Seismic solecism

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Tangshan, in Hebei Province, was the epicenter of what is considered to the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century, with more than 650,000 of its million inhabitants perishing as a result of this July 28, 1976 disaster.  I still remember clearly the day that it happened, because the news came when I was attending a conference on Chinese philosophy at Harvard University, and many of the participants volunteered to assist the people of Tangshan one way or another (our offers were spurned by the Chinese government).

Two days ago, a linguistic upheaval jolted Tangshan, and the tremors were felt throughout the whole of China.

The slogan on this banner put up by the Propaganda Department of the Tangshan city government is the usual sort of CCP folderol, calling on the people to rally around the Core Leader of the Party, Xin Jinping, to seize the great victory of socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era.

The problem is that the name of the General Secretary of the CCP, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, is miswritten as Xīn Jìnpíng 新近平.  Horrors!  Heads will roll!

This damning, viral photograph is from the Twitter account of Liu Hu, who says in the heading of his tweet that the Tangshan city government was terrified when they realized the colossal fault that their Propaganda Department had committed.

Can we explain this as some sort of language error?  I rather doubt it, since in Tangshan topolect xí 习 ("practice") and xīn 新 ("new") are quite distinct.  Perhaps the error was triggered through assimilation from the succeeding two syllables which both have "-in" in their phonological makeup.  And / or perhaps xīn 新 ("new") replacing xí 习 ("practice") is a subliminal echo of xīn 新 ("new") earlier in the sentence.

No matter what the linguistic cause of the mistake may have been (if, in fact, a parapraxis occurred at all), how could such a blatant blunder have escaped the notice of all those involved in composing, approving, printing, and checking the poster?  Methinks that some form of skulduggery must have been at play for this to have happened.  One of the reasons I'm willing to hazard this supposition is the increasing number of acts of resistance to Xi Jinping's assumption of unprecedented dictatorial powers, especially since the beginning of the second of the n terms of his presidency.  Such acts of resistance are almost never reported in the media, but they do circulate on Chinese social media (till they are blocked and scrubbed) and on Twitter (as in this instance).

Indeed, there is a particular subspecies of netizens in China who dare to push the envelope of opposition and criticism to the limit of sedition, and they are called jiànpán xiá 键盘侠.  The usual translation of this expression is "keyboard man", but that's a poor rendering, inasmuch as many of those who engage in poking the government's bubble are women.  What jiànpán xiá 键盘侠 really means is something more akin to "knight-errant of the keyboard").

The speed with which news of this sort travels across social media and the internet more generally is electrifying.  No matter how decisively and ruthlessly the government may act to stamp it out, word of this kind of sensational event spreads like wildfire across the whole of China, except for places like Xinjiang and Tibet where control of the internet is especially draconian.

Now, let's see who in Tangshan will be the tìzuìyáng 替罪羊 ("scapegoats") and who will be suicided.

[H.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Liwei Jiao and Zeyao Wu]


  1. JB said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 1:34 am

    It's not as if "keyboard warrior" isn't a term in English.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 3:29 am

    "Knight-errant" appears to be a conventional translation of 侠, but it doesn't mean much to a modern audience. The introductory material in this book suggests that the term originally referred to masterless warriors, something like Japanese ronin, and (also like Japanese ronin) came to take on a more romantic meaning once the phenomenon was more historical than current:

    These xia figures have had an enduring narrative appeal throughout literary history: not only are they featured in tales collected in the taiping guangji 太平廣記, but during the late imperial periods — and even in contemporary literature — they are repeatedly showcased as central characters in full-length vernacular novels.


    Long before deeds of knight-errantry were captured in Tang narratives, the term xia 侠 appeared in an essay, "Five Vermin," 五蠹 written by the Warring States thinker Han Feizi 韓非子 (d. 233 BCE). In this work, Han classified xia — defined as those who "make a living by wielding their swords in a private cause" — as one of five major forces that threaten the stability of the state by undermining the absolute authority of its laws.


    The Han dynasty historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145-c. 86 BCE) quote this argument and made it the touchstone for a group biography of "wandering knights" (youxia 游侠). In the sectional preface, Sima Qian recasts xia in a more sympathetic light than did Han Feizi, writing "although they sometimes ran afoul of the law in their day, [they] were in their personal relations scrupulously honest and humble." Sima Qian notes that xia were "always true to their word" and that "without thinking of themselves they hasten to the side of those who are in trouble, whether it means survival or destruction, life or death."

    The story this material introduces shows a 侠 from the less heroic end of the spectrum; she makes the acquaintance of a young gentleman who is planning to take the 明经 examination, learns from him the art of walking on walls in defiance of gravity, uses the skill to steal an item from the imperial palace, frames the gentleman by borrowing his horse for her crime, and breaks him out of prison. They fly away together.

    Modern superheroes are often named as 侠, such as 蜘蛛侠 Spider-Man and 钢铁侠 Iron Man.

  3. Terror Incognita said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 4:40 am


    I thought about 'keyboard warrior' too, but that's a very different term in that it's derogatory, highlighting the person's cowardice above all. A keyboard warrior is someone who anonymously engages in arguments with strangers on the internet more aggressively than they would an equivalent argument in person. This seems to be more subversion than anything else – an underground resistance to a surveillance state that appears to be spreading ever more widely.

  4. Lai Ka Yau said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 8:04 am

    @Terror Incognita: In Hong Kong we have a similar term 鍵盤戰士 (literally 'keyboard warrior'), which I guess is between the two. Usually 鍵盤戰士s also rail against the government online, but it's a derogatory term aimed at highlighting people's cowardice since 鍵盤戰士s are thought to be all talk and no action.

  5. Andrew said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 8:47 am

    Thanks for the explanation the slogan on this banner.

  6. Daan said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

    I am curious as to when/where/how 替罪羊 tìzuìyáng came into the Chinese language as an almost perfect calque of scapegoat.

    Did it come from Kaifeng Jews, a parallel Chinese sacrifice-goat-for-remission-of-sins tradition or is it a recent borrowing from English (or another language)?

    Does anyone (VHM) have any insight on this?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

    When I used the expression "tìzuìyáng 替罪羊", I was virtually certain that someone would ask about the resemblance to the use of the word "scapegoat" in Judaism and Christianity. Daan did so in a sophisticated way, but I'm afraid that it would not be easy to answer his question without specialized knowledge of the writings of the Kaifeng Jews, and I suspect that very little of it survives, although there may be some relevant inscriptions that could be brought to bear by scholars who focus on the study of such materials.

    I'll just add a few additional notes here to flesh things out a bit for those who might wish to pursue this inquiry further.

    Synonyms for "tìzuìyáng 替罪羊" ("scapegoat") are "tìzuì gāoyáng 替罪羔羊" and "dàizuì gāoyáng 代罪羔羊", where we see that the notion of "gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") is incorporated into the notion of "scapegoat". The reason a "gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") is considered suitable for sacrifice (hence the expression "sacrificial lamb") is that it is blameless, faultless, pure.

    The notion of "gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") also enters into concepts like "Shàngdì gāoyáng 上帝羔羊" and "Tiānzhǔ gāoyáng 天主羔羊", both meaning "Lamb of God", but here we are entering into the realm of theology, and that is another branch of knowledge that I leave to the specialists.

    I'll close by noting that "gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") is a very old and widely used expression in early Chinese texts, going back to the latter part of the first millennium BC, and that it often occurs in contexts of sacrifice and ritual. I would not be surprised if there have already been papers, dissertations, and theses comparing the sacrificial lamb of the Abrahamic tradition with the "gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") of ancient China.

  8. Chris Button said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

    The oracle-bone inscriptions include a lot of sacrificial 羊 often noted with 宀 on top as something domestically raised. However, this also extends to 牛 as 牢 as well.

  9. ajay said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 5:52 am

    There's quite a difference between a knight errant, a mercenary and a ronin. Lancelot and Galahad were knights errant, but they were not masterless…

  10. Mango said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    The most likely cause of the mistake is the pinyin input system, which probably suggested any syllables that begin with the letters typed in, not only exact matches. For xi, suggestions would have incuded all characters for xi, xia, xie, xin, xing, xiong, xian, xiang. 新 came up as the first option, and the user in front of the screen probably blindly pressed enter, without proofreading his glorious propaganda poster…

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

    How any intelligent, compassionate, human being could possibly believe that a deity would be pleased if a gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") were killed as a sacrifice is totally beyond my comprehension.

  12. julie lee said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

    Regarding the xia or wuxia, the Chinese knight-errant:

    Not long ago Yi Zhongtian 易中天, professor of history at Xiamen University and TV superstar speaker on Chinese TV, gave a version of the Chinese Dream as counterpoint to Xi Jinping's new Chinese Dream. The wuxia plays a key role in Yi's version of the Chinese Dream.

    Prof. Yi said the Chinese people have always had a Chinese Dream.
    Anciently they dreamed of a Wise Emperor. Under a wise emperor, there would be peace, and life would be good. But that dream fell through, as emperors can be foolish or wicked. Next they dreamed of a Pure Official. Under pure officials, life would be good. That dream also fell through. Then they dreamed of the wuxia. He would come in the night and cut off the head of the corrupt official. That dream also fell through. So what were the Chinese people to do? The answer is: wuxia novels, romances of knight-errantry, Yi says. The Chinese threw themselves into wuxia novels. Hence the great popularity of Jin Yong's romances. Hence the enduring popularity of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義 after almost 2000 years. The novel embodies the Chinese Dream in its three incarnations: its Emperor Liu Bei is the Wise Emperor; his minister Zhu Ge Liang is the Pure Official; and his generals Chang Fei and Guan Yu are the wuxia, knights-errant.

  13. julie lee said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 11:53 pm


    The novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, was written-in the 14th century..The events took place almost 2000 years ago.

    The novel's "enduring popularity…after almost 2000 years"

    should be corrected to

    "after more than 600 years".

    The historical events of the novel took place almost 2000 years ago.

  14. James Wimberley said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    "The 47,000 Ronin" would be a good title for the film of the mass resistance, when it comes.

  15. Rodger C said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 8:55 am

    How any intelligent, compassionate, human being could possibly believe that a deity would be pleased if a gāoyáng 羔羊" ("lambkin; kid; lamb") were killed as a sacrifice is totally beyond my comprehension.

    I think it was Walter Burkert who said that we tend to imagine our deities as dangerous beasts that have to be fed or they'll take a bite out of us.

  16. Eidolon said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    "Keyboard hero" is a less culturally sensitive but more succinct translation option. But I can't shake the feeling that the keyboard prefix in English is a variation on the "armchair" prefix in phrases like "armchair general," which is always negative; while by contrast, the Chinese phrase appears more literal in its praise.

  17. Wentao said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 4:24 pm
    “键盘侠(keyboard man)是一个网络词语,指部分在现实生活中胆小怕事,而在网上占据道德高点发表‘个人正义感’的人群。”

    From Baidu Baike: "'Keyboard-Man' is the internet slang for people who are cowardly and timid in real life, but are prone to take the moral high ground and exhibit their self-righteousness on the Internet."

    I'd say "keyboard warrior" is quite an apt rendition.

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