The official Chinese media reported this week, China’s National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technology has been meeting to standardize a Chinese name for “PM2.5,” a harmful air pollutant that has negative human health effects. While PM2.5 is the scientific nomenclature for fine particulate matter that has a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, there was no consistency with which it was referred to in the Chinese media and academic reports. Instead, mixed references to PM2.5 as “particulate matter in the lungs” (keru feikeliwu), “fine particulate matter” (xi keliwu), “fine particles” (xi lizi), and “ultrafine particles” (chaoxi keliwu) have created enough confusion for the government to look into the (fine) matter.
Chinese netizens have chimed in as well, with suggestions on what the Chinese term for PM2.5 might be, ranging from the scientific to the sarcastic to the downright skeptical. On Sina Weibo and pointed out by a blogger on China Offbeat, netizens have sarcastically suggested “China good particles” (zhongguo hao keli), “Breathing Pain,” “Life 25% Shorter Index,” “Standing Right in Front of You But You Cannot See Me Index.” Some of the more creative names with political undertones include “harmony particle” (a pointed jab at China’s censorship of sensitive issues), “pimin 2.5” (PiMin, the same initials as ‘PM’ refers to citizens who have been treated poorly by their government), and “peiming 2.5” (payment of life 2.5).
As PM2.5 has already become a household name in China (see this advertisement for a PM2.5-themed rock concert in Beijingand this argument by a Chinese newspaper that PM2.5 is actually better known), it may not be necessary for the government to come up with its own moniker to fit Chinese-specific conditions. We’ve seen how politically-controversial naming can be. Until the term ‘PM2.5’broke into mainstream Chinese media and consciousness, poor air quality days and haze were often referred to as “fog” (wu) or “haze” (wumai) in Chinese, which had the effect of downplaying the role of anthropogenic contribution and instead connotes weather and climactic-related factors instead. Though the latter do undoubtedly play a part in Beijing’s poor air quality, calling pollution “fog” has underplayed the reality of air pollution’s role in causing the “haze” shrouding the city.
For now, at least, it seems that the government has decided on “fine particles” (xi keliwu) for the Chinese name of PM2.5.
Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and project manager of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.
William Miao is a first-year Master of Environmental Management (MEM' 14) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research focus is on the application of integrated environmental tools and frameworks at corporate, industrial, and national levels. Originally a chemical engineer from Auckland, New Zealand, his previous work involved risk management for oil and gas production, waste to energy research, and life-cycle assessment for the steel industry.