Jewish World Review April 13, 2001/ 20 Nissan, 5761
Who's sorry now?
LOVE, as in "love is never having to say you're sorry,'' is one sappy cliche. It's harmless enough as a
staple of the language of puppy love, but big-dog love can require an apology to a loved one when
you're wrong -- and often when you're right. You could ask Cupid.
But not in the give-and-take between foreign countries, where love never has anything to do with it.
Nevertheless, diplomacy sometimes requires the sensitivity and subterfuge of the language of love.
Finding the delicate balance, as in relationships between men and women, is the game of diplomacy.
Some conservatives thought George W. Bush should have used tougher language in the initial stages
of the crisis on Hainan Island by calling our pilots "hostages.'' Many liberals thought he was too tough,
when he said this accident could undermine our hopes for a "productive relationship between our two
The speculation quickly changed from who would say what, and when, to something like "he said, he
said.'' The advantage went to whoever got to write the subtitles.
The Chinese quibble endlessly over words, and which shade of purple to say them in. Did the
president express enough grief over the death of the Chinese pilot? Was he "feichang wanxi'' (very
sorrowful) or merely "feichang bao qian'' (very sorry)? Imagine the misery of the translator assigned
to convert the tortured syntax of George Bush into "feichang'' anything. We should be grateful we
have a laconic president who doesn't make a big deal over feeling another's pain. (Whatever Bill
Clinton would have said, and he would have said a lot, every hour on the hour, no one could have
translated it into two or three Chinese words.)
But how refreshing to get a lesson in the nuances of language, and an exercise in the kind of critical
thinking that extends beyond what the meaning of the word "is'' is. An imaginative teacher could use
this linguistic crossfire to stress the complexities and subtleties of language and the different ways
language reflects different cultures.
Few scholars any longer study rhetoric, and as a result most of us have a limited knowledge of the
infinite shades of gray (or purple) in the art of persuasion and translation. Words, which actually have
precise meanings, are often flung about with abandon, even by people who regard themselves as
educated. But every language offers a different set of rhetorical possibilities, and none are more
formidable than the languages of China. Media Studies Journal, which examines the media and its
impact on society, devotes an entire issue to the specific difficulties in reporting about China.
"With 4,000 years of civilization, China has consistently produced leaders and advisers who seem
especially artful in using language to their advantage, understanding all too well that cruel and brutal
rule must be glossed over with a soft veneer,'' writes Dai Qing, a Chinese dissident and onetime
reporter for a Chinese daily.
The Chinese specialize in a technique they euphemistically call "guiding public opinion.'' What they
mean is "censorship.'' It's the language equivalent of "saving face'' and it's what the Chinese
government tried to impose on the United States with demands for an "apology.''
In China, the government speaks to a reporter in clear and precise language about how that reporter
should approach his story. Explains Dai Qing: "'Say it this way and not that, for no other position shall
be tolerated,' or better yet, 'Saying it this way is to your advantage, for if you insist on the opposite,
well, then just let's wait and see.'''
This approach sets the parameters for how the Chinese report a story to their own people. "Sorry''
was the word they had to have us say so they could tell their people that the United States had
apologized. It was less important what we apologized for than that we used a word the government
could manipulate. So the United States said it was "very sorry that the entering of China's air space
and landing did not have verbal clearance.''
The Chinese wanted us to accept the blame for the collision, but President Bush finally made them
understand they weren't going to get that. Stalling became counterproductive and the Chinese
government began to worry that the situation could spin out of control.
Wisdom, Confucius might say, is knowing when to cut bait, especially when you've got other fish to
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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate