This is just a reference post: I went through the Chinese.SE meta posts about on/off-topic-ness, and summarized (what I feel are) the important points below. The mark [****] indicates items I feel we should raise again on meta.

Important lessons learned:

  1. There are varying meanings for "off-topic" and "on-topic":

    • One post will say "ABC is on-topic" with the implied meaning that (a) questions about the Chinese language that involve ABC are on-topic, and (b) questions about ABC but not about the Chinese language are off-topic.
    • One post will say "ABC is off-topic" with the exact same implication.
  2. Some topics became off-topic simply because some diamond moderator changed some document to say so (without community consensus). For example, there was a near-consensus on Chinese-to-English translations here (December 2011), but this was nevertheless declared off-topic in the FAQ here (October 2012). Then here (July 2013) we have This site already addressed this issue. In our FAQ we decided that any translation from Chinese into any other language, would be better asked on that Target language site. (In July 2020: survey of comments on questions containing the substring "close", there are comments which indicate the community may have changed its mind on Chinese-to-English translations.)

  3. Multiple users have complained about the low standards for translation questions. Basically everyone seems to agree we need to change this, but we don't (yet) know how.

  4. By the looks of things, I should also investigate comments on closed questions to see what reasons have been given there.

From oldest to newest:

  1. [+3/-0] Questions about resources for learning chinese (December 2011). The site was in its infancy back then; I don't see anything relevant nowadays.

  2. Consensus: Questions about travel are off-topic.

    [+8/-0] My opinion is that questions about travelling shouldn't be on topic...
    Alenanno♦ (December 2011)

  3. [****] I don't think this is worded clearly enough:

    [+8/-0] Questions about culture are on topic, but I'd suggest to narrow them to the ones that are related to the chinese language, something like "why do we say X IDIOM in this situation?" is a question about culture and about the chinese language.
    Alenanno♦ (December 2011)

    [+3/-0] Are questions about historical/cultural origin on topic? (August 2017) asks about culture in the context of etymology, and [+2/-0] Sure, I think they're on topic (October 2017).

  4. Near-consensus: Chinese to English translation is on-topic.

    [+7/-0] I would say its a valid question if its a phrase that could be quite ambiguous or difficult to translate.
    going (December 2011). Note: this conflicts with a later post by going (October 2012).

    (There was one semi-dissenting opinion by Ming, December 2014 [+0/-0].)

  5. Consensus: Chinese etymology is on-topic.

    [+8/-0] It seems like from the definition of the purpose of the site, these questions are not off-topic.
    brc (December 2011)

    A later question [+2/-0] Are questions about historical/cultural origin on topic? (August 2017) basically asks if etymology is on-topic. [+1/-0] Sure, I think they're on topic.

  6. [+4/-4] Central place to dump resources (December 2011). Unclear discussion about creating a "central place to dump resources".

  7. Consensus: We can ask questions wholly in Chinese.

    This was asked back on Area51: [score 33] Will the Chinese Language site allow for questions to be asked completely in Chinese?.

    [+18/-0] You obviously can, such questions are ok in language-related sites. ... some people ... post also an english version ... This is not mandatory, of course, ...
    Alenanno♦ (December 2011)

    Reaffirmed: [+6/-1] Can I Answer Questions by Chinese (February 2014); [+4/-0] I think we should allow both questions and answers in both English and Chinese.; [+5/-1] of course you can.

    Reaffirmed: [+7/-0] Your input: Do we allow questions and answers written completely in Chinese? (March 2014); [+11/-0] in line with the current policy as quoted above, we do accept questions and answers written completely in Chinese.

    Reaffirmed: [+3/-3] To suggest that Chinese SE questions be written solely in English (November 2016); [+6/-0] How about those who can't speak English more fluently than Chinese?

    Reaffirmed: [+2/-0] Is it a problem if a learner asks/answers wholly in broken Chinese? (November 2019); I don't think it's a problem itself, the rules are just the same for question/answer both in Chinese or both in English.

  8. [+1/-1] Questions about language that are also apparent in Chinese (December 2011). A vague question about the evolution of words in China was closed. [+3/-0] The question per se seems on topic, but its problem is that it's not specific.

  9. [+3/-5] Computer setup questions off topic (December 2011). There was much discussion, and it seemed like technical support was discouraged, but some IME questions could be relevant. [****]

  10. Consensus: For Chinese text processing, programming is off-topic.

    [+4/-0] If the question's focus is on programming or an algorithm, it should be posted on Stack Overflow. ... If on the other hand the focus is on the Chinese language ... then it shouldn't be excluded from this site.
    Orion (December 2011)

  11. Policy for questions about chinese names' meanings/requests (January 2012). No consensus on this question which asks if a question to review a made-up Chinese name is on-topic. [****]

    [+4/-1] I think this question is clumsily worded, but valid.
    Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' (January 2012)

    [+7/-0] ... the question is still too broad. We shouldn't allow questions like "What does 熊猫" mean unless whatever X is is something vague or unusual and can't be found easily on the web.
    going (January 2012)

  12. [+3/-1] Am I the only one who thinks this question is discussion-y? (January 2012). Discussing closing this question requesting recommendations for novels.

  13. [+0/-1] The board game site recently banned all recommendation questions. They had tried a few different ways of dealing with them, and finally gave up.
    Don Kirkby♦ (January 2012)

  14. [+3/-0] What should we write in the FAQ? (January 2012). A draft of the FAQ (now known as the on-topic page). Relevant here:

    Consensus: We can ask questions in English or Chinese.

    [+4/-0] Questions and answers can be written in Chinese on the Main Site only. The Meta site should be in English only.
    Alenanno (January 2012). Although I don't believe meta is restricted to English.

    At-the-time consensus: Effortless translation questions are off-topic.

    [+4/-0] This is not a translation service so we will close any translation request that does not show research effort.
    Alenanno (January 2012)

    [+0/-0] What is this site for? Can I ask translations here? (October 2012). [+1/-0] You can ask specific questions regarding a translation if it requires expert translation that can't be taken from a regular Chinese dictionary or from another common source such as Google translate.

  15. Resources: not enough to establish consensus:

    [+2/-0] We're not saying that you should never ask for a list of [resource] suggestions, but when you do, you should ask for something as specific as possible.
    Don Kirkby (January 2012)

  16. Dialects: Not enough to establish consensus:

    [+1/-0] Questions about the dialects and varieties are on topic.
    Alenanno (January 2012)

    A later answer writes:

    [+0/-4] Because this is strictly tied with the Mandarin instead of different of pronunciations in different areas in China.
    xqMogvKW (December 2016)

    Consensus: Chinese dialects are on-topic.

    Affirmed [+6/-0] Are questions on specific dialects on topic? (March 2017) with the response [+4/-0] I honestly don't see why not.

  17. [+4/-5] Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: should we include only free material? (February 2012). Basically, "it depends" to including links to commercial resources.

  18. [+10/-3] Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: should we have it at all? (February 2012). A +7/-2 score prompted a community wiki resource question.

  19. [+1/-0] About software questions [Site FAQ] (March 2012). (It seems we have a FAQ.)

    In the following, I find "From any language" weird. It also contradicts the near-consensus of Chinese to English translations.

    [+1/-0] Translation: From any language to Chinese as long as: (1) you provide research effort, without it your question will be closed. (2) you provide a detailed explanation of the original expression word. From Chinese to other languages, please refer to the target language site.
    Alenanno (October 2012)

    I don't see a consensus here:

    [+1/-0] Questions about your name meaning or asking for help in choosing a name are not allowed.
    Alenanno (October 2012)

  20. [+0/-2] How can we improve the question about HSK material? (March 2012). A HSK4 book recommendation question was closed and deleted.

  21. [+3/-0] FAQ: What is On topic and Off topic on this site? (October 2012). A poorly maintained list of on/off-topic reasons. In my opinion this post shouldn't exist; it should be merged into the on-topic page.

  22. [+2/-0] Policy refinement for questions related to translation (October 2012). Confusion about closing this Chinese-to-English translation question. going's answer suggests the criteria: (a) is it a question? (b) is there personal effort? (c) is there a reasonable purpose to their question?

  23. [+0/-0] Do English to Chinese translation questions belong on this site? (July 2013).

    ... we don't do someone else's work. This is not a translation site. However if someone really tried to translate something (and just pasting on Google Translate is not really enough for me), then I'm happy to help.
    Alenanno♦ (July 2013)

  24. [+4/-0] Questions that request beyond a simple translation (July 2013). A question asks how to convert a Chinese idiom to an English idiom (closed by diamond hammer).

    In our FAQ we decided that any translation from Chinese into any other language, would be better asked on that Target language site.
    Alenanno♦ (July 2013) This contradicts the previous near-consensus.

  25. [+8/-0] What translation questions are on topic for this site? (August 2013). [+7/-0] going's answer requires: (a) effort, (b) benefit to others (not overly narrow), (c) actually about Chinese. (Is "is this Chinese?" on topic? [****]) [+2/-0] Alenanno♦'s answer mentions "passing interest" is hard to define and it's unclear if that's even a problem. [+1/-0] KWeiss's answer distinguishes between "picture post", "bulk translation", "How to say X?"

    [+2/-0] ... closing such questions without acknowledging the prior effort is a disservice to language learners ...
    Tommie C. (August 2014)

    The author complained about questions 1 2 3 (which indeed show effort) being closed (and they are still closed). (What does "show effort" mean? [****]) In this case it looks like the chosen close reason is incorrect, and should be Your problem is difficulty with seeing characters. This has nothing to do with Chinese language.

    [+2/-0] my proposal of the amendment is

    Questions asking for simple textual translations are off-topic unless prior research effort is clearly indicated.

    Stan (March 2016)

    [+2/-0] Stan's answer (March 2016) further mentions the level of prior research varies per question (highlighting this question as one where it's unreasonable to insist on prior research); how we don't actually see "bulk translation questions"; and how the meaning of "high quality" is unclear.

  26. [+3/-0] Over on the SE site I'm most active on, Travel, we have specific policies about what kind of resource questions are OK. ... Basically we don't allow questions seeking recommendations for resources. So "please suggest an app" and "What is the best guidebook?" are out.
    hippietrail (November 2013)

  27. [+1/-0] Why did a group of our prominent users vote to close this translation question? (December 2013). A [+0/-2] Chinese-to-English question was closed, and while the author attempted their own translation:

    [+4/-0] OP did not show any attempt to translate the two phrases in question. ... The English meaning of those two phrases (断章取义 and 别有用心) could have been found easily in a good online dictionary.
    杨以轩 (December 2013)

    [+2/-0] Instead of requiring translation questions to show prior effort or research, I think it would be more effective to require the answers to translation questions to be in Chinese ...
    user238264 (December 2013)

  28. [+0/-0] Questions about Chinese language on MacOSX (March 2014). No conclusion about self-answered questions regarding Chinese on a MacOSX.

  29. [+2/-0] Why was my flag declined? (June 2014). User flagged a definition question and it was closed as off-topic because it looks like a vulgar word (although that's not a reason to close as off-topic; if it's offensive, it should be edited or deleted, not closed [it's still visible]).

  30. [+0/-0] How to rephrase this question so that it adhere's to the site constraints (July 2014). A question about encouraging 关系 was closed as off-topic.

  31. [+2/-0] Can FAQ include instructions on character identification? (July 2014). Confusion about character recognition questions; nothing came of it.

  32. [+3/-0] Translation from dialects: off-topic? (August 2014).

    [+5/-0] According to the Help Topic on "What topics can I ask", there is no distinction made for dialects.
    Tommie C. (August 2014)

  33. [+1/-0] Is It Worthwhile Implementing Some Additional Logic To Screen Out Basic Translation Requests? (March 2015). Lengthy post about blocking bad posts before they arrive.

  34. [+1/-1] Are questions about Mongolian allowed? (May 2015). No consensus as to whether or not Mongolian is on-topic.

  35. Weak consensus: We can discuss swearwords. (Better to keep them out of titles.)

    [+3/-0] I think questions about swearing is not necessarily inappropriate. This, for instance, seems to be a valid question.
    Thomas Hsieh (May 2015)

  36. [+0/-0] Can "How to get started learning Chinese" be reopened? (August 2016) asks how to reopen How to get started learning Chinese?, but it's closed for multiple reasons.

  37. [+0/-0] Any reason to keep this question open for 6 days? (August 2016). Obviously off-topic question takes a long time (6 days) to attract close votes.

  38. [+2/-0] Is asking to translate a short paragraph from English to Chinese on topic here? (August 2016). It was generally agreed that asking about translating a paragraph-sized snippet is okay provided the OP puts in effort translating it themselves first:

    Your post would have to show some type of effort to translate it yourself first. No, just copying and pasting into google translate it not enough because the chinese SE is not a free translating service.
    辛祐賦 hsinyofu (September 2016)

  39. [+1/-0] Are "critique my Chinese handwriting" questions on topic? And if so, how to write them appropriately? (October 2017). There were worries about a handwriting critique question being too narrow.

  40. [+1/-0] Are questions on quote origins off topic? (November 2017). Asks if questions determine the authenticity of Confucius quotes are on topic. No answer.

  41. [+2/-0] Without breaching on topic guidelines is it possible to receive assistance here with how to achieve translation? (January 2018). User uncertain about how to write on-topic translation request about cufflinks: [+4/-0] Translation requests are on topic as long as you have demonstrated “homework”, i.e.: pre-question effort.

  42. Important [+6/-0] relaxing the rule of "asking for translations are off-topic" (April 2018) motivated by the push to be more welcoming proposed relaxing the rules for translation questions. [+4/-0] Why not, motivated by low traffic. I don't believe Stack Exchange's intention was to lower quality standards, more along the lines of We should do what we can to make this site welcoming.

    Here's a suggestion for a new version of that message:

    You are welcome to ask for help with a translation, but please describe what you have tried so far. You can spend a few minutes trying to draw the character on mdbg.net or learn about seal scripts, then click the Reopen link.

    Don Kirkby♦ (March 2018)

    Subsequently a user complained about low standards for translation questions: [+4/-0] Should we be more serious on our standard in admitting questions? (December 2018). My suggestion was [+1/-0] I suggest focusing on exemplifying and encouraging high-quality content, although it didn't seem too popular.

    There was also a second complaint: [+5/-0] Image-only questions should be closed as off-topic (January 2019). And judging from this comment, it's likely time to re-raise the quality standards:

    Yes, we're all on the same page. It was only after the blog post stackoverflow.blog/2018/04/26/… that we have started to let these questions ride a bit. Feel free to flag the older questions for closure.
    Mo.♦ (January 2019)

    [+1/-0] "What does this say" type question policy for seals and calligraphy (November 2019). [+2/-0] i suggest answering these type of questions, about seal & calligraphy. And [+3/-0] my answer says seals, etc., are hard to translate and are often meaningfully answered.

    I compare "what does this say?" questions here to "what is this movie?" questions at Movies.SE, [+48/-104] which are not allowed, but this decision is unpopular.

  43. [+3/-0] How can I use Chinese.SE to practice constructing sentences? (June 2018). It wasn't so much about on/off-topic, but how to ensure they are interesting.

  44. [+1/-0] Sorry, I didn't mean to spam you (April 2019). It was in regards to this question which was deleted as spam, which seems like a strong reaction.

    [+3/-0] Short answer: Asking for resources is just off-topic here. We even have an explicit close option for it.
    songyuanyao (April 2019)

    This is at odds with the on-topic page: Can I ask for resources? The short answer is: No, but it depends.

  45. [+0/-0] Why do we allow asking questions in English? (January 2020). Generally questions are allowed in English.

  46. [+1/-0] How Physics.SE handles "resource recommendation question" (February 2020). I note how Physics.SE handles “resource recommendation question”, which might give us ideas on how to admit such questions.

  47. [+2/-1] Are questions that involve translating between Chinese and another non-English language on-topic? (March 2020). This question asks about a Chinese-to-French translation. No clear conclusion.

  48. [+4/-0] Should questions about word usage-frequency be allowed? (March 2020). Motivated by this question about what's the most common Chinese word for "France". [+1/-0] they should be allowed. No clear-cut answer.

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