Tiananmen protest slogan grammar puzzle

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Activists gathered at Tiananmen Square on May 14th, 1989:

Source:  "China's Great Firewall threatens to erase memories of Tiananmen:  VPN crackdown and sophisticated censorship make it harder to access outside information", by Karen Chiu, abacus (6/3/19)

Upon first glance, that large banner in the middle seems to be saying:

bù zìyóu wú nìngsǐ 不自由毋宁死
("without liberty I'd not rather die")

But that doesn't sound at all right, does it?  What they want to say is what's on the banner in English, "Liberty or death", or, in its more expanded form, "Give me liberty or give me death", Patrick Henry's clarion call in a speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775 during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War.  The student protestors are proclaiming, "Without liberty we'd rather die").

Given the wording of the Chinese original, how do we get there?

From these two sentences, we know that nìng sǐ 宁死 means "would rather die":

nìng sǐ bù qū 宁死不屈 ("would rather die than submit")

nìng sǐ bù jiàng 宁死不降 ("would rather die than surrender")

A problem arises with the well-known slogan on the banner:

bù zì yóu wú nìng sǐ 不自由毋宁死 (character by character:  no / not, self, from / follow, no / not, rather / prefer die", with the intended meaning "without liberty I'd rather die; give me liberty or give me death")

What happens to the negative force of wú 毋?  It's especially peculiar given the parallelism with 不 at the beginning of the sentence and the well-established meaning of nìng sǐ 宁死 as "would rather die".  In this sentence however, adding wú 毋 to nìng sǐ 宁死 ("rather die"), we still end up with the same meaning:  wú nìng sǐ 毋宁死 ("would rather die").  So I don't quite get the function of wú 毋 in wú nìng sǐ 毋宁死, although I realize that wú nìng 毋宁 meaning "would rather" is an old usage that goes all the way back to the Zuo zhuan (4th c. BC or later), I think.

Cf. the sense and construction of bùrú 不如 ("not equal to, not as good as, inferior to, it would be better to").

Some traditional Chinese grammarians say vaguely that the wú 毋 of wú nìng 毋宁 is a fāyǔcí 发语辞 (not sure what that should be called in English; "initial particle"?) (see here and here).

Or perhaps the best we can do with wú nìng 毋宁 in the sense of "would rather", instead of "would rather not", is just consider it as an idiomatic usage.

[Thanks to Xinchang Li, Yijie Zhang, Lin Zhang, Zeyao Wu and Tong Wang]



15 Comments

  1. WSM said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 1:50 pm

    The usage is strange, but reminds me of a classical form of the previously discussed use of 不 as an intensifier rather than negation ("好不痛快")

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 2:21 pm

    In MVS (Middle Vernacular Sinitic), negative particles often serve as intensifiers or for the purpose of disyllabicization (for rhythmic, prosodic purposes), in the process of which they lose their negative significance altogether.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 4:07 pm

    From a PRC M.A. student in Chinese language and literature, written before she had a chance to see this post:

    "发语辞" is a term that I came across a lot in my Classical Chinese textbooks back in high school and college. I never seriously thought about what this term exactly refers to until today. (I only knew that it is a common term that our textbooks often use to deal with particles, like 夫, 嗟, etc.). According to Hanyu da cidian, "发语辞" literally means "words that initiate speeches". So I guess "initial particle" works, or maybe "introductory particle"?

    I agree with you that the usage of 毋 in 毋宁 is very strange. I also realized that 毋宁, as a compound, is often used in the written language of modern Chinese, which always means "would rather".

    One of the explanations of 毋 in Hanyu da cidian says that "毋" is a modal particle (语助词). The example sentence under this explanation is from Mozi: 上唯毋立而為政乎國家 … (The ruler who is established and governs the affairs of the country … ) Both 唯 and 毋 are explained as particles that do not affect the meaning of the sentence. I found a lot of other occurrences of "唯毋" or "惟毋" in Mozi that don't seem to have an actual meaning. Perhaps what happens in 毋宁 is something similar. Other than these, I think "毋" is only used as a negative word.

    Therefore, I guess we can either consider "毋宁" as an idiomatic usage, or explain "毋" as a modal particle here.

    [VHM: It is reassuring that her analysis and explanation complement the o.p. so well.]

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 4:10 pm

    From another PRC M.A. student in Chinese language and literature, also written before she had a chance to see this post:

    I really agree with your analysis. At first, I checked 漢語大詞典, 毋 literally means "no, don't," but it also has an item saying "語氣詞,無義" ("modal particle, no meaning"). So I first think that 毋 is used to give the parallelism with 不 at the beginning of the sentence.

    However, as you have mentioned, 毋寧 is also an old usage, and in 漢語大詞典, it means "寧可,不如。毋,發語辭". So I think in this case, 毋寧 is a term meaning 不如.

    [VHM: It is gratifying that her analysis and explanation complement the o.p. so well.]

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 4:15 pm

    For those who want to know about the name and history of Tiananmen:

    "How 'Tiananmen' Became Synonymous With 'Authoritarian Crackdown'"

    The word has come to stand for the violent suppression of protests in the same way that we refer to school shootings by their locations

    By Ben Zimmer

    WSJ. May 31, 2019 11:47 a.m. ET

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-tiananmen-became-synonymous-with-authoritarian-crackdown-11559317657

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 9:07 pm

    It seems that early commentators do say things like "毋寧 = 寧" for certain Zuozhuan appearances, which on its face looks like debated "無念 = 念" from Shijing commentary… but going to those spots in Zuozhuan, this looks wrong…

    毋寧使人謂子"子實生我"而謂"子浚我以生"乎?

    At this point it is said that "毋寧 = 寧", but if that were true, we would expect a negative before 謂-ish, and generally not expect final 乎. So this sentence should mean "Is it not preferable to have people say to you X rather than Y hu?" Parallel to Lunyu "無寧死於二三子之手乎?" = "…is it not preferable that should I die in the arms of you'uns hu?" I.e., these 毋's are actually negating.

    So modern dictionaries that say 毋寧 = 不如 are not 100% accurate wrt these passages, but are at least providing a useful parallel via the negation… so in a town this size, the above sign could be approximated as "不自由不如死".

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 9:15 pm

    惟毋 and similar in Mozi, etc., is different and often looks like it is setting up counterfactuals in the manner of modern jiashi 假使, etc. Whether we should regard 毋 as equal to the negative particle here is maybe debatable…

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 7:48 am

    From still another PRC M.A. student in Chinese language and literature, also written before she had a chance to see this post:

    This is a really challenging question.

    First of all, I looked into the origin of the source, and I think this "毋" without negative force is simply different with the "毋" with negative force.

    Secondly, when we compare "毋宁" with "不如", the difference is clear:

    毋宁+ verb = 宁+verb,

    but 不如+ verb ≠ 如+verb;

    There is also another similar use "毋如":The "毋" here is an adverb and means "do not".

    "毋" in "毋宁" does not have negative force, and this use also dates back to the Spring and Autumn period. According to the 汉语大词典, 毋:

    5. 语助词。无义。

    ●《墨子·尚同中》:「上唯毋立而为政乎国家,为民正长。」

    ●孙诒让间诂:「毋,语词。」

    ●《墨子·尚贤中》:「古者圣王,唯毋得贤人而使之……贤人唯毋得明君而事之。」

    ●王念孙《读书杂志·墨子一》:「毋,语词耳,本无意义。」

    (http://m.guoxuedashi.com/hydcd/260369r.html)

    毋 has two distinct meanings in one character, 说文解字 regards "止之"(禁止) as the original meaning of this character. Therefore, I thought this 毋 as "语助词" or "发语词" might be the same sound "wú" and ancient people thus used "毋" in this meaning, which does not have the same origin with the "毋" that has negative force.

    汉语大词典 also notes that the ancient character of 毋 is 母. So led me to take a wild guess that 毋 and 母 may represent two different meanings in ancient time, though we still need more evidence to support the guess.

    Another guess is that the two characters of "毋宁" are one morpheme, and "宁" is an abbreviation of "毋宁", just like the relationship between "蝶" and "蝴蝶".

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 9:30 am

    I was pleased by the nice noun pile of my title, but slightly disappointed that no one noticed it. And lately I've been regretting that I didn't make it even better by writing "Tiananmen Square protest slogan grammar puzzle".

  10. Ellen K. said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 9:48 am

    I noticed the noun pile, though I didn't comment on it (or otherwise comment). But I did think it worthy of a British headline.

  11. R. Fenwick said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 3:52 am

    @Victor Mair, this is my first time back on the Interwebs after a couple of Internet-free days, so my apologies for not saying anything earlier about the lovely five-noun crash :)

    The thought does also come to mind that if one wasn't familiar with the name "Tiananmen", one could think, "Okay, what exactly is a tiananman and what's the slogan grammar puzzle they're protesting?"

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 5:16 am

    From yet one more PRC M.A. student in Chinese language and literature, also written before she had a chance to see this post:

    [VHM: I cannot reproduce her WeChat images below — available upon request to those who are interested]

    I think "毋寧" basically has two meanings in Chinese texts: 1. "毋寧" meaning "would rather" is indeed an old usage that goes all the way back to the Zuo zhuan: "毋寧使人謂子:'子實生我',而謂'子浚我以生'乎?象有齒以焚其身,賄也。"(《左傳·襄公二十四年》) –on which 杜預 commented: "毋寧,寧也". "毋寧" and "寧" end up with the same meaning and most traditional Chinese grammarians believe that "毋" here only serves as a 發語詞 and thus "毋寧" together means "would rather to":

    WechatIMG249.jpg
    (《漢語大詞典》)

    WechatIMG250.jpg
    (《古漢語字詞典》)

    2. There are some exceptions: a scholar points out that "毋寧" sometimes has an opposite meaning: while "寧" still means "would rather to", "毋" adds a negative meaning to "寧". However, "毋寧" meaning "不可" is rare and definitely not the rule. (I attached the short article here⤵️)

    WechatIMG251.jpg

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 5:22 am

    @R. Fenwick:

    Ah, that's why I should have been more explicit by making it a seven-noun crash:

    "Tiananmen Square Massacre protest slogan grammar puzzle".

    Is that almost a record?

  14. Michael Watts said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:23 pm

    Or perhaps the best we can do with wú nìng 毋宁 in the sense of "would rather", instead of "would rather not", is just consider it as an idiomatic usage.

    If this sense is attested for the last 2400 years, I have trouble seeing why we wouldn't do this…?

  15. R. Fenwick said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 1:17 am

    @Victor Mair:
    "Tiananmen Square Massacre protest slogan grammar puzzle"

    Ooh, excellent!

    Or perhaps the best we can do with wú nìng 毋宁 in the sense of "would rather", instead of "would rather not", is just consider it as an idiomatic usage.

    Something I didn't realise when making my earlier comment is also a potential parallel in the common US English phrasing I could care less.

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