Where's Xi?

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Supposing Mitt Romney cancelled all of his appearances and meetings and went missing for a week. Furthermore, neither the Republican National Committee nor the Secret Service would make any statements or answer any questions concerning his whereabouts. Naturally, we would all be alarmed and wondering what had happened to the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. But imagine, if you can, that it would be illegal to search for Romney's name on the internet. All searches for "Romney" and "Mitt Romney" would be decisively blocked by the United States Government, and one might well be arrested for complaining about this. Out of frustration, citizens would search for "Room Knee eh?", "Glove ROM leg joint", and the like.

By now, practically all news conscious persons in the West are aware that PRC president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, has disappeared for about a week and hasn't kept any of his scheduled meetings, including a very conspicuous one with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The story is all over the web; here is a typical report from the Washington Post. And the New York Times just issued this new report.  Since there are so many wild rumors about Xi's absence, I asked several of my Chinese students in the PRC whether they had heard any scuttlebutt there. One of them replied:

People in Beijing always get this kind of news from outside of China. The article in the Washington Post has provided the only details we know. What happens among the nine people [VHM: he's talking about the members of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China] is always a mystery to us! Now we can not search any news about "where is Xi" on the internet. Even when I search "半羽呢" (half 羽 means 习), nothing will appear.

bànyǔ ne 半羽呢 ("and what about half a feather"?)

bàn 半 ("half")

yǔ 羽 ("feather")

ne 呢 (interrogative particle)

What in the world is my student talking about?

Well, half of the character for yǔ ("feather"), i.e., 羽, is xí 习  ("study; practice; review; exercise; get / be used / accustomed to; habit; custom"), and xí 习 just happens to be the surname of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.  So, if you are in China and you want to make an attempt to find out what has happened to Xi Jinping, the next leader of your nation, you don't enter his name directly into a search engine, but you use some such circuitous route as bànyǔ ne 半羽呢 ("and what about half a feather"?).

This type of oblique, convoluted discourse and search is extremely common in China.  To an outsider, "mud grass horse" and "river crab" may seem like the language of idiots, but in China it is the way clever people do their best to discuss sensitive subjects despite massive censorship and extraordinarily stringent control imposed upon the internet.

Of course, the censors are always trying to stay one step ahead (or behind, actually) of the netizens, so apparently they've also blocked bànyǔ ne 半羽呢 ("and what about half a feather"?) to keep people from finding any news about Xi Jinping.

Further notes on the interrogative particle ne 呢:

1. XXX ne 呢? ("and what about XXX [so-and-so]")

2. Wǒ bà ne? 我爸呢

a. "Where's my father?"

b. "How about my father?"

c. "How's my father doing?"

3. Nà běn shū ne? 那本书呢

a. "What about that book?"

b. "Where is that book?"

c. "How is that book?"

The nuances of ne 呢, especially in oral usage, are many and subtle.

Perhaps the most famous internet search of this type is for Bo Xilai 薄熙来 (former Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing Municipality and once expected to join the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China, until March of this year when huge scandals surrounding him, his wife [Gu Kailai], and his police chief [Wang Lijun] erupted).

To try to find out something about Bo Xilai, one searches, not for his name, but for bù hòu 不厚 (“not thick”), since Bo's surname (bó [also pronounced báo 薄, and pronounced bò as part of the word for "peppermint"]) means “thin”.  If that doesn't work (it probably won't), one can search for Bo Xilai under the guise of Píngxī wáng 平西王 ("prince who suppresses the west").  What??

Bo Xilai was a powerful leader in the southwest of China, like Wú Sānguì 吴三桂 — traitor to both the Ming Dynasty and the Manchu Qing Dynasty — who had his latter-day power base in southwestern Yunnan. Bo Xilai's fate in the southwest is similar to that of Wu Sangui in the same region. So, if you want to search for Bo Xilai, look him up under bù hòu 不 (“not thick”) or Píngxī wáng 平西王 ("prince who suppresses the west").  Or try something else equally ingenious.

When the scandal of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai / Gu Kailai broke into the news, Chóngqìng 重庆 — the city where they were based — also couldn't be searched directly on the internet in China. Consequently, netizens used xīhóngshì 西红柿 ("tomato") to replace it.  What???

xī 西 ("west")

hóng 红 ("red")

shì 柿 ("persimmon")

This is perfectly logical:

xī 西 ("west") because Chongqinq is in the west of China

hóng 红 ("red") because Bo Xilai is famous for having the people of the city sing "red songs" (patriotic, Maoist songs eulogizing the party and the army)

shì 柿 ("persimmon") because it here stands paronomastically for shì 市 ("city")

Incidentally, Hè Guóqiáng 贺国强, another member of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China, has not been seen for a week.  What games will be played with his name in an attempt find some juicy morsel of information about him on the Chinese internet?

Hè Guóqiáng 賀國強 (lit., "congratulate-country-strong")

And what has become of Zhōu Yǒngkāng 周永康, the security chief and Standing Committee member, ally of the disgraced Bo Xilai?

Zhōu Yǒngkāng 周永康 (lit., "circumference-eternal-health")

So many mysteries!  So many puzzles!  And, though it is devilishly difficult to find the answer to these burning mysteries and puzzles, one can occupy nearly all of one's time and exercise nearly all of one's intelligence trying to devise ingenious means to circumvent the obstacles that stand in the way of one's discovering what is really going on.


  1. Dean Barrett said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 7:39 pm

    Kind of like if the Republican right wing took over and banned Bush's name I might have to look him up by typing something like "Idiot who destroyed Iraq and made Iran stronger."

  2. Gianni said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    For Zhou Yongkang, his nickname on the internet is 康师傅 Kang Shifu, a famous Taiwan-based food brand renowned for noodles.

  3. Chris C. said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

    @Dean — It would be smarter to search for a shrub. Or possibly herring.

  4. L said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

    So what if somebody really wants to know about feathers?

  5. Carl said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    This sort of thing has been going on for centuries too. In many old texts there were various character taboos—former Emperor Long Peace would be either on the outs or too holy to talk about lightly so you'd have to write 'Tranquility' instead—which end up muddling the meanings of some classical texts.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naming_taboo

  6. Henning Makholm said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 2:33 am

    Makes one wonder what could possibly be up with him that makes the regime consider blatant censorship to be the less embarrassing option.

  7. Jason said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    Makes one wonder what could possibly be up with him that makes the regime consider blatant censorship to be the less embarrassing option.

    China has a strategy of censoring just about anything, randomly and arbitrarily, which makes drawing conclusions about what's important based on whether it's censored or not a difficult proposition. The semantics of this might deserve attention.

    Perhaps they should look for Mr Xi on the Appalachian trail? That seems to be where these officials usually end up.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    So if you live under a censorship-prone regime, this is an added benefit to your language having a harder-to-learn writing system that helps to disambiguate homophones (like hanzi or standard English orthography), and thus enables these sorts of workarounds?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    @J. W. Brewer

    Was that meant as a statement or a question?

  10. KeithB said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    I'd say it has been going on for a long time: cf YHWH and Adonai. Or more recently, G_d, which isn't nearly as clever.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    Prof. Mair: I suppose a bit of both. It seems clear that some of the examples you gave are based on the existence of hanzi that have different meanings associated with the same sound, much as "knee" (or a paraphrase like "leg joint") is a workaround for -ney in the surname Romney. Perhaps Mandarin written in pinyin (like a European language with more phonetically regular orthography than modern English has) would not permit these types of examples but still permit or enable a different style of wordplay that could be used equally effectively for similar purposes; perhaps not – I don't know enough to have an informed opinion on that.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    Now we have this incredible, ominous pun on the president-in-waiting's name:


    Jīn píng méi = Jìnpíng méi

    Gold Vase Plum = [Xi] Jinping has disappeared OR [Xi] Jinping is dead

    N.B.: Gold Vase Plum or Golden Lotus is the name of a famous erotic novel of the early 17th century



  13. L said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    > I'd say it has been going on for a long time: cf YHWH and Adonai.
    > Or more recently, G_d, which isn't nearly as clever.

    Close, but "G-d" substitutes for God, which usually renders Elohim.

    YHVH/Adonai are usually translated Lord, for which the corresponding variant is L-rd.

    But IMHO, the one that takes the (pareve) cake is Adoshem.

  14. Anon said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    Pareve ?! I hope you mean Parve (this is how it is correctly pronounced).

  15. ExOttoyuhr said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

    So, are these nicknames that are propagated by extremely active word of mouth, or does Baidu actually understand that "Prince who Suppresses the West" might mean Bo Xilai, and "West Red Persimmon" might be a logical nickname for Chongqing?

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    @Anon: Pareve is the Yiddish equivalent of parve, I believe.

  17. Mat Bettinson said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    Has anyone given these firewall jumping terms serious treatment as far as perhaps a typology of various strategies used to construct the terms? I'm looking at trying to systematically derive some using computational techniques from the Leiden Weibo corpus but clearly many of the strategies are completely beyond automated models like half a hanzi orthography (God, that's brilliant – Chinese is awesome).

  18. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    > Pareve ?! I hope you mean Parve (this is how it is correctly
    > pronounced).

    Hechsher stamps spell it both ways.

    Nobody pronounces it "Beth Israel" (with a thorn) but that's how they usually spell it.

    You correct my pronunciation, but you have never heard me pronounce it.

  19. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    Correction… many people pronounce it that way, but only because it's usually spelled that way. Correctly pronounced, it might be Beis Yisrael, or Beit Yisrael, or Bais Yisroyal, or a hundred other variants. All the same, it's spelled Beth Israel just about every time.

  20. loonquawl said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 9:17 am

    I do not really get it. Are the articles one finds with this convoluted search strategy already written with the synonyms, or has the search engine somehow been taught to 'translate' the terms? And do the synonyms get shifted after the censors catch up, or are there a bunch of them from the get go, some of which are caught, while others survive?

  21. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    @loonquawl – it is something akin to a pun. As such, the workaround-terms may appear in the items searched (articles, postings, whatever) or the work-around terms may be "close enough" to match the original names.

    The firewall is intended to block use of the original, governmentally-disliked, names in both the search request and in the search targets. This causes resourceful individuals to duck and weave with the workarounds, both posting information using the workaround terms and also when searching for them. Naturally the censors respond by blocking the workarounds also – thus causing an arms race between the blockers and the evaders.

    This arms race must also cause corollary damage, in that unrelated instances of the workarounds will be partly or completely suppressed; as I joked above, if you really want to know about feathers you might be out of luck, because feather is a workaround and has been blocked. Thus you might have to do the Chinese equivalent of looking for "goosedown" and suchlike workarounds in order to find non-political uses of the blocked terms.

    Early in the history of the English-language net, some services tried to block what they considered "inappropriate" language and make it "child safe." So for example they blocked the word breast – and in doing so, they also blocked discussions of breast cancer, breast of veal, and and so forth.

    As to what is caught, what is blocked when, and what is eventually unblocked and returned to availability – this is all under the control of the censors. As to what is used as workaround/evasion in the first place, this is up to the resourceful users. As to what the result of this arms race might ultimately be – it is like the non-metaphoric military arms races, a function of the resources committed by either side.

  22. Ted said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    @L: As far as I know, the hospitals in both NY and Boston are universally pronounced as spelled.

    Also, while I don't disagree that Adoshem — a euphemism for a euphemism — is impressive, I think it's rivaled by Jehovah, which, if I understand correctly, approximates the result of correctly replacing the consonants in the cryptotext Elohim with the corresponding plain text YHVH but neglecting to do the same with the cryptotext vowels.

    And, for what it's worth, the explanation I was given as a child for the use of "G-d" in writing was that even a translation of an appellation was close enough to the sacred Name that it should not be used in full on an object (i.e., a piece of paper) that could be disposed of casually rather than given a proper ritual burial. In that context, I find it particularly extraordinary that the taboo should persist in electronic communication, since it's hard to dispose of a monitor disrespectfully without unplugging it first, and if it's the digital file that you're worried about, "G-d" is no more ambiguous a reference to the word in question than any sequence of ASCII or Unicode characters that includes the code for the letter O.

  23. Ted said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    Correction: the cryptotext for YHVH is, of course, Adonai, not Elohim.

  24. Ted said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    And, of course, the cryptotext for Adonai is yod-yod. (For someone whose name for himself appears to have been "I am what I am," we seem to have come up with a very complex structure of referents.)

  25. Rodger C said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    When I first saw the headline, my immediate thought was, "I'll bet Xi is where it always was, between Nu and Omicron."

  26. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    @Roger C

    From the moment I made this post, I was just waiting for someone to make that quip. Thanks!

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    The fantastic FAKE name game continues, as netizens play cat-and-mouse with the CCCMMMP (Chinese Communist Confucian Maoist Marxist Mercantilist Party) censors in trying to find out what has happened to their president-in-waiting shortly before his announced ascension:


    Sensitive Words: Xi Jinping and More
    via China Digital Times (CDT) by Anne Henochowicz on 9/12/12

    As of September 11, the following search terms are blocked on Sina Weibo (not including the “search for user” function):

    Xi Jinping: Hu Jintao’s presumed heir apparent has not been seen in 11 days, leading to wild speculation about his whereabouts.

    * back injury (背伤): One rumor has it that Xi has disappeared to nurse a hurt back.
    * crown prince (皇储): A netizen nickname for Xi.
    * crown prince (储君)
    * jinping: Pinyin Romanization.
    * XJinping (X近平): A combination of pinyin and Chinese characters invented to get past the censors.
    * Jinping + car accident (近平+车祸): Another rumor has spread that Xi and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member He Guoqiang were in a car accident on September 4. This has yet to be verified.
    * Guoqiang + car accident (国强+车祸)
    * HeGuoqiang: Pinyin.


    * King of the Hundred Chickens (百鸡王): A nickname for Zhou Yongkang, domestic security chief and the only PSC member to have voiced support for Bo Xilai this spring. A rumor that he and Bo were plotting a coup circulated online in March. “Chicken” (jī 鸡) is a euphemism for prostitute (jì 妓); another rumor has it that Bo and Wang Lijun supplied Zhou with women.

    Re-Tested Terms:

    * Xi (习)
    * XI: Pinyin.
    * Vice Chairman (副主席): Xi’s current position.
    * impose martial law (戒严)

    Note: All Chinese-language words are tested using simplified characters. The same terms in traditional characters occasionally return different results.

    CDT Chinese runs a project that crowd-sources filtered keywords on Sina Weibo search. CDT independently tests the keywords before posting them, but some searches later become accessible again. We welcome readers to contribute to this project so that we can include the most up-to-date information. To add words, check out the form at the bottom of CDT Chinese’s latest sensitive words post.

  28. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    @ Ted –

    > And, of course, the cryptotext for Adonai is yod-yod. (For someone
    > whose name for himself appears to have been "I am what I am," we
    > seem to have come up with a very complex structure of referents.)

    Oh, it's SO much more intricate than you've indicated. Yud-yud printed for the Tetragrammaton is a fun thing, but then so is what I just did when it called it "the Tetragrammaton" and even capitalized it.

    That of course roughly parallels the use of HaShem.

    Now Jehovah is the other way around, it's an attempt to place the vowels from Adonai onto the letters of YHVH, but done when J was still vocalic I – pronouncing the jay is a distortion what was intended to be Iehovah, which in any case is still an incorrect and baseless mashup.

    Moreover, "I am that I am" (misattributed to Popeye) is in the Hebrew an obvious pun on YHVH – ehyeh asher ehyeh. "Tell them Ehyeh sent you" is nearly a groaner.

    For those unfamiliar with all this, it's most easily (but not perfectly accurately) all related to "taking in vain."

    As I child I also learned that explanation for "G-d" and have never lost the habit. I think it's the Renewal movement who are fond of writing G!d to indicate their excitement, and I've even seen G*d written by quasi-atheist Jews (which I think is most of us).

    BTW, Shana tovah (as applicable)

  29. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    Since we have seen that pinyin is being widely used by Chinese netizens in an attempt to circumvent the hanzicentric PRC censors, it won't be long before the latter will be forced to take their country's offical romanization as seriously as its netizens do. Then the netizens will undoubtedly come up with clever puns and games based on pinyin the way they have with hanzi.

    The censors will inevitably and always be one step behind the netizens.



  30. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    @Ted >@L: As far as I know, the hospitals in both NY and Boston are universally pronounced as spelled.

    Yes, as is at least one cemetary and a couple of synagogues using that name.

    Why formal English has adopted a faux-Temani romanization is an open question… and there is also the multi-level inappropriateness of calling of it a "romanization."

  31. a George said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    couldn't we consider that Cockney rhyming slang is in principle similar to soem of the mechanisms at play here?

  32. Ted said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    @L: L'shanah tovah rikki-tikki-Tevye.

  33. L said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 5:56 pm


    And have a fast easy.

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