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China was nearly invisible in the vice presidential debate—except for mangling Xi Jinping’s name

Reuters/Mike Blake
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Foreign languages are hard, not least because they often challenge us to engage our mouths and tongues in entirely unfamiliar ways. But that’s perhaps not a good enough excuse to mess up the name of one of the most powerful people in the world, especially if you’re a prominent politician in contention for nearly the highest office in the US.

The US vice presidential debate on Wednesday (Oct. 7) largely focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, with China getting only a sliver of air time. And the little that vice president Mike Pence said about China was blocked by Beijing’s censors, who temporarily cut the live broadcast as soon as he began blaming the country for the pandemic. Then senator Kamala Harris took the floor in response—and badly mangled Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s name, rendering “Xi” (习) more like “zhee” or even “ji.”

The “x” sound in Mandarin is tough for non-native speakers, and the closest equivalent in English is “she,” but with the tongue placed low and pressed flat behind the teeth. The second character of Xi’s name, Jin (近), is also tricky, pronounced less like “gin” but rather with a hard “j,” with the tip of the tongue behind the teeth. The third character of Xi’s name, ping (平), is straightforward enough, much like the English word ping as in the ping of another email reaching your inbox. But the “x” followed by “j” in Xi Jinping’s name is decidedly challenging and can trip up any non-native Mandarin speaker.

It’s not only Harris who has a hard time pronouncing Xi’s name, however. Pence, in a speech on China last year, also rendered Xi’s name somewhere between “zhee” and what it should have been. Trump, though, appears to go with the recommended “she”—perhaps due to having access to in-house Mandarin speakers.

Still, Harris’s slip was better than how current and former French presidents Emmanuel Macron and François Hollande have pronounced Xi’s name, with “x” likely even trickier for native French speakers.

Harris would understand the importance of getting name pronunciations right, though. In fact, she has a short video devoted specifically to teaching people how to say “Kamala.” And she can take comfort from probably the most unfortunate rendition of Xi’s name, when an Indian television anchor called the Chinese leader “Eleven Jinping,” confusing “Xi” with the Roman numerals XI. That anchor was fired for the mishap.

You can listen to a pronunciation of Xi Jinping here:

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