The root of the problem is that Chinese phrases often lack prepositions, notes David Moser, academic director at the CET Beijing Chinese language program and author of a celebrated essay on the difficulty of learning Mandarin. In the case of 法治, that phenomenon has led to two similar but distinct translations in Chinese-English dictionaries: “rule of law” and “rule by law.”
“The lexicographers seem not be aware of any distinction, and either ‘of’ or ‘by’ seemed appropriate to them,” Mr. Moser says.
While the two phrases may seem like a flip-of-the-coin for dual-language dictionary editors, they actually have very different connotations, scholars say. “Rule of law,” under which the power of political leaders is constrained by laws and regulations, is generally considered a subset of “rule by law,” says Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language at the University of Pennsylvania.
“’Rule of law’ implies fairness and predictable application,” he says. “’Rule by law’ would include, for example, rule under Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws (Nürnberger Gesetze), which were neither fair nor predictably applied.”
It’s an important distinction in China, where courts, police and prosecutors are controlled by the Communist Party and where the constitution — which guarantees freedom of speech and religion, among other liberties – has been shunted aside when it conflicts with party interests.
The phrase 法治 was coined in the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. by the founders of the Legalist school of political thinkers who were rivals to the Confucians, Yonsei University’s Mr. Delury notes.
“Legalists said we should have an authoritarian, if not despotic system, where everyone has to obey draconian laws and where people are motivated by reward and punishment,” he says. That’s in contrast to Confucians, who believed society should be governed by a virtuous elite.
Chinese dynasties have traditionally featured a mixture of those two ideas – rule by man and rule by law — all the way up until the present day, Mr. Delury says, but the notion that the ruling elite should themselves be restrained by laws has never been seriously considered. For that reason, he suggests a more appropriate translation for 法治 might be “law and order.”
The thrust of this week’s plenum, scholars say, is probably most accurately reflected in a longer phrase official media have used to describe the agenda: 依法治国, or “ruling the country according to law.” That more obviously Legalist formulation dovetails with the nature of the proposed judicial reforms, which aim to give courts independence from local government but still keep them within the cage of Communist Party control.
Mr. Delury is not alone in thinking state media may be intentionally trying to send a different message to foreign readers. “My strong hunch is that official Xinhua translators are savvy about this of/by distinction, and the choice of ‘rule of law’ is a deliberate and careful choice,” Mr. Moser says. “Most foreign readers are probably unaware of the preposition distinction, but for the few sensitive to it, ‘of’ sends the right message.”