in the People’s Daily. At home, Deng Xiaoping promoted reform and opening, and in foreign policy the emphasis was on “concealing strengths and biding time” (韬光养晦). The idea was that it was in China’s advantage for the world to be focused on peace and development. Deng also emphasized “not casually criticizing or blaming others, not saying things that cross the line, and doing things that cross the line.”

In the Party media, “advise” is an aggressive and hostile posture. Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP, China has spoken confidently about “Awesome China” (厉害了, 我的国), and has made enemies left and right, attacking on all sides. Toward the outside world, the language has become increasingly arrogant. Correspondingly, we have seen a clear rise in the Party media of use of the word “advise.”

In 2016, in the midst of dispute over the South China Sea and the International Court decision in the case between China and the Philippines, the latter was sharply “advised” by the former. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida voiced concern about the militarization of the South China Sea during trips to Europe and Southeast Asia, China’s foreign ministry said that China “advised Japan not to hype up a ‘sense of presence’ on the South China Sea issue.”

In 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) “advised” South Korea, issuing a warning over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an American anti-ballistic missile defense system.

In 2019, as the United States and China were engaged in a prolonged trade war, the US was frequently advised in the pages of the People’s Daily, and nearly all uses of advise were directed at the US. Here is a graph of all uses of “advise” in the newspaper from 2013 through 2019:

This high level of use of the admonishing “advise” has continued so far this year. The “advisory vocabulary” of the Chinese Communist Party is something we should watch closely in the party-state media as an indicator of China’s attitude and tone in its foreign relations.