Cantonese protest slogans

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We've been following the tumultuous Hong Kong democracy protests closely, e.g., "'Cantonese' song" (10/24/14), "The umbrella in Hong Kong" (10/19/14) and "Translating the Umbrella Revolution" (10/3/14), with plenty of additional material in the comments to these posts.

Now there is a new article in Quartz that focuses on the most popular slogans used by the protesters: "The backstory to seven of the most popular protest slogans in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement" (10/23/14).

I won't go through each of the seven slogans, because the author of the article, Lily Kuo, has done a reasonably good job of explaining them briefly, but I want to focus on the third item, gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落, which Kuo translates as "basked in light" and says that it

has become a catchphrase for police brutality. Police first used the term to hail the department’s transparency but protesters now use the phrase sarcastically, using it as a euphemism for being beaten.

Here is a poster featuring the phrase:

The poster shows the chief superintendent of public relations at Hong Kong’s police department, Hui Chun-tak, using the phrase gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落 to describe the actions of the police in dealing with the protesters. However, when Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, a politician with Hong Kong’s Civic Party, was subjected to a clandestine beating by a group of police officers, the public was outraged and mocked the police as being anything but gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落 ("open and aboveboard").

Here's what the Chinese wording on the poster says:

waak6ze2 ngo5 zoi3 cung4san1 jat1 ci3, ngo5 hai6 m4 zi1 me1je5 giu3 gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6
"Perhaps I should reiterate one more time, I indeed do not know what sort of thing is called gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落!!!!!"

It is followed by this whacky English pseudo-translation:

I will now recap in English. I don't know what is gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落. I don't know how to translate it because I really don't know the real meaning of this word.

Naturally, the person who did this amplified pseudo-translation knows what gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落 means and could have rendered it in English, but chose not to in order to satirize the lack of gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落 ("openness") on the part of the police.

I will examine gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落 in more detail below, but first want to translate the words on the piece of paper that has been affixed to the top right of the poster:

bat1 jiu3 hak1se5wui6/2 zi6 gong2
"[I / we] don’t want the triads / gangsters / organized crime [lit., 'black society'] ruling / governing Hong Kong"

This is to say that the police were behaving like the goons and thugs linked to organized crime and also sometimes deployed from the mainland that plague Hong Kong.

Now, what can we say about gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落? First of all, it is interesting that the English translation on the poster refers to the whole expression as a "word", whereas it would be more accurate to refer to it as a set phrase.

Second, strictly speaking gwong1 ming4 leoi5 lok6 光明磊落 is not particularly Cantonese, but it is an old expression that can be traced back many centuries in written Chinese (henceforth, I'll give the phonetic annotation in MSM for all citations).

Guāngmínglěiluò 光明磊落 ("aboveboard; forthright; be perfectly open in all one's actions") occurs as early as the recorded vernacular sayings of the great Neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Although not exactly in that form, the essential elements of the phrase are already present in the records of the non-Han founding emperor of the Later Zhao state, Shí Lè 石勒 (274–333), as recorded in the Jìn Shū 晉書 (Book / History of Jin; compiled 648). For those who wish to consult the Chinese text, it reads:

Jìn shū, Shí Lè zàijì xià: Dàzhàngfū xíngshì, dāng léiléiluòluò, rú rìyuè jiǎorán
晋书,石勒载记下: 大丈夫行事,当礌礌落落,如日月皎然
Book of Jin, Records of Shi Le, pt. 2: "When a great man acts, he should be open and upright, as bright as the sun and moon."

It is evident, from the form the sentiment takes here, that the léiluò part can assume many different guises, a feature of this and many other Chinese expressions, to which I shall return momentarily.

As for guāngmíng 光明, we may swiftly dispatch it by saying that it signifies "light; bright; openhearted; luminous".

The léiluò part of guāngmínglěiluò 光明磊落 is vastly more complicated than the guāngmíng part, both in terms of its orthography and in terms of its meaning. It can be reduplicated as lěilěiluòluò and still mean essentially the same thing(s) as lěiluò. The characters used to write the sounds (sometimes with slight tonal or other variations) are bewilderingly numerous.

For the first syllable: 磊, 礌, 磥, 畾, 礨, 厽, 歷

For the second syllable: 落, 犖, 硌, 砢

Combined in various ways, these characters express an astonishing array of meanings that probably derived from the same root morpheme. Although the term is now always expressed as a disyllable, I suspect that this is the result of dimidiation of a single but phonologically more complex syllable.

As to what that original ur-root might have meant, the fact that so many of the characters used to write these syllables have a stone radical is instructive. The ur-root probably meant a pile of jumbled stones and boulders that soared to a conspicuous height. Thus, throughout history, we have had for lěiluò (of course, in earlier times it would have sounded more like the Cantonese, viz., leoi5lok6, and the initials might have sounded more like r- than l-) meanings such as "numerous and piled up; high, soaring mountain; outstanding; preeminent; forthright; clarion / projecting (of voice)."

We have come a long way from the slogans chanted in the Hong Kong democracy protests, but — if we are to fully appreciate the background of the language they employ — it doesn't hurt once in a while to look into deeper linguistic history. Not only does it help us understand what the protesters are actually saying, it also helps us appreciate once again the point that I have tried so hard and so often to make: the characters are not as important as the sounds and the meanings of words. As with lěiluò / leoi5lok6, so with countless other words in Sinitic languages.

[H.t. Ben Zimmer; thanks to Bob Bauer and Mandy Chan]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 6:58 am

    Yesterday, as I was out running in the woods, the word ROCKY kept churning through my mind.

  2. andres said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    fascinating. Curiously, your uncommon use of the word whacky, mostly now modernized as wacky, is more to the point here, in its relationship to whack a mole, protestor or otherwise.

  3. ahkow said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    I found it fascinating that the author, Lily Kuo, has chosen to transliterate 唔好怯 (“don’t be timid”) as "ng hou hip".

    For one, negative markers in Sinitic, including 唔, are historically bilabial, and many morphemes today are still labial in articulation (e.g. 不 Mandarin Chinese bu4 / Cantonese bat). I have only heard 唔 as a bilabial syllabic nasal, /m/, and never as /ng/.

    Further, within HK Cantonese, younger speakers (which presumably many protesters are) have merged the syllabic velar nasal with the syllabic bilabial nasal, so what was historically "ng" is now "m" in speech. (The velar nasal initial is also disappearing, so 我 /ngo/ –> /o/). So maybe this is a case of over-correction in transliteration?

  4. DMT said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 2:20 am

    Over-correction seems like the most likely explanation for "唔=ng". A related question is why the Cantonese negative particle came to be transcribed as 唔 in the first place, given that 吾 is ng4. Had the merger of syllabic /ng/ and /m/ already taken place when this transcription was adopted?

  5. DMT said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 2:31 am

    Or was the Cantonese negative particle indeed pronounced "ng" at an earlier stage of its development? (I have come across the assertion that 唔, contrary to what I had previously assumed, is not cognate to 不, but I don't know any of the details.)

  6. ahkow said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 8:53 am


    Great question – the possibility of 唔 being historically /ng/ didn't occur to me.

    Luckily, Google has done a great job scanning really old library books, so there is actually public access to William's 1856 Cantonese-English dictionary on Google Books (Hong Kong was ceded to the UK just 14 years ago):

    Page 268 has a listing for 唔 which is in the "m" section. The entry also notes that the character is read "ng" in "singing" or as a "refrain" (???).

    Page 313ff, the "ng" section, has a listing for 吾 and other characters that take 吾 as a phonetic radical.

    So the dictionary suggests that either i) the merger was a more recent innovation, or ii) there has been a long recognition that colloquial /m/ is "properly" /ng/ and the latter was used in the dictionary. (ii) is a less likely scenario, as Williams describes a series of sound changes and mergers in his pages xx and xxi, and /ng/ vs. /m/ is not listed.

  7. ahkow said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 9:04 am


    Re: why 吾 came to be used for writing /m/ – I don't know and I suspect the British dictionary compilers were just adhering to local practice. My guess is that apart from /m/, /ng/ is the only syllabic nasal (no syllabic /n/ in Cantonese), so 吾 was chosen as it was the "next best" alternative.

    I also think (although I don't have any arguments other than phonological shape) that the negator /m/ and 不 (historically /p/-initial) are unrelated. Pulleyblank, in his Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar, referring to /m/-initial negation markers in Tibeto-Burman, suggests that /p/-initial negation markers are a Sinitic innovation (endnote 39).

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 7:16 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    Commenter Ahkow wrote:

    "I found it fascinating that the author, Lily Kuo, has chosen to transliterate 唔好怯 (“don’t be timid”) as "ng hou hip"".

    One often sees the Cantonese negative morpheme m4 romanized as ng in online texts — even though it is never pronounced that way in colloquial speech. I suspect the romanizers are being influenced by the phonetic component of the Chinese character (in my teaching experience Cantonese speakers can't distinguish betsween the "language" and the "characters"). Unfortuntately (and sadly), the vast majority of Cantonese speakers have never learned how to romanize their own speech, so they tend to use inaccurate, ad hoc, on-the-fly spellings.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    Another article by Lily Kuo:

    "Hong Kong’s chief executive sort of apologized for offending almost everyone" (10/28/14)

    In the headline picture – the Cantonese word for dollars!

    man1/4 蚊

    Sheik says that man1/4 蚊 (the character originally meant "gnat; mosquito") is an incorrect usage for man4*/1 文, but then again man4*/1 文 (in standard usage means "written language; script; character; literary composition; article; document; literary; classical; liberal arts; humanities; civilian; civil; culture; civilization; gentle; refined; mild; formal ritual; etiquette") never stood for "dollar" in Chinese either until Cantonese speakers chose to make it mean that, so if they now want to write the Cantonese word for "dollar" with the homophonous man1/4 蚊 (Sheik says that "man1 is the popular colloquial reading; literary reading man4 is rarely used"), that's their prerogative.

    And in the text of Kuo's article, C. Y. Leung using the Cantonese word for "not": m4 唔 ("not; no")

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

    From Tom:

    The 唔 confusion highlights the danger of choosing a character with an existing pronunciation to represent another one.

  11. ZZMike said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

    I knew it!! Chinese is a completely impossible language for anyone to learn.

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