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Similarities and Differences between English and Chinese Academic Writing

On April 22, Dr Fu Panfeng傅攀峰, assistant research fellow at the Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Professor Susan Finder had a dialogue about some of the main similarities and differences between English and Chinese academic writing, as part of the Transnational Law Review Seminar course, recognizing that some overgeneralizations were inevitable. Dr. Fu has published articles in leading Chinese law journals and worked on important national research projects related to international arbitration and other issues in cross-border commercial law. He received his LLB degree from Southwest University of Political Science and Law, and PhD from Wuhan University. During his PhD studies, he spent a year at the University of Montreal as a visiting scholar.


Prof Finder: In Chinese academic writing, does the author need to consider who the audience is, as in English writing?

Dr Fu: Under intense publication pressure, our priority is to consider the preference of a journal, and that of the chief editor. Getting the paper published is crucial, so the reader is merely one of the factors we consider.

Prof Finder: In contrast, it is not as difficult to be published in the U.S., as there are so many law reviews. In US law reviews, what professors write are called “articles,” and students write notes.

Dr Fu: The tendency is that we in China are trying to do something similar to what the U.S. does, but professional editors and professors are still in charge of editing of law reviews and major journals.

Prof Finder: In the US, there are many prestigious law reviews that are edited by students, such as the Harvard Law Review (and Yale Law Journal), and it is rather a competitive environment for students who are law review editors. I think the major difference is that you need a serial number (ISSN & CN) for official publication in China, but in the US, it is a more flexible and simple procedure.

Dr Fu: There are two systems for publication numbers, one for international publication (ISSN), one for domestic publication (CN). It is extremely hard to get a domestic publication number. For example, it was only 6 years ago that the Chinese Review of International Law obtained a domestic publication number, the first one for a Chinese international law journal.


Prof Finder: In English academic writing, the writing structure is introduction, background, body, and conclusion, is it the same in Chinese?

Dr Fu: It is similar, though there are some minor differences. We tend to write the introductions in a more subtle fashion, not as straightforward as in English. Frequently, we raise a question (issue) instead of giving an introduction.

As for the body, we look for the causation of the issue, compare other scholars’ point of views, and then provide a solution to the question. Abroad, scholars sometimes employ big data to discuss an issue, but Chinese scholars are more fond of using empirical knowledge, and subjective thinking to analyze the issue. Also, the thesis is not normally presented in the introduction.

Prof Finder: In English academic writing, having a roadmap in the introduction is usual. As for using big data, it depends on the nature of the article. Big data scholarship is in fashion these days.

Dr Fu: Chinese scholars have started to use big data now, but its reliability depends. I have many opportunities to do peer reviews, and I observed that the sources of data came from all kinds of sources, not always reliable.

Prof Finder: Sometimes people do big data analysis without looking at the bigger picture.


Dr Fu: In my view, there are two terrible mistakes that appear in some Chinese academic writing. One is no thesis, the other is the thesis is not connected to the body of the article. An academic paper is different from other articles. Also, in my view, emotional words should be used when truly necessary. The paper should have an argument. So you have to have a thesis to have academic article. Secondly, your entire article structure has to be based on the thesis, which means that you need to delete the part that is irrelevant to the thesis.

Prof Finder: What is the mainstream approach in China?

Dr Fu: “Chinese Journal of Law” is a very major journal—many of the articles have broad titles.

Prof Finder: When compared to the Yale Law Journal and Harvard Law Review (for example), the topics tend to be more specific.

Dr Fu: On the contrary in China, major journals like broad themes, less known journals would prefer more specific topics.

Prof Finder: Is the background section optional in Chinese academic writing?

Dr Fu: It is optional. In many Chinese articles, authors raise a question (issue) instead of giving background.

Prof Finder: The author assumes the audience knows the background?

Dr Fu: It is the norm. The more authoritative the journal is, the more likely it will assume the readers have related background knowledge.

Prof Finder: What are the principles for organizing the body of an academic article?

Dr Fu: In the body, we first provide a big picture, and then zoom in to focus on each part of the issue. However, it is tricky to keep each part connected with each other.

Prof Finder: In English language articles, we stress having a bridge from one idea to another idea and having a clear logical connection of the parts.

Dr Fu: The article I am writing right now is called the “Kompetenz-Kompetenz Principle of Jurisdiction under Chinese law”. I am writing in English. I assume many prospective readers do not understand the characteristics of China’s arbitration system, and the system that the arbitration commission and the courts are in charge of handling objections to jurisdiction, not the arbitral tribunal itself. So I am writing a background section that explains this. Finally, the body summarizes what the principle is in China.

Prof Finder: If you had written it in Chinese, would there have been any difference?

Dr Fu: The layout would be substantially the same, but the background and introduction part would be taken out for assuming the readers have related background knowledge.

Prof Finder: Use of heading and sub-headings?

Dr Fu: No difference.

Prof Finder: Topic sentences and followed by supporting sentences?

Dr Fu: It is supposed to be like that, but many Chinese scholars don’t follow this structure. Based on my observation, even for well-known journals, there won’t be many subtopics, although each part would be very extensive in length, they would still be under one topic.

Prof Finder: What is the mainstream approach?

Dr Fu: The main approach is dividing into small parts. But it seems the more prestigious the journal is, the less likely you will see a paper divided into many small parts. I saw quite a few articles in the Chinese Journal of Law divided only into four or five parts, 4000-5000 words for each part. The parts do not have subtopics.

Dr Fu: On the topic of having a thesis, there are more and more scholars studying abroad, and Chinese scholars are becoming more and more aware of the importance of thesis.

The Chinese legal system is similar to the tradition of the civil law system, both the civil law and criminal law are deeply influenced by Germany. The opinions from German scholars are very influential. Like the term “legal doctrine (Rechtsdogmatik)” is often used, but it is not the same in the United States.

Prof Finder: What is the mainstream approach to the use of language? Is it short sentences with plain language, with few emotional words?

Dr Fu: The approach is more or less the same as in the US. But you will see many long sentences in Chinese articles, especially in law-related articles. Some Chinese scholars, graduate students in particular tend to write long sentences with many modifiers or clauses. It will create a reading barrier for the reader. I used to be like that when I was a student, but my PhD adviser criticized me, and I managed to change that over time. Two tips: cut to the chase and delete non-necessary words.

Prof Finder: I have found that emotional words are common in students’ articles. Is it a problem in Chinese writing?

Dr Fu: Emotional words should be used carefully and sparingly. The article should have a neutral and objective point of view. The reader doesn’t care about what you think, but what the problem is.

Prof Finder: Passive voice is a no-no rule in English writing.

Dr Fu: Same as in Chinese.

But sometimes authors do not express their opinion clearly, for many reasons. First, the author may not be confident. Second, for fear of offending the mainstream view (e.g. some issues are sensitive, or it is not easy to get published) and other scholars. Third, there is no original point of view.

Prof Finder: In Chinese writing, I’ve noticed that the author’s opinion and suggestions are placed at the end, such as amending the law.

Dr Fu: It is true, Chinese scholars often suggest revising laws. In my view, solutions are sometimes not necessary. An academic article is not a report, it is not written to government departments. So in paper writing, providing suggestions is secondary.

Prof Finder: What about definition of plagiarism in China v. abroad?

Dr Fu: Plagiarism is a critical issue. Plagiarism of ideas constitutes plagiarism now, but maybe not the same 20 years ago.

Prof Finder: What about footnotes?

Dr Fu: The more footnotes you have, the easier it might be for you to publish the article. But footnotes cannot exceed the content of the article.

Dr. Fu responds to questions from students

Q1:How do we find a meaning topic to write about?

A:Combine your theory with hot topics. And pay attention to the differences between Chinese and English readers.

Q2:Does the article have to criticize legislation?What types of journal articles are there? Can it be a specific case study?

A:Yes, in my view, all articles should have a critical spirit. From an academic point of view, the value is in the new insights it provides to the reader.

Leading Chinese law journals publish all types of articles related to law. But some journals do prefer a specific type. For example,Political Science and Law, a Shanghai based law journal, tends to publish more criminal law-related articles, whereasLaw and Social Development, a law journal sponsored by Jilin University, tends to publish more articles related to legal philosophy.

Case studies are popular, but it is difficult to select an appropriate case. They need to be connected to the most cutting-edge issues.

Q3:We read a lot of papers, but I don’t know how to come up with new ideas. It seems that I put many papers together.

A:There are many problems that need more attention. Read more, think more.

Chinese scholars don’t write English as well as native speakers, but foreign publications are curious about China, and even if you don’t try to argue a point, they might still get it published.

Q4:Should a case study be on a single decided case, or can it be analysis of the legality of hot issues?

A:The cases of the Supreme People’s Court have guiding significance [even if they aren’t guiding cases], answers to major and difficult problems and so on. The issues involved are very important and be worth analyzing.

Q5:Excuse me, if doing a case study, the article concludes that “there are elements like 1…2…. 3…” Is this a thesis?

A:Yes, but you need to talk about one particular point.

Q6:Is there any difference between an introduction and background section in an article?

A:Depending on the situation, whether a background section is needed or not, in Chinese writing, the introduction and background sections are often mixed up; internationally, it’s whatever makes sense.

Q7:Some of the articles I read often introduce many doctrines, but they do not quote many scholars to prove that they are indeed authoritative. So how should identify authoritative articles when we write?

A: It is related to the accumulation of knowledge, it is necessary to collect articles from important journals. After you are familiar with them, you will understand which article is authoritative. The best advice for students is to look up the authors, read extensively. Authority is sometimes secondary. Some “authoritative opinions” are not always good. Sometimes, young scholars write well, and the articles from them are worth reading.

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