China's last leader

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In "Xi Jinping Brought Down a Notch by an Unlikely Agent: A Typo" (NYT, Sinosphere 3/14/16), Austin Ramzy details what appears to be a fatally embarrassing typographical error.  Instead of referring to Xi Jinping as "Zhōngguó zuìgāo lǐngdǎorén 中國最高領導人 (China's supreme leader)", an article by reporter Zhāng Zhōngkǎi 張鐘凱 from Xinhua, China's state news agency, called him "Zhōngguó zuìhòu lǐngdǎorén 中國最后領導人 (China's last leader)".

Naturally, the mistake was discovered and removed from the website shortly after the article was published, but several news outlets in Hong Kong noticed the error and reported on it.

This is Google's cache of the SINA Finance page where the mortifying typo occurred. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on 13 Mar 2016 08:21:28 GMT.  The typo occurs in the first sentence of the third paragraph from the end.

Considering the way things have been going in China these days, however, I'm not so sure it was merely an innocent typo.  Cf., for instance, the brouhaha described in this post:

"Huge media flap over a headline in China" (3/3/16)

Resistance to the CCP, right up to General Secretary Xi Jinping himself, has been surprisingly and increasingly direct in recent weeks, totally unprecedented since the founding of the PRC.  Notable instances are the criticism of the property mogul Ren Zhiqiang ("the Cannon" or "Big Gun"), who had over 37,000,000 followers on his various social media accounts, and Hu Shuli, editor of the liberal magazine, Caijing, whose grandfather's older brother incidentally was "an early proponent of language reform, the use of Esperanto, and realism in literature".  Both Ren and Hu were especially perturbed by Xi's efforts to exert total control over the media.


  1. Michael Rank said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    Small point but I wonder why the cached version is in trad characters?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    It's a HK site.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

    "Chinese media typo calls President Xi Jinping the 'last leader'" (3/14/16)

  4. Michael Rank said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

    So did this report only go out from HK in trad chars and not from PRC in simplified, I wonder?

  5. liuyao said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

    In traditional character it should have been 最後, so that's a two-fold typo.

  6. chris said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

    Is that "last" in the sense of "previous", or "last" in the sense of "final"? Or is the same ambiguity present in Chinese too?

  7. cr said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

    Zuìhòu means "final" including "previous." Note that "previous" means "final before the present," and that words exhibiting this 'ambiguity' are common in at least the Germanic, Sinitic, Romance, Turkic, Slavonic and Semitic languages.

  8. Rubrick said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

    It's a curious coincidence that in English, precisely the same ambiguity is embodied in the single word "ultimate". Though the "greatest" usage seems to have largely overtaken the "last" usage in everyday speech.

  9. JS said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

    I don't think there's anything ambiguous about 中國最后領導人; 最后 means 'final'—hence the big deal. 'Previous' would be 上一任 or simply 上个, surely.

  10. James Bradbury said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 3:27 am

    Hu Shuli 胡舒立 is editor of Caixin 财新, not Caijing 财经, which she also founded but has since left. Both magazines take a fairly reformist line, but Caixin made the news last week for its decision to publish an interview with Jiang Hong 蒋洪, a member of the national CPPCC 全国政协, that explicitly called for ordinary people to be free to criticize the government. This (Chinese) article was censored, and a follow-up piece about this censorship, published on the magazine's English website, was censored too.

  11. Lugubert said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 4:22 am

    With my very limited knowledge of Chinese, given the setting, I would have had no problem in interpreting zuìhòu as "latest', close to 'current'. Is that far-fetched, sometimes possible, or just wrong?

  12. Gnoey said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 5:10 am

    No Chinese speaker would interpret zuìhòu as "latest" in this context. It is definitely "last/final" (i.e. no more to come), which is what zuìhòu means in most instances anyway. "Latest" would usually be zuìxīn (最新). Offhand, I can't think of a good example where zuìhòu would mean "latest" or "current", though maybe zuìhòu in a sentence such as 我*最后*遇见他是在上个月 ("I last met him last month") comes close.

  13. Lugubert said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 5:30 am

    Thanks, Gnoey.

    Right, I probably misremembered/was mislead by zuìxīn.

  14. flow said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 6:33 am

    It's somewhat strange that not only there's a 后 in 中國最后領導, but the very next paragraph starts out with an equally unusual/wrong 后 in 幾天之后. The character 後 doesn't appear at all in the article, but 后 appears a third time in 為后期的穩健增長打下基礎.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 7:47 am

    @James Bradbury

    Thank you for the clear, succinct, and informative correction.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 7:52 am


    Your question is pertinent. I think we need to ask to what extent 后 has displaced 後 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, if only in informal, personal writing.

    This is already true for other characters that we may called "traditional simplified". When I lived in Taiwan in 1970-72, I always stubbornly wrote 臺 for the "Tái-" sound of "Táiwān", but after awhile I started to feel a little bit silly when practically everybody else — including culturally conservative friends who would never dream of having 台灣 in their printed / published work, only 臺灣 — was writing 台灣 by hand. Goodness, some folk in Taiwan even write 台湾!

    P.S.: I still compulsively stick to 臺灣 in letters, addresses, notes, etc., except sometimes when I'm rushed and it's strictly for myself, in which case I might write 台灣, and in extreme cases even 台湾, but then I secretly feel rather guilty, worse than Jimmy Carter committing adultery in his heart.

    Some relevant posts:

    "7,530,000 mainlanders petition Taiwan actress to change her name" (5/14/15)

    "Eruption over simplified vs. traditional characters in Hong Kong" (2/24/16)

    "Simplified Bomb" (6/9/09)

    "The Opacity and Difficulty of the Chinese Script" (9/18/08)

  17. Apollo Wu said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    I think it was really a typo as the keys g and h are next to each other, making it easy to have zuigao being typed as zuihao.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    But it's not "zuihao", it's "zuihou".

  19. julie lee said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

    I wonder what the editor's explanation for this boo boo, this not-funny blooper was.

    @Victror Mair
    "some folk in Taiwan even write 台湾!"
    That's what I learned to write in Taiwan many years ago too. My Chinese college classmates all took copious notes in class because Taiwan was still very poor, and we didn't have textbooks. The professor's lecture was the text. My classmates, who grew up on traditional characters, all wrote down the lecture very fast, in cursive, with numerous simplified characters, most of which seemed to be standard cursive simplifications. I recognize some of the simplified characters used in Mainland China now as based on simplified characters already in use, perhaps dating many centuries back.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    Apollo Wu's suggestion is pretty charming. Calling him "China's best leader" would be, at the very least, a rather different controversy.

  21. amy said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

    Luckily they did not try to translate it and come up with "China's most empress leader":

  22. Gnoey said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:25 am

    @Victor Mair and Apollo Wu
    From a report that I saw, the problem arose because the writer mistakenly typed "zh" (short for "zui hou" 最后; "last") instead of "zg" (short for "zui gao" 最高; "highest") since "g" and "h" are next to each other on the QWERTY keyboard. Pinyin input method editors allow the user to type just the initial letters instead of the full pinyin to get the correct word.

    You made a good observation. That is actually a common phenomenon and very easily explained: the original Xinhua article was in Simplified Chinese, and the website in question simply used some conversion software to change the text into Traditional Chinese without bothering to edit it.

    While there is a one-to-one correspondence between Simplified and Traditional characters in most cases, there are some instances where several Traditional characters with different meanings and usages got lumped into just one Simplified character, resulting in a several-to-one correspondence. For example, 后 ("queen", "empress") and 後 ("last", "after") in Traditional Chinese got collapsed into just 后 in Simplified Chinese. (@amy This also explains "China's most empress leader") So if the conversion software isn't good enough, it simply works on a one-to-one correspondence and converts all instances of a Simplified Chinese character into one same Traditional character, when it should actually use different Traditional characters for different meanings.

    The software the website uses can only convert 后 in Simplified Chinese to 后 in Traditional Chinese. It isn't "smart" enough to recognise where 後 should be used instead. Another common error I have seen is 头发 ("hair") being converted to 頭發 (which doesn't make any sense in Traditional Chinese) instead of 頭髪.

  23. Phil said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    中共最后领导人 [the final leader of the Chinese Communist party-state] would be a less unlikely possibility than 中国最后领导人 [the final leader of China]. After all, Chinese civilization has been in continuous existence for roughly four millennia. This is second in the world only to India for longevity of civilizations that have continued to exist right up to the present day with various persistent underlying features. Like other civilizations, China's does not depend on the existence of any political party or dynasty for its continued existence, in spite of what some self-interested parties and their acolytes may have claimed to the contrary.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    Assuming you're going from simplified characters to traditionals in a context-free manner, why would you choose to preserve 后 as 后 instead of 後? 后 meaning "back; behind" is dirt-common in modern texts; 后 meaning "empress" is much much rarer. (In my personal communications, "back" must have come up thousands of times; "empress" has come up once.) Any sensible conversion, restricted to considering characters in isolation, would always convert 后 to 後.

  25. John Swindle said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    @Michael Watts: Inadvertent mixes of simplified and traditional characters do happen, and a correct simplified character might be easier to read than an incorrect traditional character. I'm guessing that 后 for "back; behind" in a traditional-character text would be quickly recognized and understood while 後 for "empress" would be strange and might give pause.

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