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Dr. Michael Pillsbury, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Chinese Strategy, testified before the US Senate (p. 9) on Nixon's visit to China:

But there were glimpses even then that the Chinese saw the United States not as an ally but as an obstacle. Referring to the United States, Zhou offered a hint of how the Chinese really felt about their new prospective friend. “America is the ba,” Zhou told Kissinger’s interpreter, Ambassador Ji Zhaozhu of China’s Foreign Ministry, repeating a term that would be frequently used by Chairman Mao and his successor, Deng Xiaoping.

[...] Kissinger’s translator told Kissinger that Zhou’s statement meant, “America is the leader.” This seemed to be an innocuous remark, and when taken in the context of the Cold War even a compliment. But that is not what the word ba means in Mandarin — at least that is not its full context.

How would that statement have been constructed in Chinese, and to which "ba" was being referred to?

  • ““America is the ba,” Zhou told Kissinger’s interpreter,” What did Zhou say exactly in Chinese? I highly doubt if the interpreter misheard it at the time because the single character 'ba' doesn't seem to make sense. Usually, words like 霸主,霸王,一霸,... are used for that kind of purpose. Mostly likely, I'd think "一霸" is the word which the interpreter might misheard. "America is A Ba" instead of "America is the Ba". – dan Dec 9 '18 at 3:24
  • In national propaganda, America is treated as 帝国主义 and 霸(Ba)主: hegemony. – Jacob Dec 9 '18 at 5:01
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I guess it was /ba4/ : tyrant; bully; overlord

Short for '霸主' (dominant leader among rulers) or '霸權' (dominant power)

It was not a friendly word toward America, because it implied America was a bully, (try to dominate other countries of the world with it's strength)

In ancient time, the difference between 霸主 (leader among rulers) and 天下共主 (common leader of the lords) is a 霸主 didn't have the loyalty of the other rulers. They submitted to him out of fear.

Since Zhou said "America is the ba" I presume he meant "美國是全世界的霸主" (America is the world's most dominant power)

美國是全世界的霸主

If Zhou said "America is a ba", then would mean "美國是一個霸權" (America is a hegemony)

Side note:

春秋五霸 (Five Hegemons) were five rulers who earned the title of 霸主 during the Spring and Autumn Period.

  • in the 1970s, it's two 霸, the us leaded nato, and the ussr leaded warsaw pact. maybe one can treat the non-aligned movement as the third one, a smaller one. – 水巷孑蠻 Dec 9 '18 at 1:40
  • China didn't see it that way. Only America and it's allies were accused of hegemonism (霸權主義) , while USSR was considered communism ally of China. – Tang Ho Dec 9 '18 at 1:53
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as @tang ho revealed, the corresponding character is "霸" (u+9738).

in confucianism, it's a negative term.

孟子 公孫丑上:

孟子曰.以力假仁者霸.霸必有大國.以德行仁者王.王不待大

孟子 告子下:

孟子曰.五霸者.三王之罪人也

imo, such usage is very precise, and concise :)

btw, the iraq war, there's "myth" that mr deng commented it as

"大霸打小霸"

in which "大霸" means us, "小霸" means iraq.

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