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bY Japanese Translation Services: Lips ‘n Teeth – Is a translation blooper at the heart of a geopolitical crisis?


Mao Zedong famously declared that China and North Korea were “as close as lips and teeth”.

by Japanese Translation Services
Lips 'n Teeth

The Chinese idiom Chairman Mao used is chún ch? xi?ng y?

Here are some translations of this idiom:

  • closely related, interdependent
  • be closely related and mutually dependent; close interdependence; closely related and interdepended like lips and teeth; be closely related to each other like [as] lips and teeth; be as close to each other as the lips are to the teeth; mutually to depend on each other as lips and teeth; (two neighboring countries) as closely related as lips and teeth
  • Two parties share a common interest. If one is hurt, the other will, too.

The West has interpreted this to mean “(two neighboring countries) as closely related as lips and teeth”, and, therefore, that China holds sway over North Korea, having the ability to influence that regime to curtail its nuclear weapons program. Indeed, successive US administrations, including that of the current president, have informed their strategy of dealing with North Korea by pressuring China based on that interpretation.

However, is this really what Chairman Mao meant? 

A cursory glance at a history of the tortured relations between these two countries suggests otherwise. A couple of examples:

  • The 1956 purge of members of an elite North Korean military group with ties to Mao
  • Deterioration of relations between the two countries in 1960s resulting of the recalling of the Chinese ambassador to Pyongyang
  • China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, infuriating North Korea
  • North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles which Beijing “resolutely opposes”.

With the North declaring “China should no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK's patience”, relations between the 2 countries currently have ebbed to their lowest point since the Korean War. 

Speaking of which, China has throughout history militarily supported border states as a means of creating a buffer between itself and its enemies, as it did in the Korean War. Another example of this strategy can be seen in the Vietnam War.

It is, therefore, not irrational to conclude Chairman Mao probably meant the “two parties share a common interest. If one is hurt, the other will (be), too.” In other words, he was warning that China would be in peril (without a buffer state) should the North fail. Think 11 September, 1950 when MacArthur advanced beyond the 38th parallel.

This would be, without a doubt, the better translation. The possibilities to resolving the geopolitical crisis on the Korean peninsula are endless under this, more accurate translation. The assumed relation of “close as lips and teeth” is probably a victim of that “lost in translation” malaise; the West -especially US administrations- should assure China that its interests would not be jeopardized in re-evaluating those supposed common interests with the North.

(Of course, if policy wonks in China were to carefully analyze the situation, they’d realize that the “buffer state” they see in North Korea is meaningless in an era of modern stand-off weapons, such as ballistic missiles and the like.)

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About the Author
Ivan Vandermerwe is the CEO of SAECULII YK, the owner of Japanese Translation Services Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news on Japanese Translation Services

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