Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Chinese – Dàoqiàn

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Apology, Chinese

道歉 (道歉)


Relates to apology

The term is composed of two characters.

道 (道) – dào – to speak, to say[1]

歉 (歉) – qiàn – an apology, regret, to feel ashamed or sorry[2]

道歉 (道歉) – dàoqiàn – to express or show apology, excuse, or regret, to admit mistakes or faults, to apologize[3]


The Chinese and English terms for ‘apology’ received international attention when relations between China and the United States fell into dispute following the mid-air collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a US EP-3 surveillance aircraft in Chinese airspace on 1 April 2001. In the lead-up to the incident’s peaceful resolution, China insisted that the United States express dàoqiàn. This is not the only case in which the Chinese government has made determined demands on foreign countries for dàoqiàn.

Within Chinese foreign policy, demand for dàoqiàn tends to arise from two affronts. Firstly, dàoqiàn is demanded when there is perceived damage to China’s national interests. Secondly, the request for dàoqiàn relates to the feelings of both the Chinese government and the Chinese people, particularly with respect to national sentiment and history. In most cases, demands for dàoqiàn emanate from China’s desire for foreign countries or individuals to admit mistakes and show that they are willing to be held accountable and agree to take responsibility for any ‘wrongdoings’ or ‘offence’.

A second example of a dàoqiàn demand relates to the perceived damage of China’s national interests when the US-led NATO forces’ bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on 8 May 1999. After the bombing of the Embassy, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tang Jiaxuan met with the US Ambassador to China James R. Sasser. Tang released a statement asking that, ‘US-led NATO must take full responsibility for this incident’, and one of his four requests was that ‘the U.S.-led NATO publicly and formally apologise (dàoqiàn) to the Chinese government, the Chinese people, and the family of the Chinese victims’.[4] Later, former U.S. President Bill Clinton publicly apologised for the incident, however, it was described by CNN as a ‘personal’ apology.[5]

In the case of the 2001 EP-3 spy plane case, events were exacerbated because, while the U.S. aircraft landed safely in China’s Hainan Island, the Chinese pilot was lost. China sternly demanded that the United States express dàoqiàn for the incident. As former Chinese President Jiang Zemin said, ‘the responsibility of the collision lies on the United States completely and the United States should dàoqiàn (apologise) to the people of China’.[6] The contention between China and the United States over which term would fully express an apology for the loss of a life and the liability of the collision lasted for days. The dispute over the language ended only after the United States said it was ‘very sorry’ for the loss of the Chinese pilot and ‘very sorry’ for entering China’s airspace and landing in China without China’s verbal clearance.[7] The two cases illustrate that the United States did not express regrets or apologies in line with China’s expectations; nonetheless, by manipulating translations of the U.S. statement in the state-controlled press, Beijing was able to convey to the Chinese public a somewhat different account that emphasised U.S. remorse. The sorry/apology phenomenon indicates that when national interests are involved, such as compensation or the responsibility of an error, it is very difficult for China to force the opposition country to publicly dàoqiàn in the manner China desires, as different parties have different views on the same matter. At the same time, Beijing’s privileged access to the central mass-media outlets within China provides with significant leverage over how the meaning of international events is conveyed, in this case through linguistic manipulation.

The Chinese government or people also expect or demand dàoqiàn from foreign countries or individuals when certain remarks are regarded as an insult to China and/or offending the Chinese people, even though no real breach of national interests have occurred. For example, U.S. actress Sharon Stone’s at the Cannes Film Festival 2008 following the earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province stated, ‘and then this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, ‘is that karma’- when you’re not nice and the bad things happen to you?’ The comment drew overwhelming criticism and boycotts from the Chinese people and communities.[8] Another similar case occurred in April 2008 when the Beijing Olympic torch’s relay was running in San Francisco. CNN commentator Jack Cafferty talked about Sino-U.S. relations, stating, ‘so I think our relationship with China has certainly changed. I think they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last fifty years’.[9] Anger, criticism and condemnation from the Chinese people followed in response to Cafferty’s remarks.

In Stone’s case, the actress quickly issued a Chinese-language statement to express to the Chinese people her regrets over her karma comment. The Chinese government responded to Stone’s statement, saying that China ‘has also noticed that she has dàoqiàn (apologised)’ to the Chinese people through her agent on the matter’.[10] In the Cafferty example, the Chinese government immediately demanded that Cafferty dàoqiàn to all the people of China over his remarks.[11] It is noted that in most cases, individuals who made controversial remarks targeting China are usually requested to dàoqiàn to the people of China, instead of the Chinese government. This can be explained through the notion that after having felt suppressed by Western imperialism and invasion for over one hundred years, the Chinese people want or need to re-establish and/or protect their national pride or patriotic sentiment. Remarks that are regarded by the people of China as insulting have thus become intolerable. Saying dàoqiàn to the people of China has becomes a must, even if the dàoqiàn made by individuals are generally regarded by the Chinese people as insufficient or insincere. The public vitriol unleashed when such apologies are not forthcoming, or not rapid enough, are indicative of the quasi-personal attachment of the public to its collective image and honour.

The historical dispute between China and Japan serves as a suitable example to examine China’s high expectations regarding dàoqiàn. In addition to expressing apology or regret, and being held for responsibility, the expression of dàoqiàn has to be in a formal format. For example, when conducting an interview with Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting System Television (TBS) in Tokyo in October 2000, former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said, ‘I would like to remind people of one thing, which is, so far in all of Japan’s formal documents, Japan has never apologised to the people of China’.[12] China also demands that words have to coincide with appropriate deeds when dàoqiàn is made. For instance, during the October 2001 visit to the Memorial Museum of Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War, former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro said he ‘expressed apology and sorrow to the Chinese victims of the invasion and war’.[13] However, Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, irrespective of China’s warning and opposition to Koizumi’s attendance, was interpreted by the Chinese government and the Chinese people as ‘saying one thing and doing another.’ The Chinese state media criticised Japan by saying, ‘if [Japan] apologises on one occasion, and on other occasions it either revises textbooks or denies the reality of invasion, what is the difference between Japan’s offering of an apology and not offering of an apology? … Koizumi’s apology as well as Japan’s apology, their words and deeds must be in accord with each other’. [14]

The Chinese bureaucracy also offers apologies. During the SARS epidemic in April 2003, China faced severe criticism from the international community for not being transparent enough in disclosing the epidemic situation inside China. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ‘apologised to the media, admitting that the governmental agencies in responsible for hygienic issues did not have enough cooperation with media and thus required self-reflection’.[15] In the melamine contaminated milk scandal in China and Taiwan in 2008, although China did not issue an ‘apology’, it did express its ‘regrets’ to the people of Taiwan.[16] In China’s domestic politics, there is an increasing trend for encouraging local governments and officials to make apologies to the general public as part of a way to hold the bureaucracy accountable.

Beijing’s willingness to account for its prominent failings to the public, and its strident demands for apologies on their behalf whenever national honour is perceived to be violated, is indicative not only of cultural and historical imperatives, but also to its pragmatic awareness of the threat to internal stability posed by increasingly assertive public opinion. While the state is happy to drum up demands for apologies to sooth China’s national honour, in order to deflect domestic pressure at times of international confrontation, its actions indicate that it tacitly acknowledges that these public perceptions of the respect that needs to be accorded to the Chinese people cuts both ways, and can threaten Beijing’s latitude and flexibility in resolving crises in which the opponent country is unwilling to back down. Consequently, linguistic gymnastics such as those utilised during the 2001 EP-3 Incident have become a necessary part of the CCP’s policy toolkit.




[1] Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 281. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1992, Vol 10, p. 1064

[2] 缺現代漢語詞典的註 Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1996, Vol 6, p. 頁數被蓋掉

[3] Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 282. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1992, Vol 10, p. 1083

[4] “Regarding the NATO’s Bombing of Our Embassy in Belgrade, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tang Jiaxuan Once Again Lodged Serious Representations and Present the Formal Note to the United States,”, [accessed January 11, 2010]

[5] “Clinton Apologizes to China over Embassy Bombing,”, May 10, 1999, [accessed January 11, 2010]

[6] “The Record of the Mid-Air Collision between China and the United States,”, [accessed January 12, 2010]

[7] “Letter from Ambassador Prueher to Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tang,”, April 11, 2001, [accessed January 12, 2010]

[8] “Stone Apologises for China Quake Remark,” ABC News, May 29, 2008, [accessed January 13, 2010]

[9] “CNN Apologises to China over ‘Thugs and Goons’ Comment by Jack Cafferty,” Times Online, April 16, 2008, [accessed January 14, 2010]

[10] “Christian Dior Announced to Drop Stone’s Advertisements in China,”, May 30, 2008, [accessed January 14, 2010]

[11] “Ministry of Foreign Affairs: China Strongly Condemned Cafferty, who Made Malicious Remarks Attacking the People of China,”, April 15, 2008, [accessed January 14, 2010]

[12] Excerpt from “Zhu Rongji in Press Conference,”, September 3, 2009, [accessed January 17, 2010]

[13] “Koizumi Visits the Memorial Museum of Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War and Expresses Introspection, Apology, and Sorrow,”, October 8, 2001, [accessed January 19, 2010]

[14] “The Editorial: Koizumi’s Apology of Words and Deeds Must be in Accord with Each Other,”, August 16, 2005, [accessed January 19, 2010]

[15] “Wu Yi ‘Takes Responsibility during the Crisis,’ It Is a Big Thing to Fight against SARS,”, April 28, 2003, [accessed January 4, 2010]

[16] “China’s Association For Relations across the Taiwan Strait Sends a Letter to Apologise concerning the Incident of Poisoned Milk; the Opposition Blamed China for Not Being Sincere,” the Liberty Times, October 28, 2008, [accessed January 19, 2010]


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