Xi Jinping's reading errors multiply

« previous post | next post »

The president of China recently gave a major address celebrating the 40th anniversary of China's "gǎigé kāifàng 改革开放" ("reform and opening-up"):

"Reading Xi’s Reform Anniversary Speech", by Qian Gang, China Media Project (12/18/18)

Unfortunately, during his speech Xi misread a number of literary expressions at key moments.

The expressions he was trying to use are the following:

tiān xíng jiàn, jūnzǐ yǐ zì qiáng bù xī 天行健,君子以自强不息 ("Heaven, through its motion, imparts strength; the superior man accordingly steels himself to ceaseless activity")

jīnkē yùlǜ 金科玉律 ("golden rules and precious precepts", i.e., "laws and regulations")

yízhǐ-qìshǐ 颐指气使 ("order people about arrogantly with gestures")

The way they came were as follows:

tiān xíng jiàn, jūnzǐ yǐ bù qiáng, zì zì qiáng bù xī 天行健,君子以不强、自自强不息 — hopelessly mangled and tangled

jīnkē lǜ yù 金科律玉 — order of the characters is jumbled, while retaining their correct pronunciation

yí shǐ qì zhǐ 颐使气指 — Xi misspoke both the order and the pronunciation (yī shǐ qì zhǐ) of the characters

The garbled results make no sense.

Watch the two videos embedded in this article.

It is folly to expect President Xi to read literary expressions correctly.  His cultural level is simply not up to it.  His speechwriters and handlers more generally should only put simple, vernacular sentences before him.  Otherwise, classical phraseology will continue to cause him to humiliate himself and embarrass China.


"Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

"Latin Caesar –> Tibetan Gesar –> Xi Jinpingian Sager" (3/20/18)

"Pinyin for the Prez" (10/25/18)

"Peking University president misreads an unobscure character: monumental implications" (5/5/18)

[H.t. Daan Pan; thanks to Zeyao Wu and Qing Liao]


  1. Y said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 10:58 pm

    Is swapping sibilants a common speech error? In other words, is yízhǐ-qìshǐ merely a tongue twister which anyone might have garbled?

  2. Bathrobe said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 11:36 pm

    Blame not poor Xi Jinping. This is a problem of Chinese and China as a civilisation. Its ancient literature, the accretion of 3,000 years of literary tradition, continues to weigh on the language and culture. It is so demanding of memory and memorisation that even the national leader is prone to get it wrong. Becoming a fish in the ocean of Chinese traditional culture requires a huge allocation of memorisation and, as I have pointed out before, demands total devotion. It is not just the Great Fire Wall that isolates China from the rest of the world. It is the cultural burden that makes it so difficult for many Chinese to straddle multiple cultures.

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 3:08 am

    "It is folly to expect President Xi to read literary expressions correctly. His cultural level is simply not up to it. His speechwriters and handlers more generally should only put simple,vernacular sentences before him"
    OR, he could eliminate the speech writers and just send out tweets by himself like some other 'world leader'. Only questions are (1) could he
    select the correct characters, and (2) what input system would he use?

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 3:51 am

    I'm sure that he did not mispronounce anything. Some members of the audience misheard what he said and some faulty recording equipment malfunctioned in the same places, possibly pointing to a conspiracy!

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 4:23 am

    May I ask in what context he intended to say 颐指气使 *(yízhǐ-qìshǐ , "order people about arrogantly with gestures") ? I ask because it so perfectly describes the behaviour of the Chinese police in Tibet, at least their behaviour as I and my wife (herself 75% Chinese) have observed it. And was he using it as an injunction as to how to behave, or rather to state that such behaviour is unacceptable ?

  6. David Marjanović said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 6:06 am

    Well, during the time when he could have learned such things, he was first in reeducation (learning how to do hard work in agriculture) and then a low-level bureaucrat. He didn't have an opportunity to burrow through the classics.

  7. andy said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    So a politician slightly misread some words/phrases from a prepared text that he was reading out in public, and this utterly mundane and common thing is presented as an embarrassment, even a humiliation, and not only for Xi personally but the entire nation of China? Quite the hot take, helpfully served with a dollop of condescending snobbery about the uncultured ruffian who had the temerity to become president without possessing the requisite familiarity with the classics.

  8. Alex said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 10:49 am


    I think the issue isn't about slip, I think the bigger issue for me is about being who you are. I think the issue is related to mianzi and the pressures that it applies.

    I think speech writers are important as they help leaders motivate the country.
    Ted Sorensen did wonders for Kennedy and Kennedy was able to pull it off because people accepted that the words written for him could have come from him and were shaped by him.

    When Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks it doesn't sound forced.

    If Deng gave the same speech even if for some reason made a slip it would be passable.

    I do think the tough part for his speech writers is that he is trapped between eras.

    I agree with the person who said he needs a modern speech writer who can write speeches like Kennedy's space speech given at rice university.

    No more pseudo intellectual ancient phrases. It comes off, off.

  9. Alex said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 10:55 am

    The crazy thing is my older son, 10, was near me when I was watching the video. He's heard some of the phrases before due to the idiotic education system who forces memorization of these sayings starting in 1st grade.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 11:42 am

    May I ask why you regard "memorization of these sayings starting in 1st grade" as "idiotic", Alex ? As I understand it, China (and the Chinese people) are immensely proud of their heritage, and seek to preserve it by ensuring that it remains accessible to each new generation as it emerges. Here in the west we have sadly lost that tradition (see, for example, Neville Gwynne on the effects of the loss of classics tuition in schools) and are very much the poorer for it. I for one applaud the Chinese in seeking to preserve their heritage.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    And Philip Taylor, may I ask in what sense we are "very much poorer" for having lost classics tuition in schools?

    Somewhat related: anyone reading Neville Gwynne on these matters should also read the relevant chapter in Lane Greene's new book on language, "Talk on the Wild Side", which was definitely a standout Christmas present for me this year.

  12. BroD said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    Obviously, there is a disconnect between Xi and his speechwriters. There are simple remedies. Finger-pointing is not helpful.

  13. andy said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

    Alex, I think there are two issues: one, the (mis)match between public figure and communication style – in this case, Xi is ill-suited to deliver speeches replete with classical allusions, and might be better served by a more plain style. But there are also cultural norms that determine the "appropriate" style for a politician in high office. I cant speak for Mandarin, but the folksy, familiar style used by American politicians would come across as overly informal for a politician in French (even in Canada let alone in France).

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

    Bob Ladd ("in what sense we are 'very much poorer' for having lost classics tuition in schools ?"). I have quoted Neville Gwynne on this topic in another thread. Let me just summarise here, and refer the interested reader (and your good self) to the original, more lengthy, quotation from his Introduction.

    "For much of [the history of education during the last thousand years or so] Latin, together with Greek, […] actually was education. [..,.] The reason for this exclusive concentration on Latin and Greek in schools was not, […] that our ancestors supposed there to be no need to study the other basic subjects […] No, the reason that the non-classical subjects were not taught in schools was they they were considered to be so easy by comparison with Latin and Greek, especially to people with minds and characters trained by the study of the Classics, that it was not thought worth wasting valuable schoolroom time on them."

    NMG goes on to say :

    — Latin is an academic subject easy enough for the least intelligent of us to grasp all its basic elements, and yet difficult enough to be demanding for its greatest scholars.

    — As an instrument for training mind and character, Latin has no parallel.

    — For well over a thousand years, Latin was the means of communication that united the whole of Europe.

    — Latin is the direct ancestor of […]the five so-called Romance languagesof the largest European language group, and of both the official South American languages (Spanish and Portuguese).

    followed by a further dozen or so similar bullet-points.

    As I said at the end of my original quotation of NMG "Standing on the shoulders of giants (in this case Neville M Gwynne), I rest my case".

  15. RfP said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    @ Bob Ladd: Thank you so much for mentioning Lane Greene!

    I missed that you had mentioned the name of his new book, so I accidentally found and started reading the sample from his previous book, You Are What You Speak, and was rewarded with this really cool quote from John McWhorter's Foreword:

    "One can only imagine how Old English speakers felt hearing people letting go of the language’s Latin-style case endings. Certainly they felt as Cicero did hearing the same thing happening to Latin itself, as Lane also recounts. Yet what happened to Old English was that it became what I am writing in, and what happened to Latin was that it became the language of The Divine Comedy."

    This point may have some bearing on the present discussion—and I somehow feel that Canto III of Inferno also sheds some light on these issues, if perhaps cryptically. As Virgil puts it, in Allen Mandelbaum's translation:

    The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
    both justice and compassion must disdain them;
    let us not talk of them, but look and pass.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

    I studied Latin at school, and Classical Greek outside, and enjoyed both the intellectual challenge and the direct access to the literature and thought of the classical and mediaeval worlds. But I wouldn’t dream of thinking that that learning was sufficient, or more of a challenge than other subjects – mathematics, physics or chemistry for example. Let alone Biblical Hebrew!
    Even in the Middle Ages, Latin was more of a tool than an end in itself, and the real scholars studied theology, astronomy etc. NMG reads like an idiot with an extremely blinkered view of a narrow past. As to training the mind, how many scientists, engineers and mathematicians emerged from this narrow curriculum?
    And as for (British) politicians, the two recent classicists who spring to mind are mind are Enoch Powell and Boris Johnson, neither of whom are shining examples.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 6:36 pm

    — As an instrument for training mind and character, Latin has no parallel.

    Furiose dormiunt ideae virides sine colore!

    Seriously. I had six years of Latin in school. Other than the four years of translating poetry sentence by long sentence, I found it pretty interesting and liked it well enough. I did not notice any effects on mind or whatever "character" is supposed to mean here.

    However, if you want to train specifically your memory, go ahead and learn to write in Chinese or Japanese. That should definitely help.

    — For well over a thousand years, Latin was the means of communication that united the whole of Europe.

    Catholic and Protestant Europe, not Orthodox Europe, let alone Islamic Europe!

    Yes, Neoclassical Latin is the closest thing to a common language Europe used to have. No, Europe never had a common language before English.

  18. little rob said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

    Mandarin, Latin, Aribic and hebrew spanish are all important to learn and know.
    of course speech writers are important!!!!!

  19. Ricardo said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 9:39 pm

    I think what's most interesting about this discussion is that no matter where the modern-day politician is from, nobody expects him to actually write a speech that s/he delivers, and we are often surprised to hear that s/he made a siginficant contribution to its wording.

    This is what makes political speeches seem like a charade and why they are subject to so much analysis: everyone is struggling to find the man underneath all the pretty words. This is not the case for politicians like Churchill and Lincoln, about whom we can say that we genuinely know their views. Today, all a politician's delivery means is ‘I endorse these views’, not that s/he thought them up. I sometimes wonder why they don't just get an actor to do the job while the president stands at his side smiling and nodding.

  20. hwu said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 11:31 pm

    This reminds me of Lin Jianhua (the president of Peking University) 's mistake in his speech made at Peking University's 120th anniversary ceremony. He did apologized later using cultural revolution as an excuse, however he claimed that he wrote his speech by himself.

  21. Alex said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 12:38 am

    I don’t begrudge leaders using speech writers. A leader doesn’t need to write well nor does he have the time to do all his speeches. He needs to convey his vision in the best possible way so that the people understand. I do think the speaker should review the speech and provide feedback and iterate. Usually the leader will say I want to address these things with a certain tone and the writer provides drafts.
    The issue I have with adding classical phrases is it perpetuates the pedagogy. There is this belief that if you can quote a few idioms/phrases you are intelligent and sophisticated. The using big words equivalent.

    I get the cultural norm thing. Thank God I see the speeches slowly changing here. My wife attends many conferences. Its ladies and gentleman, my name is x, I am honored, id like to thank, They must all use the same boilerplate. As for the leaders speech my view is he would do the kids a favor by changing it up.

    @Philip Taylor
    I believe its idiotic because I believe there is a more efficient time to teach it. I do believe students should learn it but not until later grades. Perhaps the easier ones starting in 4rth grade.
    When I have more time Ill write a longer response as its something I feel people should understand about the system here beyond just what is taught. It ties into the mianzi and the massive tiger education approach to things here.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 6:39 am

    Andy — fair enough, although I do wonder whether there would be greater resistance to learning these sayings at a later age. If a child learns to say "gonna" and "wanna" at the age of five, and no-one corrects him, then trying to teach him to say "going to" and "want to" at the age of eight might (IMHO) pose something of a challenge. If, on the other hand, he is brought up to say "going to" and "want to" from the outset, then although he may slip into "wanna" and "gonna" in the playground, he will automatically use the correct forms in more formal circumstances.

  23. Bathrobe said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 5:27 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    I don't think that is a big issue. Kids start out learning things like 'Me and my mate' or 'Give me one of them sausages', which they learn to adjust to 'My friends and I' or 'Could you pass me one of those sausages, please' as they master higher registers and learn how to put their thoughts into written English. If the child fails to do this, it is the fault of poor teaching or attitudes, not poor acquisition in early life. Language use should become richer and more sophisticated as people grow up.

  24. Bob Ladd said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 5:38 pm

    @ Philip Taylor: But you're confusing correctness and formality. I doubt there is a first-language speaker of English anywhere who doesn't know the GRAMMATICAL rules about "gonna" and "wanna", without ever having been "corrected". That is, no first-language speaker of English, even at the age of 5 or 6, would ever say "When are we gonna Nan's house?" They don't need to be specially brought up to say "going to" in that context.

    Formality and sensitivity to context is a different problem. Even Neville Gwynne presumably takes off his tie from time to time. I don't mean that explicit instruction about formality is unnecessary or pointless, but it really doesn't make sense to confuse it with correctness and on the basis of that confusion create moral panic about the fate of the language.

  25. Alex said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 8:33 pm

    btw note what the professor said

    Peking University head sorry for slip-up
    By LUO WANGSHU | China Daily | Updated: 2018-05-07 08:51

    Lin Jianhua, president of Peking University.
    Peking University President Lin Jianhua has apologized after his mispronunciation of a word at its 120th anniversary celebration triggered online criticism.

    Lin made the mistake while delivering a speech meant to inspire students at Peking University's 120th anniversary ceremony on Friday. It triggered heated debate online, with some netizens criticizing Lin for not knowing the word and questioning whether he was qualified to be head of one of China's best universities-known as the country's Harvard.

    The word should be pronounced "honghu", indicating birds that can fly high. The president pronounced it as "honghao", which has no meaning.

    The mistake went viral online after the speech.

    Lin posted a letter of apology on Weiming BBS, the university's online bulletin board, on Saturday. He admitted in the letter that "I was not familiar with the pronunciation and learned it this time".

    if he was reading and say honghu it would be harder to be so off.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 4:44 pm

    As I understand it, China (and the Chinese people) are immensely proud of their heritage, and seek to preserve it by ensuring that it remains accessible to each new generation as it emerges.

    I don't think Philip Taylor is aware exactly how many idioms from the classics are floating out there. The volume is stupendous, and most of it tends to be known only by people who specialise in knowing it. The modern equivalent of scholars who sat for the Imperial examinations. The sort of people who try to blind others with their great erudition, and all too often become speech writers in order to showcase their talent. The loss of all ancient Chinese literary sayings would indeed be a tragedy. Trimming them back to a manageable level would be a great help to people who want to use it as a language and not as the mark of a civilisation.

RSS feed for comments on this post