The Shanghai Stampede: incident or accident?

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On New Year's Eve, a fatal stampede broke out on the Bund in Shanghai.  Many people died (see below for a discussion of the total number) and many more were injured, some seriously.

Ever since that tragic event, the government has been trying to ascertain how it happened and who was accountable.  A decision has finally been reached, and subtle language usage weighs heavily in determining who bears the responsibility:

"How A Single Chinese Character Weighs in Deciding Shanghai Stampede Blame" (WSJ, 1/22/15)

A Shanghai government decision to blame only district-level officials for New Year’s Eve stampede deaths at the city’s iconic Bund came down to a single Chinese character, and specifically a decision to categorize the tragedy as an “incident” and not an “accident.”

Only one character separates those words in Chinese, but there are big differences between the words in how penalties are assessed. In this case, it allowed top-level officials in Shanghai to escape blame.

During a press conference that made public the results of an internal investigation into the cause of the stampede, Chinese reporters pressed the city’s investigators to explain why no one more senior than administrators of the district where it occurred, Huangpu, deserved blame. Officials explained that they had decided the stampede was an incident (事件), not an accident (事故), and that the categories are governed by different regulations with different penalties.

Let's take a closer look at these terms:

shìjiàn 事件 ("incident; event; affair; happening; case")

shìgù 事故 ("accident; malfunction; trouble; failure; fault")

The first character / morpheme of both words is the same:

shì 事 ("thing; matter; affair; business")

Consequently, in distinguishing the subtle semantic difference between shìjiàn 事件 and shìgù 事故, the second character / morpheme / syllable is crucial:

jiàn 件 ("item; piece; article; part [of a mechanism]; m.w. for a piece" and many other meanings that are not relevant, so I'll omit them here)

gù 故 ("reason; cause; hence; therefore; happening; on purpose" and many other meanings that are irrelevant to the matter at hand, so I'll omit them, except for one that is very important for understanding the meaning of the word shìgù 事故, viz., as the first syllable / morpheme / character of gùzhàng 故障 ["malfunction; error; breakdown; glitch; hitch; snag; bug; accident; blunder; failure; fault; mischance; foulup; trouble"])

Basically, shìjiàn 事件 means "incident" and shìgù 事故 means "accident" — and that makes a world of difference when it comes to handling the aftereffects of events.  In China, whether the government decides that some unfortunate occurrence is an "incident" or an "accident" can have huge implications for officials, family members of individuals who were involved, planning to prevent future occurrences of similar events, and so forth.

Perhaps the most famous instance of an "incident" in modern Chinese history is what is commonly referred to in the West as the Tiananmen Massacre, which is euphemistically referred to as liùsì shìjiàn 六四事件 ("June 4 Incident") or 1989 Fēngbō 1989风波 ("1989 disturbance / turmoil").  At the time it happened, the Tiananmen Massacre was officially called píngxí fǎngémìng bàoluàn 平息反革命暴乱 ("quelling the counterrevolutionary riot").

To return to the Shanghai Stampede, however, the matter of whether to call it an "incident" or an "accident" is but one aspect of efforts by authorities to contain public resentment over the loss of life.  Another was the determination of exactly how many people died that night.  Early government reports put the number at 34 or 35, but people who were present at the scene believed that it had to be more than that.  Soon the microblogs were steaming with lists of dozens of other disasters in China dating back two decades where the total number of dead was put at just under 36, mostly 35.

Many of the sites that gave the long list of disasters having sub-36 casualties were quickly "neutralized", but the list was safely preserved in overseas sites such as this one.  Although the list is very long, it didn't include the Kunming train station knifing attacks and several "terrorist" events in Xinjiang in which just less than 36 people died.

Eventually, the authorities seem to have settled on 36 as the number of those who died in the Shanghai Stampede.  I have a hunch that 36, being an auspicious number (half of 72, which is a sacred number in many cultures [Confucius' age at death, the number of his disciples, etc.], and even in modern finance!), constitutes a psychological bar to the authorities.

In China, naming (zhèngmíng 正名 ["rectification of names"]) and counting (dìngshù 定数 ["fixing numbers"]) really matter.

[Thanks to Perry Link]


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

    I take it 事变 means something slightly different in Mandarin, even though standardly Englished as "incident," as in this rather historically significant one?

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 10:00 pm

    Although now I note that from the same wikipedia article that the Japanese name for that same "incident" uses 事件.

  3. AntC said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

    I remember the 1993 New Year's stampede in Hong Kong Central. 21 died says wikipedia "poor police planning" was a contributory factor. There was a public enquiry/inquest, which made recommendations.

    How was that reported in PRC at the time? Or indeed was it? Is there any vestige left of it now on Chinese media/web sources. Are the inquest's recommendations followed?

  4. Guy said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 12:33 am

    Incident/accident captures the occurrence/explicitly bad occurrence contrast, but it also introduces a contrast in that "accident" carries a meaning of unintentionality that "incident" doesn't – so terming something an "incident" rather than an "accident" can suggest nefarious planning. I take it this suggestion isn't present in the Mandarin terms? From the description it seems that 事故 carries more connotations of general blameworthiness even aside from intention than "accident" does.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 1:40 am

    @J. W. Brewer

    That's a great question!

    The Korean, sageon 사건, is similar to the Japanese.

    But what's this with the Chinese being shìbiàn 事变 instead of shìjiàn 事件? They both mean "incident", but to get a handle of the difference in nuance, we need to look at the second syllable of shìbiàn 事变 (from the main post, we are already thoroughly familiar with shìjiàn 事件 and shìgù 事故).

    biàn 变 ("change; alter; vary; become; convert; metamorphose; transform; shift; rebellion; unexpected turn of events; strange happening") This is a term with which I am intimately familiar, since I wrote my dissertation on the genre of medieval popular Buddhist literature called biànwén 變文.

    When the manuscripts of these vernacular religious tales were first discovered a century ago, scholars argued over the meaning of the first syllable (wén 文 clearly means "text"), thus "alternating [between prose and poetry]; changed [from classical to vernacular]; strange", etc. In three books and numerous articles on the subject, I demonstrated that biàn 變 in the context of this genre refers to the transformational manifestations of Buddhist saints. The English translation of biànwén 變文 has now been stabilized at "transformation text".

    So what sense does biàn 變 impart to the term shìbiàn 事变? It conveys the idea this is not just a plain old "event" or "incident", but one where things have been "changed / altered / transformed". It's an "incident / event" with an attitude. Thus, it is sometimes tantamount to an "emergency; exigency; rebellion". Because of the changed circumstances, a shìbiàn 事变 often amounts to a crisis.

    Occasionally it is convenient to translate shìbiàn 事变 as "in the course of events" or "series of events", inasmuch as it indicates an ongoing process that results from its being a "matter / circumstance that has changed / altered".

  6. John Walden said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 2:43 am

    The British Government may have been playing down the occasion when HMS Amethyst was caught up in the Chinese Civil War by calling it an incident rather than a belligerent act, or playing it up by not calling it an accident:

    I wonder what Chinese sources called it.

  7. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 7:03 am

    I assume the pinyin spelling "píngxí fǎngémìng bàoluàn" used in this post is taken from Google Translate. It's interesting how Google Translate very often (but not consistently) uses Taiwan (rather than mainland) pronunciation standards for the pinyin, e.g. píngxí instead of píngxī.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 8:08 am

    @Jens Ørding Hansen

    This is a question that has come up a number of times on Language Log over the years and has been discussed in the comments.

    I learned my Mandarin on the Taiwan guo2yu3 model four decades ago and those pronunciations and tonal patterns were deeply ingrained in me. One conspicuous change is the number of syllables that used to be in the second tone have now changed to the first tone on the Mainland.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 8:42 am

    Subliminally as I was writing this piece and then more consciously after I posted it, I was struck by the fact that Mandarin shìjiàn 事件 ("incident") and shìgù 事故 ("accident") share the same first element, shì 事 ("thing; matter; affair; business"), and that they acquire their special significance from the second element (as analyzed in the main post), whereas the English words "incident" and "accident" used to translate them share the same second element, -cident ("something that befell / happened"), and that they acquire their particular sense of what sort of happening / event it was from the first element, the prefix.

    From Online Etymology Dictionary:

    incident (n.) Look up incident at
    early 15c., "something which occurs casually in connection with something else," from Middle French incident and directly from Latin incidentem (nominative incidens), present participle of incidere "happen, befall," from in- "on" + -cidere, comb. form of cadere "to fall" (see case (n.1)). Sense of "an occurrence viewed as a separate circumstance" is from mid-15c. Meaning "event that might trigger a crisis or political unrest" first attested 1913.

    accident (n.) Look up accident at
    late 14c., "an occurrence, incident, event," from Old French accident (12c.), from Latin accidentem (nominative accidens), present participle of accidere "happen, fall out, fall upon," from ad- "to" (see ad-) + cadere "fall" (see case (n.1)). Meaning grew from "something that happens, an event," to "something that happens by chance," then "mishap." Philosophical sense "non-essential characteristic of a thing" is late 14c. Meaning "unplanned child" is attested by 1932.

    Can anyone think of other English words made up of prefix + cident?

    In any event, as it were, my understanding of both "incident" and shìjiàn 事件 ("incident") is that they are things that just happen and that culpability usually doesn't really enter into the picture, whereas "accident" and shìgù 事故 ("accident") refer to something that not merely happened, but went wrong. As such, in reply to Guy, "accident" and shìgù 事故 ("accident") are more likely to involve issues of blame and responsibility than "incident" and shìjiàn 事件 ("incident"). "Incident" and shìjiàn 事件 ("incident") can be casual matters, whereas "accident" and shìgù 事故 ("accident") are more likely to have serious consequences.

  10. Mark Meckes said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    I found the comment "Only one character separates those words in Chinese" in the WSJ quote rather absurd. I'm almost completely ignorant of the language, but I'm quite certain that it's very easy to come up with pairs of drastically different Chinese words which are only separated by one character.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 9:09 am

    @John Walden

    In Chinese it is referred to as a shìjiàn 事件 ("incident"):

    Zǐshíyīng hào shìjiàn 紫石英号事件 ("Amethyst Incident")


    Yángzǐjiāng shìjiàn 扬子江事件 ("Yangtze Incident")

    I get the feeling that, in the naming of this event, the Chinese were taking their cues from prior discussions in English.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 9:34 am

    @Mark Meckes

    Right you are!

    Just sticking with shì 事, we have:

    shìdiǎn 事典 ("encyclopedia; reference work")

    shìjì 事迹 ("deed")

    shìjià 事假 ("leave of absence")

    shìlì 事例 ("instance; example; case")

    etc. (I could list many more instances of shì 事 as the first element of disyllabic words having widely varying meanings depending upon the second element).

    At the same time, we have shìduān 事端, which — like shìjiàn 事件 and shìbiàn 事变 — is translated as "incident" (also "disturbance; trouble; dispute"), but with the focus more on the origins of the event because of the second element, duān 端, which means ("one end of a thing; beginning; ending").

  13. Matt Anderson said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    Can anyone think of other English words made up of prefix + cident?

    There's Occident (< ob- (prefix) + cadĕre 'to fall'). It looks like procident and decident have the same structure, too.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 10:19 am

    One of the more important "incidents" in US history as it relates to East Asia was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which is apparently a 事件 rather than a 事变 in Mandarin (or at least in the title of the Chinese wikipedia article on the subject, which I guess doesn't prove that that's the standard or only name for the incident in that language).

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    It just struck me that English shares traces of the extended sense of "cadere" as "occur," as seen in the semi-archaic verb "befall" and uses like "Christmas fell on a Thursday last year." And in German you have, e.g., "Das Welt is alles, was der Fall ist." I have no idea if this reflects a calquing from the Latin or an independent development because the underlying metaphor has some sort of internal logic to it that caused it to manifest in more than one place.

  16. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 10:37 am

    @Victor Mair

    Okay, so the píngxí spelling reflects your own preference for the Taiwan/國語 pronunciation standard. Fair enough.

    But following up on my previous comment, I do find it interesting that the pinyin produced by Google Translate is totally unpredictable with regards to the choice between mainland and Taiwan pronunciations. For example, 期待 is rendered as qídài but 期望 as qīwàng.

  17. shubert said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

    Nice post. incident 小事件 vs. political 事變, are in two levels.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    Think of the difference between "incidental" and "accidental". (compares these synonyms: accidental, fortuitous, contingent, incidental)

  19. huixing said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    another theory about sub-36 casualties is this. this is not for auspicious number but as article say, any country joining UN must report to UN when incident occur in which casualty number exceed 36.



  20. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 9:43 pm


    Thank you very much for that important piece of information. Now that you mention this requirement of the UN, I remember that I heard it before, but forgot about it when I was writing the original post. Now I'm wondering why the UN chose 36 as the magic number for reporting!

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 9:48 am

    The brouhaha over the censorship of partially exposed breasts (i.e., a little bit of cleavage) in the Empress Wu (Zetian) miniseries is now being called the "chest / bosom closure incident" (fēng xiōng shìjiàn 封胸事件).

  22. ThomasH said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

    Good story but the difference between homoousian and homoiousian is better. That iota of difference is the Arian Hersey.

  23. Colin Fine said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    I've always supposed that German Fall' was a direct calque of 'casus' , from the same root. I have no evidence, though.

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