Defining correctness: The tale of the contemporary Chinese dictionary

Siu Yau LEE

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Chinese dictionaries have long been an important tool for promoting the political agenda of the state. Not much has changed in the twenty-first century. A conventional assumption is that dictionary compilation has been controlled by the state. An examination of the history of the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary 现代汉语词典 suggests that such a claim is exaggerated. While the state was indeed actively involved in the compilation of the dictionary before the 1980s, the presumed propagandistic content of the dictionary in the twenty-first century has been more a result of the profit-seeking behavior of its publisher, the Commercial Press 商务印书馆, than direct state control. In order to defend the market share of its product, the Commercial Press needs to struggle with rival publishers to present to the public a close affinity with the state, which has the authority to define linguistic correctness. Consequently, the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary has been revised in accordance with the changing political agenda of the state and thus continues to support its nation-building project. This finding revises the conventional wisdom on several scores, particularly by deepening the analysis of language politics and reaffirming its importance in contemporary China. Copyright © 2013 SAGE Publications.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)426-450
JournalModern China
Issue number4
Early online dateJul 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2014


Lee, S.-y. (2014). Defining correctness: The tale of the contemporary Chinese dictionary. Modern China, 40(4), 426-450.


  • Language politics
  • Nation building
  • Dictionary
  • The state


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