Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2

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Misreading "agriculture" as "clothing"

This video of Chairman Xi making a horrendous gaffe was just posted on YouTube:

For convenience of listening, the blunder (near the end of this video clip) is repeated several times.

The Chairman should have read:

qīngguān yìdào tōngshāng kuānnóng 轻关易道通商宽农 ("reduce taxes and make roads easy [to travel on], facilitate commerce and be lenient to farmers")

Instead, what came out is this:

qīngguān yìdào tōngshāng kuānyī 轻关易道通商宽衣 ("reduce taxes and make roads easy [to travel on], facilitate commerce and loosen clothing")

Whether the text was mistyped on the script or teleprompter from which the Chairman was reading, or whether he misread nóng 农 for yī 衣, the result was gibberish.  Even someone with a middle school education should not have made such a mistake.

Part of the reason this happened is that Chairman Xi, or his speechwriter(s), were trying to wax literary and show off his would-be erudition.  To express the same idea in vernacular, it would be something like this:

jiǎnqīng guānshuì, biànyì dàolù, tōngxíng shāngyè, kuāndài nóngmín 减轻关税, 便易道路, 通行商业, 宽待农民

or this:

jiǎnqīng shuìfù, zhěngchì jiāotōng, tōngshāng màoyì, kuānzhì nóngyè 减轻税赋, 整饬交通, 通商贸易, 宽治农业

Either of these versions would have been aurally intelligible to speakers of MSM, whereas very few auditors would have been able to understand the LS version spoken by Chairman Xi, even if he hadn't mangled the end of it.

As a matter of fact, this is a quotation taken directly from the early historical text called Guóyǔ 國語 (Discourses of the States), and it comes from the 4th chapter of the Jìnyǔ 晉語 (Discourses of the state of Jin).

Since the text is not transparent, even to someone who knows LS moderately well, most people would need to consult a commentary to make sense of it, for example the explanation of Wei Zhao 韋昭 (204-273) called Guóyǔ zhù 國語注 (Annotations to Discourses of the States): 

Qīngguān, qīng qí shuì. Yìdào, chú dàozéi. Tōngshāng, lì shānglǚ. Kuān nóng, kuān qí zhèng, bù duó qí shí 輕關,輕其稅。易道,除盜賊。通商,利商旅。寬農,寬其政、不奪其時. 

I will not translate the commentary, but have incorporated the gist of it in my translation of the quotation from the Discourses of the States given above, to the extent that I agree with Wei Zhao's periphrastic explanations of the constituent terms.

Although we have often compared and contrasted literary with vernacular before, I am numbering this the second in a new series, since it comes so closely on the heels of the previous installment:

"Mixed literary and vernacular grammar" (9/3/16)

Incidentally, duànzi 段子 (wisecracks) quipping about the X-gaffe are going viral on the internet. Some netters even jokingly suggest that "loosening [one's] clothing" was actually a Freudian slip.  The four-character phrase kuānyī jiědài 宽衣解带 ("loosen the clothing and undo the tie / belt / girdle") is often used as a euphemism for stripping naked (and having sex).  So, Chairman Xi's blooper truly causes political, diplomatic, and scholastic embarrassment.

[h.t. Perry Link; thanks to Chia-hui Lu, Yixue Yang, and Jing Wen]


  1. Brendan said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

    I wonder whether misreadings like this are as common in fanti/"traditional" Chinese environments.

  2. liuyao said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:38 pm

    It has become a tradition (since Wen Jiabao, if not earlier) to include Literary Sinitic quotations, sayings, or poems in such speeches, and one can safely bet that they must have practiced such lines before going on stage.

    Embarrassing as it is, one could take it as showing XJP's human side, though state media and the censors surely will suppress it.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    When he got to the eight character quotation from Guóyǔ 國語 (Discourses of the States), you could see / hear / feel him slow down and become very deliberate.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 6:32 am

    From a colleague who grew up in China and who endured the Cultural Revolution:

    X-gaffe about "loosening robe" (and "untying belt"):

    It was Mao Zedong who set the fashion of using (or rather, manipulating) quotes from Chinese classics as proof of ethos in support of his arguments. Wen Jiabao reinvoked Mao's rhetorical-argumentative subterfuge for the same purpose plus showing off his scholarship and creating a public self-image of Confucian official. Rhetorically speaking, citing classics as proof, in the case of CCP officials or leaders, is using ethics fallaciously in engaging political-ideological propaganda.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 6:38 am

    From a colleague:

    The gaffe reminded me of one by Lu Ying 鲁瑛, who edited the People’s Daily in the last years of the Gang of Four, and who gaffed Mexico 墨西哥 into Blackxico 黑西哥.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 7:03 am

    "China’s Censors Scramble After Xi’s G-20 Speech"

    VOA (9/5/16)

    "Make the tariff light and the road smooth, promote trade and take off your clothing."

  7. flow said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 7:32 am

    @VHM—"When he got to the eight character quotation from Guóyǔ 國語 (Discourses of the States), you could see / hear / feel him slow down and become very deliberate."

    To me it almost feels like he has no grasp of what he's saying at all. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't the speech rhythm be 轻关——易道————通商——宽农, lending equal weight to each of the eight characters, using full tones on each one, and preferably making a slightly longer pause right in the middle to obtain two chengyu-like phrases? Instead what I hear is closer to 轻关易道————通商———宽衣, with the tones of 关 and 易 being somewhat reduced though not neutralized.

    It feels as if the speaker got a little too fast into the middle of a well-practiced set of 轻关易道, then all of a sudden becoming self-aware and unsure, drawing the characters in his mind before reading them off, resuming a more 'recital'-like or 'formal' intonation pattern. Maybe 轻关易道 in and by itself is a fairly common set phrase within the WTO-abiding community; after all, 轻关易道 "down with duties, pave the roads" could well be written all across the WTO flag.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    Excellent prosodic analysis, flow!

  9. FM said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    Having just looked up the aforementioned transliteration of Mexico, I'm struck by the various topolectal pronunciations which all deviate from "Mexico" in different directions, with Mandarin certainly the farthest:

    Mandarin: Mòxīgē
    Cantonese (Jyutping): mak6 sai1 go1
    Hakka (Pha̍k-fa-sṳ): Me̍t-sî-kô
    Hokkien: Be̍k-se-ko / Bia̍k-se-ko

    Was this originally a Cantonese transliteration? What's going on here?

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