It looks pretty likely that 习近平 (Xí Jìnpíng) will be China’s next president, and that’s set me wondering what the English-language media will do with his name, as it poses a couple of problems in English (not the least the inevitable tide of Xi Jinping puns).
Pronunciation of Xi Jinping / 习近平
If you’ve studied Chinese and can read pinyin, then you can have a good go at pronouncing ‘Xi Jinping’:
For the uninitiated, though, it’s not clear at all. First up there’s the tones, which I’ve colour-coded above. I actually think we can ignore them, though; it’s fine to convert foreign names into English phonology when using them in English.
Saying Xi Jinping without tones is perfectly clear in English so we don’t need them. Anyone who insists on doing otherwise is like that pretentious guy in a restaurant ordering wine in a perfect French accent (or so he thinks).
After that, the given name Jinping probably isn’t too hard to have a guess at, and most English speakers should be able to produce a pretty good approximation of it. The j and p sounds in English aren’t completely the same as they are in Mandarin pinyin, but they’re close.
The x is probably the biggest stumbling block, then. I’ve already heard BBC newsreaders pronouncing this as j, z, sh, and a voiced sh sound. Of those, the unvoiced sh sound is probably the best bet. Again it’s not actually the same as x in pinyin, but it’s the closest comfortable thing in English.
IPA pronunciation for Xi Jinping
If you’re familiar with IPA, you’ve got an easy route into this:
That’s less useful for the rest of us, though. Let’s have a look at how Wikipedia helps readers pronounce this name:
Hmm. The only thing that surprises me there is ch for the pinyin j sound. That’s not a bad idea, actually, as the way many English speakers pronounce ch is actually closer to the pinyin j. But the pronunciation of the family name 习 brings me on to the main point of this post.
He’s called SHE? – Xi Jinping puns
I’m sure the English language media will have a field-day thinking of puns for 习近平 headlines. I’ll get the ball rolling with my own suggestions for Xi Jinping puns. We can play Xi Jinping pun bingo by crossing them off as the media uses them:
- Xi’s all that
- That’s what Xi said
- Xi doesn’t know who I am (and Xi doesn’t give a damn about me)
- Murder, Xi wrote
- Xi’s way out of my league
- He said, Xi said
- Xi loves me, Xi loves me not
- Xi loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah
- Xi’s the one for me
- Xi’s gotta have it
And so on. Please add more in the comments if you have them (there is endless potential). But that’s only one half of this. The bigger issue, I think, is that Xi is going to be one hell of a confusing surname when used in speech.
In writing it’s not so bad because it’s easy to distinguish Xi and ‘she’. But when someone says the Anglicised Xi out loud, it sounds exactly the same as ‘she’. Imagine this:
“Angela Merkel met with the Chinese president last Thursday. She said that the talks were successful, but Xi’s not that easy to gauge.”
Now obviously it’s quite a silly example, but you can see the issue with this. So I’m wondering if the media will think of some alternative way of referring to Xi Jinping, instead of just using his confusing surname.
My guess is that the media will always use Xi’s full name Xi Jinping, except when it makes for a good pun. They could refer to him as ‘President Xi’, but I actually think that’s unlikely, as China still doesn’t get that level of recognition in Western media.
‘President’ refers to the president of America unless otherwise specified. European countries might get ‘President Sarkozy’ or similar, but for now China will always get ‘Chinese President Xi Jinping’. Xi’ll just have to put up with it.