Ping-pong bing-bang

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Xi Jinping commits another pronunciation gaffe.  Even if you don't know Mandarin, you can hear it clearly here because it is repeated over and over again.  Instead of saying "pīngpāng wàijiāo 乒乓外交" ("ping-pong diplomacy"), he says "bīngbāng wàijiāo 冰邦外交" ("ice states diplomacy"), which some wits are further distorting as "bīngbàng wàijiāo 冰棒外交" ("popsicle diplomacy"):

There is a widespread misconception that ping-pong is a Chinese game, when in fact it "originated in Victorian England, where it was played among the upper-class as an after-dinner parlour game."  (Source).  The onomatopoeic name was in widespread use before the British manufacturer J. Jaques & Son Ltd trademarked it in 1901.  Every other supplier of equipment for the sport was forced to refer to it as "table tennis".  A similar situation ensued in the United States where Jacques sold the rights to the name "ping-pong" to Parker Brothers, which still owns it (and the lucrative Monopoly game as well).

The Mandarin translation of "table tennis" is zhuōqiú 桌球.

It's surpassingly strange that Xi JInping wouldn't know how to pronounce 乒乓 properly, since it was partly through "ping-pong diplomacy" that China broke down the Bamboo Curtain and reentered the stage of global politics in the early 70s.

In any event, for Xi Jinping to say "bīngbāng wàijiāo 冰邦外交" ("ice states diplomacy") instead of "pīngpāng wàijiāo 乒乓外交" ("ping-pong diplomacy") would seem to be a speech error and not a reading error, like so many of his other mistakes (see Readings) — unless he was relying on the script on the table in front of him.  In that case, he might have thought that 乒 and 乓 were derived from the decomposition of the ancient character bīng 兵 ("weapon; soldier"; there was also a Ming period [1368-1644} onomatopoeic use of this character, still read as bīng, to indicate the sound of collisions ), which is indeed the case, and so should be pronounced as bīng and bāng.  Consider Cantonese bing1 bam1 and Teochew bing1 bong5 for 乒乓.

Whatever the cause of Xi's reading of 乒乓 as "bīngbāng" instead of its standard MSM pronunciation "pīngpāng" as indicated by the official Pinyin Romanization, it has occasioned much mirth in social and news media, e.g., this article.


[Thanks to Chau Wu]


  1. jin defang said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:47 am

    long ago, the characters were explained to me as the sound of rain falling on a roof; was interested to notice that "ping" had only a left leg whereas "pong" had only a right leg, but putting the two legs together made "military." Possibly a metaphor there.

  2. ~flow said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:58 am

    I wonder what the litmus test would be to distinguish a speech error from idiolect; maybe if we heard a person to pronounce a certain word in a certain way over and over again? Since there seem to be regional forms with lenis plosives instead of fortis ones, couldn't this pronunciation be a holdover from a native or acquired usage?

  3. Steve Jones said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 7:42 am

    FWIW, I'm most attached to the UK headline
    Ping-pong ding-dong

  4. Alex said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 7:16 pm

    On a somewhat related note to

    "There is a widespread misconception that ping-pong is a Chinese game"

    One of the amazing things here on the mainland is the thought that so many things were invented here. It seems by default to many locals things were invented here.

    From iced tea to the local version of the song frere jacques (three tigers) to punctuation marks.

    I always get the oh you have that song too? When I say I sang frere jacques when I was young.

    I am curious if others have encountered this in other countries as well.

  5. Steve Jones said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 1:20 am

    I've just updated
    King Kong ping-pong sing-song ding-dong

  6. Steve Jones said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 1:21 am

    I've just updated my post
    King Kong ping-pong sing-song ding-dong

  7. B.Ma said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 4:41 am

    I've always thought it was bing1 bong1 in Cantonese, probably based on the English name, and by extension bing1 bang1 in Mandarin (as characters read bong1 in Cantonese are likely to be read bang1 in Mandarin)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

    You mentioned the Ming period onomatopoeic uses of 乒 to indicate the sound of collisions — are those in Chapter 45, 車遲國猴王顯法 of The Journey to the West? There are two mentions of 乒 and one with 乒乓 in this chapter (none with only 乓):

    a. 那沈雷護閃,乒乒乓乓,一似那地裂山崩之勢,唬得那滿城人,戶戶焚香,家家化紙。

    b. 那上面乒的一聲令牌響,只見那半空裏,悠悠的風色飄來。

    These are what I can recall for the Ming usages. For 乒乓, there is a Qing onomatopoeic use in the 說岳全傳 (even more vivid!):

    "眾人一齊上前,拳頭巴掌,乒乓劈拍,亂打將來。" (Chapter 62)

    乒乓 may have really derived from 兵? 兵 is a third-grade 庚 rime word that should pronounce MC bjæŋ. Therefore, splitting its rhyme into iŋ-aŋ looks reasonable.

    At last, wonder if Xi Jinping's "bing-bang" may be affected by his 陝西富平 accent — this we need to figure out after "eliciting" more of his 幫母 words. ;-)

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 8:13 am

    War Symphony: 兵, 乒, 乓, and 丘

    Prefatory note:

    bīng 兵 ("weapon; soldier; troops, army")

    pīng 乒 ("soldier with right limb severed")

    pāng 乓 ("soldier with left limb severed")

    qiū 丘 ("mound; hillock; grave")


    I warmly encourage all readers of this post to listen to the Taiwanese poet Chen Li recite his magisterial poem on 兵, 乒, and 乓 called "War Symphony", preceded by the stunning animation of Wu Xiu-jing, that is cited in the "Readings" above:

    "'War Symphony': a modern Chinese poem" (11/5/17) — if the embedded video in the post doesn't play, try this link.

    Watching the animation and listening to Chen Li recite his poem, then contemplating its message, is one of the most riveting experiences of my life. Must watch for everybody.


    Chen Li 陳黎: A War Symphony 戰爭交響曲 (animation+reciting 動畫+唸詩)

    Animation made by Wu Xiu-jing (動畫:吳秀菁) Chen Li's reciting of the poem starts at 1:01

  10. Jerry Packard said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 4:20 pm

    I always thought that 乒乓 added a pretty nice descriptive touch, because it evokes the visual image of the ball alternating between the two sides of the table.

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