China in Focus #19: Peaches, Plums and the Challenge of Cross-Cultural Communication

, China project manager and senior analyst | September 24, 2015, 2:46 pm EST
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Chinese President Xi Jinping likes to use Chinese idioms in his public remarks. While speaking to a select group of U.S. luminaries in Seattle on the first day of a state visit to the United States, President Xi dropped the following Chinese gem on his non-Chinese speaking audience: 桃李不言, 下自成蹊.

His translators rendered the idiom into English as “peaches and plums do not talk, yet a path is formed beneath them.” The topic of the speech was, not surprisingly, the state of U.S.—China relations, so the idiom was generally understood, as heard in English, as a generic comment on cooperation. That’s understandable given it was followed by the following sentence: “These worthy fruits of cooperation across the Pacific Ocean speak eloquently to the vitality and potential of China-U.S. relations.” Right before using the idiom Xi ran through a list of areas where the United States and China were able to work together for the common good, such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Iran negotiations and the fight against Ebola. These are the “worthy fruits” of U.S.—China relations.

In this morning’s Facebook feed I ran across a discussion between a pair of U.S. China watchers about what the “peaches and plums” idiom actually meant, and whether there was some sort of deeper meaning behind it. One discussant thought it referred to “soft power” or “attraction.” The other followed with “the basis of great power relations, so to speak.”

Actually, Xi was using the idiom not to illuminate something about the relationship itself, but to say something about the quality or character of individual state behavior—China’s behavior in particular.

A Chinese idiom dictionary explains.

“Although peach tress and plum trees don’t know how to speak, because their flowers and fruits are beautiful, they attract people to come, so beneath the tress there will naturally be a path. The metaphor is that as long as your behavior is noble, there is no need to brag to be respected by people.”

In other words, the Chinese President seems to be subtly chastising his audience for complaining that China does not do enough to support the collective good. President Obama has made that accusation on a number of occasions during his presidency. Xi seems to be responding to that, noting that the fruits of Chinese efforts to cooperate with the United States in the maintenance of the international system—the “worthy fruits” he just listed—should be obvious to everyone.

We’ve used this blog, on a number of occasions, to remind readers interested in U.S.—China relations about the critical impact of culture and language. Misunderstanding and misperception are routinely underestimated factors inhibiting effective cross-cultural communication. It is not possible for me to know for certain what President Xi meant. Perhaps he reinterprets idioms, as U.S. presidents are known to do. The late, great Yogi Berra would certainly understand.

But Xi’s peaches and plums moment is another useful reminder that the role of language and culture in U.S.—China relations deserves more careful attention.

 

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  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for the reminder.

    I lived in a foreign country and became moderately fluent in its language and somewhat familiar with its culture some years ago. I realized then, and still agree now, that it is always a challenge to grasp the subtle differences in perspective and meaning with idioms, expressions, etc. At best, effective and constructive communication with someone from another culture is an ongoing process where both sides need to be open and flexible in their responses to the other. It takes patience and time to build up enough trust that one can really ask the other to clarify what might be meant by a certain comment, etc.

    China and the USA are at the very early stages of this process. Given their importance to the world one hopes, of course, that they continue in as constructive a vein as possible.