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How has your family been recently?

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家里最近怎么样? (Jiālǐ zuìjìn zěnmeyàng?): How has your family been recently?

When Barack Obama and Hu Jintao met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in South Korea in March 2012, Obama asked his counterpart, “How has your family been recently,” to which Hu responded “very good,” and returned the salutatory question.

Chinese netizens were quick to point out the double meaning of the exchange—one which Obama was likely unaware of. The word “family” in Chinese (家 jiā) is often associated with the word “country” (国家 guójiā). In the Confucian context, the ruler was seen as a father figure to be revered by his children-subjects. Thus, Obama’s question could be read as “how has China's political family been recently?”

In that context, Obama’s question could be interpreted as quite funny, as 2012 was an especially turbulent time in Chinese politics. Bo Xilai—one of the twenty-four members of the politburo, the tight-knit patriarchy that rules China—had just been relieved of his position as party secretary of Chongqing amid accusations that his wife had been involved in the poisoning death of a British national. Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief who had attempted to investigate the death, had fled to the Unites States consulate seeking amnesty. The Bo Xilai scandal came at an inconvenient time for the Chinese government, who was occupied with maintaining stability in the lead up to the decennial leadership transition. Bo, who many assumed would rise in the party hierarchy during this transition, had become the cast-out prodigal son, and has since been sentenced to life in prison on various corruption charges.

Netizens imagined a host of Hu's possible responses, including:

“My family’s fine, now that I’ve dealt with the king of the Southwest.”

“My family’s fine, sorry that the last time our kid misbehaved he ran over to your place to cause trouble for you.”

For more netizen commentary on the presidents' interaction, see CDT Chinese (zh).