Spicks & Specks

'Weapons of Mass Destruction'
in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese


Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese have a huge amount of shared vocabulary. This is overwhelmingly Chinese-based, that is, created from Chinese roots, and a lot of it dates from the 19th century, when the nations of the Orient were importing Western thought and culture in a desperate attempt to catch up with the West. Scholars in both China and Japan naturally turned to Classical Chinese to coin new words for these concepts, just as Western scholars turned to Greek and Latin.

Not all this vocabulary was created by the Chinese themselves. A good portion was created by the Japanese based on Chinese models. The results were quickly and easily adopted by the Chinese and, in turn, the Vietnamese, whose educated classes also used Classical Chinese as a language of higher culture, administration, and learning.

Since WWII, the cultures of the Orient have gone their separate ways. New expressions are adopted from English or other languages without reference to other Oriental languages.

One example is 'weapons of mass destruction' (WMD), a relatively new term popularised in connection with North Korea and Iraq. The term in English was apparently first used in reference to German bombing of Guernica and other towns before WWII. It has now gained wide currency as a code for chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. A brief look at the definition of WMD can be found here. As a term that has recently gained popularity, 'weapons of mass destruction' is an interesting illustration of the different ways the same phrase is handled by Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

The following table (created in 2003) shows what appear to be the main translations. The Japanese version is taken from Yomiuri Shimbun, the Mainland Chinese term from several Chinese newspapers from Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, the Taiwanese term from the China Times, and the Vietnamese term from Internet sources. I've also searched with Google to corroborate the prevalence of these terms. The Hongkong press appears to follow the Mainland terminology and has been omitted.

Language/area Standard expression Alternatives
Chinese (Mainland)
dàguīmò shāshāng-xìng wǔqì
'large-scale kill-and-wound-type weapon' (press)

dàguīmò shāshāng wǔqì
'large-scale kill-and-wound weapon' (Internet)

dàguīmò huǐmiè-xìng wǔqì
'large-scale extermination weapon'
Chinese (Taiwan)
dàguīmò huǐmiè wǔqì
'large-scale extermination weapon' (China Times)

dàguīmò huǐmiè-xìng wǔqì
'large-scale extermination-type weapon' (Internet)

dàguīmò shāshāng-xìng wǔqì
'large-scale kill-and-wound-type weapon' (Internet)
tairyō hakai heiki
'mass destruction weapon' (press and Internet)
'weapon extermination mass' = 'mass extermination weapon'

'weapon extermination scale' = '(large) scale extermination weapon

'weapon kill-person mass' = 'mass person-killing weapon'

'weapon kill-person collective' = 'collective person-killing weapon'


1. Word order in Vietnamese is the opposite of that in Chinese and Japanese.
2. Mainland versions written in Simplified characters; Taiwanese versions written in Traditional characters. Below, Traditional characters are listed first, with Simplified characters after the slash (where a difference exists).
3. The above table does not exhaust the variety that exists. Especially for Chinese, some other terms can be found.


Now, let's look at the three elements of 'weapons of mass destruction' in turn:


All three languages share two words for 'weapon': (Chinese wǔqì, Japanese buki) and (Chinese bīngqì, Japanese heiki). In Vietnamese these are and respectively. The difference in the meaning is roughly similar in the three languages.

Detailed nuances aside, in actual usage Japanese prefers heiki as the standard term for military weaponry in general. In an equivalent context, Chinese and Vietnamese use wǔqì or .



'Mass destruction' forms a parallel with 'mass production' in English. It would seem natural to use a similar expression in the CJV languages, and indeed, Japanese and Vietnamese both use expressions modelled on 'mass production'.

- Japanese uses tairyō, literally 'large-volume'. 'Mass production' is tairyō seisan.

- Vietnamese uses , meaning 'mass, large quantities'. 'Mass production' is . However, some overseas Vietnamese sources use expressions meaning 'scale' (, related to Chinese / guīmò) or 'collective' (, related to Chinese / jítǐ). The word 'scale' in Vietnamese is typically used in the meaning 'large-scale'.

- Chinese has several terms for 'mass production':



The weapons of mass destruction that Iraq is alleged to be developing include chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. One of the heinous features of these types of weapon is that they are destructive not only of physical infrastructure but also of human life, in a particularly grisly way. Any translation of the word 'destruction' should ideally take into account this nuance.

hakai is the kneejerk equivalent of the English word 'destruction'. Such fixed equivalents are generally used unthinkingly. Hakai in Japanese is normally only applied to the destruction of physical objects (buildings, etc.) and organisations.

The Mainland Chinese version focuses on the destruction of human life by using shāshāng, which specifically means 'killing and wounding'. Shāshāng is used in Chinese to describe anti-personnel weapons, including fragmentation bombs, etc.

The Taiwanese equivalent uses the word huǐmiè, which means 'to destroy and exterminate', a vivid way of expressing the concept of mass destruction. (This word is not found in Japanese.)

The Vietnamese term is related to huǐmiè and has a similar meaning ('destruction and extermination'). Some overseas Vietnamese sources use meaning 'kill people' as an equivalent for 'destruction'.

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