24 September 2015

“Peaches and Plums Do Not Talk, Yet a Path Is Formed Beneath Them”—Greg Kulacki Explains What Xi May Really Have Meant in Seattle Speech

Gregory Kulacki, “Peaches, Plums and the Challenge of Cross-Cultural Communication,” China in Focus #19, All Things Nuclear: Insights on Science and Security, Union of Concerned Scientists, 24 September 2015.

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. …

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 trees 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. …

Click here for English-language version of speech.

Click here for Chinese-language version of speech.

Click here for some preliminary text analysis of speech.