Jon Huntsman, formerly the governor of Utah and ambassador to China, announced he was running for the Republican presidential nomination at a campaign kickoff event today at Liberty State Park in fair Jersey City. Before his announcement, the assembled crowd was treated to an introductory video. Among Huntsman's exceptional qualities listed by the folksy voiceover narrator was this: "Speaks Mandarin Chinese, and Hokkien… whatever that is."
Talking Points Memo notes that "Hokkien is a Chinese dialect based in Taiwan, and spoken throughout Southeast Asia by about 47 million people." I wouldn't say Hokkien, a dialect of Min Nan Chinese, is "based in Taiwan" (it originated in the southern Fujian province), though it's common there, spoken by about 15 million Taiwanese. And that's where Huntsman learned it, along with Mandarin, as a Mormon missionary in 1987-88. The Taipei Times says he's fluent in both Mandarin and Hoklo (the latter being a local name for Taiwanese Hokkien), which is impressive if true. As Kerim Friedman points out via Twitter, "fluency is a funny term, but the missionaries get intensive language training and then spend all their time talking to people."
Though he might not appreciate the comparison, Huntsman's proficiency in two Chinese language varieties recalls Herbert Hoover, who worked in China as a mining engineer in his youth. Both he and his wife picked up Mandarin from their time there and supposedly used it around the White House.
We now face the fascinating prospect of having two major presidential candidates who can speak Asian languages with some degree of proficiency. President Obama, of course, knows Indonesian, from his time growing up in Jakarta. We've looked at Obama's Indonesian language skills in detail here, most recently last November when he peppered his speech at the University of Indonesia with local phrases, to the delight of the crowd.
Obama has had his own reasons for being reluctant to show off his Indonesian to a domestic audience (as I discussed with John McWhorter on Bloggingheads last September and then again on The Brian Lehrer Show after the University of Indonesia speech). I doubt we'll get to hear any Hokkien from Huntsman, given that the narrator of his own video plays it down with a disparaging "…whatever that is."
But Huntsman might be playing up his Mandarin a bit (if his advisers allow him to), since he's done it in the past as governor of Utah. Here is a speech he gave at the Asia Society National Chinese Language Conference in Chicago in May 2009, soon before resigning as governor to accept the ambassadorship to China. Refreshingly, he talks about the importance of learning foreign languages as a bridge to cross-cultural understanding. He also discusses his own acquisition of Mandarin and explains an initiative that has brought Chinese language programs to Utah public schools.
At about 4:30, he directs a Mandarin proverb to Gaston Caperton (former governor of West Virginia), who introduced him:
老 驥 伏 枥, 志 在 千 里
lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to run 1000 li [~500 km].
Huntsman concludes with another proverb dating back to the Han dynasty: "When the family is happy, then all is well under heaven." I wonder if he can use that to convince the Republican family to come together with him as the fatherly standard-bearer.
[Update #1, from John Emerson: "The proverb is from a poem by Cao Cao, a warlord whose son became the first Emperor of the Three Kingdoms Wei dynasty after 200 AD. The most popular Chinese style of poetry, the shi, was essentially established by the Cao clan (based on earlier anonymous poetry)."]
[Update #2: Robert Lane Greene has more to say on The Economist's Johnson blog, including the revelation that Mitt Romney (like John Kerry before him) is a secret Francophone.]