In U.S.-China Talks, The Metaphors Flow Freely | KERA News

In U.S.-China Talks, The Metaphors Flow Freely

Jun 7, 2016
Originally published on June 16, 2016 7:10 pm

The conversations in Beijing at high-level talks between the U.S. and China are quite serious. Leaders are covering a lot of ground — everything from climate change to currency, even outer space. But the language used in these discussions? Rather colorful.

This is China, after all — a civilization around for millennia. So, to describe the complex U.S.-China relationship, Chinese President Xi Jinping quoted a poet from the thousand-year-old Song Dynasty.

"Thick mountains could not stop the river from flowing into the sea," Xi said on Monday. "In fact, all rivers have to travel a meandering course before reaching their destination."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded in his opening speech with a different Chinese selection, but on the same general theme of working together. We think.

"Even a thousand-story tower starts with small piles of earth," Kerry intoned.

The metaphors continued in working sessions. When a small group of press was let into the very end of a closed meeting, NPR's microphone caught this one from U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, on the folly of greening the power sector while continuing to build coal plants.

"It's like trying to fill a bucket with water when the bucket has holes. It just doesn't work," Lew said.

The issues Chinese and American leaders are working through can get rather detailed, and in the current geopolitical climate ever more difficult to untangle.

"If you use the flowery metaphors, it gives them a little cover, but also allows them to make a point," says Jonathan Aronson, professor of communication and international relations at the University of Southern California. "So poets are always good, ancient philosophers are always good [to quote]. Because no one understands exactly what they said."

Putting things in more figurative terms — like tower-building — helps say something without saying anything specific.

"We should be ambitious, in building that tower," Kerry said Monday.

Towers as a diplomatic bridge. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.)

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Beijing this morning, U.S. financial and diplomatic leaders are working with their Chinese counterparts on a whole range of issues, covering everything from climate change to currency - even outer space.

NPR's Elise Hu is there. And she noticed one thing flowing as much as the coffee at the conference. We'll let her explain.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The conversations here are quite serious. But the language can be quite colorful. This is China, after all. So to describe the complex U.S.-China relationship, Chinese president Xi Jinping quoted a poet from the thousand-year-old Song dynasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) Thick mountains could not stop the river from flowing into the sea. In fact, all rivers have to travel a meandering course before reaching their destination.

HU: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded in his first speech by referencing a different Chinese saying but on the same general theme of working together - we think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Even a thousand-story tower starts with small piles of earth.

HU: The metaphors continued in working sessions, when a small group of press was let into the very end of a closed meeting. NPR's mic caught this one from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

TREASURY SECRETARY JACK LEW: It's like trying to fill a bucket with water that - the bucket has holes. It just doesn't work.

HU: Lew was talking there about the folly of greening the power sector, only to keep building coal plants. The issues Chinese and American leaders are working through can get rather detailed and, in the current geopolitical climate, ever more difficult to untangle. Perhaps thinking about something more figurative, like a tower, can help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KERRY: We should be ambitious in building that tower.

HU: Towers as a diplomatic bridge - sorry for the mixed metaphor. Elise Hu, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.