Variable usages

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Sign greeting Xi Jinping in Florida:


The banner reads:

Fózhōu Zhōngguó hépíng tǒngyī cùjìn huì
huānyíng Xí Jìnpíng Zhǔxí dàofǎng Měiguó


Florida Association for the Peaceful Unification of China
welcomes Chairman Xi Jinping on his visit to America

There are two main things to talk about concerning this banner, and they are both in the latter part of the second line of what's written on it.

First, I have been criticized before for referring to Xi Jinping as "Chairman Xi", but in this case, since I'm translating directly from what is written on the banner, I have no choice but to call him "Chairman Xi Jinping".  I was told that in English we're supposed to refer to him as "President Xi".  I still don't fully understand the reasoning behind that injunction, but it is a fact of life.  Although Xi Jinping is occasionally referred to as "Chairman" in English, he is far more often designated as "President".  That is a little bit odd, since he has a number of impressive titles in Chinese, but none of them is equal to "President".

For the record, Xi has the following formal titles (according to respondents from the People's Republic of China):

Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng Zhōngyāng Wěiyuánhuì Zǒng Shūjì 中国共产党中央委员会总书记 ("General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China")

Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng Zhōngyāng Jūnshì Wěiyuánhuì Zhǔxí 中国共产党中央军事委员会主席 ("Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China")

Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Zhǔxí 中华人民共和国主席 ("Chairman of the People's Republic of China", but as I have indicated, the de facto [?] official [?] translation of this most important title is "President of the People's Republic of China")

Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Zhōngyāng Jūnshì Wěiyuánhuì Zhǔxí 中华人民共和国中央军事委员会主席 ("Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the People 's Republic of China")

Poor President Trump.  He has only one title, President of the United States of America (POTUS), or maybe two, since he is also commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.

Here are some comments about Xi's titles from Chinese graduate students and colleagues:

1. Maybe "Chairman Xi" invokes the memory of "Chairman Mao", which they try to keep a distance from.

2. In China when we speak of Xi, we all call him Xí Zhǔxí 习主席 ("Chairman Xi"), even in formal news and newspaper.

3. Xí 习 is Guójiā Zhǔxí 国家主席 ("Chairman of the country"), not zǒngtǒng 总统 ("president"). So, yes, it's proper to call him Xí Zhǔxí 习主席 ("Chairman Xi").

4. Xi's official title is either (Guójiā) Zhǔxí (国家)主席 ("Chairman [of the Country]") or (Zhōnggòng Zhōngyāng) Zǒng Shūjì (中共中央)总书记 ("CPC Central Committee General Secretary"). So it is by far more common to address him as "Chairman Xi" in the Chinese language media, than the "President Xi" as appeared in the Western coverage.

5. We never call him Zǒngtǒng 总统, though zǒngtǒng 总统 is the Chinese translation of "president". We call Trump and Putin Zǒngtǒng 总统. We do not call Theresa May Zǒngtǒng 总统, because she is the Prime Minister, which we translate as " Shǒuxiàng 首相". I have no idea why the English translation of "Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Zhǔxí 中华任人民共和国主席" is the president of PRC; maybe it is to differentiate his duty as Chairman of Central Military Commission. I guess it may be just a custom to translate it as president, just like the word Mandarin. It was not until I came to the US that I knew I speak Mandarin.

Second, when I read the last four characters on the banner, "dàofǎng Měiguó 到访美国" ("visit America"), it struck me as a solecism.  I'm sure that if I had used dàofǎng 到访 ("visit; arrive on a visit; come to visit") that way when I was learning Mandarin five decades ago, my teachers would have considered it bad grammar and would have marked it wrong.

I was taught to write "visit America" like this:  dào Měiguó fǎngwèn 到美国访问.  To me, that sounds much more natural and grammatically correct than "dàofǎng Měiguó 到访美国".

I'm pretty sure that the word dàofǎng 到访 ("visit; arrive on a visit; come to visit") didn't even exist when I was studying Chinese way back when.

Some of the problems inherent with dàofǎng 到访 ("visit; arrive on a visit; come to visit") may be seen in these remarks by respondents from Taiwan and China.  I should preface their comments by noting that they are all in their 20s through 50s and accept dàofǎng 到访 ("visit; arrive on a visit; come to visit") as a lexeme (a real word), though, as will be seen, some of them express a certain amount of discomfort with it.

1. I think it is grammatically correct. In fact, this phrase is seen or heard often on Chinese media when important world leaders pay visits to the US. Sometimes they use "láifǎng Měiguó 来访美国" ("come to America for a visit") instead.

2. Actually, "dàofǎng Měiguó 到访美国" sounds more shùn'ěr 顺耳 [VHM: "pleasing to the ear"] to me than "dào Měiguó fǎngwèn 到美国访问", though the latter indeed makes more sense grammatically [VHM: emphasis added]. Somehow the Chinese media favors the usage of "dàofǎng Měiguó 到访美国", probably because it sounds semi-official and concise. "dàofǎng Měiguó 到访美国" is short for arrive and visit the US.

3. dàofǎng 到访 = dàodá bìng fǎngwèn 到达并访问 ("arrive and visit")

4. "Dàofǎng 到访" is a verb now.  [VHM:  note the use of the adverb "now", which indicates that she thinks it wasn't a verb before.]  Here are some examples [VHM: on the bottom part of the page].

5. I would use dàofǎng 到访 as an intransitive verb. So it sounds much better to say "huānyíng Xí Zhǔxí dàofǎng 欢迎习主席到访" ("welcome Chairman Xi to come for a visit"). The verb 访问 can take an object. I would say "huānyíng Xí Zhǔxí fǎngwèn Měiguó 欢迎习主席访问美国" ("welcome Chairman Xi to visit America").

6. Usually "dàofǎng 到访" doesn't need the place name added.

7. I agree: "dào Měiguó fǎngwèn 到美国访问" ("arrive in America for a visit") or "lái Měiguó fǎngwèn 来美国访问" ("come to America for a visit") sounds better.

8. I don't think dàofǎng 到访 is a verb, or a word, but there are so many newly coined words nowadays, so maybe it is a transitive verb.

A few final observations:

The video screenshot at the top of this post comes through a VOA (Voice of America) source. Note the red of the banner and all the red shirts.  The scene portrayed has the blessings of the PRC government.  In sharp contrast, watch this video of protestors trying to intercept Xi's motorcade in Florida.  It comes via RFA (Radio Free Asia).

[h.t.: Mark Liberman; thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Jinyi Cai, Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, Maiheng Dietrich, Mien-hwa Chiang, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, and Mandy Chan]


  1. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

    According to Wikipedia, the official English translation of "中华人民共和国主席" was changed from "Chairman of the People's Republic of China" to "President of the People's Republic of China" in 1982 despite no change in the Chinese title.

  2. Nicky said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    In Russian, his title is translated as "председатель КНР" – chairman of PRC. Here is an example:

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 8:20 pm

    If the official translation from "chairman" to "president" that took place in 1982 came from the Chinese side, as seems to be the case, one wonders why they also didn't declare the same change for Russian. Perhaps they did, but Russia didn't agree to it. China wants all countries to refer to its capital as "Beijing", but many countries still stick to a traditional form that sounds like English "Peking".

  4. hanmeng said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 9:29 pm


  5. Brendan said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    My reflexes say that 到訪 dàofǎng sounds more natural as an intransitive verb, but that the usage here isn't too far out of the ordinary for these things. I wonder whether a desire for equal line lengths on the banner might have been a partial motivation for adding 美國 Měiguó at the end.

  6. JB said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

    In China, I often used to hear the late lamented Mao referred to as "China Mao", conflating him with the nation as a whole, or more prosaically, perhaps just a mishearing and consequential mispronunciation of "chairman"…

  7. RP said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 4:16 am

    The French word "président" serves as the equivalent of both "chairman" and "president", as does the Italian "presidente".

    In English usage varies a bit. Some clubs and organisations have presidents, some chairpersons; possibly some have both. The US position of President of a corporation corresponds to the UK position of Chairman of the Board.

    I suggested previously that probably the main reason why the European Union has so many presidents, e.g. President of the European Parliament, is that those posts would have been named something else if a native English speaker had designed the naming scheme.

    To some extent the terms are synonymous. But to refer to the chairman of a country or chairman of a republic sounds very odd in English. So I would say that the post-1982 translation of Xi's title as President seems much more idiomatic.

  8. mg said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

    "I guess it may be just a custom to translate it as president, just like the word Mandarin. It was not until I came to the US that I knew I speak Mandarin." What is Mandarin called in China?

  9. julie lee said,

    April 9, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

    Since I live in the U.S., I read the Chinese newspaper only occasionally when I see it somewhere. My daily newspaper is in English (New York Times). So I've always been puzzled to read the title "President Xi Jinping" in English, as "president" in Chinese (Mandarin) is "zongtong". Since I've never seen Xi referred to as zongtong in the Chinese papers, but always as zhuxi (Chairman), I thought I was just ignorant and had missed the "zongtong" title somewhere in the Chinese papers. But the "president (zongtong)" title in English continued to be a nagging puzzle to me. So thank you for the post which clears up everything.

  10. Eidolon said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 5:12 pm

    "What is Mandarin called in China?"

    普通話 Putonghua, literally "Common Speech."

  11. Eidolon said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

    "What is Mandarin called in China?"

    Standard Mandarin – the official language – is called 普通話 Putonghua, literally "Common Speech."

    The linguistic concept of Mandarin is called 官话, literally "Official Speech."

  12. Guy_H said,

    April 12, 2017 @ 6:04 am

    Late comment but I think they chose the phrase 到訪美國 mainly for aesthetic reasons – you'd want an equal number of characters on the top & bottom, otherwise the banner would look unbalanced.

  13. Joe said,

    April 13, 2017 @ 3:19 am

    The PRC officials have the nerve to demand other states how to translate names and titles of their leaders to make them sound better, changing 主席(Chairman) to President, transliterating 习近平 as "Xi Jinping" when "Hsi jinping" or "Shee Jean peeng" would have been much more natural to Americans.
    They do not believe in reciprocity – for leaders of other countries the Communist Chinese officials try to impose their own less desirable translations, including such silly designations as "国务卿", a Manchu imperial term to stick on the American "Secretary of State" and try to ram these down the throats of everyone else.

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