Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance

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Language is changing at a torrid pace in China, and it's not just a massive infusion of English words that is to blame.  Nor can we simply ascribe the dramatic changes in language usage to rampant, wild punning for the purpose of confusing the ubiquitous censors.

Creative manipulation of lexical and grammatical constructions is another way to express ideas that are not permitted under the harsh social controls imposed by the government.  This is evident from the fact that the "character of the year" in China for 2009 is bèi 被.

What is so great and powerful about this unprepossessing character bèi 被?  As a noun bèi can mean "quilt" or "cover."  As a jiècí 介詞 ("preposition"), bèi is used in a passive sentence to introduce the doer of the action:  tā bèi quántǐ dǎngyuán píngxǔan wéi zhǔxí 他被全體黨員評選為主席 ("He was elected by all of the party members as chairman.")  Before verbs, bèi is used to indicate passive voice:  bèi yāpò 被壓迫 ("be oppressed").

Lately, it has become fashionable to use the passive voice with verbs that don't normally allow it and in situations that seem ludicrous.  One of the most celebrated examples is bèi zìshā 被自殺 ("be suicided"), with the implication that someone was beaten to death, but the authorities made it look as though he had committed suicide.  Once coined, bèi zìshā spread like wildfire, so that it wasn't long before it merited its own entry in online dictionaries and encyclopedias.

This novel application of the adversative passive is quite versatile.  Here are some other common, but telling, examples (English translations only):

1. employmented:  turned into a false employment statistic

2. represented:  misrepresented without consent

3. invited to tea:  questioned by police, usually on political matters

4. high-speed railroaded:  forced to buy expensive high-speed rail tickets because ordinary train tickets are not available

5. harmonized:  censored (this must be particularly galling to the party elders, since héxié 和諧 ["harmoniousness"], with all of its clarion Confucian resonances, is President-Chairman-General Secretary Hu Jintao's pet platitude)

6. volunteered:  forced to volunteer

Some specific examples of the application of these clever usages may be found here and here.

The adversative passive is a prominent areal feature of Southeast Asian languages, but I wonder whether it has been used anywhere else in the world in such a systematic manner to express resistance against government policies as it has come to be in present-day China.

In closing, it is worth noting that the English word of the year for 2009 is "unfriend."  Like the ironic adversative passive in Chinese, it was generated by powerful Internet forces, just as were the other runners-up for English word of the year:  "netbook" and "sexting."

Unfortunately, Chinese netizens cannot experience the thrill of "unfriending" someone, since Facebook and other similar social networking services are blocked in the PRC.  Still, with Google moving to a freer Hong Kong, and with the abundant linguistic capabilities of Chinese netizens themselves, we can be sure that there will be new ways to circumvent the Great Chinese Firewall, which, after all, is only a paper tiger.

A tip of the hat to Richard Cook.


  1. Lazar said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    These phrases remind me of the English transitive verb "to disappear".

  2. Tim said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    "volunteered" reminds me of a friend's coinage / usage I heard recently: "voluntold", like in the sentence "yeah I got voluntold to work the table today".

  3. Spectre-7 said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    These phrases remind me of the English transitive verb "to disappear".

    I've often joked about writing a test to help a person determine if they might be a dictator, with proposed questions like, "Do you regularly use the word disappear as a transitive verb?"

  4. JT said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    In my local circle of friend (NY state, USA), a person may "voluntell" someone to do something, after which the latter has been "voluntold."

  5. bulbul said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    And I am reminded of the Slovak phrase "bol odídený" = "he was made to leave" (usually of politicians and CEOs) which consists of the copula in the past tense (technically the resultative participle) and the past/passive participle of the intransitive verb "odísť" = "to leave". This is the same structure as your ordinary passive (copula + past/passive participle), e.g. "bol odvedený" = "he was lead away", "bolo urobené" = "it was done" etc. Except as an intransitive verb, "odísť" normally cannot be made passive, so on its own, "odídený" means "he who has left" and can only be used attributively. "Bol odídený" is thus a creative way of saying person X was made to leave and while everyone pretends it was X's own decision, we better.

  6. bulbul said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    … we know better. Arrgh etc.

  7. nemryn said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    Yeah, there's 'disappeared', and I've heard 'volunteered' used that way, but they're not as systematically anti-government.

  8. JLR said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    I think that use of 'volunteer', as in 'I've been volunteered to do X', is pretty widespread in English, although perhaps not with quite the coercive connotation.

  9. Boris said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    I think English has a fair share of these with "disappeared" (already mentioned) and "volunteered". Meanwhile, I hear in the UK a person can be "made redundant". Though there is no universal pattern that can do this to any word.

    I think Hebrew is more open to this than most languages, having causative and reflexive verb forms. So I would imagine using verbs in hifil or hitpael form where they don't already have one could work this way. Then again I don't think the modern day situation in Israel is conducive to this type of thing.

  10. Boris said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Sorry about duplicating prior posts. They were posted as I was writing.

  11. Zwicky Arnold said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    I'm enchanted that a grammatical marker got named "character of the year". Still open: ba, le, de, and several others.

  12. Daniel said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    I have a fresh example for the potential of this phenomenon in Hebrew, mentioned above: the verb "התפוטר" /hitputar/ is the "root" of the reflexive verb "התפטר" /hitpater/ (in the hitpa'el form) which means "quit, left one's job", put into the huf'al passive causative form (dual to the hif'il active causative form). It means "was made quit".

  13. Jim said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    "I think that use of 'volunteer', as in 'I've been volunteered to do X', is pretty widespread in English, although perhaps not with quite the coercive connotation."

    I first hesard "voluntold" from my son, who's in the Navy. (Sigh….even in good families…..) I never heard it in the Army but my experience with Enlistedspeak is at least 15 years out of date. "Being volunteered" is quite familiar, and it is and was as coercive as a First Sergeant could make it.

  14. Yuval said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    I wanted to mention the hitputar example from Hebrew but have been beaten to it. So I can throw in the identical formation of hitnudav, which is based on hitnadev 'to volunteer' and nudav 'to be volunteered (object)', and means 'to be made volunteer against one's will'.

  15. Yuval said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    By "object" I mean "inanimate". Blessed lexical overloading.

  16. Amy Stoller said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    "Invited to tea" is a horrific masterpiece. It puts "helping the police with their inquiries" in the shade. "Harmonized" is equally chilling, of course.

    Doesn't the use of "disappeared" under discussion above extend from from the Spanish "los desaparecidos"/"the disappeared"?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    You're right, Amy. My brother Thomas was just now writing some private notes to me about "los desaparecidos"/"the disappeared"; in them, he called my attention to these references:

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    How does a character get character-of-the-yeared?

  19. Dmitri said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 6:06 am


    "And I am reminded of the Slovak phrase "bol odídený" = "he was made to leave" (usually of politicians and CEOs) [..]"

    There is an analogous construction in Russian (e.g. "Ivanova ushli [s posta ministra]" – "Ivanov was forced to resign as minister", cf. "Ivanov ushel s posta ministra" – "Ivanov resigned as minister" [voluntarily]).

  20. Jacob said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 7:12 am

    @Jerry it's volunteered

  21. Trimegistus said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    And in America I guess we just got "healthed."

  22. Gary said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    This creative use of language is interesting, but I wonder if it's that unusual. Don't users of all languages do this sort of sly protest thing?

    I remember being told the German Army slang from WWII "verarztet" (ver- change of state" arzt doctor -et "past participle") intended to mean "died as a result of medical attention".

  23. JKD said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    In 1947, the French surrealist poet Artaud wrote "Van Gogh le suicidé de la société", a title which I gather is as odd in French as it is in English. It's usually translated as "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society". He seems to have meant something like "driven to suicide by…". I've always been a bit surprised that the usage didn't catch on.

  24. Arturj J. said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    Boo, seems like my attempt at a hum'rous quote was deemed inappropriate. I hope it wasn't the lack of proper attributions that doomed it.

    @bulbul & Dmitri

    Interesting. Neither of those is used in Polish (I wonder if it says anything about Polish politics; probably not) and the Slovak construction is outright impossible because Polish famously lacks the passive forms of the 'go' verbs (iść etc.), even the transitive ones. But the Russian one could work: Iwańskiego odeszli ze stanowiska 'Iwański was forced to leave the post'.

  25. John Kozak said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    "volunteered" is/was UK army slang, I think.

    and "suicidé" was used of Ulrike Meinhof in a famous graffito of which I can't find an image online.

  26. arthur waldron said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    The death of Czech FM Jan Masaryk in 1948, which the authorities called suicide–he had evidently squeezed his way out of a narrow window near the roof of a bathroom–was one of the examples that led to the phrase "he was suicided" being commonly used among those concerned in the Cold War period about the USSR, Eastern Europe. I cannot give chapter and verse but certainly in college days (forty years on) I was familiar with this usage from teachers and colleagues.

  27. Peter Taylor said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    John Kozak wrote:

    "volunteered" is/was UK army slang, I think.

    My experience is that it's used more widely than just the army in Kent, at least.

    BNC has two relevant uses of "was volunteered" (and three irrelevant ones), one of which is in the context of the army; the other apparently relates to speech-giving in a business context. There's also a "were volunteered"; from the surrounding words I will guess wildly that the context relates to a charity's activities.

  28. Michael Rank said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Boris mentioned the Briticism "made redundant". FWIW this means lost his job for whatever reason, it's slightly euphemistic but doesn't have ironic undertones like "was volunteered" and is widely used.

  29. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    @Arturj J.: But the Russian one could work: Iwańskiego odeszli ze stanowiska 'Iwański was forced to leave the post'.

    Maybe. But this, or he Russian example, is not passive in a way similar to the Slovak one, or "disappeared" or "volunteered". A literal translation would be 'They made Iwański go'. A completely standard way of saying this would be Iwańskiego zwolnili 'They fired Iwański'.

    A more pertinent parallel would be all the passive (?) forms in -o: Iwańskiego zwolniono. True, this won't work for odejść 'leave' — I can't even work out what the form would be. But I can perfeclty imagine Zniknięto go 'He was disappeared'. The usual passive Został zniknięty sounds fine, too.

    (The Polish -o forms are similar in some respects to the Scandinavian -s forms, e.g. i Sverige talas svenska 'Swedish is spoken in Sweden' or 'One speaks Swedish in Sweden' [excuse any errors in my non-existent Swedish] or e.g. the Spanish se forms such as aquí se vende pescado etc. Just that they only exist as 'individual lexical items' in the past tense. In the present tense, the approach is 100% Romance, tu sprzedaje się. I'm hopeless at grammar terminology, so I beg your forgiveness for calling them passives.)

  30. sizaixiaoqiang said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 12:43 am

    There's also "to be disappeared": 被失蹤

  31. metanea said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    I harmonized this article to my blog, I hope not to get invited to tea for doing so.

  32. A-gu said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 3:15 am

    I love how Facebook has gone to the trouble of localizing their interface for both simplified and traditional Chinese… to little available.

  33. NL said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    This article reminded me that "suicided" occurs in David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, in reference to a "sepulchral Czech kid named Lendl, who retired from the Show and suicided"

  34. John said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 10:33 pm


    There are a lot of Chinese-speaking people outside of China, you know…

  35. beverly hong said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    I first noticed the novelty use of 被 in China during my early visits to China, and quoted 朱德熙教授's sentence 我感到很被动 in my "Impressions of Language in China" (The China Quarterly, 1973 Spring). The idea there is that while the usage is unconcious, it nonthless reveals something suconcious.

    By the same token, we often hear or use the phrase (我被)赶鸭子上架—I have been volunteered to be– (some community organization president, etc). Here it seems to be expressing a certain degree of reluctance and modesty.

  36. Nat Hillard said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 12:37 am

    RenRen (人人), formerly XiaoNei (校内), is the largest social networking platform in China. There are more than 22 million active users and an estimated 40 million users who have registered their real names. While it is not Facebook, it, too, has developed a lingo of its own. On Xiaonei, to "unfriend" someone is to "解除好友关系" – "remove the 'guanxi' with a 'good friend'". Incidentally "Guanxi" is often translated as 'connections', but is used in political circles to denote backroom deals and bribes.

  37. giri Rao said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    My daughter (11) and her set have been using "suicided" for at least a couple of years now. I've even heard them say "He self-suicided!" – where "self" functions as some sort of emphatic prefix, I think.

    The Telugu-media equivalent for "He was disappeared" is "They encountered him" (atannii enkaunTar chesaaru) – "encounter" being the "official" term for "extrajudicial killings by police". Apparently, the term is also used in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

  38. JK said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    If verarzten really once meant “to die as a result of medical attention” among soldiers, I wonder whether that was how the word originated. I was born in the 1980s and have heard it many times, but not once in that meaning. I think of it as “to give simple medical treatment after an injury” with the required grammatical patient usually being the person treated but possibly the injury or body part treated, and not implying any inadequacy, failure, or death; a dictionary says it is a dialectal or colloquial word for “to treat (being a doctor)” that is attested since the 20th century, so WWII seems possible.
    The way German works would support either meaning: While ver- sometimes adds to its base verb a flavour of error, corruption or treating sb./sth. badly (e.g. achten “to respect” vs. verachten “to despise”; sich versprechen/-laufen/-wählen “to make a verbal slip / slip of the tongue”, “to (walk and) get lost”, “to misdial”), it just as often does not.

  39. yournametobynow said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 8:20 am

    Probably my best moment as an English teacher in China:

    Me: How are you today?
    Student: I am sad.
    Me: Why?
    Student: My dog.
    Me: What about your dog?
    Student: My dog. Game over.
    Me: What?
    Student: Game over.
    Me (in chinese): Your dog died?
    Student: Yes. (cries)

  40. bulbul said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    A fresh almost-example from a CBC interview with David Frum:

    Q:"Were you pushed, or did you jump?"
    Frum: "I was jumped. . . I mean pushed."

  41. ASG said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    I find the "suicided" example interesting, since even in an active sense the word sounds odd in English. I think we are brought up short when we encounter it in the form of a bare verb. In the usual idiom ("to commit suicide") the bland verb "commit" seems to serve some kind of distancing function. Thus getting suicided by your government seems to have a doubly troubling/uneasy connotation.

    My contribution to adversative passives, which I think I may have made up myself (which is not to claim that I was unique in doing so) is the phrase "was orientated," which is what I use to express my annoyance at being forced to go through lots of tedious orientation sessions at the workplace.

  42. Observation said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    I've only heard 'invited to tea' in Cantonese, and in the active voice, but isn't 邀請 transitive? 我被邀請到張三的聖誕派對。

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