Obama speaks Chinese

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"Hacked" (editorial cartoon by Scott Stantis, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 21, 2013):

The words in the bubble spoken by Obama are:

Dàlì zhīyuán nóngyè 大力支援农业 ("Vigorously support agriculture")

One wonders where the cartoonist dug up such an outmoded slogan. Ever since Deng Xiaoping, the push has been for manufacturing. The cartoon as a whole, however, is highly topical, since China's cyberwar against the United States has been very much in the news for the past few days ("China’s Army Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S."), especially with the release of the Mandiant Report. (Watch the video in full screen so that you can see the details.)

Incidentally, if the Chinese characters in the bubble were phonetically annotated with Pinyin, Obama really would be able to "speak Chinese", but if the teleprompter only provided the characters, the president wouldn't have a clue about how to pronounce them.

[Hat tip to Bob Bauer]


  1. Dan Hansen said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    This is great — it gets right to the heart of the 'fear without difference' situation we're in. What do the Chinese do when they hack into American systems? Same thing we'd do, natch.

    I wonder, though, if even the great Obama would be able to sight-read pinyin, especially with tones. Untrained Americans pronounce "zhi" as "jee" or something, don't they?

  2. Steve said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

    Untrained Americans would likely pronounce "zhi" like "zee" (or, perhaps, "zie").

  3. Robert said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    Perhaps the slogan was intended as a joke implying that the Chinese would know that adherence to the policies it recommends (diverting attention from other sectors in order to promote farming) would be harmful to our economy; seen from that angle it is actually something a Chinese operative might say.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    @Dan Hansen

    Well, if there were Pinyin, at least he'd be able to say SOMETHING. With the Chinese characters only, he'd be completely tongue-tied.

    My wife (who was an ardent advocate of Pinyin as an orthography) used to walk up to strangers on the street with Pinyin-only texts and ask them to read off the Pinyin, and then ask a Chinese friend who was with her whether the friend could understand what the stranger was saying. In almost every case, the friend could understand, which would bring great joy and triumph to my wife. Mind you, these strangers were people who had no prior exposure to or training in Pinyin. They would just read off the Pinyin as best they could. Of course, the q's and x's would make them choke, but my wife would enthusiastically encourage them to keep on reading, and the rest of the passage would be close enough for the Chinese friend to make sense of what was being read out.

  5. Eric Walkingshaw said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    One thing that is important to get the cartoon, which might might not be obvious to all: there is a conservative trope that Obama's eloquence is the result of his absolute reliance on teleprompters. Another example.

    (Also, I'm not a trained Pinyin reader, but I would read zhi with the sound that is in rouge. This seems like a natural permutation of the sh digraph and I suspect many Americans would make that connection.)

  6. Hening Makholm said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

    @Eric: I don't really follow American politics, but, wow, does that really happen? That seems to be grasping at very thin straws, since excessive reliance on teleprompters (or, for that matter, paper manuscripts) can't possibly result in eloquence.

    Of course using a manuscript may help prevent obvious dysfluencies — but getting pacing, emphasis, gestus, and so forth right enough to qualify as eloquent (and even I have seen Obama praised for great oratory in particular) surely requires the speaker to be fairly well familiar in advance with what he is saying, why he is saying it, and which points each part of the speech leads up to.

  7. Theodore said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    It occurs to me that even if the script visible to the cartoon Obama (and invisible to the reader) were in Pinyin, the cartoonist would still want to draw the resulting word bubble with characters to make it more more likely obvious to an untrained reader that China was responsible for the hacking. Note that China is not explicitly mentioned. The Pinyin might only be identified as generic foreign or gibberish.

  8. Eric Walkingshaw said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    @Hening: Yes, it is pretty silly. Here's an article about the phenomenon (from a left-leaning source). A Google search will turn up many more from both sides.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    I'm not familiar with this particular cartoonist, but the Chicago Tribune, which once upon a time stood for a certain style of cranky Midwestern Republicanism fulminating against FDR, actually endorsed the current (Democratic) president depicted in the cartoon in both '08 and '12 without worrying overmuch about what Col. McCormick would have thought. I think the comical premise that a politician reading a speech off a teleprompter would say whatever the teleprompter said to say, no matter how incongruous, is a bit of stock humor without any particular partisan valence or much customization to the oratorical reputation of any specific individual politician. It's not like the incumbent President or any of his rivals (whether viewed as more eloquent or less) have a specific reputation for frequently working without a teleprompter. Telepromperless speechifyers, at that level of the sport, have gone the way of helmetless pro hockey players.

  10. rgove said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

    "My fellow Americans:
    Da lie gee Ewan nong yee.
    Itch bin een Berliner.
    And in conclusion, let us take comfort in that great French proverb, qwee seera seera.
    God bless America. Thank you."

  11. Ellen K. said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

    @Steve, what's the difference between "zee" and "zie"?

    Personally, I'd pronounce zh as /ʒ/, that is, a voiced sh, in any context where I didn't know better; I would not pronounce "zhi" as /dʒ/ ("jee") or /zi/ ("zee", "zie").

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

    Obama and the teleprompter showed up in a column excoriated here for misusing "passive".

  13. Duncan said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 11:44 pm

    Maybe I'm reading into it something that isn't there, but…

    While I haven't the political background to puzzle out the details and I'm far enough from Chicago that the regional "buzz factor" ceases to be any sort of hint, I think the specific choice of Chinese wording may in fact be a joke in the subtext, as well. Certainly, agriculture subsidies are a political hot potato issue here in the US, and Obama being /from/ Chicago, I can't help but think that there's a reference to some local context involving either the resident Chinese community or local agriculture interests, possibly both.

    Certainly in the current sequester context, especially since he's done running for president now, agriculture is /not/ one of the top things Obama's likely to wish to be seen supporting, and it may in fact be that certain local ag-interests (maybe with a well known Chinese owner or the like) in Chicago think it should be, thus the subtext being "only if the teleprompter's hacked."

    If this is indeed the case, the fact that the writing is in Chinese so only the few will get the subtext must certainly add to the punch!

    But as I said, maybe I'm reading into it something that isn't there. Still, the simple /potential/ of it being there adds to the punch, for me. Maybe someone here is from Chicago and can comment. I might indeed be off base in this case, but seen from here, such "inside" political humor is often what gives otherwise bland political cartoons their real bite!

  14. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 2:01 am

    @Steve: I'm pretty sure that most educated Americans would pronounce <zh> as the sound in "pleasure", since it's often used that way in transcribing not only Chinese names like "Zhao" but also Russian ones like "Brezhnev". I've also seen the same notation used in French phrasebooks in the U.S.

  15. Carl said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 3:49 am

    I've taken and taught courses with Chinese philosophical contents. I find that untrained students often mispronunce ZHI as "zee" or "gee." Zhuangzi becomes "zoo wang zee" etc. X is also often pronounced as Z. And the vowels in pinyin are just impossible. E for uh? I for no sound or an r sound?

    I've seen Romanizations with easier to grasp pronunciations though. I liked one where -zi became -dz, but I forgot the name of it.

  16. Carl said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 3:56 am

    Ah, it was probably "Common Alphabetic": http://www.umass.edu/wsp/reference/languages/chinese/romanization/ca2.html

    In it, ZHI is "jr" which seems much better as an approximation to me. Looking through the overall list, I would say it does a good job of capturing what Chinese sounds like to an American. I don't think it would be a good script for Chinese people, but for Americans, it works.

  17. Carl said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 3:57 am

    The one trick with common alphabetic is V for the uh sound. Makes sense if you know IPA, but I don't think it would work for an untutored reader.

  18. Vanya said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 6:07 am

    "if the teleprompter only provided the characters, the president wouldn't have a clue about how to pronounce them."

    Well, I suspect that's the joke. If the Vietnamese, with their Latin alphabet, or the Brazilians were hacking us, no cartoonist would come up with a joke like this. It's funny because of the absurdity of Obama just reading Chinese characters. The joke would probably work with Arabic or Hebrew (since Americans for the most part can't read those alphabets either), and less well with Russian (too many similar letters).

  19. Alex Blaze said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    The short story, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is that Republicans elected someone inarticulate to the White House for 8 years, then got jealous when everyone agreed that Obama was a good public speaker. The best part is when Obama-teleprompter jokes are read from teleprompters without an iota of self-awareness.

    Anyway, my guess is the cartoonist just googled "Chinese" and this is what came up. It's not like anyone knows how to read that stuff, har har! Just a few months ago, one of the most prominent Republican pundits in the US (Bill O'Reilly) referred to the Korean language as "unintelligible," so they might fail to understand that there is a correct way to speak Chinese.

  20. Mike said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    Well, he does vigorously support agriculture after all. Maybe it's just a dangerously high-quality Chinese MT system.

  21. Rodger C said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    What surprises me is that Stantis, or an assistant, actually knows at least enough Chinese to copy the characters intelligibly. Or was this perhaps pasted off a poster?

  22. mollymooly said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    @Victor Mair:

    My wife … used to walk up to strangers on the street with Pinyin-only texts and ask them to read off the Pinyin and then ask a Chinese friend who was with her whether the friend could understand what the stranger was saying.

    I assume from the context this was in the US? Impressive! More so if the Chinese friend spoke no English.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    Theory: the cartoonist copied the hanzi directly from a tattoo found on the person of some young hipster intern floating around the office who had gotten the tattoo under the misimpression the characters meant something much cooler than "vigorously support agriculture."

  24. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 11:08 am


    Yes, this was in the United States, and yes, often Li-ching would do this with Chinese friends who were visiting from Taiwan or China and who spoke no English. It was indeed a most impressive demonstration that Chinese can be written with an alphabet and does not depend solely upon the characters.

    BTW, this spring I will be going to Central Asia to continue my research on the Dungans, Mandarin-speaking Muslims who fled to what are now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from Chinese armies that had suppressed their rebellion. That was well over a century ago, and the Dungans were illiterate (in characters). But the Soviets created an alphabet for them, first a Roman one and then later a Cyrillic one. Since they write all manner of things (newspapers, poems, plays, etc.) in their alphabetical script, this is proof that Chinese does not need to be written only in characters, but that an alphabet can do the job very well, thank you.



    When I return from my research trip to Central Asia, I will give a fuller report about Dungan and will post it as a blog on LL.

  25. hanmeng said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    The reference to agricultural subsidies is a clever one, given the money both Democrats and Republicans lavish on big wealthy farmers.

  26. Dave K said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    The cartoonist, Scott Stantis, is fairly conservative and often uses right-wing tropes in his cartoons. (I live in Chicago and read the Chicago Tribune every day.)

  27. Soris said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

    The teleprompter thing is pretty much the Obama-era equivalent of Bushisms. "Obama is the only president ever who rarely speaks in public without a teleprompter, which proves he's stupid." == "Bush is the only president ever who constantly mixes up words, which proves he's stupid."

    I guess it's tangentially interesting that we place such stock in the ability to speak fluently without a script.

  28. Eric Vinyl said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

    With the Chinese characters only, he'd be completely tongue-tied.

    No, no; don’t you get it?? Obama is a secret Muslim communist, so of course he knows how to pronounce that incomprehensible evil empire language!

  29. Joshua said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

    Duncan: If the cartoonist meant an actual subtext involving the idea of Obama saying "Vigorously support agriculture," as opposed to saying anything else in Chinese, he was wasting his time. Most Americans would have a great deal of difficulty even figuring out how to copy the Chinese text into Google Translate to figure out what the slogan meant.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    It is interesting that the President's rather exotic (by U.S. standards) family background and upbringing doesn't imply much if any exposure to different writing systems. His (largely absent) father was I would assume probably at least trilingual (in Dhuluo, Swahili, and English), but all of those use the same boringly diacritic-free version of the Latin alphabet. I would assume his stepfather was likewise at least trilingual (Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia, and English), but ditto – except for being old enough that he might well have been literate in Javanese written both in Latin letters and in the more traditional brahmic script, but I take it that by the time the future president spent part of his boyhood in Jakarta one could navigate around town reasonably well knowing only the Latin alphabet. Honolulu might have been more exotic than Jakarta by then scriptwise, with e.g. considerable signage aimed at Japanese tourists.

  31. Faldone said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    I see at the Tribune's page for this cartoon Stantis has been asked where he got the Chinese.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 1:02 pm


    Let us know if he (Stantis) or anyone else reveals the source.

  33. Faldone said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

    I'll keep an eye out for you.

  34. Faldone said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    The questioner (Cynical prof) linked to this blog entry. Who knows, Stantis himself may come here to explain. It's the page linked to by your Hacked link.

  35. Wentao said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

    The typeface of the characters immediately reminds me of posters from 1950s and 60s, such as those during the Cultural Revolution. The cartoonist surely does a great job at copying them!

  36. Ethan said,

    February 28, 2013 @ 2:10 am

    A poster with that slogan and typeface appeared in an article published last month .

  37. Carl said,

    February 28, 2013 @ 3:02 am

    I think Ethan just nailed the source of the text. The font face is a dead match.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2013 @ 7:35 am

    Whoooeee! Congratulations, Ethan! That's it!!!! End of that mystery. Now, everybody, go help us solve the "Unknown language" puzzle in my latest Language Log post. There have been lots of useful clues offered in the comments.

    Unknown Language #7

  39. Faldone said,

    February 28, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    Just one hanging question for me. Is it common to split a two hanzi word as was done here or is that just the result of someone who is just copying some characters?

  40. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2013 @ 6:35 pm


    Unfortunately, it is all too common when writing in characters to split up words.

  41. Anthony Tony said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    that's great cartoonist obama is looking nice in cartoon how to speak obama Chinese.

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