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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 at 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 pick up on a double meaning of the exchange – one which was likely unintended by Obama. The word “family” in Chinese is often associated with the word “country” (as in “国家”). In the Confucian context, the ruler was seen as a father figure who was 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 is quite funny – Bo Xilai, who was 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 the worst possible time for the Chinese government as it tries to orchestrate a once in a decade leadership transition. Bo, who many assumed would increase his power during this transition, has become the cast-out prodigal son.

Netizens imagined the following possible responses from Hu:

“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 information, see here (English) or here (Chinese).

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