Xi Jinping's faux classicism

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This new article in The Economist (6/29/23) has a familiar ring to it:

To understand Xi Jinping, it helps to be steeped in the classics

China’s leader has invented a phrase—and an image

Take four Chinese characters, all of them in everyday use. Put them in a certain order and, lo, they become a phrase that looks like classical Chinese—the kind of language used by the literati of yore. The idea they convey could be expressed just as succinctly in colloquial Chinese, but the classical style has gravitas. And it is a phrase loved by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, so all must follow suit.

More than any of his predecessors, Mr Xi likes to spice up his speeches with quotations from classical literature, especially poetry and philosophy. It fits one of his stated missions: instilling “cultural self-confidence” (alongside confidence in the political system). And it helps to buff up his image. In Chinese history, rulers were expected to be erudite. Two volumes have been published providing explanations of Mr Xi’s classical aphorisms.

Mr Xi’s four-character phrase is not among the more colourful of his classicisms. It is guozhidazhe, which he uses to mean “the main affairs of state” or “national priorities”. Unlike other phrases that he bandies around [VHM:  and bungles them all the while], it has no obvious origin in a well-known text. It is as if a Western leader, when presenting a big idea, were to concoct a Latin term to describe it. The grandiosity of Mr Xi’s phrase makes it stand out, which is clearly what he wants.

Since Mr Xi’s first public use of guozhidazhe, during a trip in 2020 to the province of Shaanxi, it has taken the country by storm. Officials pepper their speeches with it. Articles about it keep appearing in state media (the phrase is usually adorned with attention-drawing quotation marks). Chinese academics write papers on the topic. Communist Party members discuss the term at meetings. It has spawned a book industry: “What is Guozhidazhe?” is the title of one work, published last year, that provides the answer in 156 pages.

Why should such a banal-sounding phrase get such a billing? It is because guozhidazhe, as used by Mr Xi, is a catch-all that really means “my lofty goals”. The term is applied to everything from “food security” (see next story) to “political security” (keeping the party in charge) and fulfilling the “Chinese dream” (making China a global power and unifying it with Taiwan). Mr Xi says officials must always “cherish guozhidazhe”. It is a way of reminding them who is boss. When they use the term, it is often in conjunction with other phrases expressing loyalty to Mr Xi.

Experts in China have tried to show that guozhidazhe has links with the classical canon, even if it is not a phrase associated with one of the literary giants. One such scholar is Chen Chengzha of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. He points to the “Tao Te Ching”, a core text of Taoist philosophy that was written over two millennia ago (Mr Xi likes to quote from it). This mystical work says there are four great things in the universe (guozhidazhe could be translated as “the country’s great things”). One of them is the ruler. The flattery is obvious.

Engineering an image

Some cynics in China wonder whether Mr Xi is really as learned as he makes himself out to be. Much of his education was disrupted by the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. He attended one of the country’s most prestigious universities, Tsinghua, at a time when little was taught there except Marxism and Maoism, and classical literature was scorned. Ostensibly, Mr Xi’s degree was in chemical engineering. Later, while working as a provincial leader, he got a doctorate from Tsinghua. The English title of his thesis was “A Tentative Study on China’s Rural Marketisation”. [VHM:  Much, much more about that below.]

No such scepticism surfaces in the official media. In 1969, when a teenager, Mr Xi is said to have hauled “heavy suitcases full of books” when he was sent to the countryside to do farm work. The collections of his classical references purport to show his familiarity with a broad array of writers, from Confucius to Su Shi, an 11th-century poet. He has supposedly read numerous works by Shakespeare, or so the public is told. Xinhua, a government news agency, describes his reading list as “going on and on”. It is surprising, perhaps, that he has much time left for guozhidazhe.

In characters, the phrase is "guózhīdàzhě 国之大者":

GT         the king of the country

Baidu    The Great of the Country

Bing       The Great One

DeepL    The Greatest of Nations


            The Greatest of States

            The Greatest Nation

            The Greatest State

Since it's a pseudo-classical expression, one shouldn't expect vernacularly trained translation software to parse it intelligibly (though they tried their best).  At the same time, for someone who is steeped in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, it is painful to try to make sense of what Xi intends by "guózhīdàzhě 国之大者".  Grammatically, the simplest way to analyze the expression is to take "zhě 者" as a nominalizer of the preceding three characters ("the country's biggest / greatest") — something, but what?  And what is it supposed to do?  No wonder the software is stymied by Xi's pet phrase. :

However, as I said at the outset, "guózhīdàzhě 国之大者" had a familiar ring to it.  That's because I had thoroughly dissected it more than two years ago in "Clumsy classicism" (3/13/21), which I repeat here:

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.

One beneficial result of The Economist bringing up "guó zhī dà zhě 國之大者" again is that it elicited the following cogent, erudite observations from Bernard Cadogan:

Imagine if we went about inventing words like " republicity" for the state of being a republic or " politeity" for the ambition of being a polis or polity, and you get an idea in our language what this pompous garbage of malapropisms and neologisms is like. 
Yes this behaviour is compensatory. He certainly doesn't talk like this to his drinking buddies. Still, it is an attempt to fit in with a Marxist tradition of theoreticians resetting and reinventing language itself, of minting new terms. 
Maybe guozhidazhe ought to be his reign title. French theoreticians do this stuff too and try to spin them as buzz words.

Apart from Marxists, another institution that torments language this way is the Catholic Church. The distortions the Vatican II conciliarists do to theological language, and the bureaucratese the Curia uses are a disgrace to the human tongue. When I was 17 I had to take part in Inter-Catholic competitions and one of my contests was to parse and answer questions from mind blowing Vatican documents. 

P.S.:  One needs to be steeped in the Greek Classics as well as in mental sewerage and gibberish to work out what my neologism "politeity" might mean. I feel ashamed I invented such a word just to keep up with Xi.

Bitter medicine for the mind — and tongue.



Stream of solecisms — October 18, 2022

Priceless, precious video.

******"Chairman Xi the orator. Not" (October 22, 2022 — one of the most infamous days in Chinese history, and there have been many)    Four days earlier, Xi displays his ignorance before thousands of assembled communist apparatchiks.  A veritable stream of solecisms.

At this most important moment of his career, when he is about to be crowned emperor for life of the CCP / PRC, Xi Dada commits a whole slew of bloopers and blunders, gaffes and goofs, and the camera has caught him in flagrante delicto.

Video clips (in this tweet storm) have captured all of his embarrassing solecisms.  There are two versions of the video montage.  The first one (which I make available in the above cited post) includes super-slow versions of his mistakes, so that you can hear all of them in excruciating detail.  If you're a fan of tones, you get to hear them in slow-slow motion.

At the end of the video, Xi sits down triumphantly next to the hapless Hu Jintao, and they grin at each other.  Hu had no clue what was going to happen to him later four days later at the concluding session of the meeting:  one of the most mind-boggling events in modern Chinese history.  With the whole world looking on, gray-haired Hu was ushered out of the Great Hall by two large guards who wouldn't take no for an answer.  All Hu could do was nod at Xi, who was sitting to his right, tap Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder (kiss of death for LI) as he passed by, and shuffle away, the big goon-guards prodding him all the way.

PALACE DRAMA — October 22, 2022, Xi Jinping vs. Hu Jintao

[good video footage here, here, here, and here; I have watched several other versions that are still available online] 

[with commentary here]

By now, you've probably all seen the videos of former Paramount Leader Hu Jintao being "escorted" from the final session of the 20th CCP Party Congress on October 22, 2022, four days after Xi's infamous "Stream of Solecisims" speech on October 18, 2022, by two big guards.  Many of you have likely also paid attention to the confusion among Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, and Li Zhanshu (the man to Hu's left [right as we face them]) over a red folder and a white piece of paper that Hu wanted to look at but the others were determined to prevent him from doing so.  This disturbance at the dais went on for about two minutes.

Watch the body language and actions:

1. among Hu and the two big enforcers (first just one, then another very powerful, menacing one is brought in) — they are very forceful and even get physical with Hu, picking him up out of his seat like a little doll

2. between Hu and Xi

3. the look on Xi's face while all this is going on — at times there is a smirk, at times even a smile — he knows what's happening; most likely orchestrated it

4. between Hu and Premier Li Keqiang (to Xi's right), who remains motionless and expressionless despite all the commotion going on to his left

I watched this incredible sequence of events over and over again; nanosecond click by nanosecond click, scores upon scores of times.  I haven't met anyone else who claims or admits that a hot mic near Xi Jinping was picking up his voice and the voices of others to his left.  Li Zhanshu says "No, no" repeatedly, telling Hu not to look into the disputed file.  Much of the time Xi is looking woodenly, vacantly into space, but it is he who calls in the guard-goons when Hu will not accede to Li Zhanshu's urgings that he not look into the file, whereupon Xi calls in the looming guards, one of whom repeats Xi's command to "Ràngtāmen fǎnguòlái ,fǎnguòlái。让他们反过来,反过来 ("Have them turn it over / around"), the latter part of which the guard repeats several times to let Xi know that he understands what he is being told to do.

Remember that all of this went on openly before the eyes of the entire congress, before the whole world.  Xi, or whoever controls him, wanted this to happen — just the way it did.  Hu tried to resist, but there was no resisting.


The Core Leader's colossal gaffe:  implications for his supposed doctoral dissertation

This occurred on an earlier occasion, where he mispronounced  "nóng / trad. 農" ("agriculture") as "yī 衣" ("clothing") in an extremely embarrassing and sexually suggestive way.  Not one person in the large audience so much as snickered or gasped when Xi Jinping committed this huge blunder.  See the video for yourself:

"Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

As analyzed in detail in that post, Xi clearly was in over his head when he began to recite from an ancient text.  Indeed, many such pronunciation pratfalls are due to the fashion of more or less obligatory quotation of literary / classical phrases that the unlearned officials are incapable of reading.  So what begins as an attempt to impress the audience with the speaker's learning ends up making him look foolish for obviously being incapable of reading the classical passage properly.

It is surpassingly strange that Xi confused "nóng " ("agriculture") with "yī 衣" ("clothing") since his thesis for the Doctor of Law degree at Tsinghua University was titled "Tentative Study of Agricultural Marketization" (Zhōngguó nóngcūn shìchǎng huà yánjiū 中国农村市场化研究), unless, as some critics in China have alleged, it was ghostwritten for him.

See "Xi Jinping's Doctoral Thesis" in Dim Sums:  Bringing clarity to a murky Chinese economy" (2/7/12):

…The thesis is dated December 2001, which coincides with China's accession to the WTO that month. The degree is for a doctor of laws in Marxist theory and political thought education (a safe major for a budding Chinese communist party leader). Xi's undergraduate degree was in chemical engineering, also received from Tsinghua in 1979. The Chinese wikipedia entry about Xi notes that netizens have raised questions about Xi's thesis (there is no mention of it on the English wikipedia page). People questioned the appropriateness of the topic of the thesis for a doctorate in law (indeed there is no law to speak of in the document), saying it is more of a sociology paper. People also point out Xi was busy working as vice party secretary and governor of Fujian Province during the period when the thesis was written. Others questioned how he could get a doctorate without having first obtained a master's degree.

It is common for emerging leaders to collect education credentials on their way to the top, and the thesis is commonly ghost-written by someone else. Xi probably didn't write this one but he probably agreed with what was in it….

Xi Jinping was born in 1953.  He would have been 26 when he received his undergraduate degree and 48 years old when he received his doctorate, 22 years after receiving his undergraduate degree, and apparently with no other graduate degree during that long interim.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Mark Metcalf and Zihan Guo]


  1. Jens Østergaard Petersen said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 2:39 pm

    湯 in 故使諸國一時歸湯 refers to Cheng Tang 成湯, the first king of the Shang dynasty, to whom the leaders of all other countries rallied (歸) in no time (一時). The 國 which, though large, failed to understand and realize Heaven’s intentions, was Xia 夏, the last ruler of which was overthrown by Cheng Tang.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 3:43 pm

    Perhaps we should forward this post to this new Russian "research center"? ;-)

    South China Morning Post 7/2/23
    Russia opens research centre on Xi Jinping's ideology, the first outside China–

    Russia has opened a state-funded research centre on Chinese President Xi Jinping's ideology "to understand modern China better". The Modern Ideology of China Research Laboratory was launched in June by the Russian Academy of Sciences at its Institute of China and Contemporary Asia (ICCA) in Moscow. It is the first such research centre on
    the Chinese leader's political doctrine – known as Xi Jinping Thought – outside China, according to state news agency Xinhua. (3 min read)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 4:05 pm

    Russia probably got a very generous research grant from the Confucius Institutes for their Xi Thought Research Institute.

  4. Mark Metcalf said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 5:09 pm

    Two more observations:
    1) Following up on the Zuo Zhuan citation, of course Sunzi 1 also contains the expression 国之大事
    2) While my 文言 is rusty, could 国之大者 also be translated as "That with the nation/state makes great" or, a bit more loosely, "That which the nation respects"?

  5. Philip Anderson said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 5:25 pm

    "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".
    This made me think of the phrase “when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold”.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 6:16 pm

    @Mark Metcalf

    Re: 2)

    Yes, you could read it that way if you take 大 as a causative.

  7. AntC said,

    July 2, 2023 @ 8:46 pm

    Hmm? U.S.A. has just experienced a President who could barely string two words together. (And couldn't pronounce "China" — there's jokey Youtube vids of his attempts.)

    U.K. has just experienced a Prime Minister who produced plenty of long words and Classical phrases, but often all they amounted to was verbal diarrhoea. (see Youtube at "praises Peppa Pig in bizarre CBI speech". Famously he was sacked from a whole series of jobs in Journalism for just making stuff up.)

    For both Anglophone Great Leaders, there's persistent rumours their academic credentials were obtained bogusly.

    I'm surprised that Bernard Cadogan needs to invent words, or draw comparison to Vaticanspeak. (I suppose he's thinking 'antidisestablishmentarianism'?) Doesn't English get assailed continually by marketingspeak and nonsense neologisms? And there's bureaucratese much closer to hand from the E.U.

    Disintermediation, securitisation anybody? The whole Maastricht treaty endorsements/referendums gave a fine crop: intergovernmentalism; 'consortio and condominio' (swallowed holus-bolus into English); multiperspectival governance; … I think we should beware somebody holding the mirror up to English.

    In short: let's concentrate criticism of Xi's regime on genocide and ethnic/language 'cleansing' in Tibet and Xinjiang; suppression of non-Mandarin languages and cultures in Hong Kong and elsewhere; military threats against Taiwan; … If he wants to make a laughing-stock of himself at Party Conferences for all to see, let it go.

  8. Chester Draws said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 12:16 am

    For both Anglophone Great Leaders, there's persistent rumours their academic credentials were obtained bogusly.

    Lies about public leaders are pretty common. Bandying them about disgraces those that spread them, regardless of what you think about the men involved.

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 1:30 am

    "Imagine" indeed, if people just made up words to make themselves seem more erudite. Perhaps it is not as common among political leaders, but just visit the offices of any strategy consulting firm and you will find yourself on familiar territory.

  10. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 1:56 am

    @Jenny Chu

    ".. if people just made up words to make themselves seem more erudite. …. visit the offices of any strategy consultant …..". or many academic articles dealing with philosophy.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 5:01 am

    guózhīdàzhě 国之大者
    Build Back Better

  12. Mark Metcalf said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 5:59 am

    中华民族伟大复兴 – MCGA – "Make China Great Again!"
    (Lit: "The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People")

  13. John Swindle said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 6:37 am

    Yes, I see now how 国之大者 guó zhī dàzhě could be either "big among countries" or "the country's big thing(s)," like priorities or important considerations. Could it also be "the great one(s) of the country"? Not that that's what's intended.

    And are inept classical references a new thing in China, or are they an old tradition that's being revived?

  14. Allen Thrasher said,

    July 3, 2023 @ 5:05 pm

    Another example of pompous and needless neologism? It crept in forty or more years ago, but can anyone tell me what was gained by “societal” replacing or being added to “social?”

    As far as I know no department or school has changed the plaque above its door to “Department/School of Societal Sciences.” Or have some?

  15. Jenny Chu said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 9:52 am

    @Peter Grubtal What discipline is, in your observation, the worst offender?

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 9:55 am

    Allen Thrasher: The word "societal" has a more restricted meaning that "social."

  17. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 11:36 am

    Jenny Chu

    Difficult to say. Each discipline offends in its own way. With management-speak it's a question of making obvious and oft-repeated points sound like profound, novel insights.
    With philosophy it's a question of, as Bertrand Russell said of Heidegger, language run riot, and the wholesale invention of concepts which are bogus.

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