Depth of language. limits of leaders

The first three characters in the Chinese saying, 天行健,君子以自強不息, “tiān xíng jiàn” (which have a meaning perhaps something like “heavens in ceaseless motion”).

A recent blog article on difficulties China’s president Xi Jinping had with some literary references in Chinese bring to mind two separate but intersecting issues: the cultural depth of languages; and language as one indicator of the human fallibility of even the most powerful leaders.

The article, “Xi Jinping’s reading errors multiply,” which was posted on Language Log by University of Pennsylvania professor of Chinese, Victor H. Mair, notes three literary expressions misread by Pres. Xi during a recent major address (the one mentioned above is one of them1). And worse, this apparently isn’t the first time for such mistakes.

The 1 easy & 3 difficults of learning Chinese

In my limited study of and exposure to use of Chinese (Mandarin), I came to understand the language as hving 4 dimensions for the learner:

  1. The grammar and structure of the language are relatively straightforward (perhaps it helped me to have previously studied West African languages).
  2. The tones take work for someone like me who grew up with languages that are not tonal.
  3. The writing is complicated – no way around that, even when one understands how radicals work.
  4. The cultural dimensions of expression are quite deep.

It is this last category, as I interpret it, that proved problematic even for Pres. Xi.

For a language learner it is scant comfort to know that a native speaker of significant learning and rank can have difficulties – if they get tripped up, what hope is there for most learners of the language?

Of course, every language has some variation on the four points I suggest above: how the language works; how to speak / pronounce it; how to write it; and the cultural content. A native speaker will pretty much “get” the first two, and hopefully have the chance to learn the third to a high degree of proficiency.

The fourth seems to be acquired through a combination of acculturation and study. Perhaps because Chinese has been written for so long, the amount of expressions, proverbs, etc. to learn is considerable. Such that it is evidently possible for individuals even in high positions to come up short.

Heights of inarticulation

China’s Pres. Xi is hardly the first country leader to run into problems with language. Former US president George W. Bush, for example, was known for his malapropisms. And run of the mill verbal miscues are almost inevitable when one’s every word is potential news.

Of course nobody is perfect, and we all can produce less than ideal turns of phrase. But we tend to expect people in leadership positions to do better – say the right things at the right time, and perhaps speak with a little eloquence.

The fact that they don’t always or can’t all the time (or ever in some cases?) should be a reminder that we can’t invest too much hope in any single individual to meet all our expectations. And that in turn should be a caution regarding how much power we concentrate in the hands of people who – like any of us – are fallible in other ways too.

Tiān & aduna

Unfolding the cultural dimension a bit more, a cross-cultural comparison came to mind, and that actually is another reason why I post on this topic. The expression highlighted in the caption of the image in the header – transliterated as tiān xíng jiàn, jūnzǐ yǐ zì qiáng bù xī – is translated variously:

  • Heaven, through its motion, imparts strength; the superior man accordingly steels himself to ceaseless activity. (Prof. Mair)
  • Just as the celestial bodies never run out of energy to orbit round and round, so should we always strive to better ourselves. (Wiktionary)

The first part, shown in the image above – 天行健 (tiān xíng jiàn ) – caught my attention as it reminded me of part of a line in a religious poem in Fulfulde (by Ndyîdo Kaudo Tamboura2) which I used once in writing: “Aduna kala yo bayna bayna…” (the whole world is vicissitudes). From what I could tell of the meaning of 天行健, it seemed that the two were talking about different kinds of motion, in the Heavens and here on Earth.

There is of course a danger in assigning precise meaning – or in this case translation – to snippets from literary or poetic expressions. Nevertheless, I went there. Google Translate however, couldn’t help with 天行健, producing a toneless transliteration. Systranet, on the other hand, just translated each character: “the day line is healthy” ( [tiān] also means day). The “heavens in ceaseless motion” meaning I suggest based on the translations of the whole expression above may simply be wrong, but hopefully not too far off.

In any event, looking at the complete line from Tamboura’s poem – “Aduna kala yo bayna bayna, kanaa tawee baawɗe Laamɗo” (≈ In this world, everything is vicissitudes, save the powers of the Lord) – the comparison with the full Chinese saying discussed above is interesting. This Fulfulde verse contrasts the unpredictable changes of the world with the constancy of the Divine. The Chinese expression, on the other hand, sees the constancy of motion in the Heavens as an inspiration for our efforts here on Earth.

This is not to draw any wider conclusions about the cultures behind the expressions, although such a limited side-by-side might be an opening to wider comparisons of these non-Western worldviews (not necessarily mediated by Western language or culture as I’m doing here).


The main lesson I propose here, however, is the depth of languages and richness of cultural expressions in them show the limitations any one of us has in mastery of them. That inevitably includes people of high rank, which should help us keep rank and the human fallibility of individuals occupying high positions, in proper perspective.

When cross-cultural (and cross-language) comparisons are added – as they should be in the interests of both equity and improved understanding in an ever more interconnected world – the equation becomes more complicated. In that dynamic context, the limitations of individuals to understand all, the need for humility, and the potential for collaboration all should be apparent.


  1. The other two expressions are 金科玉律 (“golden rules and precious precepts”) and 颐指气使 (“order people about arrogantly with gestures”). (Translations from Prof. Mair’s article; links here to Wiktionary.)
  2. From Christiane Seydou’s compilation, Bergers des mots : poésie peule du Mâssina (Classiques africains, 1991, pp. 190-1). My English version relies heavily on her French translation.

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