Compounded capital snafu

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The big news in Beijing last week was the theft of millions of dollars worth of artwork from the heavily guarded Forbidden City.  The Telegraph reported that "The seven stolen items had come from a temporary exhibition of early 20th century Chinese furniture, jewellery boxes and bags from the collections of the privately-run Liangyicang Museum in Hong Kong."

According to the BBC, "The Beijing News reported that the Hong Kong museum had not insured the items for as much as it could have because it believed they would be safe in Beijing."

The daring theft occurred during the wee hours of the morning on Monday the 9th.  By Wednesday night, Beijing police announced that they had apprehended a person whom they declared was the suspected culprit and had recovered most of the missing objects.

While there was much hand-wringing and soul-searching over how such a brazen robbery could have occurred under the very noses and cameras of the massive security apparatus inside of the Forbidden City, the real fun began after the apprehension of the suspected criminal, and it has a cause that is rooted in the misuse of characters.

Wishing to reward the police officers for capturing the thief, the officials who manage the Forbidden City presented them with two ceremonial banners.  When photographs of the banners circulated in the media, an uproar ensued on the Internet.  Here's why.

The slogan on one of the banners (the one on the right in the photograph linked above) reads:
Hàn zǔguó qiángshèng; wèi jīngdū tài'ān 撼祖國強盛 衛京都泰安, by which they intended to mean "Guard the strength and prosperity of the fatherland; defend the tranquility and peace of the capital."  Instead, what the authorities of the Forbidden City wrote was "Shake the strength and prosperity of the fatherland; defend the tranquility and peace of the capital."  The problem arose because they substituted the homophone hàn 撼 ("shake") for hàn 捍 ("guard; defend").  In some contexts, hàn 撼 ("shake") might well convey the notion of "overthrow" or "topple" — treasonous sentiments to harbor when it comes to one's fatherland.

When this mistake was pointed out by China's netizens, the officials of the Forbidden City dug in their heels and insisted that their use of hàn 撼 ("shake") was justified by the allusion to the patriotic Southern Song Dynasty military leader Yue Fei 岳飛 (1103 – 1142 AD), of whom his opponents, the northern Jurchens of the Jin Dynasty, declared, "Hàn shān yì, hàn Yuè jiā jūn nán" 撼山易,撼岳家軍難 (It is easy to shake a mountain; it is difficult to shake the army of Yue Fei, i.e., it is easier to shake a mountain than it is to shake Yue Fei's army).  This didn't help matters any, of course, since the real meaning of hàn 撼 ("shake; disturb; push aside / over," rather than "guard; defend") was all the more apparent in this sentence, despite the allusion to Yue Fei, a model of loyalty to the nation.

The stubbornness of the Forbidden City officials in refusing to acknowledge their error only compounded their acute embarrassment at allowing the theft to take place in the first place.

[Thanks are due to Edward Wong, Sophie Wei, and Lareina Li]


  1. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    This story made me wonder about whether copy editors came into being mostly after movable type came into use in Europe and elsewhere. I can understand that banners would be made up without someone else reviewing the text — many signs in the United States aren't edited.

    Are there copy editors editing text in China and is their work as integral a part of the production process as editing was in U.S. newspapers in, say, the 1980s? I am wondering if the officials could have showed the sign to someone on the staff and gotten feedback.

  2. RF said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 2:07 am

    So, they insist it was intentional, but you still refer to it as a mistake? Sounds like you've come down with a bad case of prescriptivism.

    [(myl) I note that your comments consist mainly of repetitions of your view that belief in linguistic norms or in the possibility of linguistic mistakes is a form of "prescriptivism". This silly idea was discussed at tedious length in the links given here. If you want to pursue the point, you're welcome to do so on your own weblog or in other forums of your choice — any future nonsense of this sort in our comments section will be summarily deleted.]

  3. scav said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 5:27 am

    @RF: A regime unable to tolerate any criticism whatsoever insists that they haven't made a mistake. That's not really evidence…

    If students went around in China wearing t-shirts saying 撼祖國強盛, (maybe a photo of just the first part of the banner) how long do you think they would get away with it?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 6:14 am

    If I insisted that "shake" means "support," would you say that I am making a mistake? If so, would you have "a bad case of prescriptivism"?

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 8:29 am

    So if the banner had been written in pinyin (or bopomofo), it would have avoided this comical mistake but been ambiguous on its face as between a pro-regime and anti-regime reading (because more or less by definition pinyin doesn't disambiguate homophones)? Would the regime have put up such a banner in pinyin, or would it have rephrased the slogan in a way that avoided the double-entendre? (Would this slogan be used orally? Would one need to guess the pro- or anti-regime position of the speaker in order to interpret it accurately?) It seems almost true by definition that an orthographic system which allows for finer distinctions also provides more opportunities for mistakes, some of which will be particularly comical or embarrassing. The question is whether the costs of the additional mistakes (together with the other, possibly considerable, costs of the system) outweigh the benefits of the additional precision provided when mistakes are avoided.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    @J. W. Brewer
    The main slogans on the banners are written essentially in Classical Chinese (at least they are not very BAI2 ["vernacular"]). We all know that Pinyin and Bopomofo are not suitable for the intelligible transcription of massively homophonic WENYAN (Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic), so nobody (except you and others who like to propose this as a red herring) is suggesting that Pinyin or Bopomofo be used in place of WENYAN or writing with a high proportion of WENYAN. If you want to write in Pinyin or Bopomofo, you'd better adopt a truly vernacular style. You can see how beautifully that works in the following book by Zhang Liqing: Pinyin Riji Duanwen. It was published in 2010 and doesn't have a single character in it, yet it is a work of great literary merit.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    I appreciate the clarification (which also confirms the chicken-and-egg phenomenon by which the massively homophonic character of WENYAN may be in part an artifact of its traditional orthography). It was not clear to me (with zero actual knowledge of Mandarin or any other Chinese language – my personal interest in the characters versus alternatives goes back to childhood exposure to now-mostly-forgotten Japanese) from the original post that the slogan was in a non-vernacular register, and I had perhaps misinferred that the post hoc defense of allusion to a 12th century text was particularly ridiculous because the slogan had not, in fact, had a literary/archaic/12th-century-alluding flavor to it. (As translated, it falls into what I would call the goofy-foreign-propaganda register of English, but I don't think of that register as either consistently literary or consistently vernacular.)

    [(myl) FWIW, there's general scholarly agreement that the "massively homophonic character of WENYAN" is largely an artefact of imposing historically inaccurate pronunciations, in which many once-distinct syllables have been merged.]

    I am not out of sympathy with the broad thrust of many of Prof. Mair's concerns with hanzi. I mean it to be constructive criticism to note that particular comical incidents may, when evaluated in context, illustrate peripheral issues rather than underscore core problems with hanzi-versus-its-alternatives, and thus that, while amusing, they may not be well-calculated to convince anyone not previously converted to the merits of Prof. Mair's overall position. Which is certainly not to say that the desire to amuse rather than convince is not an entirely legitimate basis for an LL post!

  8. Apollo Wu said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    The homophonic hanzi 撼 捍 in Putonghua are not homophonics in Cantonese. The bisyllabic equivalents in Putonghua may very well be 震撼 zhenhan,捍卫 hanwei。 The mistake indicates a declining mastery of the Chinese language rather than lack of copy editors, as the authority insists that no error was made in the choice of Hanzi.

  9. Lareina said,

    May 30, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    Love the word SNAFU.

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