Huntsman wouldn’t be the only U.S. president to speak Chinese

January 9, 2012


Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman’s language skills have been in the spotlight since Saturday, when he said during a presidential candidates’ debate that his rival Mitt Romney does not understand U.S. relations with China — underscoring his point by saying so in Mandarin.

Huntsman is a former U.S. ambassador to China who learned the language as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan in the late 1980s. His campaign says the former governor of Utah also speaks Hokkien, a Chinese dialect used in Taiwan. 

Polls give Huntsman only a slim chance of making it to the White House, perhaps because some Republican voters view him as too moderate for serving as Democratic President Barack Obama’s emissary in Beijing. He has only about 3 percent support in the race for the Republican nomination to oppose Obama’s re-election bid, according to polls compiled by

But if he were to overcome the odds, he would not be the first Chinese speaker to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Herbert Hoover, who was president from 1929 to 1933, also spoke Chinese. Hoover learned the language when he worked as a mining engineer in China as a young man, said Spencer Howard, of the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.

Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, traveled to China in 1899, the day after they were married. Mrs. Hoover learned to speak and write Chinese as her husband worked under contract to the Chinese government to investigate mining conditions. The couple’s time in China was not without adventure — they were caught in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion against foreigners.

Howard said the Hoover library has diaries from aides describing how the first couple spoke Chinese as a way of having private conversations in the White House, and that the first lady had a good grasp of the language although Hoover is believed to have known only about 100 words.

“Mrs. Hoover really made a study of it. She apparently really was fairly fluent,” Howard said.

Picture credit: U.S President Barack Obama poses with China’s ambassador to the U.S. Zhou Wenzhong and then-U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, at the Great Wall of China in 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed.

Picture credit: A portrait of U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who served from 1929-1933. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout

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So sad that the GOP ignores, by far, their best candidate. Mostly because he put country before politics and accepted the position in the Obama administration as ambassador to China.

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