Multilingual Jiang Zemin

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This is an old video of Jiang Zemin berating a female reporter and defending the right of the central government in Beijing to handpick the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, in this case the first, Tung Chee-hwa. The video, which is an amazing display of Jiang's verbal pyrotechnics, is getting a lot of circulation these days, for obvious reasons. Here it is as recently posted by Shanghaiist on Facebook.

Jiang Zemin's language skills are not limited to Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, as in this video. As the former mayor of Shanghai and head of the Shanghai clique within the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang is known to be fond of showing off his knowledge of Shanghainese, even at meetings where others speak Mandarin.

According to this account of "China under Jiang Zemin",

Jiang speaks Russian, English, German and Romanian and worked hard to maintain his language skills. Sometimes when he went on vacation he brought along ten language experts. Once on a trip to Chile, he delivered a 40 minute speech in Spanish, a language that he was previously not known to have spoken.

When Jiang visited the University of Pennsylvania Museum in 1997, I served as his translator. As I showed him around the magnificent rotunda, which is full of important Chinese artifacts, I pointed to a huge mural on the back wall and explained that the central figure was the Bodhisattva ("savior") of Medicine, Bhaiṣajyaguru, referring to him as a púsà 菩薩 ("bodhisattva" [i.e., "enlightened being"]). Technically I was wrong, and should have called Bhaiṣajyaguru a fó 佛 ("Buddha") or rúlaí 如來 ("Tathāgata" [i.e., "one who has thus come / gone"]), even though, in a previous existence, he had been a bodhisattva. Anyway, I shall never forget the look of sublime beatitude on Jiang's face when he turned to me and smiled from behind his enormous frog glasses, saying, " Púsà hěn 'kind', duì bùduì? 菩薩很kind,對不對?" ("Bodhisattva is kind, right?"). "Duì 對" ("Yes"), I replied, "Púsà hěn 'kind' 菩薩很kind" ("Bodhisattva is kind").

[H.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. Michael Rank said,

    October 4, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    Say what you like about JZM, he does seem a helluva lot more spontaneous in this video than any other Chinese leader I can think of.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 4, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    If you have difficulty viewing the video directly from the visual link in the original post, you can easily get to it from the Shanghaiist post on FB mentioned at the end of the first paragraph, or you can see it through this YouTube link:

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