Mixed literary and vernacular grammar

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Radio Free Asia has published an article about a wheelchair ridden human rights activist named Li Biyun:

"Rights Activist 'Takes Refuge' in U.S. Embassy in Beijing: Relatives" (9/1/16)

The article is accompanied by this extraordinary photograph:

The photograph was taken on September 6, 2013 in Foshan city, Guangdong province.  Of course, it is remarkable that so many people would openly gather on the street outside a courthouse in the People's Republic of China in support of election rights.  For me as a Sinologist, however, what is most striking is the grammar on the banner that is being held aloft above Li Biyun in her wheelchair.

LS Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese
MSM Modern Standard Mandarin

Here's what's written on the banner:

Lǐ Bìyún hé zuì zhī yǒu!
dúlì cānxuǎn jìng bèi rù zuì


What is Li Biyun's crime?
Unexpectedly incriminated for being an independent candidate.

Because the grammar is a mixture of literary and vernacular, with perhaps a dash of local flavor, the nuances are difficult to convey in concise compass, so the translation should be considered only as a rough guide to the general meaning.

The most difficult part of the wording on the banner are the last four characters of the first line, hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有.  Although this LS construction is familiar to many educated Chinese, and has even been fairly widely adopted as a fixed phrase in written vernacular, I suspect that less than 1% of Chinese, even those who might use this construction in their writing, would be able to parse it correctly.  Note that substitutions may be made in the second position, thus hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 ("what X is there [to speak of]").

hé 何 ("what")

X = variable noun

zhī 之 (this particle / verb can have many different meanings and functions; although it is simple, basic, and frequent in LS, the multiplicity of its potential roles and meanings is what makes this four character expression devilishly difficult to analyze and interpret:  "him / her / it; this / that / these / those; subordinative particle; possessive / genitive particle; expletive; until; go to; leave for; arrive at (this is by no means a complete listing of possible meanings and functions of zhī 之)

yǒu 有 ("there is / are; have; exist")

hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 is a special literary construction that I cover at great length in my First-year Classical Chinese course.  It is not even the most common, basic way to express the idea of "what crime is there" in LS, which would be yǒu hé zuì 有何罪.  The locution hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有 adds a subtle shade to the signification of the essential sememes "what crime exists", thus, "what crime is there [to speak of]?"  Although that is the essential meaning of hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有, it does not explain the grammatical function of zhī 之.

Grammarians of Chinese have argued endlessly over the exact function of zhī 之 in the expression hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有.  Rather than spell out my own interpretation or list those of others, I'd like first to invite Language Log readers who know LS to offer their explanation of the grammar of hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有 in a comment, focusing on the function of zhī 之.  If you are not trained in LS, please don't even try.

Since most people who use constructions such as hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有 employ them like set phrases (chéngyǔ 成语), they do not attempt to parse the individual components of which the whole consists.  In other words, such constructions in MSM are not being used compositionally, i.e., they are not putting the phrase together ad hoc according to LS grammar.  Another example would be qǐyǒucǐlǐ 岂有此理 ("ridiculous; outrageous; absurd"), which grammatically is much less challenging than hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有, but still no one would stop to think "how [could] there be this principle / reason?" when they shout out qǐyǒucǐlǐ 岂有此理 ("ridiculous; outrageous; absurd") at someone.

People who are literate in MSM understand the general meaning of hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 unitarily, but they don't "understand the grammar" in the sense of understanding the historical relationships between the constituents.  If forced to give a grammatical explanation, most people would probably suppose this to be genitive zhī 之, when historically it is more likely something altogether different.

Until the comments come in, we're done with hé zuì zhī yǒu 何罪之有, which is pure LS (and an esoteric form of it at that), for now.

The first three characters of the first line, Lǐ Bìyún 李碧云, are just a person's name, so they could be either LS or MSM.

In the second line:

dúlì 独立 ("independent") and cānxuǎn 参选 ("candidate") are MSM

jìng 竟 ("at last; in the end; finally") is more on the LS side, though it could be used in MSM, but jìngrán 竟然 ("actually; after all; unexpectedly; to one's surprise") would be more likely

bèi 被, though it has many other meanings, can serve as the passive signifier in both LS and MSM

rùzuì 入罪 (lit., "enter crime", i.e., "incriminate"), especially after the passive signifier, sounds odd to me and to most of the native informants whom I consulted; by itself rùzuì 入罪 is most likely a neologism to match English "incriminate"

So what we have on the banner is a mishmash of LS and MSM.  I asked a number of native speakers how they would express the same sentiments in pure vernacular (báihuà 白话).  Here are several of their proposals (since they are all trying to say the same thing [already indicated above], I won't translate each of them into English):

Lǐ Bìyún yǒu shéme zuì? 李碧云有什么罪?
Dúlì cānxuǎn jìngrán bèi dìngzuì! 独立参选竟然被定罪!

Lǐ Bìyún yǒu shéme zuì? 李碧云有什么罪?
Dúlì cānjiā jìngxuǎn jìngrán bèi pàn yǒuzuì! 独立参加竞选竟然被判有罪!

Lǐ Bìyún yǒu shéme zuì? 李碧云有什么罪?
Dúlìde cānjiā xuǎnjǔ jìngrán bèi rùzuì! 独立地参加选举竟然被入罪!

Lǐ Bìyún nǎli yǒuzuì? 李碧云哪里有罪?
dúlì jìngxuǎn jìngrán bèi pànzuì!

[Thanks to Neil Kubler, Jonathan Smith, Matt Anderson, Maiheng Dietrich, Fangyi Cheng, Jing Wen, Yixue Yang, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. Alex said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    The linguistic quirk that stands out most to me in this post is "wheelchair ridden." I don't think I have ever heard that phrase. I would have said "wheelchair using." "Ridden" usually refers to internal afflictions like cancer, not external assistive technologies that enable people to be mobile.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

    "wheelchair ridden" — 11,400 ghits

  3. E. T. said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

    My LS "training" is limited to two semesters at ICLP, but I'd like to give it a shot. I seem to recall being confused by a similar construction, though I cannot remember the specific phrase.

    Anyway, my humble guess is that 之 here is pronominal and also splits up the verb phrase, with the object being "frontalized", if that is a word. 他有什麼罪

    But that is certainly a far too simple explanation.

  4. Stella said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    I would also have said "wheelchair using." Terms such as "wheelchair ridden," "wheelchair bound" and "confined to a wheelchair" all perpetuate negative stereotypes of "helpless cripples."

  5. cameron said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

    Is there a legalistic register of MSM that preserves formulaic LS constructions as terms of art?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 10:11 pm

    What would be a preferred substitute for "bedridden"? Just curious.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 10:17 pm


    That's an excellent question, since Western legal terminology relies heavily on Latinate technical expressions.

    With Chinese, I don't think that's generally the case, since most legal terms of art in MSM have been modeled on Western legal terminology, as with the neologism rùzuì 入罪 for "incriminate" that I pointed out in the o.p.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 10:45 pm

    Two years ago, when I introduced the hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 construction in my First-Year Classical course, one of the brightest students in the class told me that her teachers back in China explained the function of zhī 之 in such constructions as an instance of qǔxiāo jùzi dúlìxìng 取消句子獨立性 ("cancel clause independence"). I was dubious of the utility of such a concept, but I looked it up on the web and found that it was quite prevalent in LS grammars in China. It seems, though, that it must have been perceived as confusing even in China, because most times it was introduced with some such wording as "what is qǔxiāo jùzi dúlìxìng 取消句子獨立性 ("cancel clause independence")", "how to explain qǔxiāo jùzi dúlìxìng 取消句子獨立性 ("cancel clause independence")", etc. Looking still further into this odd grammatical concept, it seemed to be applied as a kind of catch-all for difficult constructions involving zhī 之, but that it didn't really clarify them in a rigorous way.

    Later I asked the same student who had originally introduced this concept to me to explain how it worked and she said that it was applied in "cases where 之 is used to conjoin two phrases as one component in a sentence, which would otherwise be mistaken for two or more stand-alone sentences". Even though this student is very smart and articulate, I still don't see how the qǔxiāo jùzi dúlìxìng 取消句子獨立性 ("cancel clause independence") rule helps us to understand the function of zhī 之 in the hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 construction.

  9. Richard Futrell said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    Quite puzzling. I have two guesses.

    My first guess is that 之有 here is an inverted form of 有之, along the lines of 未之有也 "it has not existed". But I thought that kind of inversion only happened with negation, and the relation with 何罪 is left unclear — leaving an awkward parse like "What crime, it exists?".

    Second guess is that the 之 here is making 何罪 a modifier of 有, leaving the whole thing as an NP–"What crime's existence?" That might make sense if the idiom is a reference to some longer original passage where 何罪之有 was an embedded clause. But it would be a pretty weird embedded clause.

  10. liuyao said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 12:05 am

    Indeed 取消句子独立性 is what one would learn about in middle/high school in Mainland China, and they even invented an abbreviation: 取独. It's an aweful way to say "make it into a clause", by inserting 之 between the subject and the predicate.

    The textbook answer to this particular phrase, as I recall, is not 取独, but a construction of rhetorical question that places the verb at the end. A similar example is 唯…馬首是瞻, where the 是 does not mean anything other than as an indicator that the verb and its object are reversed.

  11. John said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 12:24 am

    In Taiwan we were taught that the 之 is a particle (助詞) signifying an inversion (倒裝) of the sentence structure. Basically the explanation given on this page, except this page uses 是 as an example instead.


  12. James Wimberley said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 3:57 am

    In Xi's authoritarian China, these protesters are brave indeed. Will their high level of education protect them?

  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 6:02 am

    @James Wimberley

    No (to your question).

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 6:16 am

    I appreciate all the explanations for the function of zhī 之 in the hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 construction that have been submitted thus far. They represent but the tiniest beginning of the wild plethora of explanations that are "out there". Keep 'em comin'!

    But remember, please don't submit an explanation if you've only studied MSM. To be eligible / qualified to join this contest, you need to have had at least some formal training in LS.

    I just referred to this discussion about the function of zhī 之 in the hé X zhī yǒu 何X之有 construction as a "contest". I did so because the Li-ching Chang Memorial Pinyin Literature Contest just received its first serious inquiry from a potential contestant. Judging from her long and completely intelligible message written entirely in Pinyin without tones, I'm sure that she will produce something that will be a serious contender for one of the prizes.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 6:37 am


    Thank you for telling us more about the Mainland pedagogical concept of qǔxiāo jùzi dúlìxìng 取消句子獨立性 ("cancel clause independence") for students in classes on LS. I was particularly struck by how they had invented an abbreviation for it: qǔdú 取獨 ("eliminate independence").

    That reminded me of the long-running Pinyin pedagogical initiative in China that is referred to for short as "zhùtí 注提" or "ZT": zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dúxiě 注音识字提前读写 (Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing),

    See the last paragraph of this post for more information about the very successful ZT experiment:

    "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)

  16. languagehat said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    "wheelchair ridden" — 11,400 ghits

    I hope that's not intended as a defense of the wide use of the expression (which I have never heard before), since 11,400 Google hits is barely distinguishable from zero. Anything in wide use gets millions of hits.

  17. Brett said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    To me, "wheelchair ridden" sounds old-fashioned but not offensive However, I may not be the best person to judge, since I am not in a wheelchair, nor do I have any other physical disability.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 10:48 am

    I think "wheelchair-ridden" (which in my style is necessarily hyphenated) may have a connection with "wheelchair-riding".

  19. languagehat said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    Historically, yes, in that it is modeled on "bedridden," which is from Old English bedrida, literally 'bed-rider.' But I'm pretty sure that etymology is entirely opaque to modern English-speakers.

  20. WSM said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    this reminds me a bit of the old use of 之 for 此, as in "之子於歸" from the 詩經, where 之 in "之子" is glossed as 是("this") . So in this case it becomes 何罪是有, which may be interpreted as a rhetorical inversion of 是(人)有何罪?

  21. JS said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    Basically one can choose between trying to interpret zhi1 as a ("genitive") particle or as a pronoun. "Canceling the clause's independence" is referring to the first function, in effect (if awkwardly) pointing out that insertion of "genitive" zhi1 between subject and predicate produces subordinate clauses, as liuyao refers to above (compare English "I go" > "my going"). But as many here have said, the zhi1 in 何罪之有 is commonly considered a resumptive pronoun — but what is often not said is that I think this requires that he2 zui4 何罪 "What crime?" can't be a constituent, as is easy to assume… instead he4 何 must govern zui4 zhi1 you3: lit., "How can it be the case that crime — this thing — [he] has?" Maybe.

  22. JS said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    Hmm… or if zhi1 is simply taken as a marker of inversion rather than as properly resumptive, WSM could be right that he2 zui4 is a constituent.

  23. hanmeng said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 6:49 pm

    Pages in category "English words suffixed with -ridden":


  24. Michael Fuller said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 12:15 am

    I don't have my Pulleyblank with me, but I thought he talked about this. My sense is that this is a Middle Old Chinese (Analects, etc.) usage (where the syntax is frankly unclear) that by Late Old Chinese (Mencius, etc.) had become an archaism in which the 之 was interpreted as the explicit marker of modification (i.e., what people have been calling a genitive marker).

  25. ardj said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 3:11 am

    @hanmeng: an interesting list, though curiously not including hag-ridden.
    I see Language Hat has beaten me, not only to this post but also to the OED: but I would like to push it further. Crime-ridden, cliché-ridden, priest-ridden and the like all convey the sense of "oppressed, taken advantage of" by the relevant noun, the sense that the OED describes as obsolete.- except that when it comes to ridden's use in combinations, this is exactly the sense of the OED's examples (priest-, &c.). But the original bedridden – bedrid – had the alternative sense where the person is doing the riding (as LH and Cory Lubliner noted).
    "Wheelchair-ridden" works in both senses: describing someone as using the wheelchair while conveying also that it is hardly a first life choice. It comes as a shock, but I think it is an acceptable neologism, even if Professor Mair declines authorship. I suggest it is an error to view someone with a handicap, such as my failure to express myself briefly, as necessarily devoid of all ability.

  26. languagehat said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    I think it is an acceptable neologism

    On that score, I am interested pretty much exclusively in the opinions of those who would be described by it. The rest of us don't really get a vote.

  27. WSM said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    @JS interesting alternate reading… but it's very tempting for me to read as inversion and fit it into better understood patterns such as 惟命是听 and so on. On the other hand, there are examples such as "此何難之有" (Micius) where the reading of 之 as "是" becomes dubious.

    There is another example from 春秋左傳:


    So perhaps there is an implied 焉 that is dropped as understood. In this case 之 reverts to its ordinary genitive use and 有 is read as existence: "what [何] existence [有] of [之] strength [力] there [焉]"

  28. Rachel said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    Like many others, I'm assuming there's some kind of emphatic post-position going on here, but it's also tempting to think that 何罪之有 is a reduction of something like 何罪之之有 'How can there be the blaming of them!'

  29. JS said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    There is certainly "inversion" of a sort going on. I was thinking about the difference between interpreting, for instance
    (1) But again, how could he have had such thing as a "fixed master"?
    lit. how / [ fixed-master / such-a-thing / have ]
    (2) But again, what "fixed master" could he have had?
    lit. [ what / fixed-master ] / such-a-thing / have

    There are many things that can be said in favor of interpretation (1) — I first wrote a long post that said them, but think the following is clearer: your 書何力之有焉, for instance, should be thought of as an inversion on "書何有力焉", and not an inversion on "書有何力焉". If you think of zhi1 as a concrete resumptive pronoun like shi4 是 (this > this-thing > such-a-thing) here playing a role in rhetorically motivated inversion, I actually think you HAVE to think about it this way. Such a pronoun couldn't comfortably resume "what fixed master?", etc. — note I couldn't comfortably incorporate "such-a-thing" into translation (2).

  30. Luisetta Mudie said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 4:26 am

    I have often wondered (with only first-year tuition in LS to rely on) about the language of protest banners as a vernacular of its own that functions almost like hypertext. Kuang-ming Wu tries to get our heads around this with his notion of Chinese body thinking. I have found his work very valuable as a way of bridging high-falutin' (and low-falutin') concepts when working from Chinese into English.

    I confess I just read this crudely with the 之 as a possessive linking 有 as a noun meaning 'existence' to 'where is' giving something like 'how is there [even] the existence of a crime [in the above-mentioned case]?' Not just where's the crime, but where is even the trace that a crime ever existed? Reversing the metonymy, as it were, which I guess is a feature of MSM colloquial jokes and wisecracks…?

    BTW, I wrote/translated the story in English for RFA. There was no mention of wheelchairs in the copy I sent. It seems to have been changed now anyway.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 5:57 am

    From a colleague (retired Sinologist):

    This was intended as a comment on the latest character amnesia post, but I think it fits better here, and it could also apply to recent post about Chairman Xi's colossal gaffe reading a literary quotation.

    It came with the following heading in bold:

    It's not a writing system, just a baroque and nearly useless mnemonic device. What do you expect?

    Ann Arbor, 1964. Friend who has just discussed a Ming reading with Charles Hucker: "I told him I had spent hours on the passage and couldn't make sense of it. How did he read it? Prof. Hucker shook his head and said 'Damned if I know.'"

    Recent parallel: Immensely able Chinese PhD had to ask her high-level father and he had to find a historian to translate a few lines of text about a Qing engraving for me. The only way to read that stuff is if you already know what it says.

    It's not designed as a precise information transmission system and it bears no relation to actual language, so it is inherently unmemorable.

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