The linguistics of a political slogan

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Banner on the side of a fancy car in Sydney, Australia:

The photograph comes from this article:  "Chinese Australians in supercars protest India on its 70th Independence day", by Heidi Han, in SBS (8/16/17).

It seems that Chinese patriots are angered that Indian forces are not backing down from a standoff that has been going on for more than two months at Doklam in the Himalayas.

Here are some of the latest news items on the situation:

"Chinese State Media Video Mocks India In Bizarre Propaganda On Doklam", by Deepshikha Ghosh, NDTV (8/17/17).  This article includes a rare 3:22 Chinese propaganda film in English accusing India of "Seven Sins":

An actor with a stick-on beard and heavily-accented English parodies Indians to canned laughter.

"Do you negotiate with a robber who had just broken into your house… You just call 911 or just fight him back, right?" says Ms Wang. 911 is an emergency hotline only in the US.

The actor apparently representing a Sikh answers: "Why call 911 – don't you wanna play house, bro?"

Although Twitter is blocked in China, Xinhua has posted the hilarious video on its English-language account, so you can be sure that this is pure propaganda intended only for foreigners.

I found it a bit difficult to view the video from this site, but I persisted and succeeded after about four tries.

Ah, I also found the offensive video in this article, and it is easier to view here:

"Doklam standoff: China’s Xinhua agency releases racist video parodying Indians:  A video with racist overtones that seeks to parody Indians has been issued by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency to give the country’s position on the Doklam standoff", by Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times (8/16/17):

The video particularly targets the Sikh minority, and for some perplexing reason, the “Indian” is seen to be brandishing a pair of scissors.

"View: Whether China steps back or ups ante, it will lose in Doklam", by Kanwal Sibal, The Economic Times (8/17/17).

The slogan in nine large Chinese characters at the bottom of the banner on the side of the car pictured above reads:

Fàn wǒ Zhōnghuá zhě   suī yuǎn bì zhū

犯我中华者 虽远必诛

"Whoever offends / assails / violates our Chinese (nation), although (they may be) far away, (we will) surely / certainly / necessarily kill / punish (them)."

The first thing that needs to be pointed out about this slogan is that it is not in Mandarin, but rather it is in Literary Sinitic (LS) / Classical Chinese (CC).  If you put this into a Mandarin machine translator such as Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, or Bing / Microsoft Translator, the results will be gibberish.  It would be like asking a Hindi machine translator to translate Sanskrit, probably worse.

For those who know the basics of LS grammar, lexicon, and syntax, the message slogan is not too hard to understand.  The most challenging part is to grasp the exact semantics of the last character:  zhū 诛.  The basic meaning is "execute; put (a criminal) to death; impose the death penalty; kill", but it is also often used in the diluted or extended sense of "punish".

When I looked online for translations of the whole slogan, most avoided the use of "execute; kill" and chose "punish" or other circumlocution.  It would seem that the majority of translators instinctively sense that "execute; kill" is too extreme a penalty for the crime of fàn 犯 ("offending; affronting; assailing; violating; invading"), except perhaps for the last listed interpretation of the term.  Mind you, though, that zhū 诛 really does mean "execute; put (a criminal) to death; impose the death penalty; kill" in its most fundamental sense.

I asked several bilingual speakers of Mandarin and English how they would render the slogan in English and in Mandarin.  Here are some of the results:


Those who invade China will meet their doom regardless of the distance/location.

China will eradicate/punish those (nations or individuals) who intrude upon our nation although distant.

Meaning:  Chinese soldiers will definitely destroy any armed force that threatens the life of Chinese people.

Those who invade China, even though a thousand miles away, will be wiped out.

Those who offend China will be killed however far they are.

Any violators against China are to be annihilated, however far they run.


Fán qīnfàn Zhōngguó lǐngtǔ de dírén, wúlùn yuǎnjìn, bì jiāng zāo dào tòngjī.


Bùlùn jùlí yuǎnjìn, Zhōngguó jiāng huì zhūtǎo suǒyǒu qīnfàn qí guójiā hé mínzhòng de gètǐ.


Duìyú qīnfànle Zhōngguó de rén, jiùsuàn jùlí yuǎn, yě yīdìng yào bǎ tā xiāomiè.


Duìyú nàxiē qīnfàn wǒmen Zhōnghuá de rén, jiùsuàn shì zài yuǎn, yě bìxū yào bèi zhūmiè.


Rènhé qīnfàn wǒmen Zhōnghuá mínzú de rén, wúlùn nǐ zài duō yuǎn dì dìfāng, wǒmen dōu yīdìng huì bàofù dàodǐ.


Rènhé qīnfàn Zhōnghuá [mínzú lìyì] de rén, wúlùn duō yuǎn, wǒmen dōu bìrán huì jiānmiè tā.


For the dedicated philologists among us, the reason the slogan is in LS is because it is based directly on this passage from scroll 70 of the Hàn shū 漢書 (History of the Former / Western Han Dynasty [ 206 BC – 9 AD]) by Ban GuBan Zhao, and Ban Biao, completed in 111 AD, míng fàn qiáng Hàn zhě, suī yuǎn bì zhū 明犯彊漢者,雖遠必誅。, which describes how the Chinese army defeated the Xiōngnú 匈奴 (Hsiung-nu; Huns) in Central Asia and executed their leader because they had killed the Chinese ambassadors to that region.

Two thousand years of resentment against the barbarians are riding on that car door.

[h.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Fangyi Cheng, Jing Wen, Melvin Lee, and Maiheng Dietrich]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

    The headline text "Chinese Australians in supercars protest India …" struck me as very American. In Australia "protest" is not usually used that way; it's usually "protest against" or something similar.

    These protests are quite probably all part of a well-orchestrated program of bringing Australia’s Chinese community into alignment with the PRC's positions on world affairs. They need to tread warily, as inciting violence is a criminal offence.

  2. Kobo Daishi said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

    Victor Mair wrote:

    犯我中华者 虽远必诛


    For the dedicated philologists among us, the reason the slogan is in LS is because it is based directly on this passage from scroll 70 of the Hàn shū 漢書 (History of the Former / Western Han Dynasty [ 206 BC – 9 AD]) by Ban Gu, Ban Zhao, and Ban Biao, completed in 111 AD, míng fàn qiáng Hàn zhě, suī yuǎn bì zhū 明犯彊漢者,雖遠必誅。, which describes how the Chinese army defeated the Xiōngnú 匈奴 (Hsiung-nu; Huns) in Central Asia and executed their leader because they had killed the Chinese ambassadors to that region.


    Isn't 犯我中华者 虽远必诛 also the tagline from the current huge blockbuster movie Wolf Warriors 2 and its predecessor film Wolf Warriors.?

    A link to a New York Times News Service article titled "China’s action hero beats box office records (and arrogant Westerners)":

    Snippet from the article:

    “Whoever offends the Chinese will be wiped out no matter how far away,” goes an ancient phrase used to promote Leng Feng in two movies so far.


    I'm not sure, but, I think that President Xi Jinping also used something similar during a recent speech to commemorate the military. I think I read it in another review for Wolf Warriors 2.

    Here's a Google image search for the movie posters:

    A poster found at the Martial Arts Action Cinema web site with the slogan:

    I find the people who make the Chinese movie posters know more about the Chinese language than the average Chinese. They'll sometimes use very obscure characters for very common words and phrases.

    The Chinese-Australian probably just borrowed the movie tagline. Much as Reagan did when he took Clint Eastwood's "make my day" for some speech or other. Though "made my day" was quite common before the Eastwood film "Sudden impact", where the tagline came from.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

    @Kobo Daishi

    You're entirely right. In fact, I had originally intended to mention it myself because Heidi Han explicitly stated as much in her article, where I got the photograph with which this post begins:

    "Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is."

    The latter is a hard-core tagline of a recent Chinese patriotic action film Wolf Warriors 2.

    But, in the rush of things to do this afternoon (including participating in a doctoral defense in Hong Kong via Skype that I just finished) I neglected to put that in. So thanks very much for mentioning the connection to "Wolf Warriors 2".

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

    Plus the slogan 一点都不能少 with 点 in red, I guess just as bold-face-type emphasis (a sensible way to read the sentence) though maybe there are other interpretations… the connection to Zhang Yimou's 1999 film 一个都不能少 may just be me… Funny riffs on this poster on the interwebs…

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    August 18, 2017 @ 4:50 am

    VM: If you put this into a Mandarin machine translator such as Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, or Bing / Microsoft Translator, the results will be gibberish.

    Google translate: I am far from the Chinese who will punish
    Bing translate: The Chinese are far from being committed.
    Baidu translate: I am committed to the Chinese though much will punish

    Not really gibberish, just wrong.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2017 @ 8:05 am

    In Chinese studies, we often get translations that make sense on their own terms, i.e., they may be said to be intelligible, yet they are dead wrong when it comes to conveying the meaning of the original texts.

  7. Jin Defang said,

    August 18, 2017 @ 8:25 am

    well, cribbed from the Han anyway, since there wasn’t a China then. Perhaps a lot of Uyghurs would agree: it’s the Han trying to exterminate the non-Han in today’s “China”

  8. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 7:17 am

    Funny someone would invoke that Book of Han passage to support PRC border policy. The original phrase 'those who attack the Han must die' refers to the destruction of a rival polity (the Xiongnu) and the annexation of its territory, which is not how the current Chinese government prefers to describe its policy goals.

    Official narratives tend to paper over the violence in conflicts between states, 'peoples' and ethnic groups in Chinese history. This is reflected in the work of many serious scholars (as when offence is taken over people calling the Qing's imperial expansion 'the Qing's imperial expansion'), but is most egregious in educational and propaganda materials aimed at the general public, for both domestic and international consumption. If anything, the current trend is towards back-dating the official map of the PRC to unfathomable antiquity. Tibet used to be considered 'Chinese' since the Tang, already quite a stretch; but its earlier history has now been annexed as well. Commenting on the 'Chinese nation' (Zhonghua minzu) thread, I referred to how Genghis Khan is called a great politician of said nation, who helped unify China and its many peoples. (Which is hardly how GK was described by his contemporaries, including himself.) Although less often than the Tibetans or Mongols, the Xiongnu are also sometimes seen as part of this brotherly coming-together of nations. The idea is that up to the Han, the 'Huaxia minzu' 华夏民族 (understood as ancestors of the Han nationality) 'developed' the central regions, while 'minorities' such as the Xiongnu 'developed' the periphery. After developing for some time, they said hey, what if we just merge into one Zhonghua minzu? So they did that, and have lived happily/harmoniously/Chinese-dreamily ever since. I don't have evidence for anyone in China or elsewhere actually believing this stuff (indeed, people exposed to it tend to honestly ask, e.g., 'was Attila Chinese?'), but it has a place in official propaganda-making. If you're aware of this official narrative, and then see a Han imperialist war-cry refloated during a border dispute with Bhutan, the dissonance is deafening.

    Or more like a permanent minor-second tinnitus, since it happens all the time. There's the official idea of an immutable, eternal, multi-and-uni-ethnic Chinese non-empire où tout se tient, which everyone has heard about and some have to repeat, for a living, with a straight face. Then there's the bravado and ethnic nationalism of publications like the Globule Times, of which this bizarre tǔháo 土豪 Benz parade is just another manifestation. This second narrative is also cultivated by the state, since it has many practical uses: domestically, for political legitimacy in the eyes of Han in and outside China; internationally, as part of a good-cop-bad-cop act towards Japan, India, Bhutan etc. Unlike the convoluted Genghis-was-Chinese story, the Han nationalist one is internally consistent, appeals to baser instincts, and makes sense historically. It just works. So we can expect to keep hearing both messages simultaneously: China is a perpetually peaceful coalescence of brotherly peoples; but uppity barbarians are to be subdued. That's how you can get the Book of Han quote in a Rambo-style film and a patriotic Ferrari display.

    As of press time, the patriots-with-Porsches parade has not received overt official support. I've seen next to no coverage in Mainland media. Australian United Front-linked organisations, which are typically behind pro-PRC events and count many prominent businesspeople (and presumably Benz owners) among their members, haven't owned the demonstration. Indeed, the organisers want to remain anonymous. The fullest coverage of the event came from a local Chinese-language media, who followed the parade, covered it rather positively and hid or blurred the number plates in all their pictures of the event.

  9. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

    As for Doklam, the Himalayan location that motivated the incognito Porsche-patriot parade: its name (འབྲོག་ལམ། 'Brog lam) could mean 'nomads' road' in Tibetan. The Chinese name Dònglǎng 洞朗 is a transcription.

    In Tibetan Pinyin, a transcription based on Lhasa pronunciation, the name would be Zhoglam. Perhaps that spelling is a secret weapon the Relevant Departments are waiting to deploy; there's precedent for weaponised Tibetan Pinyin in the region.

  10. Tom davidson said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:25 am

    Look at the map on the car Taiwan is nowhere to be seen…..

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:33 am

    Taiwan is there, Hainan is there, and so is the infamous 9 Dash Line.

  12. Tao said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    This poster began to circulate more than a year ago as part of a CCP-directed response to the South China Sea issues. A humorous alternate version exists that continues "…但是可以缺一大塊" and omits Taiwan from the map.

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