Arabella Kushner, young ambassador of good will

« previous post | next post »

New China TV, published on Nov 8, 2017:

Exclusive: Donald Trump's granddaughter Arabella Kushner singing in Mandarin and reciting a part of the Three-Character Classic and ancient Chinese poems.
Trump is on a three-day state visit to China. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan welcomed their U.S. counterparts with an afternoon tea at the Palace Museum on Wednesday, during which Trump showed Xi and Peng this video of Arabella.
#XiJinping #TrumpinChina

via Twitter:

Arabella is almost exactly one year older than the last time we saw her reciting Classical Chinese poetry:

"Trump's granddaughter recites Tang poems" (11/15/16)

She was already quite impressive then, but now she is even more remarkable.  When I viewed this YouTube video a few hours ago, there were already more than three hundred comments.  With very few exceptions, they were full of admiration and praise — and rightly so.

Arabella's pronunciation (including tones) is excellent, her delivery is smooth and natural.  Moreover, her mannerisms are uncannily Chinese.  The way she greets President Xi and his wife is utterly charming:

Xí yéyé nín hǎo; Péng nǎinai nín hǎo; dàjiā hǎo. Ràng wǒ chàng yī shǒu gē ba.
習爺爺您好; 彭奶奶您好; 大家好。讓我唱一首歌吧。/ 习爷爷您好; 彭奶奶您好; 大家好。 让我唱一首歌吧。
("Hello, grandpa Xi; hello, grandma Peng; hello, everyone.  Let me sing a song.")

The gesture Arabella makes as she delivers these sentences is ineffably captivating.  It is neither understated nor exaggerated — she does it just perfectly.

The second item on the video struck me very powerfully.  Here Arabella recites large chunks of the 13th-century Sānzì jīng 三字经 / 三字經 (Three Character Classic), which consists of 1,140 characters, with some repetitions, for a total of 525 different characters.  The text is written in highly compressed language; nobody would talk remotely like that, yet she rattles off line after line of this difficult literary language primer.  Like countless thousands of Chinese children throughout the centuries, she almost certainly doesn't understand the grammar and structure of the lines, and likely doesn't even comprehend clearly the precise, full meaning of each line, though her teacher may have patiently explained what they're about.  That's the way the small proportion of premodern Chinese children who were fortunate enough to receive an education began to read:  memorize first, understand later.

The Three Character Classic has two main purposes:

1. to teach a foundation level of characters (though I seriously doubt that Arabella, at her tender age of 6, can write all those characters)

2. inculcate Confucian ideology

What does it all mean for Arabella?  Here's what a highly experienced Chinese language lecturer has to say on this matter:

I watched the video this evening and came to the conclusion that Arabella's Chinese tutor is very old, both in age and in mind. S/he taught the little girl some useless things seemingly for a long time…. Maybe sometime in the next year I will write an article to critique how both tutors of Mark Zuckerberg and Arabella have half ruined two promising learners of Chinese.

Be that as it may, one thing is certain:  Arabella is a star in China and has had a huge, positive impact there:

"Trump’s granddaughter gets praise and sympathy for singing for Chinese president", by Simon Denyer, WP (11/9/17)

"Trump Shows Chinese President Adorable Video of Granddaughter Singing in Mandarin", Fox News insider (11/9/17)

"Trump’s 6-year-old granddaughter a ‘child star’ in China after singing in Mandarin, Xi Jinping says", by Jessica Chasmar, Washington Times (11/9/17)

For me, the best part of the video is the last item, "Wǒ di hǎo māmā 我的好媽媽" ("My Good Mother"), which is so genuine and heartfelt, and is sung in living Mandarin, not dead Classical.  Hearing and watching it, you just can't help loving this smart, adorable, little girl.  Note that she repeats clearly "di" for the possessive particle 的, not "de" — extensively discussed in the comments to this post:

"Fixed point" (11/2/17)

That is the pronunciation of 的 that got stuck in my head half a century ago, and I still haven't been completely weaned away from it.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer; thanks to Melvin Lee, Grace Wu, and Liwei Jiao]


  1. J said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

    Regarding 的 [di], mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…

  2. David Morris said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 11:26 pm

    A headline on the Sydney Morning Herald website said "Chinese 'love' Trump's granddaughter's Mandarin". I didn't know whether they were 'scare quotes'.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 1:05 am

    I think they mean "beyond 'like'".

  4. leoboiko said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 1:17 am

    Some news outlets use quoted words in headlines to indicate, well, literally quoted words—the exact choice of word of someone else than the news company.

    It confuses me too for the same reason as you.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 5:47 am

    Never underestimate the impact of 6-year-olds on world events.

    Some news outlets use quoted words in headlines to indicate, well, literally quoted words—the exact choice of word of someone else than the news company.

    Yes. Generally, the quote occurs again, often in longer or at least more accurate form, somewhere in the text, and the source is mentioned, but that's not guaranteed.

  6. WSM said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 8:21 am

    The Three-Character Classic is a … strange choice even for a classical reading. What was wrong with the way Zuckerberg learned some Chinese?

  7. John said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    I'm imagining that the prologue to the movie about this sweet little girl being adopted & raised by her crotchety old Chinese teacher is told mostly in spinning newspaper headlines.

  8. liuyao said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 10:51 am

    I agree that the Sanzijing is a bad choice for many reasons. I'd much prefer Shenglü qimeng 《聲律啟蒙》, which has a more melodic (and less strict) structure, and consists of many two-syllable words that one would actually say and be understood.

  9. Guy_H said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    Wow her Mandarin is great! From this native speaker's perspective, her accent is amazing when singing classical Chinese and barely noticeable when she raps (admittedly she is rather breathless when rapping which tends to distort any accent). It's funny how her accent sounds more foreign when greeting someone with a simple "ni hao" or singing in colloquial Mandarin ("Wo de hao mama").

  10. liuyao said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

    It is possible that she was taught Sanzijing for this very occasion, for Xi is known for promoting the revival of "traditional culture" and Xi Jinping's name actually was partially derived from the second sentence: Xing Xiang Jin, Xi Xiang Yuan (the fourth and third characters). He told this story while visiting a class of small children in Germany, and it shouldn't be hard to find the video for it.

  11. WSM said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

    Interesting point Liuyao; though if they were trying to flatter Xi that way the very first sentences of 论语 would have been more elegant.;P

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

    Three relevant publications by YU Li:

    1. Yu, Li. A History of Reading in Late Imperial China 1000-1800. The Ohio State University. 2003 Dissertation.

    2. Yu, Li. 2012. "Character Recognition: A New Method of Learning to Read in Late Imperial China." Late Imperial China. Volume 33, Number 2, December 2012, pp. 1-39.

    3. Yu, Li. to appear. "Old text, New meanings: San Zi Jing Through Its Paratexts." Paratexts and the Late Imperial Chinese Book Culture, edited by Joachim Kurtz and Rui Magone. Leiden: Brill.

  13. Don Clarke said,

    November 11, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

    I’m less impressed. Your transcription is not quite right. She says, “让我唱一个首歌吧.” Putting in two measure words (一个首歌) is something no native speaker would do. On the other hand, merely making that mistake proves she wasn’t just parroting some memorized words.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    November 12, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    It's odd that you would disparage Arabella's Mandarin ("I’m less impressed"), when what she did makes it all the more impressive.

    First of all, I've received feedback from scores of native speakers, and without exception they all find her achievement in Chinese to be astonishing for a non-native speaker six years of age. This is true even for those who go out of their way to state that they dislike her grandfather!

    As for what Arabella actually said in the third sentence, it was "Ràng wǒ chàng yī gè –> shǒu gē ba 让我唱一个–>首歌吧. ("Let me sing a song.")

    Gè 个 is the generic measure word that many people use before almost any noun.

    Shǒu 首 is the more precise and specific measure word for a song.

    chàng yī gè gē 唱一個歌 ("sing a song") 6,700 ghits
    chàng yī shǒu gē 唱一首歌 ("sing a song") 595,000 ghits

    Of the native speakers (all graduate students in Chinese or teachers of Chinese with long experience) whom I asked specifically about the occurrence of two measure words in the third sentence, a couple of them said that it was a mere "slip of the tongue" and "no big deal", because even Chinese do that. More respondents said that what she did is correct herself, and that is what I believe happened too.



    "an implicit self-correction: 让我唱一个->首歌吧."

    "Perhaps she started out saying 让我唱一个歌 but quickly realized it should be 首, then she quickly corrected herself."


    It's amazing that Arabella could smoothly and seamlessly make this instantaneous autocorrection. Most people (and here I include adults — both native and nonnative speakers alike) would stutter and stumble when they realized they had used the generic classifier and wanted to improve what they said by changing it to the specific classifier called for by the noun in question. By changing from 个 to 首 the way she did, Arabella demonstrated tremendous ingeniousness and composure.

    I think that Arabella is a little genius and that her Chinese will get better year after year. Indeed, I look forward to following her progress through to the time she goes to high school and college. I just hope they stop making her memorize things like the Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic Three Character Classic.

  15. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    November 18, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    Arabella's Chinese tutor is very old, both in age and in mind. S/he taught the little girl some useless things seemingly for a long time….

    That may well be true, but there is at least one great use for foreign learners, as recounted by Bathrobe:

    To reset the 'baka valve' [Jack Seward] recommended drastic measures. One of these was to be 'caught out' writing the Imperial Rescript on Education, a difficult Meiji-era document that all pre-war children had to learn. He did this one time to a maid who apparently refused to understand his Japanese. Unable to contain her curiosity, she had to have look at what the foreigner was writing. When she saw what it was there was an audible intake of breath and an immediate apology.

RSS feed for comments on this post