17. November 2009

Obama uses chengyu in Shanghai

Posted in English, Fehler, News, 成語 um 2:34 pm von krisnawan

Even though President Barack Obama is not known to be an aficionado of chengyu unlike Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, last night when he gave a speech to students in Shanghai, he made his obligatory mention of a Chinese idiom:

There’s a Chinese proverb: „Consider the past and you shall know the future.“ (about 15:45 into the video)

As I’ve commented several times on this blog, whenever a (Taiwanese) politician uses chengyu, there’s always a potential for  them to make a fool out of themselves for committing a mistake or two or another. (Though the American media were also debating whether Hillary Clinton did use the appropriate chengyu with respect to the US-China relationship).

Barack Obama did not misuse a chengyu yesterday, but it still caused controversy in the Taiwanese media, because some media outlets had reported he had used one of the Confucian classics, 溫故知新 wēn gù zhī xīn, which is from the following part of Confucius‘ Analects:

The Master said, „If a man keeps cherishing his old knowledge, so as continually to be acquiring new, he may be a teacher of others.“

Obama was stressing the good record of mutual ties between the US and China, so it is a bit odd to use this chengyu, which mainly relates to expanding knowledge, even though some media outlets didn’t miss a beat:


So it didn’t take long until some journalists noticed the discrepancy and so the next chengyu controversy was born:


The origin of the alternative put forward, 鑑往知來 jiàn wăng zhī lái, is less clear, some point to a poem in the Shijing of rather negative tone , but I think the more probable source is Liezi, a Daoist text:

Therefore, the Sage observes the origin in order to know the issue, scrutinizes the past in order to know the future. Such is the principle whereby he attains foreknowledge.

So Confucius talks about developing new knowledge from old, but Liezi talks about observing the past as to know the future, so between these two, it’s clearly the latter that fits better.