Clumsy classicism

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In his addresses to the Liǎnghuì 兩會 (Two Sessions), annual plenary meetings of the national People's Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that have just concluded in Beijing (March 4-11), Xi Jinping repeatedly stressed “guó zhī dà zhě 国之大者”.  The grammar is clearly literary, with the first character a monosyllabic version of vernacular "guójiā 国家" ("country"), the second character a classical attributive particle, and the fourth character a classical nominalizing particle. Thus the phrase stands out like a sore thumb midst the matrix of vernacular in which it is mixed.  What's worse, even fluent readers of Mandarin generally misinterpret what it means.  Most educated persons to whom I've shown the phrase think that it means "big / large / powerful / great country", "that which (can be called) a big / large / powerful / great country"), etc., when in fact Xi intends for it to mean "something that is important for the country", "that which is important for the country" "things that are important for the country", etc.

The two meanings of the phrase may be parsed thus:

1. “X zhī dà zhě X之大者” ("a big / great one [in the class of] X; that which is big / great [in the class of] X"]

2. “X zhī dà zhě X之大者” ("that which is big / great / important [pertaining to] X")

There are historical precedents for both of these usages:

For example, in the Tang period (618-907) 《Máo shī zhùshū 毛詩注疏》(Mao edition of the Poetry Classic with Commentary and Subcommentary), scroll 30:“Guó zhī dà zhě, bùdé tiānyì, gù shǐ zhūguó yīshí guī tāng 國之大者,不得天意,故使諸國一時歸湯” ("When the most powerful country does not find favor with Heaven, it will cause the various other countries to be in hot water for a while").
For example, in Sūn Fù 孫復 (992-1057) 《Sūn Míngfù xiǎo jí · Biàn Sìhào 孫明復小集·辨四皓》(Minor Collection of Sun Mingfu:  Distinguishing the Four Greybeards):  "國之大者,莫大於傳嗣。傳嗣之大,莫大於立嫡" (Of the great affairs of state, there is none greater than continuing the line of descent; for continuing the line of descent, there no greater consideration than establishing a legal wife".

This is reminiscent of the famous dictum from the late 4th c. BC 《Zuǒ zhuàn 左傳》(Zuo Tradition):  "Guó zhī dàshì, zài sì yǔ róng 國之大事,在祀與戎" ("The great matters of the state lie in sacrifice and military affairs").

Since Xi (and his speechwriters) are not truly learned (see "Selected readings" below), how did he fall into the trap of misusing the “X zhī dà zhě X之大者”?

Jin Yong / Louis Cha Leung-yung (1924-2018), the phenomenally best-selling author of wuxia novels, romances of knight-errantry, was fond of this expression:  "xiá zhī dà zhě 俠之大者" ("the great knight errant").  For instance, he used the expression "Xiá zhī dà zhě wèi guó wèi mín 俠之大者為國為民" ("The great knight errant serves the country and serves the people") in the twentieth chapter of 《Shè diāo yīngxióng zhuàn 射雕英雄传》(The Legend of the Condor Heroes [novel] / The Brave Archer AKA Kungfu Warlord [film]) and elsewhere.  Here the great knight errant is Guo Jing 郭靖, about whom one of my graduate students from the PRC writes:

I still remember that my mentor in college said that their generation all loved Guo Jing among all adorable characters in Jing Yong's novel for his nationalist standpoint. And, in the end of the novel, Guo Jing died with his wife defending the Song dynasty from the invasion of the Mongols. It is quite interesting to see Xi turn "xiá zhī dà zhě 侠之大者" into "guó zhī dà zhě 国之大者."

Xi had been using this expression, "guó zhī dà zhě 國之大者", on various occasions already starting about a year ago when he made a three-day inspection tour to Shaanxi, his father's native province, but the tempo of his usage picked up in December and during the early months of this year.

Xi would have been better off if he had stuck with the vernacular and said "dàguó 大国" ("big country") for sense 1 (but he didn't mean that, though most people think that's what he meant unless they dig deeper into the contexts in which he used it) and "guójiā [de] dàshì 国家[的]大事" ("a matter of great importance for the country") for sense 2.

While "guó zhī dà zhě 國之大者" has a pedantic ring to it, which to some extent has certain traditional cultural connotations and seems to be derived from ancient Chinese classics, it sounds awkward in the context of modern CCP political discourse, especially coming from the mouth of Chairman Xi, who is prone to language gaffes as it is, and has a dubious academic background.  Although a thesis titled Zhōngguó nóngcūn shìchǎnghuà yánjiū 中国农村市场化研究 ("Tentative Study of Agricultural Marketization") is attributed to Xi Jinping, there are many questions surrounding whether he actually wrote it himself (see here, here, here, and here).

A number of websites actually question what Xi meant by "guó zhī dà zhě 國之大者", but I haven't noticed any that call him out for having committed a solecism.


Selected readings


[h.t. Nick Kaldis; thanks to Yijie Zhang, Chenfeng Wang, Lin Zhang, Yixue Yang, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. John Swindle said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 8:16 am

    The big guys country it.

  2. AntC said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 3:53 pm

    the matrix of vernacular Xi (and his speechwriters) are not truly learnedwho is prone to language gaffes

    misinterpret [as] "big / large / powerful / great country"

    This is all eerily familiar.

    Make China Great Again

    Do Xi's speeches carry any detail of how these intentions are to be realised, for example what initiatives are to be favoured? Or does it amount to reinforcing a burgeoning cult of personality, with Xi as frontman for a faction of the CCP? Xi Jin-bigism.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 6:55 am

    From a learned Chinese friend:

    The first meaning of "国之大者“ is more frequently used in classic documents. Apart from the example of 孙复,(误)国之大者 also appears in 《三朝北盟会编》and later in 《金瓶梅》, denouncing 童贯 or 蔡京 for ruining the important matters of the country. On a second thought, it seems more appropriate that 误国之大者 means big failures that ruin the country (误国/之大者). As I was writing this email, I checked some online sources and found in 《宋文选》 that 孙复's statement was written as "为国之大者,莫大于传嗣". If the source is reliable, 为国/之大者 is then different from 国之大者.

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