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what are "character flaws"? Are they something innate, that cannot be changed? If so, then no one has character flaws. For all faults and shortcomings are acquired, and they all can be changed!

If so If not ?

That paragraph was the most confusing one to me.  Maybe it's lucid to a native Chinese speaker, but I had a hard time following the logic of his grammar and reasoning.

I think what he is saying is:  We may have flaws in our character (whether national or individual), but these flaws are all acquired after birth through experience, environment and education, and they can be modified.  So if we conceive or define "character flaws" as flaws that are innate and unchangeable, then we cannot use this term ("character flaws") to refer to the flaws that we in fact do have, since we have just postulated that any flaws we do have are neither innate nor unchangeable.  In short, we all may have flaws in our character, but no one has "[innate] character flaws" as defined in this way.

Hope that makes sense.  I should probably add quotes around "character flaws" in the text.

It may be worth adding some remarks about the choice of "character flaw" to translate the Chinese.  The word "劣根性" liègēnxìng is translated in different dictionaries as,

  • deep-rooted bad habits
  • inherent flaw
  • scoundrelism

The "deep-rooted" and the "inherent" suggest that the defect is to a certain degree endemic.  This goes along with the fact that the last two characters 根 gēn and 性 xìng mean "root" and "nature" respectively.  The first character, 劣 liè means "inferior; bad; slightly".  So:  "inferior/bad root nature".

Having said this, the fact that Yì Zhōngtiān questions whether or not these "劣根性" liègēnxìng are "innate / inherent / inborn/native" (與生俱來 yǔshēngjùlái) and "unchangeable / unalterable / final" (不可更改 bùkěgènggǎi) left me the impression that these aspects of the term, though typical, might not be essential to it.  I reckoned that the same is true with phrase: "character flaw".  While the suggestion that the flaw is innate/inherent in the person is much lighter in English, it is nevertheless there to a certain degree.  Also, if I had used a phrase referring to innateness, like "inherent flaw", then I worried that Yì Zhōngtiān's comments would sound contradictory and strange.  On the other hand, "deep-rooted bad habits" did not capture the "character", "nature", "personality" aspect of the word's meaning, aside from its awkwardness.

Unfortunately, using the term "character flaw" may add some further confusion in my translation, when it is used as part of the phrase "national character flaw".  Namely, do we parse it as national-character flaw (i.e. "flaw in the collective 'national character' [whatever that is]") or as national character-flaw (i.e. "character flaw that is present among the people of that nation")?  This parsing question may just boil down to a distinction without a difference (which is what I was betting on when choosing to use "character flaw").  But it does touch on the potentially interesting issue of the relationship between culture and individual personality and how each affects / determines / limits the other.

Actually, strictly grammatically speaking, 國民劣根性 guómín liègēnxìng ("national character flaw") can only be parsed in the second way, i.e. as national character-flaw.  However, in effect, I believe the ambiguity just described also exists in the Chinese.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 08:07:13 AM EST
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