Biden at Penn: did the Vice President insult the Chinese nation?

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The Tea Leaf Nation online magazine posted this article on May 19, 2013:  "VP Biden’s Penn Commencement Speech Inspires Viral Rant by ‘Disappointed’ Chinese Student."  The article, by Xiaoying Zhou, offers an excellent account of this tempest in a teapot (as it were), and the comments that follow it are also germane.

Still, a closer look at what the angry student, Zhang Tianpu, actually wrote will help us put the controversy in a clearer perspective.

Zhang's accusation against the Vice President appeared in an entry he posted on his (Facebook clone in China) account.  The entry is entitled "Bàidēng Bīndà bìyèshì yǎnjiǎng bùhéshíyí de yǒuguān Zhōngguó bùfèn" 拜登宾大毕业式演讲不合时宜的有关中国部分 (Outmoded portion about China in Biden's graduation speech at Penn).

Here are the two portions of Biden's speech about China to which Zhang took exception:

I love to hear people tell me how to use the vernacular "China is going to eat our lunch."

China is a great nation, and we should hope for the continued expansion. But ladies and gentlemen, their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have. We have the best universities in the world. We have a legal system that is open and fair. We have the most agile venture capital system in the world. We lead the world in innovation and technology, all for a simple basic reason. Steve Jobs, speaking at Stanford was asked by a young man "how can I be more like you, how I can become like you?" And Job famously answered: think different.

You CANNOT think different in a nation where you cannot breath free. You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.

I spent 10 days with President Xi at the request of former president Hu and President obama…I listened to his questions and the interests he had and he asked me how I felt after the 5 days in the U.S. and 5 days in China. And I said he's a strong bright man, but he has the look of a man who is about to take on a job he's not at all sure is going to end well. I mean that seriously.

These sections appear at 11:05 and 17:41 of Biden's speech as recorded on this YouTube video.  Although there are a few minor errors, I won't quibble with Zhang's transcription of the VP's speech, but should point out that the very first sentence makes a lot more sense if "to use the vernacular" is set off with commas or dashes.

What is remarkable about Zhang's criticism of Biden's remarks is that he focuses so heavily on the VP's use of the word "nation" to refer to China:

Bàidēng zài “You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy” zhè jù huà li yòng de shì nation zhège cí. Zhè yīdiǎn shì zuì ràng wǒ qìfèn de, yīnwèi Yīngyǔ zhòng nation zhǐ de “mínzú” de yìsi, hé country, state shì yǒu qūbié de. Country, state kěnéng gèng qiángdiào de shì yīgè guójiā zhěngtǐ de gàiniàn, shènzhì dài yǒu zhǐ zhèngfǔ de yìsi; huàn jù huà shuō, rúguǒ tā zhè jù huà li miàn yòng de shì country zhège cí, nàme jiù kěyǐ lǐjiě wèi kěnéng yóuyú zhǒngzhǒng wàibù yīnsù de zhìyuē, wǒmen mínzú de qiánlì méiyǒu 100% de fāhuī chūlái.

拜登在 “You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy” 这句话里用的是nation这个词。这一点是最让我气愤的,因为英语中nation指的“民族”的意思,和country,state是有区别的。 country, state可能更强调的是一个国家整体的概念,甚至带有指政府的意思;换句话说,如果他这句话里面用的是country这个词,那么就可以理解为可能由于 种种外部因素的制约,我们民族的潜力没有100%地发挥出来。

In this sentence, “You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy”, he used the word "nation".  This is what really infuriated me, because in English "nation" indicates "race, ethnicity", which is different from "country, state".  "Country, state" perhaps places more emphasis on the notion of the entirety of the country, even to the point of referring to the idea of government.  In other words, if he had used the word "country" in this sentence, then perhaps one could understand that, due to various external constraints, our people's potential has still not been brought to bear 100%.

N.B.:  Underlining indicates words in Zhang's text that are originally in English.

Note that, in the last sentence quoted, Zhang uses mínzú 民族 in a positive light (I have translated it as "people" here), whereas above he uses the same expression in the probable sense of "race, ethnicity".

The weakness in Zhang's reasoning lies mainly in his confusion over the multiple meanings of the word mínzú 民族.  As pointed out on Language Log just a few days ago in "Racist Park", mínzú 民族 can mean "ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation".  Coming from the English side, we must keep in mind that "nation" can be translated into Chinese as guó 国 ("country"), guójiā 国家 ("country"), guódù 国度 ("country; state"), bāng 邦 ("state"), and, yes, mínzú 民族 ("ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation").

It is clear that, when Biden said "China is a great nation", he was respectfully referring to the country as a whole.  Yet the sensitivity to questions of ethnicity in China, especially with regard to the shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("ethnic / national minorities"), e.g., Uyghurs, Tibetans, and scores of others, caused Zhang to take umbrage over something that the Vice President never intended.

Finally, I should point out that mínzú 民族 is a neologism coined specifically for conveying the meaning of "nation".  It is but one of a host of new terms designed to convey Western intellectual, political, and scientific concepts that entered the Chinese lexicon around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, many of them coined or calqued in Japan.  Consequently, one would do well to avoid becoming overly testy and proprietary when using and defining polysemous terms such as mínzú 民族 ("ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation").  Rather, one needs to be sensitive to their diverse meanings in various contexts and not insist upon a single interpretation for all situations.

Speaking of which, I'd be very curious to know how the folks over at Tea Leaf Nation render their name into Chinese.  I'd be surprised if it were cháyè mínzú 茶叶民族.

[h/t to Neil Schmid]


  1. Guan Yang said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    I believe the term is “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”.

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    Moreover, the official Chinese press (e.g. Xinhua) often uses the English word "nation" in this way, and refers to the "Chinese nation." One example:

  3. Onymous said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    I note that zú 族 is frequently used as a suffix to other terms to designate specific social or sub-cultural groups in East Asian countries (and "regions"!), particularly Japan and Taiwan, and I think also in mainland China.

  4. Sima said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    Thanks for this, Victor. It's a fascinating subject and one which has brought back some of the very awkward feelings I experienced in a political economy class at a Chinese university a few years ago. I quickly discovered that we were not all talking about the same things and found it very difficult to communicate at all.

    I’ve the greatest sympathy for the young man who found himself uncomfortable in this situation.

    Does this use of ‘nation’ fit more closely with Marxist reading?

    On a related note, over the summer, I finally encountered an expression for nationalism which sat neatly between patriotism and jingoism, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Can anyone help? None of the following quite seem to fit: 民族主义 (mínzúzhǔyì – not the same as nationalism!),爱国主义 (àiguózhǔyì – patriotism),侵略主义 (qīnlüèzhǔyì – jingoism). I think the compromise we used in class was something like 过度爱国主义 (guòdùàiguózhǔyì – over-patriotism!)

  5. JS said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

    The confusion seems down to misunderstanding of the word "nation," which can certainly point to shared culture or ethnicity, real or imagined ("Nation of Islam," "First Nation," "Aryan Nation"), but as Biden employs it could mean no such thing but only "nation-state" = "country."

    Ironically, Zhang imagines that Biden's use of "nation" implies critique of the Chinese people or culture whereas "country" would have allowed the interpretation that this "people" (mínzú 民族) have been kept from their potential by external forces — but it's doubtful that Biden, despite his reference indeed being to the country, meant to be quite so generous.

  6. Onymous said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

    "Naton" comes from the Latin participle "natus", meaning "born". So "nation" implying common "birth", i.e. ancestry, for the group so named. The modern Chinese "nation", including Tibetans, Uygurs, Mongolians, et al, is said to be descended from Huang Di. But how about the 10,000 or so of the 俄羅斯 (anglicized as "Russ") "minority nationality" in Xinjiang?

  7. Don Clarke said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

    I noticed this, too. I think Zhang's confusion is not over multiple meanings of the word "minzu" but over multiple meanings of the word "nation". You're the linguist, but I don't think I've ever seen a context in which "minzu" could be properly translated as "state" – can you find an example? I think Zhang's problem is that he has a naive notion that there is a one-to-one correspondence between words in English and words in Chinese, and since everyone knows that "minzu" is translated as "nation", therefore "nation" must always mean "minzu". And of course that's wrong – "nation" in English can also mean "state". He just doesn't realize that. My question for Zhang would be, "So I guess you'd be in favor of letting Tibetans and Uighurs into the United Nations, right?", since they are in modern PRC parlance unquestionably minzu.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

    Here are translations of "Tea Leaf Nation" by the Chinese websites of:

    Voice of America

    cháyè guó 茶叶国 ("tea leaf country")

    Financial Times

    cháyè zhī guó 茶叶之国 ("country of tea leaves")

    I'm not surprised by these translations, but suspect that, if the folks at Tea Leaf Nation have a Chinese name for their 'zine, it might be something else again.

  9. David Moser said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

    Hey, the Chinese equate and conflate the concepts of "nation" and "race" all time. I ride the Beijing subway every day, and each time I hear the recorded announcement: "尊老爱幼是中华民族的传统美德。请给老、弱、病、残、孕妇让座。“ (Rough translation: Respect for the elderly and care for the young are traditional values of the Chinese race/ethnicity. Please offer your seat to the disadvantaged.") This goes along with Lucian Pye's observation that the Chinese conceptualize themselves not as a "nation state", but a "civilization state", where "civilization" is essentially equated with the Han. It would be as if we in the US continually referred to not to "American values" but "Anglo-Saxon values" or "Judeo-Christian values" or some such.

  10. Graham Webster said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 12:21 am

    Thanks for this. I have had several very confused conversations with Chinese colleagues about (mostly European) theories of the nation-state because of the word minzu. Even when people do not suffer from the one-to-one translation mistake Prof. Clarke points out, there is still a long history of differing meanings for minzu. For me it's to the point that if that word is a key part of the story in an English discussion, I prefer to render it in italics and explain the various inflections.

    This is especially true with the phrase 中华民族 "Zhonghua minzu." And with Xi Jinping's phrase on the 中华民族伟大复兴 "great rejuvenation/renaissance/renewal/whatever of the Chinese people/nation/race/whatever." Official translations I think only suggest one preferred interpretation.

  11. Bathrobe said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 1:38 am

    Part of the problem lies in the original 19th century concepts that China borrowed via the Japanese. That was an era when 'race' and 'nation' were part and parcel of the nationalist ideologies that had emerged in Europe. We tend to forget this background, so that we now use terms like 'nation' and 'country' quite indiscriminately, as we do terms like 'nationality' and 'citizenship'.

    Another problem is the way that the Soviets used terms like 'nationality' as part of their ideology for controlling a multi-ethnic state. In this sense, 'nationality' refers to an ethnic group, not a country. This was until recently the main usage of the word 'nationality' in China, although that is now changing. Even the Central University of Nationalities has changed its English name to Minzu University of China.

    Finally, there is the Chinese government's manipulation of the concept of nationality in 中华民族, a term that is supposed to describe all the ethnic groups of China as one big family. This is a mixture between giving the many ethnic groups of the empire a place in the system, and a self-serving rationalisation for China's territorial and sovereignty claims. 中华民族 originally referred to the Han Chinese; it was only later extended to include the other groups (and, of course, their territory). The actual result is a kind of assertion of control by the majority (Han) over the 'minorities' (少数民族).

    Given the conflicting ideological and historical meanings, it's understandable that Zhang Tianpu got mixed up. And given the religious sensitivity when it comes to Chinese concepts of sovereignty over territory, it's not surprising that he managed to read something into Biden's speech that isn't there at all.

  12. Bathrobe said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 1:52 am

    Correction, in this case, Zhang Tianpu isn't worried about Chinese sovereignty over territory, he just hasn't understood that 'nation' doesn't mean the same as 民族 in Chinese. The main problem is the 19th century/Soviet/Chinese communist usage and the modern Western usage, which has forgotten its roots. The 中华民族 bit just helps muddy the waters.

  13. maidhc said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 4:19 am

    I'll just throw this in. My father in his later years had a bit of a sideline explaining Western systems of economics and government to visiting Chinese bureaucrats. He said that the most difficult concept was that of countries like US/Canada/Australia where there is a federal government and also state/provincial governments, each having its own sphere of authority and also some area of overlap. They couldn't see how a state could maintain a policy in opposition to the federal government without getting immediately coerced into compliance. There are just a whole lot of different assumptions operating. I don't know that it's particularly Chinese; as people above have pointed out, there may be some Russian influence.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 5:08 am

    @Onymous: While the Latin source of 'nation' may suggest ethnicity or race, it has broader meanings in English (as has been pointed out by several commenters).

    I know nothing of Chinese, but as a native speaker of English, I would certainly interpret Biden's remarks to refer to 'nation' as a political unit. As we say, ". . . one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all."

  15. Bathrobe said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 5:48 am

    The word 'state' in English has different problems. The original meaning appears to have been an independent political entity, with a focus on the government of that entity. In English, it sounds vaguely threatening, like a faceless Kafkaesque entity that has absolute impersonal authority over its citizens. The 'power of the State' has almost sinister overtones.

    But there is a second meaning that appears to have originated in the U.S., where a State is something like a province, a unit of a larger federation that has its own government and rights. It's also used that way in Australia and India (although Canada uses 'province').

    So suggesting 'State' was equally inappropriate. The guy doesn't really seem to have a very good grasp of English.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    If Biden had substituted "cannot think differently in a country where . . ." it would have been equally idiomatic English but perhaps prevented this misinterpretation — which is certainly not to say that it was his obligation to do so. One wonders, however, if speeches where senior Administration officials are going to say things critical of the PRC government are screened at the drafting stage by someone with a sense of the ways in which they might be at risk of being misunderstood or misconstrued by PRC officials (leaving individual grad students out of it) working in English as a second language. Of course, who knows how Biden's reputation for being unusually gaffe-prone as politicians go should affect the application of the typical Gricean maxims when trying to understand what he's saying.

  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    If "nation' is used in reference to the United States, as it often is, what race/ethnicity could possibly be implied?

  18. Lazar said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    @Bathrobe: The Australian preference for "state" seems to mirror their choice of "House of Representatives" over "House of Commons", which Canada uses. In India I think the terminology was helped along by the fact that much of the Raj had been constituted into native states, some of which retained their borders after independence.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    It is interesting that Zhōngyāng Mínzú Dàxúe 中央民族大学 ("Central University for Nationalities") in Beijing seems to have gotten skittish over its name in English and is now calling itself "Minzu University of China", which sounds both opaque and innocuous, not to say bland and uninformative.

    Note the German and Russian background of the word for "nationalities" in the name of the University.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    I was right! The editors of Tea Leaf Nation tell me that the Chinese name of their e-magazine is yè zhī 叶知 (lit., "leaf know", which reminds me of reading tea leaves), as a play on yī yè zhī qiū 一叶知秋 ("one falling leaf foretells the coming of autumn", i.e., "a small sign can foretell a great trend"), but they haven't formally introduced the name to the outside world. Somehow I sensed from reading their site that the folks at Tea Leaf Nation wouldn't be so crude as to facilely call themselves cháyè guó 茶叶国 ("tea leaf country") or cháyè zhī guó 茶叶之国 ("country of tea leaves"), much less cháyè mínzú 茶叶民族 ("tea leaf nationality").

    So let this be a "beta test" for their working name. Tell me what you think of it, and I'll pass the word on to them.

  21. KWillets said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Korean uses minjok (민족 — 民族) quite extensively to refer to the Korean race separate from the two states on the peninsula; the North Korean website (sp?) translates to "among our race". Knowing NK it's not surprising if they appropriated this from the Japanese.

  22. The Ridger said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    It seems to me that it's primarily outside the (western) European nations/countries/states that this confusion happens. Certainly it's there in Russian. But in Europe (or at least in English) the "nation-state" has become a tautology. Explaining to my basic/intermediate Russian students the perils of the word народ (narod, the cognate of "nation") is tricky. There are contexts (say, a "national television network") where using "narod" alters the meaning considerably.

  23. C L said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:30 pm

    Mr. Victor Mair's article failed to "put the controversy in a clearer perspective" for me — I expected him to address Mr. Zhang's "confusion" over the English word 'nation', not the Chinese word mínzú.

    This can be discussed without any translation involved. Try this:

    "I live in China and I feel depressed by the lack of freedom. I'm enlightened by Mr. Biden's words. I want to leave China and move to a nation where I can breathe free."

    I find the word "nation" odd here; I'd replace it with "country". But I'm not a native speaker of the American English. Maybe Mr. Biden and Mr. Mair would find no issue with "I want to move to a nation" — or better, hand me a green card with "Welcome to our nation!". :-)

  24. Bathrobe said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 8:01 am

    I guess Professor Mair should have done an exhaustive rundown of the various shades of meaning of the words 'country', 'nation', 'state', etc.

    Of course Biden is using the word 'nation' in preference to 'country'. That's because he's a politician. He wasn't talking of a country as a place where one lives (which is what you mean when you talk about moving to a different country) but as a more cohesive entity, including aspects like 'government', 'political system', and 'national consciousness'. Biden talks like that because he's talking about 'America' vs 'China' from the point of view of a politician, not a citizen.

    But in the end, the problem really lies with the poor understanding that our Chinese student has of the English language, largely due to gross cross-linguistic interference from Chinese (i.e., the Chinese word 民族). It is a problem that belongs to a more basic level than subtle differences between the usage of 'nation' and 'country', which are clearly beyond his capabilities.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    @C L, @Bathrobe

    The student's confusion over the meaning of "nation" arose because he allowed himself to think of it only as mínzú 民族. That is a problem of mistranslation and misinterpretation.

  26. Alon Lischinsky said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    This kind of misunderstanding can happen even within the same language, as long as the typical usages of different communities.

    In most of Latin America, it's perfectly standard to describe country-level institutions as being nacionales ‘national’. (As a token, there are 240 instances of the string gobierno nacional in the Argentina section of CREA.) The usage, however, is almost unknown in Spain, where such institutions are described as estatales ‘state-’. (This is reflected in just 5 instances of the above string in the Spain section.) Confusingly enough, estatal can be used in Latin American Spanish to describe any public-sector institution, not just those of the central government.

    I learned the distinction the hard way: calling TVE a ‘national medium’ almost got me beaten up in Barcelona.

  27. Alon Lischinsky said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    ‘Gobierno nacional’ in the comment above was intended to be displayed in a monotype font to show it's a literal query string.
    It'd be nice to know that the comment system strips out <tt> markup before submitting; the preview is misleading!

    [(myl) Ah, WordPress! (Though in fairness, more recent editions may be better).]

  28. C L said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 8:41 am

    Sure the word 'nation' can mean either the country or the people. But if Mr. Biden used the word in the people sense first and then switched to the country sense within a minute, one can hardly call Mr. Zhang's reaction mistranslation/misinterpretation.

    "China is a great nation, and we should hope for the continued expansion. But ladies and gentlemen, their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have…You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breath free".

    Shouldn't we all be very concerned if the Vice President advocated "continued expansion" of a country where people can't "breathe free"? China's neighbors would be very alarmed.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    The whole Biden flap over "nation" continues to reverberate, both in China and in America. It was on the front page of the Summer Pennsylvanian a couple of days ago, and even made it into the People's Daily and other major forums:


    "Student Zhang, Please Return to China; Use the U.S. Style and Breathe Freely"

    People’s Daily published a commentary supporting the Chinese student who criticized Joe Biden, Vice President of the United State, for the comments he made about China.

    On Monday, May 13, 2013, Biden spoke at the commencement ceremony of the University of Pennsylvania. About China, Biden said, “You CANNOT think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.” Zhang Tianpu, a Mainland Chinese student and graduating senior at the ceremony, felt insulted and wrote a letter to Biden demanding an apology. As of May 22, the letter had collected over 300 signatures.

    State media published reports about Zhang. For example, a People’s Daily commentary stated that Biden's self-righteousness is typical of American pride and prejudice. “The young Chinese are, in general, full of confidence in China’s situation and development. … China is walking its own path and that represents the confidence of young Chinese. This confidence is particularly valuable for the future of China and should be highly commended.”

    Some Chinese newspapers and netizens thought differently. Nanfang Daily commented, “The Chinese student asked for an apology, 'challenged orthodoxy,’ and ‘breathed freely,’ and moreover, he loved his motherland in an orthodox manner, but it reminds us of the classic joke about the former Soviet Union.” There was a popular joke in the former Soviet Union. A visiting U.S. Secretary of State told Brezhnev that people in the U.S. can criticize the U.S. President in front of the White House. Brezhnev replied, “So what? The people in the Soviet Union can also criticize the U.S. President in front of the Kremlin."

    On weibo (Chinese version of twitter), some netizens urged Zhang to bring the U.S. style criticism back to China and “breathe freely.” Others complained about Internet control in which the authorities delete their posted comments on these topics.

    Sources (all from the PRC):
    Huanqiu, May 23, 2013
    People’s Daily, May 24, 2013
    Nanfang Daily, May 23, 2013
    Weibo, May 24, 2013;

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