Mao's Little Red Aircraft Carrier

Freakonomics readers know that a baby’s name reveals more about its parents than about the baby. That’s also true of naval ships. The Christian Science Monitor reports that China’s online community has taken a strong interest in naming the country’s first aircraft carrier — if it ever gets built. The most favored name? Mao Zedong. China’s state newspaper approved, with one caveat: if an aircraft carrier named after Mao is damaged in battle, “it might hurt ordinary people’s feelings.” That’s not a bad point. Even your hard-hearted blog team winced a little at the trailer for Roland Emmerich‘s apocalyptic film 2012: the preview ends with the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy surfing a tidal wave directly into the White House. [%comments]


I really wish the English language service of Xinhua and other English press would stop using language about "hurt feelings." It sounds ridiculous in English, and perhaps a bit odd in Chinese ("shanghai zhongguo renmin de ganqing" is the usual phrase), but what they mean is something like an affront to national sensibilities.

I wonder if it's not just the bureaucratic momentum of this set translation that is holding Xinhua and the rest of us back from translating this more naturally.

--Language student in Beijing

Joe M. Ama

Bujiandeba, Graham:

Firstly, based on my experience in China, a good number of citizens would, in fact, have their feelings hurt if a boat named after Mao was damaged.

Secondly, just because something sounds ridiculous doesn't mean it's a bad translation. Assuming that your citing of xinhua's chinese is accurate:
"shanghai" means "hurt"
"Zhongguo renmin" means "chinese people"
"ganqing" means "feeling"

"Hurt feelings" may be guilty of sounding ridiculous, but it follows the putonghua as close as a translation can. "Affront to national sensibilities," however, is guilty of sacrificing brevity AND accuracy for the sake of trying to make the way that people express themselves in Chinese not sound ridiculous.


For many Chinese aircraft is a symbol of strength and national pride, beyond a military object, let alone maybe even a white elephant for tax payers. Zealots in nationalism are disastrous for any regime providing nothing but temporary distraction.

Robert Garcia

ganqing means "feelings", but also multiple other meanings. The meaning intended in the above phrase is not "feelings".


The aircraft carrier John F Kennedy will be out of mothballs at the Philadelphia Naval Yard by 2012? Or will it surf a tidal wave clear across Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay to the White House?

Yankee Scribble

Reminds me of the story from WWII... the German High Command renaming the battle cruiser Deutschland to Lutzow, because they feared the negative effect on public morale if the ship was sunk.

I wonder if this is a cultural characteristic. I can only image the American public becoming more resolute if the America was damaged or sunk. Commenter Keith will probably note that the USS America, also an aircraft carrier, was scrapped in Philadelphia Navy Yard about ten years ago.


When there's just one aircraft carrier in a fleet, national pride will be hurt if it is damaged--regardless of the name.

The same folks that care about the name of an aircraft carrier are precisely the folks that want a robust, masculine name.

The US named their WWII submarines after fish which did not limit their effectiveness. Subs with fearsome names like Tang, Wahoo, Albacore, and Cod sank the majority of all Japanese shipping in the Pacific during the war.

Jeff Thompson

Maybe we can sell China some of our excess military machinery. Despite the name of our Defense Department, we've been using it offensively for far too long, while consistently spending 1/3 of our budget on the DOD.

Even with all of our military might, I recall that on 9/11 that it was hard for the US to scrape up a few fighter jets to defend against an ACTUAL attack on the country.

1/3 of the entire budget, even in peacetime! We could give a first-class education to all of our citizens on a fraction of that, and base our economy on useful innovation, rather than financial shenanigans. That's real national security!