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In U.S.-China Talks, The Metaphors Flow Freely

China's President Xi Jinping, left, speaks from the stage with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, center, during the opening ceremony of the 8th U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues.
Andy Wong

The conversations in Beijing at high-level talks between the U.S. and China are quite serious. Leaders are covering a lot of ground — everything from climate change to currency, even outer space. But the language used in these discussions? Rather colorful.

This is China, after all — a civilization around for millennia. So, to describe the complex U.S.-China relationship, Chinese President Xi Jinping quoted a poet from the thousand-year-old Song Dynasty.

"Thick mountains could not stop the river from flowing into the sea," Xi said on Monday. "In fact, all rivers have to travel a meandering course before reaching their destination."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded in his opening speech with a different Chinese selection, but on the same general theme of working together. We think.

"Even a thousand-story tower starts with small piles of earth," Kerry intoned.

The metaphors continued in working sessions. When a small group of press was let into the very end of a closed meeting, NPR's microphone caught this one from U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, on the folly of greening the power sector while continuing to build coal plants.

"It's like trying to fill a bucket with water when the bucket has holes. It just doesn't work," Lew said.

The issues Chinese and American leaders are working through can get rather detailed, and in the current geopolitical climate ever more difficult to untangle.

"If you use the flowery metaphors, it gives them a little cover, but also allows them to make a point," says Jonathan Aronson, professor of communication and international relations at the University of Southern California. "So poets are always good, ancient philosophers are always good [to quote]. Because no one understands exactly what they said."

Putting things in more figurative terms — like tower-building — helps say something without saying anything specific.

"We should be ambitious, in building that tower," Kerry said Monday.

Towers as a diplomatic bridge. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.)

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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