The big news in Beijing last week was the theft of millions of dollars worth of artwork from the heavily guarded Forbidden City. The Telegraph reported that "The seven stolen items had come from a temporary exhibition of early 20th century Chinese furniture, jewellery boxes and bags from the collections of the privately-run Liangyicang Museum in Hong Kong."
According to the BBC, "The Beijing News reported that the Hong Kong museum had not insured the items for as much as it could have because it believed they would be safe in Beijing."
The daring theft occurred during the wee hours of the morning on Monday the 9th. By Wednesday night, Beijing police announced that they had apprehended a person whom they declared was the suspected culprit and had recovered most of the missing objects.
While there was much hand-wringing and soul-searching over how such a brazen robbery could have occurred under the very noses and cameras of the massive security apparatus inside of the Forbidden City, the real fun began after the apprehension of the suspected criminal, and it has a cause that is rooted in the misuse of characters.
Wishing to reward the police officers for capturing the thief, the officials who manage the Forbidden City presented them with two ceremonial banners. When photographs of the banners circulated in the media, an uproar ensued on the Internet. Here's why.
The slogan on one of the banners (the one on the right in the photograph linked above) reads:
Hàn zǔguó qiángshèng; wèi jīngdū tài'ān 撼祖國強盛 衛京都泰安, by which they intended to mean "Guard the strength and prosperity of the fatherland; defend the tranquility and peace of the capital." Instead, what the authorities of the Forbidden City wrote was "Shake the strength and prosperity of the fatherland; defend the tranquility and peace of the capital." The problem arose because they substituted the homophone hàn 撼 ("shake") for hàn 捍 ("guard; defend"). In some contexts, hàn 撼 ("shake") might well convey the notion of "overthrow" or "topple" — treasonous sentiments to harbor when it comes to one's fatherland.
When this mistake was pointed out by China's netizens, the officials of the Forbidden City dug in their heels and insisted that their use of hàn 撼 ("shake") was justified by the allusion to the patriotic Southern Song Dynasty military leader Yue Fei 岳飛 (1103 – 1142 AD), of whom his opponents, the northern Jurchens of the Jin Dynasty, declared, "Hàn shān yì, hàn Yuè jiā jūn nán" 撼山易，撼岳家軍難 (It is easy to shake a mountain; it is difficult to shake the army of Yue Fei, i.e., it is easier to shake a mountain than it is to shake Yue Fei's army). This didn't help matters any, of course, since the real meaning of hàn 撼 ("shake; disturb; push aside / over," rather than "guard; defend") was all the more apparent in this sentence, despite the allusion to Yue Fei, a model of loyalty to the nation.
The stubbornness of the Forbidden City officials in refusing to acknowledge their error only compounded their acute embarrassment at allowing the theft to take place in the first place.
[Thanks are due to Edward Wong, Sophie Wei, and Lareina Li]