Matthew Pottinger's speech in Mandarin

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Something extraordinary happened on May 4, 2020.  Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger delivered an extremely impressive speech in virtually flawless Mandarin.  Here it is:

Here's the transcript of Pottinger's speech (pdf), the formal English title of which is "Reflections on China’s May Fourth Movement: an American Perspective — Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, May 4, 2020".

The English version:  "Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia", Foreign Policy, Issued on: May 4, 2020

Why was the speech delivered on May 4?  Because that's the anniversary of the May 4th Movement, a revolutionary social, political, and cultural upheaval that began on May 4, 1919, 101 years ago.  For a new book on the subject, see:

Remembering May Fourth:  The Movement and its Centennial Legacy.  Series:  Ideas, History, and Modern China, Volume: 23.

Editors: Carlos Yu-Kai Lin and Victor H. Mair

Remembering May Fourth: The Movement and its Centennial Legacy is a collective work of thirteen scholars who reflect on the question of how to remember the May Fourth Movement, one of the most iconic socio-political events in the history of modern China. The book discusses a wide range of issues concerning the relations between politics and memory, between writing and ritualizing, between fiction and reality, and between theory and practice. Remembering May Fourth thus calls into question the ways in which the movement is remembered, while at the same time calling for the need to create new memories of the movement.

Leiden: Brill, March 2020.

To get a sense of what Matt Pottinger was up against in trying to convey a sense of the historical context and true spirit of the May Fourth Movement, we are fortunate to have this just published, magisterial article by Geremie Barmé: "Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Beijing:  Viral Alarm", China Heritage, The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology (5/8/20).  There will be a second installment in the near future.

Pottinger's speech caused a sensation, both because of the sheer fact that here was a high-ranking US government official delivering a major speech in Chinese, but also because his Mandarin was so incredibly good, not to mention that it was learned and appropriate for the day.

Soon after Pottinger's speech was delivered, I was flooded with inquiries from people asking me just how good his Mandarin was.

To the first person who contacted me, I immediately replied, "Though not quite an 'A+, Matt gets a clear 'A'.  A very impressive performance!  His Mandarin is CRYSTAL CLEAR."

Indeed, Pottinger's Mandarin is so good that it is probably about as ideal a specimen of spoken Mandarin for speech recognition that can be imagined, even in comparison with the normal utterances of native speakers.

Here's a typical comment by a highly educated Chinese citizen, the son of two low-ranking CCP members:

This speaker's spoken Chinese is just fantastic. His knowledge of China is also impressive. I hope Beijing has similar policy advisors on foreign affairs. But chances are not. Otherwise it wouldn't be such a mess.

From a professor of modern Chinese literature (a specialist on the May 4th Movement) at a university in Hong Kong:

Thank you for sharing this. I watched this video yesterday and was so amazed. Pottinger is obviously well-prepared and so is his think tank.

From what he says (that he was aware of this video before I sent it to him), it's clear that Pottinger's speech in Mandarin is circulating in the Sinosphere and is having a significant impact — despite the Great Firewall.

I have not heard a single critical remark concerning Pottinger's Mandarin from any native speakers of Chinese, only praise and amazement:  "pitch-perfect", "tones are exact", "pronunciation is impeccable"….

But then, from non-native speakers, I started to hear some criticism:  "wooden", "too good to be true", "hypercorrect", "unnatural", "sounds like it's generated by a machine"….

After that, on May 5, came a sustained, vitriolic denunciation from a fellow who calls himself Spandrell:  "Cold War 2 Propaganda".

The author introduces himself thus:

Welcome to my blog. I am a European man living in Asia who blogs about the past and future of civilization.

I started this blog in 2011, and since then I developed a few theories which have been influential. The background of my thought is that modern Civilization, more precisely modern Western Civilization, is on a death spiral. I try to use the insights taken from world history, the theory of evolution and pragmatic philosophy to understand why…

It's clear that Spandrell's animus toward Pottinger is primarily political and ideological (he is anti-American and against Western civilization, while being better disposed toward the CCP and the PRC).  Nonetheless, since everybody is oohing and aahing over Pottinger's Mandarin, he feels the need to belittle that too.  Unfortunately, nearly everything he says about Pottinger's use of language is wrongheaded, as will be shown below and in comments to come.

Spandrell is also wrong about a lot of other things, such as saying that Pottinger went to Amherst, when in fact he went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  The former is a small, private, elite college, while the latter is a large, public, mass university.  It just so happens, though, that — for as long as I can remember, since the days of Shou-hsin Teng, UMass-Amherst has had a truly outstanding Chinese language program.

Now I will cite the observations of the real experts on the subject at hand, non-native speakers who are widely recognized as having the highest and best levels of Mandarin.  The first is Perry Link, who needs no introduction to readers of Language Log or to students of Chinese language, culture, and modern history in general.  Many will remember that his name first surfaced on international China-watcher radar when he served as a translator during the days of ping-pong diplomacy in the early 70s.  It turns out that Link actually taught Matt Pottinger Mandarin and so knows the true story of why the latter's enunciation is so phenomenally precise:

I plead guilty.  I was Pottinger's language teacher in 1994 at Princeton-in-Beijing.  And yes, we stress tones at PiB.  And our philosophy is 先准后快*–that is, get the tones right, however "mechanically," and fluency will naturally come later.  People who try to do it the other way around, 先快后准**, thinking "I'll get fluent first and the tones will naturally come later," either crash land or end with fluency in horrible pronunciation.

[VHM: *xiān zhǔn hòu kuài 先准后快 ("first accurate, later fast")

**xiān kuài hòu zhǔn 先快后准 ("first fast, later accurate")]

So I was very happy to see Pottinger's performance.  He didn't work in China long enough to get really good natural fluency.  He joined the Marines, married a Vietnamese, and went a different route.  So his oral Chinese is a sort of time-capsule of where his language training left him.  But wow!  By that standard it was really great.

My wife (Chinese from Wuhan) is in several Chinese WeChat groups who were raving and in tears and how good the speech made them feel.  A few Taiwan lexical items made no difference at all to them.  They loved the whole thing.

Our next authority is Tom Bartlett, who was famous both as a shuàigē 帥哥 ("handsome guy") and as an outstanding speaker of Mandarin already in the 60s at National Taiwan University.  Later he taught modern and classical Chinese at Yale (1975), Cambridge (1975-76), Princeton (1977-79), Harvard (1987-94; Director of the Chinese Language Program), Johns Hopkins (1995-96; Director of the Language Teaching Center), and La Trobe (1996-1999) Universities, and modern Chinese at Middlebury (1973, 1983, 1987), Wellesley (1986), and Swarthmore (1987) Colleges, before landing at Stanford in 2010, where he still may be found teaching Advanced Classical Chinese and Directed Reading in Chinese.  In Autumn Semester 2013 he taught Chinese language pedagogy at National Tsing Hua University¸ in Hsin-chu, Taiwan, ROC.  What follows are excerpts from Bartlett's comments on Pottinger's speech made on Facebook, reprinted here with his permission:

A very big step forward from nearly all past public statements in Mandarin that I've heard or heard about by a non-Chinese person in official capacity of US government. He majored in Chinese at U Mass-Amherst, which has had a strong program for over 30 years. He most likely began learning Mandarin at Milton Academy, a top-ranked private school near Boston which has Chinese courses at 5 levels. His pronunciation is not quite fully native speaker level, but his control of tones is remarkably good. I didn't take the full 20 minutes to listen through the whole thing (I'm pretty busy right now), but I'm encouraged by hearing several minutes of it. Pottinger, methinks, cannot be caricatured as an ignorant buffoon…. This declares that Trump's team has someone who knows something about China.

Xiaokang Su:
“Pottinger is different with any western to know China because he had very cruelty experience at China that made him clean.”

Tempered by adversity. He then became a Marine. I came to similar outlook by non-violent but nevertheless unmistakably hostile encounters when working there as a translator in business in 1980. Of course by the time he worked for Reuters, it was supposed to be committed to “opening and reform” as we were told how to understood those words. But they don’t mean the same as 改革開放*.

[VHM:  *gǎigé kāifàng 改革開放 ("reform and opening")]

Shortly after I arrived in BJ, one of the officials at our host agency noted that I had studied ancient Chinese history in graduate school. He immediately asked if I knew the phrase 邯鄲學步**. Actually, I learned that in my first year of studying classical Chinese. And I believed I knew what he meant: They are happy to learn our ways of doing market commerce and the technology involved, but they know from the start that they do not intend to transform their governing system as so many of our people were saying they must inevitably do and wanted to do. I replied simply, Yes, I know that, and said nothing more. I should have added that I also learned the phrase 微言大義***. My experience over the following months made clear that, whether by 文**** as in my case or by 武***** as in Pottinger's, the outcome is the same.”

[**Hándānxuébù 邯鄲學步 ("to study the way people walk in Handan [and thereby lose one's own individuality]") — based on an allusion from the Zhuang Zi (ca. 3rd c. BC).  For more on this set phrase, see here and here.

***wēiyándàyì 微言大義 ("subtle words with profound meaning")

****wén 文 ("civil; cultural")

*****wǔ 武 ("military; martial")]

As for Xiaokang Su's remarks about Pottinger's "cruel experience" and "being made clean", the following information from the Washington Post (as relayed by Tom Bartlett) is doubtless relevant:

“Pottinger learned his own lessons about the sanctity of sources and the dangers of a paranoid government as a journalist in China, working for Reuters, then the Wall Street Journal in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a personal essay for the Journal in 2005, he described being videotaped by Chinese police, flushing notes down a toilet to hide them from authorities and being roughed up 'by a government goon' at a Starbucks in Beijing.”

The above quotation is from a WaPo article of 29 April, “Matthew Pottinger faced Communist Chinese Intimidation as a Reporter".

Warren Rothman, a San Francisco lawyer with long experience in the Chinese business world stretching back to the 80s, who had his own harsh "cleaning" in the PRC that caused him to leave abruptly in 2008, for which see his Kafka in China: The People’s Republic of Corruption, observes:

Pottinger's elegant speech in Mandarin was exactly appropriate for the purpose he had in mind. He is an exceptionally high-ranking member of the government of the still-greatest country on Earth, the highest ranking member with a China brief, conveying the most important policies and positions of the US on China. I'll be damned if he should sound like some low-grade gemenr* on a factory floor or a taxi driver.

[*"Variant pronunciations of the word for 'brothers' in Mandarin" (9/25/13)

The Chinese respect nothing more than power and prestige. In all respects, Pottinger acquitted himself magnificently. There is a time and place for slang and folksiness, and, given the exceptional quality of his formal speech, by far the hardest to deliver, a lot more difficult than the grunts and blurts one can get by with in haggling over screwdrivers. But I am sure that Pottinger can handle himself just as beautifully in such a context. The man is already a national treasure.

After that, I think that nothing more needs to be said in praise of or in defense of the unbelievably fine Mandarin of Matthew Pottinger.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf, Jim Fanell, William Triplett, John Tkacik, June Teufel Dreyer, and David Moser]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 9:19 am

    Here's a story from 2018 describing an event at the PRC embassy in Washington at which Mr. Pittinger responded to the PRC ambassador's remarks (in a way that was critical in context) by "quot[ing] Confucius in crisp, clear Mandarin, earning a few approving giggles from the audience."

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 9:41 am

    "nothing more needs to be said in praise of or in defense of the unbelievably fine Mandarin of Matthew Pottinger" — I could not agree more. Clearly he was reading the speech rather than doing it extempore or from memory (watch his eye movements) but that does not detract one iota from what was, to this non-native speaker, an exemplary performance. The one question that I am left with is : was he reading Hanzi, or Hanyu Pinyin ?

  3. Donald Clarke said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 11:56 am

    I was also surprised by the comments about woodenness, etc. Although he would not be able to fool anyone on the phone into thinking he was Chinese (the linguistic equivalent of the Turing Test), his pronunciation was quite good and his tones were excellent. Of course, once he mentioned that he had attended Princeton-in-Beijing, I knew the explanation right away. No program associated with Perry Link has ever to my knowledge allowed students to get away with half-assed tones. (Perry was my 1st-year Chinese teacher.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 12:49 pm

    From a colleague:

    Someone of Taiwanese origin commented, I am puzzled why people think there is "good" and "bad" or "standard" Chinese. There is only Chinese which can or cannot be understood. To which I can only say, I hope one could get a restraining order keeping them away from anyone learning Chinese!

  5. David Moser said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 1:03 pm

    It's very impressive that Pottinger delivered this in Mandarn, and this blogger Spandrell rightly points out that Pottinger's Mandarin is in the "top 1% of laowai", certainly so (though I would have said top 5%). But his subsequent criticisms (and the criticisms of the non-native speakers) seem picky, and irrelevant. My experience is that native Chinese speakers notice, but largely don't care about our tone errors and pronunciation glitches. Which is not surprising. When we interact with non-native English speakers, do we cringe or silently scoff at their minor errors and or occasional blunders? No, of course not. Chinese people listening to his speech were simply less concerned with his errors than his message, and his attempt to communicate directly in their native language. Spandrell's objections, in particular, seem petty. First, in terms of word choice, there is nothing at all wrong with 传染病大流行. We use "epidemic", "pandemic", "coronavirus", "Covid-19", "the virus" interchangeably, and there is nothing that makes 疫情 the obvious choice here, especially since Pottinger in such a speech might choose to use a word that is somewhat more formal. Naturally. So why the fuss? Nor is the term 因特网 in any way inappropriate. Certainly it's not the usual PRC term and is a bit dated, but would not raise an eyebrow for a native speaker, any more than the decision to use a British term "dustbin" instead of "garbage can", or "WC" instead of "restroom", or "zed" instead of "Z" would cause Americans to tear their hair out at the outrageous usage. And as for pronouncing 父亲 with first tone on the second syllable instead of neutral, for crying out loud. That's really below the threshold, even for a native Beijinger. They would hear this teensy-tiny glitch in about the same way we hear the difference between "often" with the 't', instead of "offen", which is the way most people pronounce it. Pottinger's speech was a forthright and admirable effort; his Mandarin was not as cringe-worthy as some non-native speakers suggest.

    Having said that, it seems his effort fell flat with some Chinese, partly because the Chinese are not in the mood to be lectured to about anything, and certainly not from a US Deputy National Security advisor, and the speech came off to them as condescending and arrogant. But this is an issue of politics, pandering, and tone. (Not the five Chinese tones.) And I can well understand why many Chinese were put off by the gesture.

    Pottinger is clearly not someone who has lived in a Chinese environment for decades, using Chinese routinely in daily life. However, he's someone who has spent an enormous amount of time learning the language, and paying careful attention to pronunciation. His Chinese is indeed somewhat stilted, artificial, rehearsed, a bit unnatural. But if his Chinese sounds stiff and "textbook" style, it's because that's how he's learned the language, through textbooks and tapes and endless Mandarin class drills. So isn't that an admirable thing? Isn't it good that he made the attempt? If been struggling with Chinese for 30 years, and I'm not sure I could do much better than did. I might be able to speak more naturally than he does, but if given this task I would surely make hundreds of small mistakes of my own. I don't believe I EVER utter a single sentence of Mandarin that is 100% correct, grammatically, lexically, phonetically, or in terms of tones. I think Pottinger deserves a lot of credit, bless his heart.

  6. David Moser said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 1:10 pm

    Sorry for the typos and omitted words in the above diatribe, it was typed in haste. But I'm sure my message comes through perfectly. Which sort of underscores my message, actually.

  7. tom davidson said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 2:02 pm

    There are more of us "near native speakers" who graduated from Yale's IFEL Mandarin Chinese program starting back in the mid- to late 50s. Many of us toil(ed) under the radar, working for the government and the armed forces as interpreters and translators. One outstanding Mandarin speaker was my classmate Luther Deese, who before he passed away not long ago was a senior linguist for one of the alphabet agencies in the federal government in Washington, D.C., often interpreting for US and Chinese officials in senior positions. His calligraphy is also impressive.

  8. Michael Szonyi said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 3:32 pm

    I was also impressed with Pottinger's speech, both its language and its content – indeed, I spoke in Chinese (online) at a public event the next day and was very worried that the conversation would shift to a comparison of our relative abilities (in which I would be judged inferior).

    I'm curious about another point. The White House website refers to the written transcript as "the Mandarin version"

    I would have said that the link is to the written Chinese version, but that a "written Mandarin text" is not a meaningful term. What says Language Log?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 7:04 pm

    From dako-xiaweiyi:

    [VHM: This came two days ago, but I neglected to post it until now.]

    When I saw that Spandrell, the author, is a "European man living in Asia who blogs about the past and future of civilization," I thought "just past and future of civilization? Why such narrow interest and expertise? What does Spandrell have against pre-civilized peoples? Why not also grace us with his wise insights on astrophysics, the origins of life, music, art, architecture and theology? We all want to know."

    It's mostly unreadable. He wastes too much air time in folksy bloviation, splashing 4,300 words to tell us that he looks down on Mr. Pottinger. 看不起 Likely looks down on everybody else as well; may have something to do with why he's still in Asia.

    Truth is, I couldn't read it. I read the first few paras, skimmed a couple in the middle, and skipped to the end.

    I caught the condescending arrogance of Spandrell's critique of Mr. Pottinger's Chinese. Spanny went beyond insufferable to clownish, "Very impressive for an Anglo I must say, [I must say? Who is he pretending to be?] pronunciation was tight. I don’t give such compliments lightly [We get the signal. You have impeccably high standards of Chinese diction]. The guy is pretty good [just pretty good?]. If… very odd. His pronunciation is so textbook-ish it sounds like a text to speech generator [that's why they call it "Mandarin." It was the common working language of mandarins and not a street language.]. Tonal languages have tones, sure, and the guy nails the Mandarin tone contours. His first are high his seconds rise up and his fourth fall all the way. But you’re not supposed to! Not like that. In actual speech tones vary according to syllable length and stress and just basic rhythm. The guy sounds like an A+ student who has never actually been to China."

    Spandrell is half right. "The guy" was an A+ student. However "the guy" spent seven years in China as a reporter, a word jock, for one of the world's top newspapers. He was read by millions of people weekly.

    Spanny observed that "you're not supposed to [enunciate every tone]…" Not in a taxi, Spanny, but Mr. Pottinger wasn't in a taxi. He was speaking to millions, maybe tens of millions, many of whom also understand Mandarin as a second or third language. He was not speaking putonghua of the night market, but he was understandable by all Mandarin speakers.

    Spandrell observes that Mr. Pottinger won't be mistaken for Chinese. I wonder how long it took Spandrell to figure that out. If Mr. Pottinger were Chinese he would have already been arrested, but he's not, he hasn't been, and that's part of what the speech was about.

    The reaction of the Party is adequate evidence that "the guy's" words were understood and feared. Mr. Pottinger may not sound native, but his words move nations. The version I watched in Mandarin on Youtube had been up for nine hours with 32 thousand views and 748 comments.

    Spanny, I see you have four comments, one for every thousand words you wrote. What does your click count look like?

  10. AntC said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 7:45 pm

    magisterial article by Geremie Barmé: …, China Heritage, The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology (5/8/20).

    Wairarapa as in New Zealand? Yes, according to their About page. What's a think tank doing in deepest rural dairy/sheep/wine country? And how come I've not heard of the Academy before?

  11. Neil Kubler said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 10:14 pm

    Regarding Michael Szonyi's earlier comment that "'written Mandarin' is not a meaningful term," I think the term is actually very meaningful indeed! Since there are both spoken and written Cantonese and both spoken and written Taiwanese, how can there not be both spoken and written Mandarin? Of course, Mr. Szonyi's suggested term — "written Chinese" — is commonly used and would also be acceptable, but we should always keep in mind that there are several written Chinese languages, so in my opinion terms like "written Mandarin" or "written standard Chinese" (which is, let's face it, basically written Mandarin) are clearer.

  12. AntC said,

    May 9, 2020 @ 11:14 pm

    … issuing from a White House that is the viral epicentre of America’s politics of treason. That someone, anyone, at the Trump White House would have the gall to lecture anyone, even people in China’s People’s Republic, about ‘Mr Democracy’ and ‘Mr Science’ — the twin tutelary spirits of May Fourth — at the height of America’s coronavirus crisis is beyond satire. [from the Barmé piece]

    Indeed. Pottinger's initial analysis is sober. But his last few paragraphs of tub-thumping for the Trump regime are not going to age well — indeed if the speech was drafted a few weeks earlier, the remarks have not aged well in those weeks. Populism of the form of the incompetent buffoons in the White House and Downing Street is conspicuously failing to deliver the statecraft needed in a crisis. Those two countries are now suffering by orders of magnitude worse than more authoritarian regimes in China, South Korea, Singapore; or than consensus-based/non-confrontational democracies such as my own New Zealand, or Australia, Taiwan (whose recent election decisively rejected the populist Han Kuo-yu).

    Trump's populist rejection of the science and downplaying of the crisis at its start have left him hoist by his own petard: his supporters won't listen to sober advice that the threat is still very much present. It is un-American to limit personal liberties and especially to limit the economy. Even: it is patriotic to give your life for the sake of the economy. (Said by people who are at little personal risk; the effect is far more likely to push Grannie under the bus.)

    Is this what Pottinger's advocacy for May 4th 'plain speech' has come to mean? A rejection of the language of the Epidemiologists and Public Health officials as being 'Mandarins' (in the Western sense)?

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 6:43 am

    Please, let us keep the focus on language issues. No political harangues.

  14. Tianyu Fang said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 8:15 am

    Many friends in China thought his correct pronunciation of 新冠 (guān, 1st tone) 病毒 was remarkable. It's often mispronounced by native speakers (guàn, 4th tone).

  15. Tyler said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 12:36 pm

    It's clear that Spandrell's animus toward Pottinger is primarily political and ideological (he is anti-American and against Western civilization, while being better disposed toward the CCP and the PRC).

    He seems to be coming from a Euro right-wing anti-American perspective. Not against Western Civilization as such, but against the modern liberalism dominated West in favor of a more illiberal version of Western Civilization, like the kind that persisted in some form on the Continent until WW2.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2020 @ 2:02 pm

    "'Was he reading Hanzi, or Hanyu Pinyin?'" (5/10/20)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2020 @ 8:26 am

    "Minitrue: Delete All References to US Deputy National Security Advisor Pottinger’s Speech"

    China Digital Times Posted by Sophie Beach | May 10, 2020

    The following censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have been leaked and distributed online. The name of the issuing body has been omitted to protect the source.


    Strictly delete any reposts, comments, and content related to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger’s Chinese speech from all platforms, websites, and interactive comment sections, leaving no dead corners. If any are found by the internet management office or reported by internet commentators, they will be dealt with seriously. (May 5, 2020) [Chinese]


  18. David said,

    May 11, 2020 @ 10:14 pm

    Mr. Pottinger's pronunciation was indeed impressive, in particular the level of accuracy with which he reproduced the correct tones without any obvious difficulty, though it was still evident that the speech was spoken by a non-native speaker.

    I thought he could have delivered more punch had he put heavier emphasis on the calls for 德先生 (Democracy) and 赛先生 (Science) in the May Fourth movement. Instead, much air time was spent on Hu Shih and the baihua movement, and it was at times difficult to grasp the analogy he is trying to draw between speaking baihua and speaking the truth.

    Seeing the caustic ripostes made by Chinese state media, the speech was probably a success. I am not sure if a senior American official had ever delivered remarks of such length in Mandarin Chinese and the video no doubt garnered a lot of attention.

    What I found more curious was his choice of language structures in the speech. It wasn't presented in the typical style of a Chinese language speech. That said, appeal to authority is well appreciated by Chinese audiences and it was a device that Mr. Pottinger used extensively. His use of idiomatic Chinese mixed in with the style of a contemporary English language academic speech helped showcase that the speech came from his own hand and was not just a read out of someone else's work.

    There were many phrases that felt out of place when I listened, and they made much more sense when I went back to read the prepared English text on the White House web site:

    In a principled move that acknowledged popular anger, China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles later that year.

    This sort of sentence is calque-like in Chinese. Modifying subordinate clauses such as in "Aware of the public anger…, the Chinese government…" are exemplary of elevated speech in English. However, the same sentence structure carries poorly in Chinese, and requires a reordering of the structure, or perhaps the explicit inclusion of a subject in the modifying clause.

    One example that particularly stood out:
    John Pomfret曾写道:“把西方的个人主义和中国的集体主义结合起来,”张彭春促成了一份所有国家适用的普世宣言。
    “Marrying Western belief in the primacy of the individual with Chinese concern for the greater good” Chang helped craft a document that would be relevant to all nations, John Pomfret wrote.

    In the Chinese, it was John Pomfret who did the marrying, rather than the intended P.C. Chang. This type of phrasing was peppered throughout the speech.

    Not using direct quotes from Chinese, and instead back translating English translations into Chinese showed a lack of attention on his part, when the original quote could be found within seconds of an Internet search:

    北京大学的儒家学者和西方文学教授辜鸿铭,嘲笑扫盲。他在1919年8月写道:“想想四万万人,九成识字,结果是什么。… 我们的美妙处境会怎样呢?”
    Gu Hongmin [sic], a Confucian gentleman and Western literature professor at Peking University, ridiculed widespread literacy for China and what it implied. In August 1919 he wrote: “Just fancy what the result would be if ninety percent of [China’s] four hundred million people were to become literate. Imagine only what a fine state of things we would have …”

    Any tone of irony was completely lost when "a fine state of things" was rendered "我们的美妙处境", which conjures an entirely positive connotation. It was doubtful whether a Chinese speaker would ever have uttered such an expression. The original was actually "要是四万万人都能读书识字,那还了得吗?…那还成个什么世界?". Another example is the use of "民为重" in the concluding paragraph instead of the widely quoted "民为贵" from Mencius.

    All this to say that it was certainly a Herculean effort to draft a speech of such depth for a Chinese audience, but I thought he could have benefited from having the remarks reviewed first by a Chinese language teacher. I wonder if other readers of the Language Log had a similar reaction to his use of language.

  19. liuyao said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

    Mr. Pottinger at it again, this time for Tsai Ing-wen's inauguration:

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 8:44 am

    Pottinger begins speaking at 43:13, again with those phenomenal tones, and hardly to be characterized as "wooden".

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