Kaiser Kuo on visiting journalists and forbidden cliches

This humorous piece was written by the always witty Kaiser Kuo and first published in a recent edition of The Beijinger and on Ogilvy China's Digital Watch blog). It is published below with permission of the author.

Forbidden Clichés: A guide for visiting journalists

Welcome to Beijing, friends from the foreign press! I greet you on behalf of the many expatriates who’ve lived in Beijing for years. We’re all really eager to read the stories you file. We can’t wait to see what this city, which we know all too well, looks like from the perspective of visiting journalists — you, with your keenly honed observational abilities and your uncanny wordsmithery. (Is that a word?)

I thought that it might be helpful to you — and I don’t doubt your professionalism — if someone pointed out for you some of the more well-worn phrases that still, alas, tend to find their way into English-language media coverage of China. This will, I hope, save you from embarrassing realization that for your “color piece” on Beijing you’ve filed the same stupid, cliché-ridden drivel as 18 other hacks, and will save us, the frightfully cynical expatriates of Beijing, a lot of groaning, tearing out of hair, and unpleasant vomiting.

Let me just say that I completely understand the pressure you’ll be under to file, as your bureaus are spending good money to send you out here. And I know there will be considerable competitive pressure, what with 30,000 of you all descending on the city like so many curious locusts with reporters’ notebooks. Read the suggestions below and your stories will stand out, and everyone will be happy — you, your editors, your readers, the Pulitzer committee, and most importantly, me.

Topping the list of forbidden clichés is the phrase “coming out party.” As apt as it may have been when first used with reference to the Games shortly after they were awarded to Beijing back in 2001, after appearing in 75.4% of stories about the 2008 Olympics in the seven intervening years, it now incites English-speaking expats to an ugly, violent rage. Use it at your own peril; you have been warned.

Please do not write “Beijing is a city of stark contrasts” and refrain from using any variation thereof — “a city of startling juxtapositions,” or (needless to say) “a city of yin and yang.” Not that it isn’t a city of, um, rather pronounced differences; it’s just too damned lazy an observation to make. A special enjoinder to photographers: please resist the temptation to position yourself in a hutong with a decrepit but charming tile-roofed courtyard home in the foreground and a shiny, hyper-modern steel-and-glass skyscraper rising behind. No using Blade Runner comparisons for Beijing. You’ll want to save those for Shanghai, believe me.

The bureaus of reputable western papers here in China have a rule against quoting taxi drivers. But since Beijing’s cabbies are so fabulously colorful, you will be permitted one exception. Make it a good one. Helpful hint: That story about efforts by our city’s cabbies to learn English phrases? That one’s been written several thousand times so please, anything but that one.

While we’re on the subject, the imperfect grasp of English evinced by your hosts — the ubiquitous “Chinglish” signage, that sort of thing — has also been done to death. To be fair, so has Chinese-language coverage of the moronic Chinese character tattoos so popular among some Westerners.

No writing “There is an ancient Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.’” There isn’t such a curse. No writing “the Chinese word for crisis includes the character for opportunity and the character for danger.” That it may be true doesn’t reduce my aggravation each time I see it in print. In fact, just to be safe, avoid anything involving “an ancient Chinese saying.” This will save you, anyhow, from having to Google for choice quotes from Sun Tzu or Confucius’s Analects.

Try your best to avoid phrases like “China’s rising middle class,” “the Little Emperors” and “ideological (or moral) vacuum.” Find a descriptive for security personnel other than “stone-faced.” And only use “Great Leap Forward” if you’re covering events like the triple jump or pole-vaulting.

You’re not really surprised to see how many Starbucks, KFCs, and McDonalds there are here, are you? Your readers won’t be either. If you have any sense, you’ll take full advantage of your time in Beijing and try out lots of the city’s excellent restaurants. There will be plenty to write about your culinary adventures without resort to “those exotic Chinese – they’ll eat anything” clichés. Yes, there are restaurants here that specialize in donkey meat and in pig faces, and even – gasp! – dog. Whoop-de-do.

For you mousse-coiffed, Mr. Gravitas TV anchor types and you sotto voce public radio types: Please oh please stop saying “Bay-zheeng.” The pronunciation of the city’s name couldn’t be easier. It’s just Bay-jing.” Jing as in “jingle bells.” It’s really that easy. Jesus Christ.

No making fun of the Fuwa, the pronouncedly Nipponic mascots of the Beijing Olympic Games. Let’s face it: they’re way too easy a target, and during this season in which the world gathers in celebration of good sportsmanship, taking cheap shots at the Fuwa is just too unsportsmanlike. Besides, my four- and two-year-olds both like them a lot. Especially Jing Jing. That’s pronounced “Jing Jing,” not “Zheeng Zheeng.”

Pronunciation is important. Remember that before you pun, you should make sure the Chinese word you’re hoping to pun on actually does sound like the English word you’re trying to evoke. You don’t know how many times I’ve sat scratching my head before realizing that the pun only works with a really twisted mispronunciation of the Chinese.

While we’re on puns, some common ones to avoid include pander/panda and the always irksome Peking/peeking. And no using “your average Zhou” or “Zhou Sixpack.” There will be absolutely no punning on the interrogatives “who” or “when” and the family names of the Chinese president and premier, respectively. I know you’re thinking, “Hu knows Wen I’ll get another chance like this?” and I feel for you, but just resist it, okay?

There are currently 50 Comments for Kaiser Kuo on visiting journalists and forbidden cliches.

Comments on Kaiser Kuo on visiting journalists and forbidden cliches

Just goes to show that the only people more rigid and lacking in humor than Beijing's apparatchiks are the long-term expats. It's been said before, but I'll say it here: if I could choose between being censored by the Party, and by the long-term expat males between the age of 36 and 52, I'd take the Party. Fewer axes to grind at Zhongnanhai.

hasn't this been written before?
by the same author?
(save for a few Olympic 'specials' thrown in)

I know kaiser is a busy man and all but surely the new relaunched all new beijinger deserves better

Ha Ha, pretty funny.

Captain Freedom --- Don't understand your point... Are you funny?

It seems odd that he'd suggest the press should be concerned with how expats think China should be written about, rather than what they think their readers back in their home countries will be interested in. I agree with a lot of the points, but then again, I'm an expat (the Beijing mispronunciation especially).

my new play: I Heart Kaiser Kuo ;)

"Kaiser" Kuo an "expat" speaking on behalf of "expats"???

And all his material was already beautifully written ages ago on TalkTalkChina and SinoCidal.

Note to language maven Kaiser Kuo:

In sentence 1 of paragraph 7 supra, change "evinced" (see usage note here) to either "evoked" or "evidenced." Contrary to popular misuse, the latter word can, in fact, be used as a transitive (mono) verb.

slowboat: Are you sure? You might want to compare the text to that usage note again.


Please ignore LoveLongTimeChina's remarks. As a co-founder of sinocidal and long time reader of TTC before their respective shutdowns, I dare say your post would have been in the "Best of" for sure.

PiPi and TaiTai may not agree, as they use that funny English with the extra "r"'s.

As PiPi once said " To the Chinese, there is no win-win scenarion. "Win win" is the name of a panda in the Sichuan Zoo."

Hope you all have a Sinocidal Olympics.


“the Chinese word for crisis includes the character for opportunity and the character for danger”

FYI, this is not only a horrible cliche, this is also simply untrue.

Quite certain, Joel.

While it's correct that a subject evinces a "quality or feeling" (see link above).

A subject, by subtle contrast, evidences such qualities that are amenable to external evaluation.

Above, "your hosts," are revealing their collective "imperfect grasp of English," which is a quality that is amenable to external evaluation, as opposed to a quality, such as compassion, which is precisely knowable to the degree expressed only by the subject "evincing" that quality.

The distinction between "evince" and "evoke" is somewhat more subtle, as each descends vulgarized from an abstract Latin root: evincere (to vanquish) and evocare (to call) respectively.

Suffice it to say that stylistically, the fact that "evoke" more directly invokes language than does evince would recommend the former over the latter in an arguable choice, as exists here, between the two because as one "evokes" or calls forth one's imperfect grasp of a language rather than vanquishing it by mis-speaking.

Style notwithstanding, "evidence" is clearly the most appropriate of the three for the author's intended purpose :-)

I wasn't aware that only English majors (and Lao Lao who should get his silly, smug self back to Shanghai or Bezheeng as he is sorely missed) read Danwei.

I wonder if Dave Barry had to endure such evinceration??

Very funny article Kaiser....

RE: A special enjoinder to photographers: please resist the temptation to position yourself in a hutong with a decrepit but charming tile-roofed courtyard home in the foreground and a shiny, hyper-modern steel-and-glass skyscraper rising behind. No using Blade Runner comparisons for Beijing. You’ll want to save those for Shanghai, believe me.


...thanks kaiser, that's the best one.

While it may be true that some of the observations in Kaiser's article have been made before - either by K-Kuo himself or by others - I think that they bear repeating.

As for the comments about the lack of humour...

...the man was penning SATIRE for god's sake, taking a time-honoured piss at that familiar and entertaining urinal.

very funny & true - I translated few bits for some Colleagues before they head to Bj. Not that it'll stop any of them, mind you. It's to temptingly easy and journos are known to be slack.

bTW, the phrase "Great firewall of China" should also be banned immediately

Amazingly, I came across one of the forbidden cliches just yesterday when reading a recent article on the algae situation in Qingdao:

British yachting journalist Bob Fisher, who will be in Qingdao reminded me this week that there is an old Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times'.

Here's the link:

Cliched phrases are dull but not dangerous. What's dangerous is cliched ideas, like, whenever someone hears "Tibetan monks" and "Chinese police", s/he reports "Chinese police have violently cracked down peaceful demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Lhasa", even though s/he doesn't have a clue about what was really happening. It's not just laziness on the part of journalists. It has more to do with pressures for political conformity (how can you not side with the Dalai Lama in his conflict with Chinese government?), and a desire to cater to the received opinion/imagination of their targetted readers.

For what it's worth, James Miles, the only (accredited) foreign journalist in Tibet during the riots, has concluded that there is no evidence that China's security forces killed anyone in Lhasa during the riots, contrary to what so many other media reports have alleged. Yes, there are probably people shot dead in neighboring provinces. But in Lhasa, none, even if his Holiness and his aids have said that dozens/more than a hundred had been shot dead in Lhasa ("Illusion of Calm in Tibet", The Economics, July 10, 2008).

I do not agrree with LaoLao.

Typo. It's "The Economist", not "Economics".

The biggest cliche, of course, is to ask every athlete heading to Beijing about their opinions on Tibet and human rights in China, as if every athlete is a politician or political activist.

Sorry, all these rants are politically incorrect. I apologize to every champion of freedom and democracy from the free world, where there is no self-censorship among the journalists.

I laughed at the piece, and it's funny from the long term expat point of view, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of the cliche stories (contrast in wealth, coming out party...etc) do have merit. Just because we may have read them a million times doesn't make them untrue.

"Wordsmithery"? Yes, indeed! By coincidence, two minutes after I read your entry, I saw this on a web page ( Christopher Hitchens' book "God is not Great":

Lopez: How does Christopher Hitchens confuse you with an Islamofascist?

Fr. Williams: Very cleverly. Hitchens writes well, and people who are taken in by his wordsmithery easily overlook his logical lacunae.

I love Fuwa-Huanhuan:)

Looks like penning articles telling foreign correspondents how to avoid cliches is itself becoming a bit of a cliche:

Why are people so nit-picky with some of k-kuo's writing? What's wrong with a little satire?

lighten up people.

Perhaps they are just jealous, perhaps they haven't learned that sometimes you just have to admit defeat, and call someone who knows more than you "GE"!

Oh dear, I rather like "coming out party" -- it always brings a smile. For a split second, one is forced to consider the possibility that 1.3 billion people might be coming out of the closet.

Great article Kaiser. Had me laughing the whole way through.

Talking of cliches, whatever happened to Tang Dynasty? And does Kaiser's self-importance amp really go up to 11?

I know it's the Beijing Olympics and all, but there will also be lots of mentions of Taiwan. So, I'd like to add "renegade province" to the list of cliched terms that should be axed from from all coverage.
Having been in Taipei last week, I can attest that the place is not renegade. It's actually quite normal and totally out there in public. It's definitely not crouched Rambo-like in the shrubs with a knife in its teeth waiting to pounce.

And I agree that the list of cliches here is best avoided.
But wait, isn't the juxtaposition of a hutong and a skyscraper an actual material reality of Beijing life? Just lift your eyes and that's what you'll see. Can't it, in some ways, serve to faithfully represent life in the city? After all, the development process in BJ is not a subtle one. So I think it's asking a bit much for its representations to be more nuanced than the facts on the ground. There's no artistic way to represent a knee to the groin.

What a out-of-date cliche!
I hope the faked story BBC was fined 400,000 pounds for was not about how clever Kaiser Kuo was.

Good luck reporting and not using any cliches when it comes to the description of a city as vast and changing as Beijing or The Olympics. Do the right thing people: every time you hear or read a familiar cliche- DRINK!!

A wise ex-pat would turn it into a game! Have fun, it's summer!


The "Great Firewall of China" is just too apt a moniker to go away.

It also gets special status because it's been adopted by many Chinese themselves, conveniently rendered online as "GFW."

Please add "lose face"/"loss of face" to that list, as if others are not immune to feeling embarassed/wanting to keep up appearance and what other definitions there are.

And thanks for the article. Cannot agree with you more.

I found this guy's article as tiresome as the news pieces he's complaining about. What are they supposed to report on? That nearly all Chinese think their country's English name comes from dishes? How they all think muslims don't eat pork because the pig is their god? Or that babies are still made to releive themselves in the middle of sidewalks in the CBD? I mean there's no golden secret behind all the cliches, nothing redeeming they're all missing. Yesterday I was walking with some local friends and we passed some Koreans waving their flags. My friends' immediate reaction was "Wow, they're asking for a beating." There's still a chance there will be more to write about than how the Fuwa look like they're planning on eating Tangseng.

Besides how do you get that full of yourself being an expat in Beijing? This isn't St Tropez, The Bahamas, Dubai, or Hongkong after all. A bit more modesty would be fitting. You do know you're not really a Kaiser, right?

For Lee Gadye:

Wow, lighten up you!
I think that in the Middle Kingdom you should be surrounded by the Great Firewall of China. If it's a coming out party you are looking for, well, you'd better calm down a little bit, because the startling juxtaposition of your nonsense makes the yin and yang of this whole city tremble with laughter. You know, there is an ancient Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times", but looking at the tone of your sour post I wish you with all my heart "May you live in uninteresting times". I believe that your words reflect an ideological vacuum that even China's rising middle class would find a little obnoxious. A piece of advice: try to relax a bit, you will discover that your life will suddenly take a great leap forward.
However, you know what? With you Little Emperor kind of people, it is always very difficult to 讲道理. So, take it easy and welcome to Bay-zheeng.

The so-called "ancient Chinese curse", "May you live in interesting times", is a perpetuated urban legend, false, and not even remotely similar to Chinese expression, nor is there the faintest approximation of such phrasing in the writings (揮毫), idioms (成語), maxims (格言) or adages (諺語) recorded over the course of more than 2500 years.

Sorry folks but the phrase ain't Chinese, no matter how much you wish it to be, no matter how many internet sources attribute it to Chinese.

Kaiser - very funny piece (and this from someone who makes a living editing the stories of foreign correspondents). If I can add one to your list, it's "Confucian," a philosophy allegedly related to everything from Chinese urban design to Chinese stock markets, often used by expat writers who have never read a page of Confucius. Oh, and "Zen," which has morphed from an arm of Buddhism to a new style for Asian cocktail bars. ("I had a Cosmo in a place that was so Zen...")

But politically incorrect, why all the foaming at the mouth?
Sure, interviewing athletes is cliched, but what did you think was going to happen during the biggest athletic event in four years? Interviews with... chess players? Cliche-defying philosophy professors?
Pop media, Chinese and Western, is all about cliches. Giant opening ceremonies are a cliche. So officials' speeches and cheering flag-waving crowds. China would LOVE for the international media to cover its cliches 24/7-- just the censored ones it wants.
What's ridiculous is keeping athletes away so they can't be interviewed, or pressuring them not to speak. If athletes have nothing to say politically, they won't even if you ask them. But when athletes do have something to say -- like when they say they've been kept in training for years possibly against their will and never see their families -- then China gets all angry at the Western media.
The more China acts like it has alot to hide, the more people (both inside and outside) will presume the worst. That's a great image to promote: "Welcome to China: We've hiding stuff. We're also bitter and short-tempered, so watch it."
P.S. What logic is there in the Chinese government kicking all the journalists out of Tibet, then complaining journalists did a bad job of covering Tibet?

I'm sure the world's press will be thinking about their audiences back home when writing stories and doubt that they will be writing for the sliver of a fraction of the population of the world that consists of us expats who live in China.

But good advice for those journalists who might cover the Olympics with us in mind. Nice effort.

We all think of ourselves as the center of the world (oops, looks like I've violated one of your rules)...

Keep them coming Kaiser!

Whoop-de-do!! haha

Great column, as always, Kaiser. Thanks.

Blah blah blah.

I hope no journalist takes the time to read this recycled rant.

How does one person decide he can speak for all of us? A bit big-headed if you ask me.

I think it should be, 'coming out of the Party!'

Very, very funny Kaiser, had me in stitches...!

And lighten up people!

Why doesn't Mr Kuo write suggestions to his Chinese compatriots on how to better report the Olympics with their vast array of stereotypes about foreigners?

Word Up Mauro.

Stavrogin: Kaiser is American, with a Chinese ancestry, like a lot of other folks. Not all Americans are surnamed "Smith."

The thing I said about 'nothing redeeming' was stupid. Alcohol is bad for common sense & moderation. But I do think quality is rare; no one writes articles on how Michael Jackson's music lacks complexity. They just choose to listen to Charles Mingus.

Jerry thinks readers of this thread are not smart enough to know that 'Not all Americans are surnamed "Smith."'

He's an old-China hand, is J. Much knowledge gained while writing about crap indie bands. And Smith must be an indigenous American name.

Can we assume he is Jerry Chan, a friend of Kaiser? I think we can. Could he be yet another tedious old-school Beijing smart-arse (who is not from China, obviously). J makes his money in Beijing, and has become deliberately blinkered to all its bullshit and HUGE injustices because it is in his own interest to do so.

Lots of those people in the capital. I include the Danwei mob. Will they post this? Let's see.


The "Danwei mob" will publish your comment, but let's note two things:

1. Jerry was responding to a commenter who had assumed that Kaiser Kuo was a Chinese national. All he did was to correct that assumption.

2. The Danwei mob is not a faceless mob. Like Kaiser Kuo and Jerry Chan, we have names, real names which we attach to our work.

Kuo and Chan's prejudices and blind spots are in articles and information available all over the Internet for all to see and read about.

You yourself also have a real name, that is known to the Danwei mob, as is your location.

At this time we will not expose your name nor send our fellow Danwei mobsters to break your legs.

However we will note that you are as dependent as the "tedious old-school Beijing smart-arse[s]" on the Chinese economy with all its "bullshit and huge injustices".

You don't seem to be doing much or writing anything about those injustices.

They say over 20,000 hacks from all over the world in Beijing for the Olympics. The number is large, if not truly known. Some of those journalists, we should assume, are very, very well qualified to do what they do. Danwei, however, thinks they need guidance from some blogging bloke that works for an ad agency that sells fizzy drinks and shampoo.

That is my argument.

Mr Jones:

A thousand pardons for not jumping on board your one-man crusade against the injustices of the world.

I didn't realize my work here in China, not to mention my entire identity, was being measured against it.

I'm looking forward to reading about all of your valiant efforts to right the wrongs of society and your superior taste in music online as well.

Fight the power,

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