Huge media flap over a headline in China

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An article by Mimi Lau and Nectar Gan in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) (3/02/16) details a cause célèbre that occurred on the front page of a major newspaper in China on February 20.  The article is titled:

Editor at liberal Chinese newspaper fired over Xi front page
Veteran journalists punished over headline combination seen as veiled criticism of president’s call for state media loyalty to the Communist Party

Here's the offending front page of the Nanfang dushi bao 南方都市报 (Southern Metropolis Daily):

dǎng hé zhèngfǔ zhǔbàn de méitǐ
shì xuānchuán zhèndì bìxū xìng dǎng

hún guī dàhǎi



The Chinese is not that transparent.  I've shown these lines to a number of native speakers and they weren't able to readily parse and interpret them.

Here is an attempt by a very experienced American Sinologist:

It’s weird.  Looking at this quickly (don’t have more time), I see two issues, one syntactic and one semantic.

1.  semantic issue:  what does 姓黨 mean? This has to be verb-object syntactically, and 姓 means “to be surnamed …”  So 黨 is the surname.  Now, “be surnamed ‘Party'” is a novel locution, and it gave me serious pause for consideration when i first saw it recently.  I infer that it is deliberately used to convey, with reaffirmed emphasis, the true character (literally, “lineage”) of the media’s fundamental nature and affiliations.  Nothing new in this, of course; it may be seen as reversion to the CCP’s original definition of media, as pronounced by Mao, which Xi evidently thinks has been corrupted by exposure to foreign influences.

2.  syntactic issue:  I take the introductory phrase 黨和政府主辦的媒體 as a topic, not as the “subject” of an “X = Y” copula(ted!) sentence.

So I translate it by introducing the all weather topic-marker phrase, “as for”:  “As for the media whose governance is the Party and State”.  Thus, the following 是 is to be understood not as a modern copula, but in its classical sense as a recapitulating demonstrative (from which the copula derived):  “…., it is (the case that)…..”

The following phrase, 宣傳陣地 may be taken as a locative “in the …..”

Thus:  “As for media governed by the Party and State, it’s the case that in the propaganda battlefield (they) must derive their identity from the Party.”

Another, and perhaps simpler way to parse the two phrases would be by inferring an implied pause after 宣傳陣地.  “Media operated by the Party and State are the propaganda battlefield, and it/they must affirm their proper lineage.”

Considering that he read them cold and quickly without any context, the Sinologist has done extremely well in making sense of this not entirely straightforward pair of lines.  (I didn't send the Sinologist the following short line consisting of four characters.)

One of the most unusual locutions in this pair of lines is xìng dǎng 姓党 (lit., "to be surnamed 'Party'", i.e., "take / have the surname of the Party", hence, "to be loyal to the Party").  This has already been pointed out and ably analyzed by the Sinologist.

Grammatically, if you try to read the second line in one fell swoop, it doesn't parse easily.  You've got to put a comma (i.e., have a pause) after the 5th character, hence:

shì xuānchuán zhèndì, bìxū xìng dǎng
("are a propaganda battlefield, and must adhere / be loyal to / identify with the Party")

The translation of the two nine-character lines thus is as follows:

dǎng hé zhèngfǔ zhǔbàn de méitǐ
shì xuānchuán zhèndì bìxū xìng dǎng
"Media managed by the Party and the government are a propaganda battlefield; they must identify with / be loyal to the Party".

I will translate the short, four-character line below the two longer lines after giving more context.

As originally published in the Guangzhou edition of the Southern Metropolis Daily, without the short four-character line and suitably accompanied by a photograph of Chairman Xi at a TV station, the front page was innocuous and would not have raised any eyebrows (see the photograph on the left side just below).  However, when it appeared in the Shenzhen edition of the newspaper, it was accompanied by the additional four syllables arranged in two very short lines (see the photograph on the right side just below).

What in the world is going on here?

It turns out that the four characters are hún guī dàhǎi 魂归大海, which means "his soul returns to the great sea", referring to the scattering at sea of the ashes of the reformist Yuan Geng, who was from the Canton region and recently passed away at age 99.  This is shown in the photograph on the right.  Content-wise, neither this photograph nor the four-character headline have anything whatsoever to do with the eighteen-character headline at the top, which is actually a quotation from Xi Jinping (in terms of font and layout, the eye cannot help but connect the two headlines, as indicated by the red, dashed line in the first photograph at the top of this post).  Nonetheless, the government has taken umbrage at the placement of the short headline and the inappropriate (for Xi's pronouncement) photograph of scattering ashes at sea.  The authorities insist that this was done intentionally as a slight against Xi and the Party.

The two-part photograph is from here:

Chinese Editors Punished For 'Political Mistakes' Over Headline Acrostic
Radio Free Asia (3/2/16)

See also here (in Chinese).

For additional background and explanation, see these three reports:

Newspaper Editor Fired Over Front Page Double Meaning
China Digital Times (3/2/16)

Xi Jinping asks for 'absolute loyalty' from Chinese state media
Premier conducts tour of major outlets in latest sign of Beijing’s increasingly tight control over the country’s media
The Guardian (2/29/26)

Hidden Message Suspected on Chinese Front Page, and Speculation Swirls
New York Times (3/2/16)

Hence we see that what makes this all the more sensitive is that it occurred against a backdrop of Chairman Xi Jinping's highly publicized demand for complete loyalty of state media that he issued a couple of weeks ago.  Not surprisingly, the Chairman's call had evoked considerable (albeit mostly veiled) criticism among Chinese netizens, including the quite direct questioning by the real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who had over 37,000,000 followers on his various blogs, which have since been shut down by the government.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf; thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Tom Bartlett, Geoff Wade, Yixue Yang, and Jim Breen]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    Chinese Newspaper Editor Fired Over 'Hidden' Headline Message

    NPR – ‎ March 2, 2016‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎

    At first glance, the front-page headlines in China's Southern Metropolis Daily on Feb. 20 looked like normal fare: coverage of a speech by President Xi Jinping and a politician's funeral. But read vertically, and there's a message that seems to criticize a government crackdown on the media.

    Party pressure: Chinese journalists in hot water over 'subversive' headline

  2. liuyao said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 1:59 am

    Odd as it is, the phrase is not unfamiliar in China. Part of the ideological debate in the late 70s / early 80s was the question of "surname Capitalism or Socialism" 姓资 姓社.

  3. Keith said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 4:11 am

    What a stroke of serendipity. This morning, on my way to work, I read in the Economist about a chap named Ren Zhiqiang, nicknamed "Big Gun ren".

    The article about him also uses the expression "keep the surname 'Party'", to mean "toe the party line".

    This reminds me of the English expression "X is my middle name" where X is some quality (innovation, frugality, caution, etc).

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