China’s “core” leader

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I’ve been reading countless reports about how Xi Jinping was made the “core” leader of China during the recently concluded meeting (6th Plenum) of the CCP, e.g.:

China’s Communist Party Declares Xi Jinping ‘Core’ Leader

China’s Ruling Party Endorses Xi as ‘Core Leader’ After Meeting” (RFA, 10/27/16)

Down to the core:  Xi Jinping gets a new label, but no more power: In China, a year of political infighting lies ahead” (The Economist, 10/27/16)

China’s Xi Jinping Tightens His Hold on Communist Party:  Officials at conclave designate the president as the ‘core’ of the leadership, using title conferred on Mao Zedong ” (WSJ, 10/27/16)

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*Notice, in the photograph accompanying this article (and many other articles), all the members of the Standing Committee, seated at the front of the hall facing us, raise their hands in exactly the same way (angle, height, position of thumb versus other fingers, etc.).  The other members of the Politburo, with their backs to us, also match the posture of the Standing Committee members, but not with such exactitude.

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The press accounts consistently refer to this new appellation for Xi as “core”.  This term must have been something dished out by the New China News Agency and lapped up by foreign reporters (what choice would they have?).  See:

Xinhua English and Zhonglish ” (2/4/09)

‘Hurt(s) the feelings of the Chinese people‘” (9/12/11) — especially in the comments

Curious about what the Chinese for “core” might be, I found it in these and other articles:

中共首次形容习近平领导为’核心’

中国星期四正式称习近平为’核心’

Here’s the key statement (the precise wording varies somewhat in diverse reports):

Gōngbào shuō,“Shíbā dà yǐlái yǐ Xí Jìnpíng tóngzhì wéi héxīn de dǎng zhōngyāng shēntǐ lìxíng, shuàixiān chuífàn, zhěngchì dǎngfēng, yánchéng fǔbài, yíngdé dǎngxīn mínxīn”.

公报说,“十八大以来以习近平同志为核心的党中央身体力行,率先垂范,整饬党风,严惩腐败,赢得党心民心”。

The communique declares, “Since the 18th National Congress, the Central Committee, with comrade Xi Jinping as the core, actively took the lead by setting an example and led the way in rectifying conduct within the Party, severely punishing the corrupt, thus winning the hearts of the Party and of the people.”

Let us look a little more closely at the key term they’re now applying to Xi:  héxīn 核心 (“core”).  It consists of two syllables, the first meaning “nucleus; nuclear; atomic; nut; check” and the second “heart; mind; center”.  Joined together as one word, the two syllables signify “core; nucleus; kernel”.

Only Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin had been called “core” leader before.  Even so, compared to other autocratic rulers of East Asian states, “core” just doesn’t cut it for such a paramount personage.  “Fearless Leader” won’t work because Xi’s really quite “fearful”, indeed “paranoid”, which is why he (with the help of his enforcer Wang Qishan) has been so busy bringing down countless opponents in the Party.  Xi could at least be “Great Supreme Commander” like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, or “Dear Leader” like his father, Kim Jong-il, or “Eternal President” like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

I think, though, that the real urgency for affirming that Xi Jinping is China’s héxīn 核心 (“core”) is that his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who has now become his nemesis, was popularly styled “Jiāng héxīn 江核心” (“Jiang the Core” or “Core Jiang”) during his reign.  Never mind that he is now more often nicknamed “Frog / Toad Jiang” or “Jiang the Frog / Toad” ( Jiāng hámá 江蛤蟆), “Uncle Toad / Frog”, “Toad / Frog King”, etc.

Jiang Zemin’s toad / frog persona is so ubiquitous that shé 虵 (a variant for shé 蛇 [“snake”]) — though presumably pronounced tā in this case — has come to be used as a third-person pronoun to refer to “Frog / Toad Jiang” or “Jiang the Frog / Toad” (Jiāng hámá 江蛤蟆), since it shares the same radical with 蛤 and 蟆, viz., Kangxi radical 142, chóng 虫 (“insect; bug; worm”).

There are also less flattering nicknames for President Xi than “Core Leader”, but I won’t mention them in this post.  Maybe some other time.

[Thanks to Yixue Yang and Fangyi Cheng]



15 Comments

  1. Jichang Lulu said,

    October 29, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    Das also war der Partei Kern.

  2. Cervantes said,

    October 29, 2016 @ 8:29 am

    On a completely unrelated note (no doubt), they’re celebrating Halloween in Disneytown/Shanghai this week-end, complete with ghosts, vampires, witches, and jack-o’-lanterns.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    October 29, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    I was struck by the fact that all the visible members are male:

    The Wikipedia article listing the current politburo has two women (out of 25), if I’ve counted right, but they don’t seem to be in the picture.]

  4. David Morris said,

    October 29, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    Two comments about the footnote: 1) very close, but not *exactly* – there are minor variations, 2) why are they sitting down if they are the standing committee? (joking!)

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 29, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    Poking around the google books corpus, I only find one use of “core leader” in a PRC-politics context prior to 2000 and that’s dated 1996. Maybe that’s not complete and other corpora would reveal earlier uses in English, but I wonder whether the Mandarin phrase was not applied to Mao and Deng contemporaneously but only in hindsight, or whether there another English wording that was used in earlier decades to translate the same Mandarin?

  6. Alex said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 1:52 am

    @Cervantes
    Halloween is especially big here in Shenzhen too. Some condo households are even beginning to pass out candy. The holiday is also very popular with young adults. I guess here Xmas, Valentines Day and Halloween. Its interesting at leaat here the names arent loan words.

  7. John Swindle said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 3:52 am

    Is no one else reminded of Chairman Mao’s little red book? “The force at the core leading our cause forward . . . “?

  8. Cervantes said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:52 am

    Mark Liberman writes:

    the current politburo has two women (out of 25), if I’ve counted right, but they don’t seem to be in the picture

    You’re right, the full Politburo has 25 members, including two women.

    In the photograph, seated in front is only the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which comprises seven people, all male.

    The Party’s Central Committee, from which all the above are drawn, currently comprises 205 voting members, including 10 women; and 171 alternate members with no voting rights, including 22 women.

  9. Cervantes said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    Victor Mair writes:

    Only Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin had been called “core” leader before. Even so, compared to other autocratic rulers of East Asian states, “core” just doesn’t cut it for such a paramount personage.

    But that was the whole point of the coinage: to name and certify an undisputed leader while also giving the impression of not having done so too eagerly or too slavishly. A “core” is, by definition, at the center of things, not above them.

    Meanwhile, John Swindle writes:

    Is no one else reminded of Chairman Mao’s little red book? “The force at the core leading our cause forward . . . “?

    Sure — but Mao was referring to the Party as a whole, not to any one individual within it.

  10. languagehat said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 8:16 am

    Sure — but Mao was referring to the Party as a whole, not to any one individual within it.

    Cf. Trotsky’s prescient words: “the party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organization, and, finally, a dictator substitutes himself for the central committee.”

  11. flow said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

    @VHM, Cervantes:

    > “core” just doesn’t cut it for such a paramount personage.

    > But that was the whole point of the coinage: to name and certify an undisputed leader

    Well, the entire country takes its name from the concept that the most important, leader-est institution(s) is/are at the very center (of the world, even): I’d suggest that the cadence

    天下 -> 中國 -> 中央 -> 核心

    world -> Central Realm / China -> Central (Government) -> Core (of Power)

    must be very appealing one to a Chinese politician.

    Beijing—京師, the Capital—was, and to a degree still is, shaped like an onion, with a series of massive walls, each one separating a lesser outside from a more elevated, more exclusive inside. Somehow this seems to be true of most capitals, but nowhere have the very words, ‘the inner circle’, cast into stone at a grander scale than in Beijing; certainly a big-league capital from an architectural point of view, and certainly one of those where you can see the meaning of ‘center’ from a satellite.

  12. Jichang Lulu said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

    One language where the translation of Xi’s new title doesn’t seem to have settled yet is Mongolian. A Mongolian news item based on an English-language story uses гол удирдагч ‘core leader’ (гол gol ᠭᠣᠣᠯ often translates ‘main’ or ‘core’ as an adjective). Other (Outer) Mongolian sources use цөм tsöm ᠴᠥᠮ᠎ᠡ, which is closer to the Chinese (e.g. ‘atomic nucleus’ is атомын цөм ᠠᠲ᠋ᠣᠮ ᠤᠨ ᠴᠥᠮ᠎ᠡ).

    Even in PRC Mongolian-language media, where more uniformity could be expected, I’ve seen various uses of gol and tsöm, but also a third word, ᠲᠥᠪ төв töv ‘centre’. For example, here are two PRC state media translations of the phrase 以习近平同志为核心的党中央 yǐ Xí Jìnpíng tóngzhì wéi héxīn de dǎng zhōngyāng ‘the Central Committee with comrade Xi Jinping as the core’ (which occurs in Victor’s post, as well as pretty much everywhere these days):

    нөхөр Ши Жиньпинээр төв болгосон намын төв хороо (Cyrillic Mongolian news site targeting a foreign audience)

    ᠰᠢ ᠵᠢᠨ ᠫᠢᠩ ᠨᠥᠬᠦᠷ ᠋᠌ ᠢᠢᠠᠷ ᠭᠣᠣᠯ ᠪᠣᠯᠭᠠᠭᠰᠠᠨ ᠨᠠᠮ ᠤᠨ ᠲᠥᠪ ᠋ᠬᠤᠷᠢᠶ᠎ᠠ or Cyrillised:
    Ши Жиньпин нөхрөөр гол болгосон намын төв хороо
    (Mongolian script newspaper).

    (Mongolian script examples may display incorrectly.)

  13. Simon P said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 3:43 am

    The character 核 is, in my mind, intimately associated with nuclear power and bombs. It’s likely a coincidence, but seeing Xi as the “Nuclear leader” gives another chilling nuance to the term.

  14. Jichang Lulu said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 7:34 pm

    All this talk of the Central Committee aka 党中央 dǎng zhōngyāng ‘centre of the Party’ brings back Ai Weiwei’s pun 挡中央 dǎng zhōngyāng ‘block the centre’ (as in 草泥马挡中央 ‘the Grass Mud Horse blocks the centre’, an artwork where he poses naked covering his genitals with a toy alpaca). Mark Liberman discussed it here.

    Someone wishing to use 挡中央 ‘block the centre’ in a poem requiring matching it with a parallel phrase (对仗) could try 遮核心 zhē héxīn ‘cover the core’. That would open another urn of annelids. Not only does ‘core’ now refer to the Core of the matryoshka, 遮 ‘cover’ also means ‘umbrella’ in Cantonese. 遮核心 could also describe Umbrellical Accostment, a law enforcement practice where umbrellas are opened between journalists and stuff they shouldn’t be reporting on.

  15. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 1, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    The Man At The Center Of Everything…

    is apparently a man in a blue suit and a red tie.

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