Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping: presidential language notes

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Recently, the Economist referred to the president of Taiwan as a "bumbler":  Ma the bumbler:  A former heart-throb loses his shine"  The Taiwanese media translated "bumbler" as 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf"), which caused Ma's supporters to have conniptions:  "'Ma the bumbler' Economist report causes storm in Taiwan".

To call someone a bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or even a dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") is not really that bad.  Presidents in Western nations are called by terms of opprobrium that are much worse than that every day.  Indeed, my wife used to call me bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") in an affectionate manner.  So it's hard to fathom why calling Ma Ying-jeou a "bumbler" — translated into Mandarin as bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") — would occasion such an uproar.

Meanwhile, people in China are enthralled by the prospect of a new president who speaks standard Mandarin, a rarity among politicians and professors in China:  "Finally, a Chinese Leader Who Speaks Intelligible Mandarin", by David Wertime, editor and co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation.

How could China's new President impress his countrymen with the mere ability to speak standard Chinese? In fact, China is a country of such great linguistic diversity that, for example, the native Beijing dialect and the native Shanghai dialect are mutually incomprehensible. Chinese television shows and adverts sport subtitles so that viewers of all linguistic persuasions can follow them. Regional differentiation is so great that a refined ear can even distinguish between two Chinese accents from neighboring towns.

Here, I'll invoke my wife again.  Li-ching was born in Shandong, but moved to Sichuan at age one, and then to Taiwan at age eleven.  She spoke excellent Modern Standard Mandarin (Guóyǔ 國語) and was a superb teacher of that language.  She often told me stories about how, in her classes at Taiwan National University, she and her classmates couldn't understand half of what her professors — who came from all over China — were saying.  That includes some famous professors from her natal Shandong.  It wasn't just a matter of accents so thick that you could cut them with a knife.  Her professors also used expressions that simply didn't exist in Modern Standard Mandarin (Guóyǔ 國語).

The linguistic (and cultural) diversity of China is so great that few people in America, who think that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have pronounced accents, can begin to imagine China as a country in which it is often difficult for citizens to understand what their presidents are saying (and I'm thinking back to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek too).

That is why, when I read Jared Diamond's "Empire of Uniformity" in Discover Magazine back in March of 1996, I first burst out laughing, then became indignant that a national magazine was purveying such misinformation:

Today China appears politically, culturally, and linguistically monolithic. (For the purposes of this article, I exclude the linguistically and culturally distinct Tibet, which was also politically separate until recently.) China was already unified politically in 221 B.C. and has remained so for most of the centuries since then. From the beginnings of literacy in China over 3,000 years ago, it has had only a single writing system, unlike the dozens in use in modern Europe. Of China’s billion-plus people, over 700 million speak Mandarin, the language with by far the largest number of native speakers in the world. Some 250 million other Chinese speak seven languages as similar to Mandarin and to each other as Spanish is to Italian. Thus, while modern American history is the story of how our continent’s expanse became American, and Russia’s history is the story of how Russia became Russian, China’s history appears to be entirely different. It seems absurd to ask how China became Chinese. China has been Chinese almost from the beginning of its recorded history.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Almost everything that Diamond says in this passage, and indeed in his whole article, on the supposed uniformity of China is mistaken or misleading, especially what he claims about China's languages and scripts.  When pundits like Diamond say that China has 700 million or a billion people who all speak the same language, I just roll my eyes in exasperation.  Nonetheless, I am glad for China that it finally has a president who speaks the national language.

[A tip of the hat to Joshua Harwood]

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32 Comments »

  1. Jason said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    An error??!! In a Jared Diamond piece?????!!!!! That is so far divorced from the truth that it actually undermines the argument that he's making?! Surely not!

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    "Regional differentiation is so great that a refined ear can even distinguish between two Chinese accents from neighboring towns."

    I live in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and I can easily identify the accent of a person who grew up in Fall River, about 15 miles away.

  3. Lazar said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    @Ralph Hickok: Indeed! From the speakers I've heard, it seems that the boundary between the "Boston zone" and "Providence zone" of Eastern New England runs right between the two cities – New Bedford distinguishing LOT/PALM and merging LOT/THOUGHT, Fall River the reverse. But I'm more of a Worcester guy myself, so correct me if I'm wrong.

  4. Peter Metcalfe said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    in which it is often difficult for citizens to understand what their presidents are saying (and I'm thinking back to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek too).

    An anecdote about Chiang that i heard was that in a midst of an argument, he stood up angrily and said "fallacious argument". Unfortunately because of his accent, his opponent heard it as "immediate execution". The poor fellow immediately fled the room and took to the hills for three weeks before finally plucking up the courage to find out what Chiang Kai-shek actually meant.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

    Years ago, some in the South celebrated having a president, Jimmy Carter, who spoke 'without an accent.'

  6. Tom said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

    In Beijing at least (I can't speak for areas outside the north), calling a man you don't know a 苯蛋 is good way to start a fight. And significantly more so than terms that, if translated directly, English-speakers would consider much more offensive.

    At least it was as of 5 or 6 years ago. It's quite possible that the contemporary vernacular no longer considers it that much of an insult, but to someone of Ma's generation it would likely be different.

  7. monkeytypist said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    Has anyone else noticed that the Atlantic article uses 'tweet' to mean 'post an update on Weibo'? I've never seen that kind of extension applied to 'tweet' before.

  8. Wayne said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

    The pan-green media were translating "bumbler" as 笨蛋 at first, but then the pan-blue media rushed in to correct them, saying 笨拙 is a better translation. I guess 笨拙 is a better translation if you're referring to someone who is physically bumbling and quite clumsy, but I don't think prior to this incident I've ever hear 笨拙 to describe someone as diplomatically or socially inept.

    Also, I don't get the impression that 笨蛋 can be used so affectionately.

  9. Outis said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

    Like in most countries with press freedom, Ma is called something much worse than 笨蛋 all the time by the opposition-leaning press. The current "scandal" exists purely because, this time, it's a foreign media doing the name-calling. There something of a Innosence-of-Islam-effect here: the opinion of The Economist is confused and conflacted with the official opinion of the UK as a whole — both pro and anti Ma camps have shown this tendency.

  10. Mark Mandel said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

    Wayne, what are "pan-green" & "pan-blue" media?

    Victor, I'm used to seeing Guóyŭ written with simplified characters. Isthere a particular reason you're using the traditional characters?

  11. quixote said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 12:28 am

    (Minor formatting request: could you put blockquote tags around the Diamond quote? I was reading along, confused, because suddenly you were saying the opposite of what you'd just said, until plink!, the light bulb went off and I felt like a very stupid egg.)

    Interesting, about the huge intra-Chinese diversity. I knew about it on an intellectual level, but hadn't really thought about how it would feel to, say, have a US President with a heavy Scottish accent.

  12. julie lee said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 12:58 am

    I was interested to read somewhere that Joseph Stalin, who was born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili and was a native of Georgia, never spoke Russian that well.

  13. Jean-Michel said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    @Mark Mandel:

    Pan-blue = The Kuomintang and its allied parties (Ma is from the KMT)
    Pan-green = The Democratic Progressive Party and its allied parties

    Victor uses traditional characters (most of the time) because that's what he's more comfortable with.

    And since Victor didn't do it, I'm going to take issue with the headline of the Atlantic piece. Hu had a strong accent but the worst I've heard anyone say about his Mandarin is that it grates on their ears. Jiang Zemin's is less standard, but again, I don't hear it called "unintelligible." You have to go back to Deng to find a paramount leader whose Mandarin was unintelligible to a good chunk of the Mandarin-speaking populace. (Deng's native Sichuanese is usually considered a type of Mandarin, but it's at a far end of the mutual intelligibility spectrum.) Wertime's piece sort of touches on this, so I assume the hyperbolic headline was the work of an editor.

  14. ajay said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:22 am

    I was interested to read somewhere that Joseph Stalin, who was born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili and was a native of Georgia, never spoke Russian that well.

    ISTR that Khrushchev (what with being a Ukrainian) had quite an accent, in particular pronouncing V as W. This became quite fashionable during his premiership and was known as Politburo Russian. (Rather in the same way that Tom Wolfe describes the entire US aviation industry in the 50s and 60s gradually starting to talk like Chuck Yeager.)

  15. mollymooly said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:44 am

    @Ralph Hickok:
    I would think fine-tuned local accent discrimination is the norm in most languages. (With progressively coarser discrimination for progressively remoter regions, plus the odd hotspot for culturally significant cities.) The outlier is the relative uniformity of much of the western US, though accent levelling is proceeding in lots of places. Dunno where David Wertime grew up.

  16. Adrian said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 6:17 am

    I've never been called a stupid egg, but when I was in Hungary, being called a clever egg (okos tojás) was bad enough.

    There are of course a variety of strong accents in the UK, sometimes clearly distinguishable within short distances, such as where I am here between Birmingham and West Bromwich, in the land of the Yam Yams. But we all seem to be able to understand each other – at least, there aren't any intralingual subtitles on TV – which cannot be said for some other language areas e.g. China or the German-speaking countries. Or is it something about attitude? I enjoy watching a show like Still Game http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbdDcvttGLY partly because of the linguistic charm, whilst an average American IME finds it too much effort.

  17. Marion Crane said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 6:50 am

    @ quixote: "how it would feel to, say, have a US President with a heavy Scottish accent"

    I get the impression it's more like having a UK Prime Minister who speaks only Gaelic. Or, to move outside the realm of the hypothetical, having a Belgian Prime Minister who speaks mainly French.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    from an anonymous correspondent:

    "Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost everything that Diamond says in this passage, and indeed in his whole article, on the supposed uniformity of China is mistaken or misleading, especially what he claims about China's languages and scripts."

    Dead right. It's the "they all look/sound/think/act alike" syndrome, writ large onto the huge mental field that is "China" in our minds. And very characteristic of certain successful people who, accustomed to being confident in their own judgment about most everything, discover China in mid-life and make foolish blunders. We are heirs to a tradition (I might even say "psychological compulsion") of seeing China as a source of wondrous and exciting exotica. This tradition began with Marco Polo's diary and was substantially enhanced by the Jesuits' letters to their European correspondents, like Leibniz, propounding a model for Enlightened Despotism in western government. Hegel saw China as the historical example of rule by one man, thus the polar opposite of his supposedly inevitable unfolding of freedom in history. Diamond, as I recall, has been suspected of covert cultural bias for his "scientific" explanation of western priority in civilization.

  19. Charlie Clingen said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    My experience has been that many younger Chinese are trilingual: Mandarin, home-town, and English. But that’s not good enough. A colleague once told me that when she visits her in-laws with her husband in his home town, she spends a lot of time watching TV while her husband chats with his parents in their home-town language, which she finds totally incomprehensible. Does anyone know what percent of the Chinese population uses modern 国语 on a daily basis as their primary language? About five years ago, I read an article claiming that the number was around 50%.

  20. plopez said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    I'm always amazed by the fact that China somehow has a writing system that speakers of different "dialects" can all understand. But since some/many of these "dialects" are mutually unintelligible, shouldn't we call them languages? Isn't mutual intelligibility what separates the two?

  21. Chandra said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    We have a somewhat similar situation here in Canada, where many of our elected leaders can barely scrape by in elementary-school French, to the endless chagrin of the Québecois. And when Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister, certain people in the rest of the country claimed to find his English nearly unintelligible (although I suspect this was more political snarkery than anything).

  22. Simon P said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 1:15 am

    plopez: "I'm always amazed by the fact that China somehow has a writing system that speakers of different "dialects" can all understand."
    Well, they can understand it because they're bilingual, having good reading skills in Modern Standard Mandarin, although some of them read it with the pronunciation of their native language, like they do in Hong Kong. This is clear to anyone who have some experience with written Cantonese.

    Mandarin:
    我寫下來這些來自國語的字,你看不看得懂?
    Wo xiexialai zhexie laizi guoyu de zi, ni kanbukan de dong?
    I write down these characters from MSM, can you understand them?

    Cantonese:
    我寫低呢啲嚟自粵語嘅字,你睇唔睇得明呀?
    ngo se dai ni di lai zi jyut jyu ge zi, nei tai m tai dak ming aa?
    I write these characters from Cantonese, can you understand them?

    I'm afraid I have no idea of the spacing rules of pinyin. I wrote both in traditional to have a fairer comparison (you can't really write Cantonese in simplified).

    Most texts in Hong Kong and almost all texts in China and Taiwan are written in the first way, but that way isn't Cantonese, even though most Hongkongers would read it with Cantonese pronunciation of the characters:

    我寫下來這些來自國語的字,你看不看得懂?
    ngo se2 haa6 loi4 ze2 se1 loi4 zi6 gwok3 jyu5 dik1 zi6, nei5 hon3 bat1 hon3 dak1 dung2?

    (In the above examples, the grammar is pretty much the same, which is mostly true, but there are quite a few distinct differences in grammar, too.)

  23. maidhc said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    I have an Irish friend who was very put out because she was watching Dutch TV interviewing a bunch of tourists in English, and the only one they put subtitles on was the Irish one. (Subtitles in English!)

  24. stephen said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    I read one of the problems Gorbachev had in office was that he spoke with an accent analogous to a hillbilly accent.

  25. Jim said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    "I have an Irish friend who was very put out because she was watching Dutch TV interviewing a bunch of tourists in English, and the only one they put subtitles on was the Irish one. (Subtitles in English!)"

    Well it makes sense, doesn't it? Estuary English speakers sound like they have a Dutch or Flemish accent to me, so they would probably be the easiest for Dutch speakers to understand.

    "@ quixote: "how it would feel to, say, have a US President with a heavy Scottish accent"

    It would be like France having a native Romanain or Spanish speaker for President. Maybe the Roamnain is a little farfetched; it will be a very cold day in hell before a Cantonese or anyone from Fujian becomes President in China.

  26. B.Ma said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 8:01 am

    @Simon P
    Why can't you write Cantonese in simplified? I guess some of the swear words may not have a simplified version in Unicode, but you can certainly hand write them.

  27. zythophile said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Why can't you write Cantonese in simplified?
    Whether you can or cannot, it would be deeply politically incorrect to do so in Hong Kong, where the locals get very upset at stores and restaurants that cater to mainlanders by having signs in simplified rather than traditional.

  28. Simon P said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    Well, you can of course write it in Simplified, but it's harder. Partly because many characters that are Canto-specific don't have simplified versions and often don't exist in simplified character sets. Also it makes a lot less sense for the reader. The Chinese writing system is already pretty arbitrary with its phonetic components, but the simplified characters are generally simplified on the basis of Mandarin pronunciation, meaning phonetic components that work well in Cantonese turn into something completely different which makes sense in Mandarin but not in Cantonese.

  29. satkomuni said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 4:54 am

    To all the students out there: SimonP's Mandarin grammar is incorrect (appears to be a sentence formed with Cantonese grammar), so please don't talk like that, but his main point—that speakers of different dialects will understand what's being said by reading the characters in their native dialectical pronunciations—is valid. Japanese is often intelligible to Chinese speakers as well by similar reasoning.

  30. Simon K said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 7:27 am

    Looks like the BBC have been reading Jared Diamond as well. From an article about Hinglish (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20500312) :

    "India, unlike its rival Asian giant China, has no truly national language of its own"

  31. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

    There is no “Chinese cuisine”:

    http://www.salon.com/2012/12/03/there_is_no_chinese_cuisine/?source=newsletter

    What this article says about the diversity of China is so correct and important.

  32. X.Jiao said,

    January 12, 2013 @ 12:04 am

    @satkomuni

    The formation of that sentence is kinda awkward in Cantonese too, at least not without a possessive. So I guess it might be done for comparative linguistics? While the arrangement of the lexical items are not really what you would see out of a textbook, I feel that both sentences were supposed to be in a casual style; see, if you pause a little before 这些, that would make for a plausible instructional sentence in a conversation. Bottom-line, Chinese word order is a fluid thing anyway.

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