Censoring "Occupy" in China

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Last weekend I was on the NPR show "On the Media" to talk about how the word occupy has evolved since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement in mid-September. I reiterated a point I had made in my Word Routes column the previous week, namely that the success of the movement has been helped along by the modular nature of the Occupy slogan, allowing any place name to fill the "Occupy ___" template. That template has shown up in protests around the world, from Frankfurt to Tokyo, with English Occupy generally left intact (perhaps for maximum media impact). In China, meanwhile, Occupy has a translation-equivalent that is being censored online.

As reported by China Digital Times (a bilingual news site run by UC Berkeley's Counter-Power Lab), the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo is blocking searches of the word zhànlǐng 占领, meaning "occupy," when combined with various Chinese place names. Here is the list of banned keywords that CDT uncovered:

Keywords containing provincial capitals (all provincial capitals except Hefei of Anhui province and Guiyang of Guizhou province are on the list):

“Occupy Beijing”(占领北京), “Occupy Shanghai”(占领上海), “Occupy Guangzhou”(占领广州), “Occupy Xi’an”(占领西安), “Occupy Chongqin”(占领重庆), “Occupy Tianjin”(占领天津), “Occupy Urumqi”(占领乌鲁木齐), “Occupy Lhasa”(占领拉萨), “Occupy Changsha”(占领长沙), “Occupy Wuhan”(占领武汉), “Occupy Nanchang”(占领南昌), “Occupy Fuzhou”(占领福州), “Occupy Nanjing”(占领南京), “Occupy Dalian”(占领大连), “Occupy Hangzhou”(占领杭州), “Occupy Harbin”(占领哈尔滨), “Occupy Chengdu”(占领成都), “Occupy Kunming”(占领昆明), “Occupy Hohhot”(占领呼和浩特), “Occupy Haikou”(占领海口), “Occupy Zhengzhou”(占领郑州), “Occupy Changchun”(占领长春), “Occupy Shenyang”(占领沈阳), “Occupy Xining”(占领西宁), “Occupy Lanzhou”(占领兰州), “Occupy Taiyuan”(占领太原), “Occupy Yinchuan”(占领银川), “Occupy Shijiazhuang”(占领石家庄), “Occupy Jinan”(占领济南), “Occupy Nanning”(占领南宁).

Keywords containing non-capital cities:

“Occupy Jiling”(占领吉林), “Occupy Shenzhen”(占领深圳), “Occupy Wenzhou”(占领温州), “Occupy Qingdao”(占领青岛).

Keywords containing local areas:

“Occupy Wangfujing”(占领王府井), “Occupy Zhongnanhai”(占领中南海), and “Occupy Financial Street”(占领金融街).

Uncategorized keyword:

“Occupy China”(占领中国).

I asked Victor Mair about zhànlǐng, and he responded:

zhànlǐng 占领 (trad. 佔領) to me has a more aggressive (almost military) sense than "occupy" usually has in English; it conveys the idea of "capture, seize, hold" a territory or place, with the use of force often being implied or understood

佔 by itself means "occupy, take possession of" — of course, it means lots of other things too, but this is basically the idea it contributes to the term 佔領

領 by itself means "to lead, receive" — of course, it means lots of other things too, but this is basically the idea it contributes to the term 佔領

English occupy can have the "aggressive (almost military)" sense that Victor identifies — the OED's definition 6b, "to take possession of (a place), esp. by force," dates back to the 14th century. (Not surprising, considering that the Latin etymon, occupare, means "to seize.")  Protest-style occupy, which only dates to 1920, is not so coercive, though the forceful overtones might suggest to some if not militarism, at least a no-nonsense assertiveness beyond simply taking up space. In any case, the semantic shades of occupy do not all come through in zhànlǐng 占领, and perhaps the more bellicose implications of the Chinese equivalent are helping to set off the censorship bells.

(Via TPMIdeaLab.)

[Update, 10/26: See Victor Mair's extended comment below for more on possible Chinese translations of occupy.]


  1. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

    Somewhat off topic (though maybe not), One thing I've found interesting is that no one has linked the Occupy movement with the Spanish okupa movement which has similar, if not precisely the same origins. And seized is definitely a good interpreting of it. I honestly don't know if the OWS protesters are familiar with it, and the Spanish media (at least, El País) reports on it as "Occupy Wall Street", but it sure seems to me like there might be a connection.

  2. kktkkr said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    I always thought "Occupy" was a pun on "occupation" which many people are out of. That's also lost in translation.

  3. Outis said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 12:14 am

    I wonder if Occupy couldn't be translated as 霸占 instead. It sounds paradoxically more aggressive yet less militaristic. Or perhaps 占据?

  4. WillSteed said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    I'll be interested to hear what word/phrase is used in its place in the Chinese internet back-alleys.

  5. Anthony said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 12:26 am

    Is "Occupy Taipei" banned? One wonders what the provincial authorities of Anhui and Guizhou have done to annoy the central government enough to be left off the list. Or is there some historical occupation of Hefei and Guiyang that would be embarrassing to censor?

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 1:13 am

    @Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch, what link do you see? Okupa means squatter; the far more obvious link with OWS is the 15-M movement (which, from Spain, seems like part of the inspiration of OWS).

  7. Olof said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 1:46 am

    Are 佔 and 占 interchangeable?

  8. U said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    "Occupy Wall Street" certainly conveyed a militaristic message to me (a non-US English speaker). I interpreted it as "take over wall street by force", though obviously in this case by force of voices and other non-violent protest

  9. Markg said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 5:38 am

    Whether or not zhànlǐng has aggressive overtones, I imagine the Chinese government would do its best to censor any word that might suggest a movement against its authority. The present 'Occupy' protests don't seem particularly aggressive to me, though if you were a trader/banker or (in the case of St. Paul's) an impatient tourist, they might appear so. I visited our home-grown one on Dublin's Central Bank Plaza (on Dame St.), last week and I was struck by how homely it was: children, mums and dads, dogs, a little cluster of dome tents, a makeshift library… I wouldn't be surprised if there was a crèche somewhere in there.

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    Were the occupants merely occupying Wall Street, in the everyday sense of the word, they would be a nuisance but not a force to reckon with. The occupation is more of a siege, and thus they are besieging Wall Street. I believe the Chinese authorities don't want any of this inconvenient civil disobedience notion to spark the imagination of the people.

  11. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    @Peter: More from the name than anything. While the okupas certainly are squatting, there is a certain ideology behind it (it's more than simply living in a given spot) which I think came out in full force in 15-M. But the name given to the 15-M participants, indignados certainly didn't get brought over to English.

  12. Andy Averill said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    Ironic that "occupy" is censorable once again. For several centuries it was considered indecent, being a synonym for sexual intercourse. Doll Tearsheet says, in Henry IV Part 2:

    He a captain! hang him, rogue! He lives upon mouldy stew'd prunes and dried cakes. A captain! God's light, these villains will make the word as odious as the word 'occupy'; which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted.

  13. mondain said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    @Outis Although it sounds more aggressive, the use of 霸占 would undermine the legitimacy of the slogan, since '霸' emphasizes the unlawfulness of the occupation '占', which is self-destructive.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    Comment by a friend: "It would be an interesting experiment / movement to systematically try to get so many common words banned that it becomes impossible to communicate."

  15. lukys said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    I find it odd that the Chinese government would want to discourage anti-capitalist protests. Unless, so I've heard, it's not really anti-capitalist, but more anti-inequality, in which case it would make sense.

  16. Chandra said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    @Victor Mair('s friend) – I'm sure the Chinese government would like nothing better.

  17. Dakota said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    When someone enters an airplane toilet, the "occupied" sign goes on. In Latin America the toilet is "ocupado". I'm afraid to ask what the Chinese do with toilets. And I suspect that British toilets, like their telephones, are "engaged".

  18. Andrew Philpot said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

    I suppose 占领 西藏 (Occupy Tibet) is right out.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    @lukys "I find it odd that the Chinese government would want to discourage anti-capitalist protests."

    Not odd at all. The Chinese government censored the word "jasmine" in the spring, because they were afraid that the Arab rebellions against totalitarian rulers might be emulated in the PRC. The CCMCP (Chinese Communist Merantilist Confucian Party) is extremely wary of anything that smacks of social unrest of any kind. After all, by the government's own count, there are around 200,000 major "incidents" of social disturances each year, many of them of quite large scale and characterized by considerable violence — "riots," in fact. So the PRC government will do everything it can to prevent any public protests, for fear that they might somehow turn against the CCMCP itself.

  20. phspaelti said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

    Just to take up Victor's friend's suggestion of trying to get common words banned: the place to start would be words like "(political) party", or "communist". Imagine translating "Occupy Wallstreet" as "Party Wallstreet" etc.

  21. Fluxor said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 9:10 am

    @Olof: 佔 and 占are fully interchangeable.

  22. Michael said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    occupy — c.1340, "to take possession of," also "to take up space or time, employ (someone)," from O.Fr. occuper, from L. occupare "take over, seize, possess, occupy," from ob "over" + intensive form of capere "to grasp, seize" (see capable). During 16c.-17c. a euphemism for "have sexual intercourse with," which caused it to fall from polite usage. "Gods light these villaines wil make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted." [Doll Tearsheet in "2 Henry IV"]

  23. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Further notes on words for "occupy" in Chinese (with pinyin and translations, added by VHM, plus some minor editing); these come from friends who replied to my question about how to say that an airplane toilet is "occupied" in Chinese, in contrast to occupying Wall Street.

    From Maiheng Dietrich:

    When a toilet is occupied, the sign says yǒurén 有人 ("there is someone; there's a person [in here]"). You are right we cannot say someone zhànlǐng 占领 a toilet, since a toilet in an airplane is a public space; everyone has a right to use it.

    However, "Occupy Wall Street" is a different scenario. Here zhànlǐng 占领 is actually appropriate, in my view. The demonstrators are not gathering there for conducting normal business. They are "invading" a space that belongs to someone else. Zhànlǐng Huá'ěrjiē 占领华尔街 ("Occupy Wall Street" [the standard translation for this expression]) seems to convey just the right image. On the other hand zhànlǐng 占领 doesn't necessarily carry a negative tone. Of the words that I could think of — zhànyǒu 占有 ("occupy; hold; possess; have; own"), gōngzhàn 攻占 ("capture [a place]; attack and occupy"),qīnzhàn 侵占 ("encroach [upon]; seize; invade and occupy; misappropriate; usurp") — the latter two are far more military and aggressive, while zhànyǒu 占有 sounds like talking about ownership.

    Jing Wen:

    It is definitely not zhànlǐng 占领. I think it is yǒurén 有人 ("there is someone; there's a person [in here]") on the train. Maybe shǐyòng zhōng 使用中 ("in use") on the airplane? I never noticed that. Perhaps just a red light with a human figure sign, or perhaps with a circle and a "/" on it?

    Gloria Bien:

    I've never noticed–most of the flights I've taken on Chinese airplanes have been short. And anyway, the toilets would have red and green lights. Yǒurén 有人 ("there is someone; there's a person [in here]") would work. I agree that it wouldn't be zhànlǐng 占领。 Maybe zhànyòng 占用 ("occupied [and in use]"; occupancy")?

    BTW I did find examples of zhànlǐng 占领 on Google– men's lavatories being occupied by women. That would be an aggressive act, wouldn't it?

    Gianni Wan:

    I am sorry I forget if there are Chinese signs on the lavatory doors of domestic flights or not (because they are all imported). If there are, however, those must be yǒurén 有人 ("there is someone; there's a person [in here]"), and correspondingly, for "VACANT" wú rén 无人 ("vacant; unoccupied; unmanned; depopulated; uninhabited"). It is typical on the toilet doors of Chinese trains.

    For "occupying WS", I think zhànlǐng 占领 is a proper translation. If you want a more neutral and less aggressive translation, I would say zhan4ju4 占据 ("hold") Wall Street. More mildly, you can say zhu4jin4 住进 ("lodge into") Wall Street, but it is informal and the meaning is slightly different.

    Haitao Tang:

    Zhànjù 占据 ("occupy; hold") may be less disagreeable in the Occupy Wall Street case; for the toilet, one could use zhànyòng zhōng 占用中 ("in use")。 This is my personal idea, and it may not be correct.

    Melvin Lee:

    On Chinese airplanes or trains, when there is a person in the toilet, the most common sign will be shǐyòng zhōng 使用中 ("in use"), though I have seen yǒurén 有人 ("there is someone; there's a person [in here]") as well.

    In Chinese, the word for "taking a certain space" is simply zhàn 占, such as:

    Yǒurén zhànle zhège wèizi 有人占了这个位子 ("Somebody has taken / occupied this seat")
    Zhè zhāng zhuōzi yǐjīng bèi tāmen zhànle 这张桌子已经被他们占了 ("This table has already been taken / occupied by them")

    I checked a few dictionaries and the Chinese translation for "occupy" usually contains this character “占” as well, such as zhànlǐng 占领 ("occupy and control")、zhànjù 占据 ("occupy and hold")、zhànyǒu 占有 ("occupy and hold") and zhànyòng 占用 ("occupy and use"). However, it seems that all these words above carry an aggressive feeling to it. I thought of two words that are not that strong rùzhǔ 入主 ("enter and take charge") and jJiēzhǎng 接掌 ("take over"), but they will probably be translated as "to take over" (leadership, company) rather than "to occupy."

    Zhou Ying:

    I remember vaguely that when the toilet is occupied, the red light will be on, but there seems to be no sign saying yǒurén 有人 ("there is someone; there's a person [in here]"). I find the the "Occupy Wall Street" question to be a very interesting one. It never occurred to me before that zhànlǐng 占领 is an inappropriate term for the movement. However, your explanation makes me realize that to translate occupy into zhànlǐng 占领 may actually mislead people about the nature of the movement. It is indeed inappropriate to use a term with military connotation to indicate what is actually meant to be a non-violent protesting movement. A less agressive counterpart for "Occupy Wall Street" might be zǒushàng Huá'ěrjiē 走上华尔街 (zǒushàng = "take to; walk onto"),which indicates calling on people to take to the streets (Wall Street, in this particular case).

    VHM: 1. "Take to the streets" in English sounds threatening to the authorities charged with keeping the peace. 2. During the Arab Spring, not only did the Chinese censors block use of the word "jasmine," they also blocked references to strolling on the streets on Sunday, since Chinese protesters during that period encouraged people who were dissatisfied with government policies to do just that: go out on a Sunday stroll. Ambassador Huntsman was famously fillmed observing one such "Sunday stroll" in Beijing.

  24. Dakota said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    @ Victor Mair The demonstrators…are "invading" a space that belongs to someone else.

    A small point of clarification: in every place I have ever lived in the U.S., the street and the sidewalk, including the boulevard, or the grassy space between the sidewalk and the street, is public property. Homeowners cannot prevent any member of the public from using it, and it may also be regulated by the municipality as far as what kind of signage, etc. businesses can place on the sidewalk outside the buildings they own.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    That's not the case with Zucotti Park, though, which (shamefully) the City of New York deeded to a private company years ago.

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