Xinhua breaks ban on puns

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I was going to write "Xinhua brakes ban on puns".  Upon reconsideration, I thought that would only lead to confusion, but it might at least have given an idea of how bad their pun is.

First of all, just so everyone knows, Xinhua is Xinhua ("New China") News Agency, the official press agency of the People's Republic of China.

Carl Minzner tweeted:

Open violation of ban on wordplay! Name of new Chinese state website dedicated to Xi Jinping? 学习进行时

Let's take a closer look at the terrible pun the Party hath wrought.  Bear with me, since this requires quite a bit of unpacking.

xuéxí jìnxíng shí 学习进行时 ("time for / while carrying out study")

We've already mastered the basics of learning / study (xuéxí 学习) in the People's Republic of China through this post:

"Good good study; day day up"

Where did this disyllabic word, xuéxí 学习 / [trad.] 學習 ("learn; study"), come from?  In the Confucian Analects, right at the beginning of the first chapter, we find this sentence:

Zǐ yuē:  “Xué ér shí xí zhī, bù yì yuè hū? 子曰:“學而時習之,不亦說乎? ("The Master said, 'Is it not a delight to study and in a timely fashion to practice?")

Chairman Xi's surname is written with the second character of this disyllabic word xuéxí 学习, which was an open invitation to the Xinhua punsters to come up with this awful play on words.

The top part of the traditional form of the character, yǔ 羽, is no. 124 in the list of 214 Kangxi radicals.  It depicts two wings, and is used in characters having to do with feathers, plumes, and so forth.  Before xí acquired the meaning of "practice", it meant "flap the wings like a little bird learning to fly", hence "practice" –> "learn".  But there's no guarantee that Xi's surname, which is rare, has anything to do with this meaning, since it derives from the name of an ancient feudal state or a  place name, originally 少習, in Shaanxi Province, around 2,300 years ago.

Here's the offending Xinhua website.

This is a fancy, and probably very costly, website, quite unlike the run-of-the-mill websites one usually encounters on the Chinese internet.  It opens dramatically, with a grand portrait of a smiling Xi, next to the mortal pun,

xuéxí jìnxíng shí 学进行时 ("time for / while carrying out study"),

with the character written almost twice as large as the other characters and it is in a flourishing, cursive font, whereas the other four characters are in a standard, blockish font.  It is, moreover, in traditional form, whereas all four of the other characters are in simplified form.  If the entire title of the website were in traditional form, it would look like this:  學習進行時.  If it were all in simplified, it would appear thus:  学习进行时.  Instead, what we have is 学进行时, with the 習 in traditional form, ornately cursive font, and nearly twice as large as the other characters.  It would seem that the Xinhua admen were afraid that readers would not catch the chairman's surname in their would-be clever title.

Well, now, we got that.  With Xi's larger-than-life portrait next to his outsize surname embedded in the otherwise pedestrian string of characters, we are quite aware that they want to do something cute with the 習, but what is it? 

Just after the page break above, I translated xuéxí jìnxíng shí 学习进行时 as "time for / while carrying out study", but that's only the surface significance of the phrase.  They clearly want us to interpret the phrase as having something fundamental to do with Chairman Xi.  Following their paronomasial intentions, we might render the double entendre as "while carrying out the study of Xi Jinping['s thought / precepts]".  This earnest desire on the part of the Xinhua propagandists is crudely underscored by the fact that seven tabs across the top of the page are labeled xuéxí 学习 ("study / study Xi this" and "study / study Xi that").  And there are lots of other bells and whistles on the site that emphasize the importance of "study", er, "study Xi".

I'm not sure if the Xinhua punsters were aware of it when they came up with their deathless/ly formulation, xuéxí jìnxíng shí 学习进行时, that it has yet another dimension.  Namely, jìnxíng shí 进行时 is the designation for "progressive tense" in Chinese, hence, "while studying Xi ideology / precepts".  I'm particularly sesitive to this aspect of the title because I had just written two posts on the tenses in Japanese and Chinese:

"Past, present, and future"


A few more notes before closing.

First, I had mentioned above that that the Study Xi website under discussion has a much classier appearance than the typical Chinese website which is garish, jammed, and headache-inducing.  After about 8-10 seconds of gazing at the chairman's august visage, a new page comes up smoothly from below.  The site becomes a bit more cluttered at that point, but the design is still far better than most pages one encounters on the Chinese internet.

Second, the Xinhua punsters are rather unoriginal, since already back at the beginning of 2013 there was a big flap over a supposed microblog fan club for Chairman Xi that used the same pun.  It was but a forerunner of the present Study Xi platform.

"Netizen Voices: Doubts Over Xi Fan Club Weiber"

Finally, someone will likely come to the defense of Xinhua and declare that they can pun all they want, because the regulations against punning apply only to radio, television, and advertising, whereas Xinhua, being a news agency, is exempt from such bans, but still, come on, especially if you're going to come up with such a humorless equivoque!

"Punning banned in China"

"It's not just puns that are being banned in China"

[Thanks to Anne Henochowicz]


  1. Shubert said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    习 is similar to 刁 tricky by structure, another surname…,this may become one of catalysts to urge China to abandon most of the simplified characters soon.

  2. John Swindle said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 4:22 am

    Also, the Roman letter "R" is very similar to "K" and "A," and lowercase "rn" looks like "m."

    All writing systems are open to criticism except maybe Hangul. Hangul is not subject to criticism because I live in Hawaii, and Hawaii exports macadamia nuts.

  3. Robot Therapist said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    I, on the other hand, live in the "Koreatown" part of London

  4. 吳識芒 said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    the inversion makes it seem particularly tortured… wouldn't 进行学习时 be more idiomatic?

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