In "Dead and alive: metaphors for (dis)obeying the law " (7/27/14), we discussed the food scandal that has rocked China in recent days. Abe Sauer had earlier made this post to the brandchannel: "China's Latest Meat Scandal Could Deal a Death Blow to Brands Like KFC " (7/23/14). In it, Abe remarked, "Taking a note from America's Watergate-based nomenclature, the scandal is being called 'Foul Meat-gate' ('臭肉门')." Ben Zimmer, who called Abe's post to my attention, asked, "Is '-gate' really working as a morpheme here?"
The answer is a resounding "yes".
However, whereas the "-gate" suffix of English is generally restricted to events having major political implications, the corresponding Chinese "-mén 门" suffix has been expanded to include all sorts of sensational events in which the public takes an intense interest.
Before I delve more deeply into examples of the "-mén 门" suffix in action, I need to dispose of a thorny matter concerning the variants of the character used to write it. The traditional form is 門; if you use your imagination I suppose that you can see the leaves of what looks like a saloon door.
Earlier forms of the character are given on this page (the oldest ones are at the bottom).
The official simplified character for mén ("gate; door") is this one: 门. Unfortunately, in the brandchannel article, and increasingly elsewhere, this mysterious form is the one that you will see: 门. This is actually quite troublesome, because sometimes when I want to type 门, 门 will pop up indiscriminately, and vice versa. This morning when I was working on this post, the 门 <=> 门 problem became quite maddening, especially because I was having a hard time documenting just where 门 came from and whether it had any legitimacy in the overall Chinese writing system.
Finally, Tom Bishop and Stephan Stiller came to my rescue by informing me that 门 is actually an unofficial Japanese simplified character. You can see it half the way down on the right side of this page. Clicking on the first word of the caption beneath the large form of this character, I learned that this type of colloquial simplified kanji are called ryakuji 略字 ("abbreviated characters") or hissha ryakuji 筆写略字 ("handwritten abbreviated characters"). Unfortunately, this unofficial 门 shares the same Unicode code point as the official Chinese simplified form 门. Software may display one or the other depending on one's font and language configurations. No wonder my poor computer was so confused this morning and why I was so frustrated.
Well, enough of 門, 门, and 门 (here I really am tempting the fates), let's look at an instance of Chinese -mén 门 ("-gate" [i.e., "scandal; controversy"]) in actual usage.
A good example would be "Pōmò-mén 泼墨门" ("Splash Ink-Gate" — not Post Modernism-Gate!), which became notorious when a group of men dressed in black splashed ink on a large poster of the actress, Zhang Ziyi (of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame), that was displayed near her home (this was part of an even bigger scandal which is too complicated to go into here).
An academic controversy that is currently raging in China is the Yenching [Academy]-Gate. An attempt has been made to establish a prestigious college called Yenching Academy within Peking University, but it has met with fierce resistance on the part of those who view it as elitist and too tied to missionary traditions and Western influences in general. All of this is especially galling to the opponents of the new Yenching Academy because of the close association of Peking University with the old Yenching University, leaving a bitter taste in their mouth.
In Chinese, this is called the Yànjīng-mén 燕京门 ("Yenching-Gate" — sorry, the third character is wrong, but I can't do anything about it at this point). Now, this comes out as extremely clever and cute, as well as extraordinarily ironic, since Chinese universities place a tremendous amount of symbolic weight on their actual gates (not the "-gates" that are controversial in nature).
By now, there are hundreds of examples of the suffix "-men 门" in Chinese. Mind you, these are just the ones that are better known. There's no point in transcribing and translating all of these names. It should be obvious even to those who don't know Chinese that they all end in 门
We may compare the list of Chinese scandals having the "-men 门" suffix with a list of controversies in English bearing the "-gate" suffix. It didn't take long for the former to catch up with the latter in terms of productivity.
[Thanks to Tansen Sen, Geoff Wade, Rebecca Fu, and Ziwei He]
Update: I forgot to include this closing verse from ch. 1 of the Tao Te Ching:
Xuán zhī yòu xuán,
Zhòng miào zhī mén.
Mystery of mysteries,
The gate of all wonders!