Pure conversation

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In "Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16), we saw how Chairman Xi badly bungled a literary quotation.  Now we find that, in the same speech, the Chairman may be said to have misinterpreted a literary term, qīngtán 清谈 ("pure conversation").

On the Btime news website, there's an article titled "Xí zhǔxí suǒ shuō de 'qīngtán guǎn' shì shénme 习主席所说的'清谈馆'是什么?" ("What is the 'Pure conversation salon' that Chairman Xi spoke of?") (9/5/16) in which it is explained that, by qīngtán 清谈, Chairman Xi essentially meant "empty talk" (kōngtán 空谈).

Here's the sentence in which he used this term:

Wǒmen yīnggāi ràng èrshí guó jítuán chéngwéi xíngdòng duì, ér bùshì qīngtán guǎn 我们应该让二十国集团成为行动队, 而不是清谈馆 ("We should let the Group of Twenty become a team for action, and not a salon for pure conversation").

Qīngtán 清谈 ("pure conversation") was part of a philosophical movement of the 3rd-6th centuries called xuánxué 玄学 ("abstruse learning"), which "combined elements of Confucianism and Taoism to reinterpret the Yijing, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi." (from Wikipedia)  While Communist theoreticians may not agree with their topics and goals, the deliberations of the pure conversationalists were far from "empty".  To Communist ideologues, perhaps one of the most distasteful aspects of xuánxué 玄学 ("abstruse learning") is that its adherents held themselves aloof from politics.


  1. WSM said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

    Perhaps they should hold a 务虚会 on this important matter.  

  2. AntC said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    "Philosophers have only interpreted the world …. The point is to change it." [Marx]

    Thank you Victor. Who/what is Chairman Xi's intended audience? Are the speeches broadcast on national TV, for example?

    Would most of the audience realise (or care) that he bungled a LS locution? Or would they not understand LS anyway, so more think: Chairman Xi is being learned? (Without realising he's only half-learned.)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    wùxū huì 务虚会 ("retreat") — lit., matter / affair / business – empty / blank / void / vacant – meeting

  4. liuyao said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 8:54 pm

    A google books search (to get around all the news of recent event) reveals that qingtan, or qingtanguan as a whole, has taken on the new meaning in Communist party discourse. Maybe someone could trace its origin in May Fourth literature. All I could find is an essay by Gu Zhun 顧準 (1915-1974) titled 直接民主与“议会清谈馆”, written in 1973!

  5. Guy_H said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    Is there a particularly reason why XJP is referred to as a chairman in the last few posts? The linguistic convention in English is usually to refer to him as President Xi.

  6. Thomas Rees said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    毛主席 = ‘Chairman Mao’; 习主席 = ‘President Xi’. The official English translation changed at some time in the eighties.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    Because he is called zhǔxí 主席 ("chairman") in two of his three main titles in Chinese and because he is more like Chairman Mao than any zhǔxí 主席 since Mao's times, I choose to refer to Xi Jinping as "Chairman Xi".


    Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó zhǔxí


    President of the People's Republic of China

    The office was first established in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China in 1954 and successively held by Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi. Liu fell into political disgrace during the Cultural Revolution, after which the office became vacant. The office was abolished under the Constitution of 1975, then reinstated in the Constitution of 1982, but with reduced powers. The official English-language translation of the title was "Chairman"; after 1982, this translation was changed to "President", although the Chinese title remains unchanged.[a]

    From Wikipedia


    Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng Zhōngyāng Jūnshì Wěiyuánhuì Zhǔxí


    Chairman of the Central Military Commission


    Zhōngguó gòngchǎndǎng zhōngyāng wěiyuánhuì zǒng shūjì


    General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

  8. John Swindle said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 4:20 am

    Also, Mao when he was in charge of the party was chairman of the central committee (中国共产党中央委员会主席 Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng Zhōngyāng Wěiyuánhuì Zhǔxí). His successors to that post eventually in 1982 became general secretaries. I can't imagine any of them being enthusiastic about Pure Conversation, though.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:43 am

    From a colleague:

    "Pure chat" 清谈 is integral to the philosophical discourse of the Six Dynasties (220/222-589). It represents the intellectual narrative and embodies the cultural ethos of the time. In this sense, "pure chat" is not to be understood as "empty/idle talk." As for the term "pure chat den" (清谈馆; English trans mine), I am not sure if there were such physical public spaces during the Six Dynasties that would accommodate the metaphysical needs of "pure chatters."

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