Foreign reporters flaunt their Mandarin skills

Updated: 2013-03-10 08:04

By Wu Jiao (China Daily)

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Caroline Puel, French magazine Le Point correspondent in Beijing, was surprised twice on Saturday at the press conference with China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Besides getting a chance to ask a question out of the hundreds of reporters at the scene, Puel also got high marks from Yang for her Chinese.

Foreign reporters flaunt their Mandarin skills

"Your Chinese is so good I can understand your question without asking you to repeat it", Yang told her with a big smile.

After the meeting, Puel told me that the minister's comment was over-praise.

"By saying this, Minister Yang really gives me mianzi (face)," Puel said.

This time, she shocked me.

Giving mianzi reflects the highest praise and courtesy. Although frequently used by the Chinese, it is not so easy for foreigners to grasp its nuances. But Puel, who has lived in China for more than 20 years, managed.

It was notable that all six of the foreign reporters who questioned the foreign minister chose to speak in Chinese, instead of relying on translators as their counterparts were wont to do.

Ezzat Shahrour, from Al-Jazeera's Beijing bureau, said it is quite normal for foreign reporters: "I think Chinese is the common language among us, and we don't have to rely on a third one."

For Shahrour, it is a meaningful trend. It means foreign reporters can get more information first-hand.

Shahrour has covered China's annual two sessions for more than 10 years, and he said he could read the priorities in China's foreign affairs just through the questions raised at the press briefing.

There are plenty of his peers who are equally acquainted with Chinese ways beyond language, I found during my coverage of the two sessions.

Some foreign reporters know China so well that they grasp the subtle signs.

When Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his work report to thousands of national legislators, a reporter from Europe who sat next to me listening would applaud whenever the Premier slowed down and upped his pitch, a Chinese way of "applause please".

He really seemed Chinese to the core.

As I looked around, I saw several reporters, perhaps from Russia, reading the Chinese version of the Government Work Report and taking notes as Premier Wen spoke.

What competition! Especially for reporters like me from an English-language newspaper. Anyway, talking with a foreign counterpart fluent in Chinese makes it convenient for work, but sometimes it can go awry.

For instance, the more Chinese they know, the more likely they would quote Chinese jargon to parry your questions.

As I pursued interviews with some Beijing-based foreign reporters for their impression of modern Chinese society, one of them turned me down politely: "As you Chinese say, China at present is a complex situation, so it is hard to answer your question with just one or two sentences."

"But despite the uneven road, you will have a bright future," the reporter added.

Some refusals are more concise. They would employ a typical Chinese phrase, "Zaishuoba" ("Let's talk about it later") as a roundabout way to end the discussion.