It seems very strange that a foreign minister to an English-speaking country cannot speak English — when his only (?) job is to interact with and understand foreigners.

Why doesn't the Chinese foreign minister speak English? Is there any historical precedent to this?

  • 9
    China's foreign minister or their ambassador to Canada? The ambassador to Canada not knowing English would be perhaps a little surprising but not unprecedented. The foreign minister not knowing English would be unsurprising, unnotable, irrelevant, and very common. The FM is the equivalent to the US Secretary of State. Also, all embassies will have translators attached.
    – Eremi
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:17
  • 3
    Are you sure he cannot ? Without context (because I admit I didn't researched this and just watched full video), not bothering speaking the language of the journalist whom question you consider "prejudiced" and "arrogant" could seem "legitimate". Other than that as there's professional traductors why bother ? I'd add at 01:06 in the video, it seems to me that he start speaking again very fastly after the traductor ends. Is it because he understand her and know when she's done ? Not sure but possible.
    – Guiroux
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:27
  • 9
    The current US ambassador to China does not speak Chinese. Similarly many predecessors have not, at least when appointed.
    – user9389
    Jun 27, 2018 at 17:11
  • Speaking the native language is a show of status ("I represent my country so I should speak my own language) more than anything, usually. Wang majored in Japanese in college and is fluent in both Japanese and English but has not often spoken in either in college. Even if he wanted to, he probably could not.
    – xuq01
    Jun 27, 2018 at 18:41
  • I think you will find many occasions where official representatives such as foreign secretaries and ambassadors use their countries own language as a matter of principle. Instances where French president Macron speaks French or German chancellor Merkel speaks German at common press conferences with peers from English-speaking countries come to mind. Other samples may convince you that e.g. those two politicians speak English quite well if occasions demand it.
    – Drux
    Nov 27, 2018 at 5:16

2 Answers 2


Speaking English is obviously not a prerequisite for the job, however, China's foreign minister Wang Yi is said to "speak perfect English but has a low-key public profile and rarely talks to foreign reporters." He also worked in the Chinese embassy in Washington, including as ambassador from 2000-2004.

He is one of China's leading experts on their major regional rival, Japan. China and Japan are currently locked in a major territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea. He was previously a Chinese diplomat in Tokyo, and is said to speak Japanese like a native. He was likely chosen for the post due to his reputation as a "brilliant and urbane diplomat", known for some shrewd and clever negotiation tactics.

It is common for government representatives to travel with translators-- so much so that it is newsworthy if one purposefully omits their interpreter (e.g. 1, 2). This is often because the interpreter can take notes or transcribe the meeting. And further, even when government representatives do speak English, sometimes they prefer to respond in their native language to minimize the chance of misunderstandings between the two parties (as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did in his conversation with US President Donald Trump).


There was a Daily Show segment about some of the difficulties of translating foreign leaders. One of the people featured was an English to Japanese translator who pointed out that even if you directly translated Trump's infamous "Grab them by the [blank]" directly into Japanese, there is no way to possibly translate the crudeness of that statement in English to Japanese. They don't really have crude ways of discussing those parts. A good translator will have to understand both the cultural and literal meaning of a phrase and know how to parse it.

Even with translators, this can go wrong. Nikita Khrushchev's famous "We will bury you speech" was a peace speech and never meant to be threatening. However, the use of the phrase as quoted was used in a context that is more of mourning capitalism as a dead economic system in the same way one would mourn an elderly person at their interment. In the west, the phrase is typically threatening in the context of a metaphoric use... typically the speaker will bury you because he also killed you. This is to say nothing of "Kuzma's Mother" which does have an actual meaning but was so archaic the translator had no idea what it meant. It would be the equivalent if someone used the English phrase "I bight my Thumb at thee". Yes, it's a threat, but is so archaic, even native speakers have a hard time parsing the exact meaning of what was just said.

  • 3
    Cultural context is critical in translation: at the end of WW2, Truman's 'surrender or face destruction' statement elected an official reply from Japan: mokusatsu. That term has two meanings: to give careful consideration, or to regard with contempt, much as the english phrase 'that's great' can mean the opposite if said in a sarcastic context. The US translators chose the second interpretation, and the nuclear bombs were dropped. Did Japan mean to communicate the first meaning? That has never really been explained.
    – tj1000
    Jun 29, 2018 at 3:06
  • @tj1000 Sounds like "We will think about it." would have been proper translation for "mokusatsu". It keeps ambiguity between sincerity and mocking contempt.
    – M i ech
    Feb 15, 2019 at 14:04

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