Why you should care
Because it’s wise to understand the language of your enemy.
Donald Trump has a lot on his plate these days. Tweeting, vetting cabinet members,
attending intelligence briefings, defending the election result.
But there is one magic maneuver by which the president-elect could bolster his image abroad: learn Mandarin Chinese. That means fewer golf strokes, Mr. Trump, and more Chinese character strokes. The sooner, the better.
Well before he came within spitting distance of the Oval Office, Trump royally pissed off China. On social media, he once proclaimed that the concept of climate change was a scam created by China. On the campaign trail, he vowed to stop China from “raping” the U.S., like a “piggy bank that’s being robbed.” Just this month, he chatted up Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen over the phone, deviating from decades of diplomatic protocol and ruffling feathers all over Beijing. To make matters worse, Trump then balked at the “One China” policy.
Of course, U.S.–China tensions are not just Trump’s fault. We’re not just talking about the South China Sea when we note that America has long been on choppy waters with China. Other simmering conflicts include North Korea, human rights and internet freedoms, cyberhacks and the looming trade deficit. But now, China is Trump’s problem. He could start by winning over the Chinese people and speaking their native tongue.
He certainly wouldn’t be the first to learn how to sweet-talk in Chinese. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent the better part of five years brushing up on the notoriously difficult language — perhaps not just because his wife is fluent, but maybe in the hope of finally getting the social media giant unblocked by internet censors in China. Facebook has yet to gain a foothold in the mainland, but Zuckerberg, despite his shoddy pronunciation, has made a lasting impression inside a country where few outsiders bother to learn a proper ni hao, says Zehao Zhou, an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania: “Chinese is the language of the future. It’s the trendy thing to do.” Even Trump’s 5-year-old granddaughter Arabella Kushner recited a poem in Chinese, much to the infatuation of China’s social media.
Learning a language can open doors beyond business. Speaking someone else’s language is “a mark of respect and a doorway to understanding,” says Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks fluent Mandarin after years of study. To him, picking up a language can be key to picking up on a country’s cultural nuances, especially for a nation as big and complex as China. In Trump’s case, the payoff would be bigger: If he learns just one word in Mandarin Chinese, maybe he could chip away at the damage he’s done and help mend the rocky relationship between China and the U.S. for the future.
Of course, Chinese is one of the world’s hardest languages to learn for English speakers, and some doubt that Trump would have the “patience” and “humility” to hit the books at all, says Zhou. Neither Trump nor his transition team responded to requests for comment, but we’ll hazard a guess and assume that learning Chinese would probably be low on his list of priorities. Even if he manages to pick up a phrase or two, people would simply see through his charm offensive, like “kind of poking fun at Trump,” says Professor Xie Tao at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
But don’t worry, Donald. You can start with these easy stock statements, guaranteed to help you curry favor with China in no time.
“Nobody respects China more than me.”
- Méiyǒu yīgè bǐ wǒ gèng zūnzhòng zhōngguó de rén. 没有一个比我更尊重中国的人。
“I don’t know Tsai Ing-wen. She is not my best friend.”
- Wǒ bù rènshí cài yīngwén. Tā bùshì wǒ zuì hǎo de péngyǒu. 我不认识蔡英文. 她不是我最好的朋友。
“My mic is defective.”
- Wǒ de màikèfēng huàile. 我的麦克风坏了。