Today's category: phrases that have outlived their time.
Today's winner: "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people."
The front page of the Dec 8 edition of the (state-run, English-language, indispensable) China Daily had this item on Chinese-EU tensions, especially Chinese-French, because of Nicolas Sarkozy's recent decision to meet with the Dalai Lama:
Fair enough: it's an area of genuine contention. But then we have the quote from China's deputy foreign minister laying out the specifics of France's offense:
Ah, it "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." This is the phrase I wait for in every Chinese government statement on matters of international disagreement.
Yes, there is a real concept buried beneath this boilerplate slogan. The concept might be expressed other places as "an insult to the dignity of our nation," or "disrespect for our people and their principles" or something. But it is generally used quite sparingly in other nations' pronunciamentos, because in the end listeners don't find it that persuasive.
Yes, one nation should not gratuitously offend any others -- a point my recent interviewee, the Chinese mega-banker Gao Xiqing, makes very effectively.* And, yes, in many personal dealings, saying "you hurt my feelings!" may be an important part of reaching a resolution. But you don't find Talleyrand, Metternich, George C. Marshall, and even Sun Tzu recommending this complaint as a big part of international strategy. And remember, this is not some sand-bagging trick of mistranslation. These are the English words the Chinese government itself selects.
As I argued last month in the Atlantic, China's official spokesmen make the country seem far less appealing than it really is, because their sloganized responses display so little grasp of how outsiders act, think, and respond. Important evidence that my contention is out of date will be the disappearance of "hurt our feelings" from future official statements.
* The way Gao put it, talking about what he learned from hardships working on a railroad gang during the Cultural Revolution:
I learned that, from a social point of view, no matter how lowly statured a person you are talking to, as a person, they are the same human being as you are. You have to respect them. You have to apologize if you inadvertently hurt them. And often you have to go out of your way to be nice to them, because they will not like you simply because of the difference in social structure.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.