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President Obama has a strange moniker among netizens in China:  Guānhǎi 观海 (“Sea-watcher”).  Variants include Àoguānhǎi 奥观海 ("O'sea-watcher"; cf. "Homa Obama") and Guānhǎi tóngzhì 观海同志 ("Comrade Sea-watcher").

How in the world did Obama acquire this bizarre Chinese nickname?

When the President visited China in 2009, General Yuán Wěi 袁伟, Director of the National Military Museum, presented Obama with a scroll with the words guān hǎi tīng tāo 观海听涛 / 觀海聽濤 (“watch the sea and listen to the waves”) written in florid calligraphy.  At the same time, he gave the President a tiger figurine.

The first gift led to the "Sea-watcher" nickname, while the second gift was understood in the Chinese historical context as a hǔfú 虎符 ("tiger tally").  Such tallies were given by the emperor to generals and served as a contract symbolizing the granting of imperial authority to command troops.

In "A Coded Message Between 'Sea-Watcher' Pres. Obama and the Chinese State?" (10/29/12), Rachel Lu explains:

On the same day that General Yuan met with Obama, the military museum gave the same figurines to 100 Chinese generals to thank them for their services. As for the calligraphy scroll, the character for “waves” (涛 tao) is the same character found in President Hu Jintao’s name.

Obama is a vassal of the Celestial Dynasty, and he needs to watch China from across the Pacific and listen to President Hu’s commands.

The nickname and the tiger tally might have remained mere curiosities, but they have taken on a particular poignancy with the appearance of a flotilla of Chinese naval vessels off the coast of Alaska, just as the new emperor of the celestial dynasty was presiding over a jingoistic military parade in Beijing:

"Chinese ships pass through U.S. waters off Alaska" (9/4/15)

Xi Jinping will shortly be visiting the United States.  One wonders what coded gifts he might be bearing for President Obama, especially in light of the fact that the Chinese ambassador in Washington has spoken of a "surprise".

"Xi’s upcoming US visit expected to be surprising: ambassador" (9/6/15)

For those who are interested, here is a photograph of Obama with the piece of calligraphy in question.

On the wall in the background is another piece of Chinese calligraphy that says hǎohào xuéxí 好好学习 ("study hard"), as written by Mao Zedong.  Perhaps Xi could present that to Obama once again, since the last character is his own surname.  As for an object to present to the President, I wouldn't be surprised if he brought along a five-clawed dragon.

[h.t. Liwei Jiao]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2015 @ 6:02 am

    After I finished writing this post, all I could think of was that the overall sentiment of guān hǎi tīng tāo 观海听涛 / 觀海聽濤 (“watch the sea and listen to the waves”) in this situation is akin to "watch your back".

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    I asked several specialists on Chinese calligraphy about 觀海聽濤, and they say it's highly generic.

  3. Dan T. said,

    September 7, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

    I just ate at a restaurant called "Sea Watch" at an oceanfront location in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

    The appearance of the Chinese naval vessels off the coast of Alaska happened just when Obama was himself in the Last Frontier state.

  5. Joseph said,

    September 8, 2015 @ 1:34 am

    While 觀海聽濤 may be generic calligraphy it seems more than likely that the pun caught by Chinese netizens had not gone unnoticed by whoever decided to gift it to Obama, especially in combination with the tiger tally and the need for the Chinese government to have propaganda where China is seen as having surpassed America.

  6. Chion said,

    September 8, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

    Surely by now president Obama must be running out of wallspace for all those calligraphy scrolls he's been receiving. Ban Ki-moon gifted a scroll as well for his 54th birthday recently.

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