Censored letter

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A current cause célèbre in China concerns a letter that was supposedly written by a little boy to the President of China, Xi Jinping:

"'Not as skinny as Obama, like Putin is okay.' China censors schoolboy's suggestion that Xi lose weight" (12/18/14)

"A 9-year-old told China's president to lose some weight—and censors shut him down" (12/18/14)

Here's the letter, first in Romanization, then in characters, and after that in translation:

PINYIN

Nín hǎo!

Wǒ shì Hénán shěng Zhèngzhōu shì de yī míng xiǎoxuéshēng. Jīntiān wǒ shì xiǎng gēn nín shuōshuō tàikōng de shì. Dàjiā dōu shuō tàikōng shì wèilái de tiǎozhàn chǎngsuǒ, wǒ yě zhème rènwéi. Yuèqiú díquè yǒu fēngfù de kuàngwùzhí, kě yuèqiú bìng méiyǒu dàqìcéng yǔ shuǐ, bìng bù shìhé rénlèi shēngcún. Cǐ tiāndì bùyí jiǔliú, Zhōngguó hángtiān gāi zhuǎn fāngxiàng le.

Wǒmen zàilái kàn Huǒxīng, tā jì yǒu dàqì yòu yǒu bīngchuān, shìgè bù yǎ yú dìqiú de hǎo dìfāng. Měiguó yǔ Èluósī yǐhòu bù zài yòng Éluósī, Měiguó gòngtóng dǎzào de guójì kōngjiānzhàn, quánmiàn cèhuà shàng Huǒxīng, lián Ouméng hé Yìndù dōu lái còu rènào, zán Zhōngguó yě kuài diǎn dòngshǒu ba!

Hǎole, wǒmen gāi tán diǎn qīngsōng de huàtí, Xí dàdà, nín kěyǐ jiǎnjiǎnféile, bùyòng xiàng Àobāmǎ nàme shòu, xiàng Pǔjīn yīyàng jiù kěyǐ!:)

Jìng zhù

shēntǐ jiànkāng

Niú Zīrú

ORIGINAL LETTER

敬爱的习近平爷爷:

您好!

我是河南省郑州市的一名小学生。今天我是想跟您说说太空的事。大家都说太空是未来的挑战场所,我也这么认为。月球的确有丰富的矿物质,可月球并没有大气层与水,并不适合人类生存。此天地不宜久留,中国航天该转方向了。

我们再来看火星,它既有大气又有冰川,是个不亚于地球的好地方。美国与俄罗斯以后不再用俄罗斯、美国共同打造的国际空间站,全面策划上火星,连欧盟和印度都来凑热闹,咱中国也快点动手吧!

好了,我们该谈点轻松的话题,习大大,您可以减减肥了,不用像奥巴马那么瘦,像普金一样就可以!:)

敬祝

身体健康

牛孜儒

TRANSLATION

Dear Grandpa Xi Jinping,

Greetings! I'm a pupil from Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Today I want to say a few things to you about space. Everyone believes the next big challenge is space. I think so too. The moon, for sure has rich minerals, but it doesn't have air and water and is definitely not suitable for human life. This is not a good place for a long stay. It's time for China's aerospace program to change directions.

Let's have a look at Mars. It has both air and glaciers, so it is not inferior to Earth. Eventually, the United States and Russia will no longer use the international space station and they will land on Mars. Even the European Union and India will join in the fun. Let's hurry up!

Okay, we should include some lighter topics. Xi Dada, you could lose some weight. You don't have to look as slim as Obama. It's all right to look like Putin! :)

Best regards,

Wishing you good health

Niu Ziru

Dec. 12

After reading only two or three sentences, I became suspicious.  It just didn't sound like something a nine-year-old boy would write.  He dives right in to international space policy, about which he is unusually well informed.  His diction is too polished and formal — including some classicisms, his characters and sentences extraordinarily well constructed.  Furthermore, near the end he abruptly becomes very cheeky, presumptuously addressing the president in the first person plural inclusive, discourteously calling him Xí dàdà 习大大 ("Xi Bigbig" or "Big Daddy Xi" [apparently dàdà 习大大 means "father" in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces]), and comparing Xi's body weight unfavorably to that of Obama and Putin.

This letter contrasts starkly with another child's diary entry concerning President Xi that circulated widely on the Chinese internet before it too was erased by the censors:

"A child's substitution of Pinyin (Romanization) for characters" (11/9/14)

Written by a little girl a few months shy of eight years, it presents a completely different picture.  She begins by saying that she wanted to invite Xi to McDonald's and describes his appearance and manner ("He's too shy!").  Furthermore, the little girl is unable to write many characters for words that she knows how to say, and substitutes Pinyin in their place.  This is much more what would be expected of a child who is still in elementary school.

To check my own reaction to the little boy's supposed letter, I asked several graduate students from China what their reaction to it was.  Rebecca Fu's analysis is typical:

This is a well-written letter, too well-written for a 9-year old boy — no grammatical mistakes, no wrongly written characters (either phonetic or orthographic), perfect transition words and sentences, accurate selections of adverbs and verbs, perfect collocations, well-organized structure, etc….

This manuscript is definitely not improvised. It cannot be the first draft. No omissions, no deletions, and no corrections, right?

Unrealistic for a 9-year old child!

Whether the letter was written by a nine-year-old boy or not, the question of its being censored by the authorities is another matter altogether, one that I shall not go into here on Language Log.

Incidentally, the bit where the little boy suggests that "Daddy Xi" lose a few pounds reminds me of a NYT reader comment on the music video, "'Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama':  "If he really loved her, he would go on a diet":

 

[Thanks to Anne Henochowicz, Fangyi Cheng, and Sanping Chen]



8 Comments

  1. Shubert said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    This post is more impressive to me than the letter of that boy. For it shows how a linguist to have an observation in a daily base while most of the Chinese scholars are careless.

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    I have no opinion on the letter's linguistic authenticity, but the space policy content doesn't strike me as implausible. I expect most of us have known nine-year-old dinosaur enthusiasts with comparable levels of technical knowledge.

  3. Y said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

    Could this have been copy-edited by the boy's parents or other adults before it was sent off? Or would adults have trimmed out the weight commentary?
    Was the letter handwritten or e-mailed?

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    I wonder if the boy has Asperger Syndrome (like me)?

    • formal style
    • accurate grammar (I am told – I don't have any Chinese)
    • probably re-copied, being evidence of perfectionism
    • knowledgeable on specialist subject, space travel
    • socially gauche comment about Xi Jinping's weight
     

  5. Eidolon said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    Written by an average nine-year old boy? No way. But precocious youths do exist. Extraordinary cases have even published books before they reached puberty, and I'm not talking about babytalk books. In this case, however, the letter is liable to have been copy-edited by the parents before being sent off. What's ironic is that despite the parents' best efforts at making their son's writing presentable, it still didn't stop the censors from taking issue.

  6. Y said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

    Now I see, from the photo in the second link, that it's handwritten, in a school notebook. Nice handwriting.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    From Matt Anderson (he tried to post this himself, but our system wouldn't accept it — perhaps too technical in its orignal form [I simplified it a bit]):

    Here are some technical but inconclusive notes on Xí 習:

    The seal-script form of 習 is written with 自 on the bottom, not 白 or 日, but that is certainly already corrupted, and doesn't help.

    The Shang oracle-bone inscription form has 日 on the bottom, but the top is less clear, as it is a simple form that could write several different graphs.

    Yu Xingwu, following Tang Lan, argues that the earliest form of the graph is actually composed of huì 彗 on top and rì 日 on the bottom, with both 彗 (which they argue writes the word huì 嘒, I guess with a meaning along the lines of 'sparkle') and 日 semantically contributing to the meaning and 彗 serving as the phonophore. This makes much more sense (and it is true that the top of the graph is written with a form that could write 彗), but is still quite problematic.

    For Old Chinese 習, Schuessler gives *s-lәp, and Baxter/Sagart give *s-ɢʷəp (noting that it might come from a root *ɢʷəp 'wing')

    They don't have an entry meaning 'wing' that I can find that is written exactly *ɢʷəp, but they do give yì 翼翌 *ɢʷrəp 'wing' (with dialect *-p > *-k) (Schuessler gives 翼 as *lәkh). Yǔ 羽 is the quite different *ɢʷ(r)aʔ (Schuessler has *waʔ), but 翼 would be a good fit.

    For 嘒, Schuessler gives the completely different *hwîs and B/S give *qʷʰˤi[t]-s; this is odd, though, as B/S give huì 彗 as *s-[ɢ]ʷe[t]-s, still quite different from 習, but also very different from 嘒.

    Palaeographically, then, I think the most likely explanation is that the graph is 彗+日, but phonologically something like 翼+日 makes more sense (though it by no means fits perfectly). 羽 is possible as a semantic classifier, too, though I think it makes more sense for the top element to work as a phonophore in this character. That said, it's still a tangle.

    I completely agree with you about the surname, though. I think that etymological explanation is incredibly unlikely—it is much more likely that it is just a proper name with no apparent meaning (or with meaning that has since become lost).

  8. Jeremy said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 11:43 pm

    To be fair, 习大大 is commonly used by school kids through college kids (see the recent visit to 北师大, and is an encouraged form of address.
    The weird part for me are things like ' 应该谈点轻松的话题" which just isn't kid talk.
    Of course, if this was a school assignment, there may have been certain phrases or structures the kid was required to use, etc.
    And to be fair again, the parents having written it doesn't make it a hoax to get publicity, so much as a typical homework experience.

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