Guan is a verb meaning to manage or to be in charge of and "the majority of interactions with authority in China are of the kind embodied by the character guan", wrote Abrahamsen.
Even if it is justifiable to represent a society as diverse as China's with a single character, there is bound to be debate over what that character should be. I would suggest for instance, the character chi, to eat, is just as telling of Chinese society. People used to greet each other with "chi le ma?" "have you eaten?". People meddling in other people's business are simply chibao le chengde, those who "have too much in their belly". Popular jobs are chixiang, those that "taste delicious". If someone takes advantage of you, you "eat the lesser portion", chikui. This emphasis on eating, of course, had to do with our subsistence economy in which the struggle for food had priority over everything else. Chinese economic landscape has changed a little since these years of famine. Nowadays few people greet each other with “have you eaten?” unless they are making a dinner appointment.
But it is a risky business trying to sum up Chinese society with just a single character, no matter what that character is. China is large, containing multitudes, and its society is continually changing. If you use a single character to understand it, you soon run into contradictions. For instance, while Abrahamsen seems to suggest that in China someone is in charge, guan, in every area, I find that actually Americans are more aware of turf boundaries, and always ready to drive trespassers away from their well-defined professional areas. In China, the lines are more blurry or simply do not exist.
China has become a favorite subject in the American media in recent years. Yet there is much complaint that the country is a mystery. While a single character cannot encapsulate the whole, the language does reveal much about the nation's evolving character and can provide keys to unlock some of the mystery.
When new, popular expressions in Chinese find their way into the international media, these expressions often bounce back, and then create little linguistic carnivals among translators, social commentators and language hobbyists who try to come up with equivalents better than those by some foreign journalists who do not know any better. Such linguistic jolliness, however, often ends with the acknowledgment that no translation is good enough to capture the complexity contained in the original phrase. When a fresh new expression crosses linguistic borders, its meaning, context, texture, and rhythm are shattered and scattered all along the bumpy road of transliteration and transformation.
From my experience translating from English to Chinese, one problem that I often encounter is the lack of Chinese equivalents for certain English expressions. Most equivalents I use are compromises. For instance, the word "presentation" is translated either as a speech or a demonstration, with the former carrying more formality. The original neutrality of the English phrase is lost in the process. Leaders always give "speeches" even if they use boring PowerPoint slides. Technical sales people give demonstrations, no matter how eloquent they are.
The same happens with the word “writer”. In English I can claim to be a writer without feeling ashamed of myself, because any dude typing stuff in mama’s basement can be called a “writer”. You’d think this is a no brainer for translators because in every language there are writers. I’d hesitate to call myself the Chinese equivalent of a “writer”, because the word zuojia is reserved for the good and famous ones. I am probably a “zuozhe” for everything I wrote. If I am a famous translator, then I’d be a fanyi jia，otherwise I am a yizhe. You have to be very prestigious to earn a “jia” label. Fortunately, the Chinese language has also changed to adapt to the new realities of writing while the Internet creates a level playing field for all writing folks. We now use the phrase “xie shou”, which is a very good equivalent for the neutral term “writer”.
Translators deal not with static languages, but languages that are constantly shifting and evolving. The target language is a moving target. I used to have difficulty with the word "accountability", which is usually translated as zeren, yet the word "responsibility" is also zeren. The clear distinction between the two in the original language is lost. As citizens in China develop a higher awareness of their rights, more and more people want officials to be punished when accidents happen in areas where they are in charge. The phrase wenze, asked for responsibility, thus becomes a perfect match for the word "accountability".
Another deceptive English phrase is "overseas Chinese". People can get into a tizzy over the choice between translating it as huaqiao, huaren, haiwai qiao bao and huayi. These expressions distinguish between Chinese people living overseas who have been naturalized as citizens of other countries and those who have not, and those who were born in China versus those who were born overseas. Even as a translator I can't always tell the difference between what people say and what they intend to say when they use such expressions.
However, it used to be a big deal in China. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), having any overseas connections was a very dangerous thing. After reform and opening-up, to improve good will and attract investment, relatives of huaqiao could gain bonus points in the competitive college entrance exam. I was once approached by one of my young relatives who inquired whether I am a huaqiao so that he could take advantage of the policy. Yet how would I know?
And what do Americans care about any of this? Many don't even make a distinction between Chinese, Korean and Japanese people. For those Asians living in the United States, the immigration services classify us all as resident aliens. Although I still faintly remember which planet I come from.