Yet another literary misreading by Xi Jinping

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This one amounts to a Sinitic spoonerism.

In his major July 1 speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Xi Jinping wanted to impress people with this set phrase:


頤指氣使 / 颐指气使

lit. "chin / jaw / cheek — point out / at [with a finger] — haughty attitude / bearing — command / order / dispatch"

i.e., "(arrogantly / contemptuously) give orders; boss people around (by looks and gestures)"

Instead, what came out of his mouth was this:



which might be playfully rendered as something like "beatbrow"

This expression goes back to at least the Tang period (618-907).

Here you can watch the paramount / supreme leader (Zuìgāo Lǐngdǎorén 最高领导人) repeating his latest literary faux pas (7th through 4th syllables from the end) over and over:

The mistake was so embarrassing that the major media of the PRC (China Daily, People's Daily, Xinhua, PLA Daily, and Global Times) were hard to access for at least 24 hours after the speech, leaving some commentators suspecting that the government may have shut them down to prevent the speech from being published with the blunder intact.

Too late!  While the gaffe may have been officially squelched in the PRC, netizens in Taiwan caught it and had a ball satirizing Xi's low level of (literary) literacy, which they compared to that of an elementary school child (see here).

Wanting to see if the authorities tried to "fix" the official video of the speech, as they clumsily did with such Xi solecisms in the past (see "Selected readings"), I tracked down the whole speech and listened to it to find the passage where the error occurred.  That was painful for me, because Xi's labored, halting, syllabically overemphasized delivery so grates on my ear that it is difficult for me to listen to it for more than about 45 seconds without becoming nauseous.  Nonetheless, here's the entire speech (1:04:56), with the garbled phrase occurring at 40:08-9.  I can hear the offending yíshǐ 頤使, but the following qìzhǐ 氣指 is covered up by the English translator.

Incidentally, the spoken English translation is not the product of simultaneous interpretation, since it is apparently identical to the official published version, which was distributed soon after the speech was delivered.  I must say that the English translation is bland and only loosely tied to the Chinese original, which was full of much more violent language.  In other words, the powers-that-be were happy with Xi's vehement denunciations and blustery threats for domestic consumption, but toned him down considerably for foreign dissemination, though the bloody imagery still shows through at a reduced degree.

There's so much talk of gore in this speech that I think Xi's speechwriter(s) went to a Chinese thesaurus and picked out as many as possible set phrases and other expressions including "blood" that were remotely appropriate to set the tone Xi was aiming for.

Here's an example of one such instance that was much talked about during the first couple of days following the speech:



lit., "head broken blood flowing"

There are lots of possible more idiomatic English translations that have been used for this expression (e.g., "bloodied and bruised; beaten to a pulp; badly battered; head bashed / cracked and bloody; knock / crack one's head / skull [against a brick wall]", etc., etc.).

Official Xinhua translation for the July 1 Xi speech:  "on a collision course"!

The victim can either be "beaten" (dǎ dé 打得) with this result or it can happen to him because of his own vain efforts to press forward, in which case he has "bumped / crashed / collided against" (pèng dé 碰得) his opponent.  In this instance, as stated by Xi, it's because the victim "bumped / crashed / collided against" (pèng dé 碰得) the steel Great Wall forged by the blood and flesh of more than 1.4 billion Chinese people.

Let's look at "tóupòxuěliú 头破血流" ("head broken blood flowing") in the context in which it occurred within Xi's speech:

Zhōngguó rénmín jué bù yǔnxǔ rènhé wàilái shìlì qīfù, yāpò, núyì wǒmen, shéi wàngxiǎng zhèyàng gàn, bì jiàng zài 14 yì duō Zhōngguó rénmín yòng xiěròu zhù chéng de gāngtiě Chángchéng miànqián pèng dé tóupòxiěliú!


"The Chinese people will definitely never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or enslave us.  Whoever vainly wants to do so will have their heads cracked with blood flowing out from crashing against a Great Wall of steel forged by the blood and flesh of more than 1.4 billion Chinese people."

Official translation:  "…[W]e will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people."

From two "bloods" to no "blood" within the space of 16 characters!

See also section 3 of "Slow Chinese" (7/3/21) for more on blood in Chinese idioms.

Our next post, on tones, will begin with a spectacular bloody image from Xi's July 1 speech.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. David Moser said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 9:31 am

    Much was made of the tóupòxuěliú 头破血流, a bit hard to find an idiomatic equivalent. “Bash their heads bloody”? I was also struck by how the line from the speech 血肉筑成的钢铁长城 "a Great Wall of steel forged by blood and flesh" so closely echoed the phrase from the Chinese national anthem 把我们的血肉筑成我们新的长城 "Let our blood and flesh construct a new Great Wall."

  2. Ethan said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 11:50 am

    Possible idiomatic equivalent for 头破血流 in this context: "will bloody their nose running into …"

  3. Twill said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 11:55 am

    Though I have no love for the man, is it really any wonder that he speaks in such a plodding, deliberate manner if both his supporters and detractors work themselves up over an accidental transposition made in the course of an hour long speech? The "elementary school level" rhetoric is obnoxiously overwrought to the point of being repellent, but I suppose the reaction by the CCP shows their skin is thin enough to be bothered by it.

  4. AntC said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 5:38 pm

    More commentary (in English) from Taiwan. They also didn't accept the official translation of the "heads bashed bloody" wording.

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