More literary troubles for Xi Jinping

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This article (in Chinese) describes how China's netizens (wǎngyǒu 网友) are ridiculing President Xi for inappropriately quoting a poem by Kong Rong 孔融 (153-208), a 20th generation descendant of Confucius, in his New Year's address to the nation.

The first lines of the poem are:

suìyuè bù jū
shíjié rú liú

歲月不居
時節如流

The years do not stand still,
Time flows on like a river.

Fair enough, in and of itself.  The problem lies in what the rest of the poem is about.  If you put those two lines (in Chinese) into Google, you will get many critical posts and reports which point out that later in the poem the following lines occur:

hǎinèi zhīshì
língluò dài jǐn

海內知識
零落殆盡

Acquaintances within the seas,
Scattered and nearly exhausted.

By "zhīshì 知識", Kong Rong in all likelihood was referring to his "acquaintances" (his friends), but Xi's critics emphasize that it can also mean "knowledge" and "intellectuals".  Thus they interpret these lines to mean that knowledge "within the seas" (i.e., in China) is desolate and nearly depleted.  This, they imply, is the direct result of Xi's repressive policies exerting draconian control over the internet and harsh restrictions on intellectual discourse.

Even if, putting the best possible light on the matter, we insist that Kong Rong was talking about friends and acquaintances, not knowledge and information, it's still not a very felicitous and auspicious thing to be talking about their desolation and depletion on New Year's Day.

Xi JInping's semi-learned speechwriters really should stop trying to make him sound like a scholar, because he keeps mutilating or misusing the lines that they feed him.  As numerous commenters to previous posts in this series have pointed out, they should write plain, simple, straightforward, non-allusive, easy, vernacular Mandarin.  The chances that Xi would make a fool of himself with that kind of language would be greatly decreased.  What's the point of making him sound like a traditional literatus anyway?  That would be like speechwriters for US presidents writing lines full of Latin and Greek.  Instead of impressing the American people, it would only make them think that their president was a pompous ass.

Readings

"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)

"Xi Jinping's reading errors multiply" (12/28/18)

[H.t. Daan Pan; thanks to Zeyao Wu, Grace Wu, and Melvin Lee]



28 Comments

  1. NSBK said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:11 am

    Let's not forget that one can be construed as a pompous ass in any register. But I do agree it can be harder in some registers than in others to be misconstrued as one.

  2. WSM said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 11:52 am

    Kong Rong himself used the phrase in a different, much more neutral context (in a letter to a friend) – "岁月不居,时节如流,五十之年,忽焉已至 – where it really does just mean the passage of time; not really sure why it's fair to insist on reading the phrase in the context of the poem, which is much more satirical. I also suspect both 4-character components have been fairly frequently used to mean "my how the time flies" in just the manner that XJP uses it.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 3:19 pm

    The critics are the pedants in this case. XJP used the words as most Chinese would understand them, a comment on the passing of time. It takes a dyed-in-the-wool literatus, completely devoted to the authenticity of ancient authorities, to cite the original passage as proof of a person's ignorance.

    Tradition is so heavy it breaks the back of the language.

  4. WSM said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 4:51 pm

    The Chinese satirists for sure are aware of the familiar meaning of the phrase, and can hardly be accused of being pedants; if anything, this latest tempest in a teapot demonstrates how relevant China's classical literary civilization remains to contemporary discourse.

    Am suspicious whether use of Classical phrases in such contexts is really comparable to the use of Latin/Greek in European discourse as recently as the 19th century, given the relative youth of vernacular Mandarin as an officially sanctioned mode of communication, and the much shorter distance between Classical Chinese and Mandarin (let alone a topolect like Min or Cantonese) compared to that between Latin/Greek and the Romance languages. In any case such episodes should probably be interpreted less as evidence of pedantry in China's elite, than Mandarin's growing pains as it grows beyond the shadow of the Classical past. One can only hope that 青出于蓝而胜于蓝

  5. Alex said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

    I was wondering if anyone had a good English source and discussion of this poem?

    Thanks,

  6. cameron said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 12:41 pm

    When he spoke at the Democratic Party Convention in July 1992, NY Governor Mario Cuomo got a lot of attention in the press for using the Latin phrase "mirabile dictu". And that's just two words, imagine if he'd quoted a whole line of a Latin poem? People would have thought he'd lost his mind.

  7. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 2:58 pm

    It is not obvious to me that if speechwriters for an American president believe that citing the classics will merely taken by his compatriots to show that he a pompous jackass, whereas their Chinese equivalents feel that it is at least worth *attempting* much the same … that this contrast is unequivocally to the credit of the American people.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 3:59 pm

    Who said anything about unequivocally to the credit of the American people?

  9. Bathrobe said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 6:38 pm

    this latest tempest in a teapot demonstrates how relevant China's classical literary civilization remains to contemporary discourse

    Exactly my point. If China wants to become the economic, military, political, and cultural behemoth of the coming centuries, it seriously needs to think of developing some kind of 'Chinese lite'.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 6:41 am

    For much of the last millennium, we Britons were proud to demonstrate our erudition by citing long-dead Greek and Roman poets, dramatists and authors verbatim. During that period, our Empire and power grew to extend over much of the world's surface ("the sun never sets on the British Empire"). Why, then, should a wish to demonstrate their erudition by citing long-dead Chinese writers be an obstacle to modern China if, as Bathrobe suggests, it seeks to become "the economic, military, political, and cultural behemoth of the coming centuries" ?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 8:33 am

    Today's technologies, modes of communication, and systems of governance are vastly different, demanding, and more complicated than when Britannia ruled the waves.

    Language, literature, and rhetoric have correspondingly and appropriately co-evolved along with science, technology, and politics to meet the needs of the times. That is why the observations of Bathrobe, Alex, and others in their camp on this post and previous posts in this vein make good sense.

  12. WSM said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 9:34 am

    I'm struggling to see any way in which use of set phrases (成语) such as the one under discussion "breaks the back of the language" or is otherwise inappropriate for incorporation into a modern vernacular to which it is much more closely related than either Latin or Greek to the Romance languages. Since classical literary references can still be used *within* vernacular discourse, to great satirical effect, wherefore the need for "Chinese lite"?

    Also, it doesn't appear that the phrase was ever used in any poem by Kong Rong, only in the letter mentioned above in the comments.

  13. WSM said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 12:06 pm

    Just to provide some additional, much-needed context to all of this, here is an example, chosen practically at random, of a much less common and very classical construction found in the eminently practical, real-world domain of a business news report, from Taiwan of all places. I don't really see how the newscaster can be accused of pretension by use of appropriately formal language that integrates perfectly with the surrounding vernacular discussion, and is hardly comparable to the sort of incongruousness that would be caused by an anchor on CNN suddenly throwing in Latin and Greek aphorisms left and right.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 12:33 pm

    All the lines quoted in the o.p. are from this text by Kong Rong: "Lùn Shèng Xiàozhāng shū 论盛孝章书" ("Letter on Sheng Xiaozhang").

    The original text, detailed annotations and explications, and a translation into MSM may be found in this examination preparation article and in this Baidu encyclopedia article.

    The first eight lines of the text, including all those quoted in the o.p., are quadrisyllabic. From the ninth line on, the prose consists of phrases, clauses, and sentences of varying length.

    Discussion in English, including mention of a complete translation into German by Erwin von Zach, may be found in BrillOnline Chinese Reference Library: Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature Online: A Research Guide, ed. David R. Knechtges and Taiping Chang > 孔 融 (Kong Rong), but you have to log in to access it. There is also a large hardbound edition of this excellent research tool.

    See also in A History of Chinese Letters and Epistolary Culture (pdf).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

    As for the fate of chéngyǔ 成語 ("set phrases"), historical allusions, Literary Sinitic quotations, etc. in spoken language, just within the half century that I have been studying and teaching Chinese (including a long stint in Taiwan at the beginning), they have all decreased dramatically. The trend is not something that wringing of hands in Language Log comments will reverse. Furthermore, those who are criticizing Xi Jinping and his speechwriters for their misuse of literary language are Chinese netizens, so the resistance to that kind of mangled pretentiousness is coming from within the evolving tradition, not from outside.

  16. James Wimberley said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

    The well-known funeral speeches in Julius Caesar show that Shakespeare was well aware of the disjunct in rhetoric between formal elegance – Brutus – and street effectiveness – Mark Anthony.

    I'm trying to think of an English analogy to Xi's problem: a well-known line stating a commonplace, excerpted from a text with an unsettling sting in the tail. Sort of the inverse to Larkin's "They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad".

  17. WSM said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

    I wouldn't describe comments within the Log as hand-wringing at all, particularly given expressions of hope that Mandarin can grow beyond the shadow of its classical roots (as it's unquestionably in the middle of doing); the comments are motivated more by a concern that some context and nuance is being lost by false comparisons between the role Classical Chinese plays in Mandarin vernacular discourse and the role Latin/Greek play in contemporary Romance language discourse.

    As for the Chinese critics, they're not criticizing XJP for using literary language at all, nor have they (to my knowledge) described such use as pretentious; rather they are criticizing XJP and others for using it incorrectly; implying that there is no problem within the native realm with use of such language in such contexts (indeed, in past cases there seems to be the expectation that senior academics such as the president of Beijing University should be getting it right).

    In this particular case, it isn't entirely clear whether they're even suggesting XJP's usage is incorrect, so much as deeply ironic considering the locus classicus for the phrase.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 5:15 pm

    "they are criticizing XJP and others for using it incorrectly"

    That's the problem! Exactly what we and the satirists have been pointing out.

  19. Fluxor said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

    quick nitpick: 盡 is pronounced with the fourth tone

  20. A Chinese person said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 9:41 pm

    Firstly, "zhīshì 知識" should be "zhīshí".

    To me, a native Chinese speaker, Xi's usage of the reference is both appropriate and unambiguous. It makes a more interesting speech.

    The criticism to Xi's speech should be studied with its political context to better understand the meaning behind – people express their objection to Xi's views by pointing out any possible mistakes and by deliberately misinterpreting Xi's speech.

    This is all natural and expected. Kong Rong's poem is just a technicality. It would have been something else that people criticize Xi with, if it wasn't the poem.

    More importantly, please don't not interpret it as an evidence of people rejecting the usage of Classical Chinese. It's not true.

    I totally agree with Mr Philip Taylor. What's wrong with citing Classical Chinese? It's an integral part of the Chinese language and history. It's like an English speaker citing Shakespeare.

    I also mostly agree with WSM, except that there isn't anything "shadowy" about Classical Chinese. Vernacular Chinese doesn't need to "grow beyond the shadow of the Classical past".

    I noticed Prof Mair is an advocate of Romanization of Chinese (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_H._Mair). In my opinion, Romanization of Chinese is the greatest insult to Chinese language and culture. It blindly ignores the importance of Chinese characters as a stable and faithful form of cultural and information carrier for the last few millennia. It makes the rich historical Chinese literatures inaccessible because people will not be able to read them. Fortunately, Romanization of Chinese failed and didn't happen.

    I don't want to offend Prof Mair, but here I would like to suggest all the readers use your diligence and be skeptical while you read the articles and discussions here (including mine).

    广大中国朋友或中文爱好者门, Prof Mair是中文罗马化的倡导者(见https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_H._Mair)。我认为,中文罗马化是对中文和中国文化的最大羞辱。中文罗马化会破坏中国历史的传承。抹杀几千年来发展出的中文字形为基础的信息和历史载体。幸运的是,这个事情没有发生。 并非针对Prof Mair,但是在此,我建议大家以细心和怀疑的态度来阅读这里的文章和讨论(也包括我所说的)。

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 12:26 am

    @A Chinese person:

    Depending upon person, place, and circumstance, 知识 / 知識 can be pronounced zhīshì, zhīshí, or zhīshi. Indeed, you can find all three on the same page of zdic.

    http://www.zdic.net/c/5/10b/289905.htm

    "More importantly, please don't not interpret it as an evidence of people rejecting the usage of Classical Chinese. It's not true."

    Incomprehensible misnegation.

    "What's wrong with citing Classical Chinese?"

    Nobody is saying that the citation of Classical Chinese should be ruled out. Go back and reread this post, the other commenters, and the many other posts on Language Log that deal with Classical Chinese in the modern era of vernacular writing.

    "Vernacular Chinese doesn't need to 'grow beyond the shadow of the Classical past'."

    That's merely your opinion. Many intelligent, caring people think that it would be a good thing (beneficial to China) if it did.

    "In my opinion, Romanization of Chinese is the greatest insult to Chinese language and culture."

    That is your opinion, and a simplistic, dogmatic one at that. You call yourself "A Chinese person", but many distinguished, respected Chinese persons have advocated the Romanization of Chinese, including the greatest writer of the modern era, Lu Xun, and the late supercentenarian Zhou Youguang, the father of Hanyu Pinyin. You need to educate yourself about the development and contributions of Romanization in China during the last century and more.

    For you to say that Romanization "blindly ignores the importance of Chinese characters as a stable and faithful form of cultural and information carrier for the last few millennia. It makes the rich historical Chinese literatures inaccessible because people will not be able to read them" is a gross misrepresentation and distortion of the role of Romanization in modern Chinese history.

    Finally, you say, "I don't want to offend Prof Mair", but you did by stigmatizing me as someone who is insensitive to Chinese language and culture. In the Chinese equivalent of "I don't want to offend Prof Mair", you strangely wrote "Bìngfēi zhēnduì Prof Mair 并非针对Prof Mair" ("I'm not really targeting Prof Mair"), which is quite different from what you wrote in English. Why did you do that? And what do you think I've been doing with my life for the past half century teaching hundreds of students to read Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese and teaching thousands of students to understand and appreciate Chinese literature?

  22. Alex said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 1:21 am

    @A Chinese person said,

    "In my opinion, Romanization of Chinese is the greatest insult to Chinese language and culture. It blindly ignores the importance of Chinese characters as a stable and faithful form of cultural and information carrier for the last few millennia."

    Have been really busy as my kids are taking midterms today (I will write about the semi annual painful experience all due to Chinese characters and idioms) here in Shenzhen so will address this more fully later.

    First I am Chinese and I view things as trade offs, and Romanizing things is a no brainer.

    Second I am curious, "Mr Chinese Person", what instrument do you write with? Pen? Ball point pen? Brush and ink? as you know for 1000's of years we Chinese have been writing with brush and ink. Has our cultural heritage ended with the advent of the modern pen and pencil and typing? There was a time people argued against using pens.

    "" It makes the rich historical Chinese literatures inaccessible because people will not be able to read them. Fortunately, Romanization of Chinese failed and didn't happen."

    To me its the non romanization that has made the great literature of the past inaccessible not only to millions of the Chinese on the mainland because they cant read because its too complex but millions of diasporic Chinese kids and westerners who would be able to read the great works of literature.

    Beyond that if romanization came earlier who knows how many great authors there would have been. The average peasant 1000 years ago able to talk would have been able to write a story. Please note the hangul example.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

    From Bill Hannas:

    In my opinion, use of the vernaculars for writing is the greatest insult to Western culture. It blindly ignores the importance of Latin as a stable and faithful form of cultural and information carrier for the last few millennia. It makes the rich classical literatures inaccessible because people will not be able to read them. Fortunately, vernacular writing in Europe failed and the elite are still ruling the peons, just as in China.

  24. Alex said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

    In many garden complexes, mine included there are dual calligraphy (brush and ink) and handwriting classes. The vast majority of the kids take handwriting rather than calligraphy. My older son took the calligraphy. Once in awhile I might check up on him and most times Id see some parents/neighbors who were dropping off or waiting for their kids to finish. The mothers would usually take that as an opportunity to gossip with the other neighborhood mothers. I would ask these mother questions as I have never seen extra curricular classes in the states of kids writing the word me, me, me you you you cat cat cat dog dog dog door door door etc over and over again with a teacher instructing.

    When asked why their kids are attending this (note, no time to play or learn other things) the answers are almost always the same. They find they have no patience to teach their own child. I find in general this is true. Teaching other peoples children one usually has more patience. Now these classes cost 100 rmb almost 15 usd an hour each for a class of 10 kids. While this is something many rich from real estate Shenzhen people can afford, its not something the average shenzhener can afford. So I guess their children are the ones i see screamed at by the parents before exams. Bihua, bihua, bihua, (stroke order) or cong xing cong xing (start over, usually as the parents feel its not neat enough) So depending on the age of kids in the class they get their daily dose or twice a week dose of muscle memory on how to write me I you wing red black etc. The parents select the class because then they know their kids are doing it.

    I guess hazing is a time honored ritual in the fraternity system so one can accept daily torture of the kids as acceptable!

    The next post will be on math and Chinese characters.

  25. Alex said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

    Meant xin not xing

  26. Eidolon said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 8:32 pm

    @Bathrobe

    "If China wants to become the economic, military, political, and cultural behemoth of the coming centuries, it seriously needs to think of developing some kind of 'Chinese lite'."

    If China becomes the economic, military, political, and cultural behemoth of the coming centuries, *other* people will develop "some kind of Chinese lite" to bask in its incense. As happened – and is still happening – with English. Geoffrey Pullum once called English a "terrible choice for a world language" – right before calling Chinese "awful" and a "millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world," so don't call him biased! – but that didn't stop it from becoming so. The difficulty of a language is small fries in the grand measure of prestige.

    @Philip Taylor

    "For much of the last millennium, we Britons were proud to demonstrate our erudition by citing long-dead Greek and Roman poets, dramatists and authors verbatim. During that period, our Empire and power grew to extend over much of the world's surface ("the sun never sets on the British Empire")."

    On the other hand, association is not causation. It's hardly reasonable to posit that "citing long-dead Greek and Roman poets, dramatists and authors verbatim" had anything to do with "our Empire and power grew to extend over much of the world's surface." The most powerful man in the world today can barely string together coherent sentences, according to many, but that doesn't prevent his country from calling the shots. Perhaps the lesson here, really, is that as much as we would like political leaders to be intelligent, articulate, and eloquent, ultimately none of these is required.

    @WSM

    "Tempest in a teapot"

    Ah, the intentional irony.

  27. Alex said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 11:25 pm

    Trump's appeal to half the population is his frank rhetoric.

    In my opinion perhaps 70 percent or more of the adults here would connect with Xi if he spoke plainly. I have good relations with less educated people such as janitors, doorman, repairmen, chauffeurs etc. Many know I ask questions to better understand education here and that I donate time to help educate local kids in English so there is no mianzi discomfort and they answer honestly. Many don't understand the 4rth grade levels that my older son learned.

    I dont have any issues with idioms, I have issues with when they are taught or more precisely memorized. Starting in first grade many children are made to memorize them. Many don't understand what they really mean. Many like my drivers young daughters have no one at home in his hometown who understands (drivers mother) and can help the children with them. I had to hire a tutor to help my older son as many starting from 3rd grade I couldn't figure out. Perhaps the better way is to have dedicate a semester in the later years 6th grade on to just idioms with deeper discussion rather than have kids memorize it piecemeal with a cursory sentence.

    As for speeches here perhaps its a good thing idioms are used and no firebranding!

  28. Bathrobe said,

    January 14, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    @ Eidolon

    I agree with your emendation. The pressure will come more from without than from within.

    @ a Chinese person

    I actually agree with much of what you say in the first few paragraphs, up until "please don't not interpret it as an evidence of people rejecting the usage of Classical Chinese". As far as I can tell no one interpreted it that way.

    The appeal to Shakespeare seems to me misguided. English speakers do use a sprinkling of phrases from English literature, but not the thousands and thousands of idioms left by China's "Dead Scholar-Official Males" (DSOM), if I may coin a phrase.

    The attack on the movement to romanise Chinese, and specifically the personal attack on Victor Mair as a proponent of this, was a nasty sting in the tail of an otherwise reasonable post. You have identified as a linguistic conservative, but I wonder whether even you would want to turn the clock back to the end of the 19th century, before China adopted baihua as its written language and implemented many linguistic reforms and changes (e.g., the arrangement of dictionaries according to pinyin, the adoption of the 词 as a unit of language, the use of pinyin as an input method on computers). These changes came about through the efforts of people who had the courage to imagine different ways of doing things, not through the efforts of linguistic conservatives such as yourself.

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