Brush Strokes

Sun zi


Sun zi

Modern version of sunzi

On April 2, Deng Zhuodi, grandson of former Chinese Premier and reformer Deng Xiaoping, was appointed deputy magistrate of Pingguo County in Guangxi.

Deng, a 28 year-old graduate of Duke University and of Beijing University Law School, soon became a widely discussed topic on Sina Weibo. Photos circulated online, noting that he was especially significant as the former paramount leader’s sun zi 孙 子, or literally his son’s son.

Kinship titles in the Chinese language are far more specific than in English, a language which uses non-specific generic titles for family members. For example, ‘cousin’, ‘grandfather’, ‘grandmother ’, ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ can each refer to two or more different people in each case. Sun zi is an especially important term in the Chinese context, and one which has no corollary in English. For example, the term grandson is used in English to describe all the sons of your offspring. However, sun zi denotes the most special variety of grandson for Chinese: one born of your son and who therefore retains the family name (a daughter’s son is, by comparison, ‘outside the family’ taking the family name of his father).

Deng Zhuodi is one of four grandchildren of Deng Xiaoping. His three other grandchildren are all children of Deng Rong, Deng’s daughter, and are therefore ‘outer’ grandchildren or wai sun zi on the mother’s side.

The term sun zi – which applies to Deng Zhuodi and not the other grandchildren – points to the longstanding Chinese cultural preference for male heirs. He is the son of Deng Zhifang (Deng Xiaoping’s son).

In Chinese society, the ideal Confucian household had five generations living under the same roof. Chinese kinship titles are very specific: yeye refers to your father’s father; waigong refers to your mother’s father; nainai refers to your father’s mother; and waipo refers to your mother’s mother.

As to how sun zi is rendered in Chinese calligraphy: the characters used are 孙 子. The first is composed of 子 (zǐ) ‘son‘ and 系 (xì) ‘connect’ in the traditional script, and the final character repeats ‘son’, thus denoting a connection of sons.

According to official reports, Deng Zhuodi’s new role is to push through reforms in Pingguo County, regulate commodity prices, manage legal institutions and help to improve rural agricultural conditions. Deng’s resume, available for download last Thursday, mysteriously became unavailable the following day when netizens began discussing his background.

No doubt as the sun zi of one of China’s most famous leaders, his career could well be fast-tracked – although some netizens were bemused that a US-educated princeling should want to be a bureaucrat in a poor rural county rather than, say, start a private equity fund.

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