The enigma of the black hands

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"UPDATE 1-China tells U.S. to remove 'black hands' from Hong Kong"

Reuters   (7/23/19)

China said on Tuesday that U.S. officials were behind violent chaos in Hong Kong and warned against interference, following a series of protests in the city, including bloody clashes on the weekend. "We can see that U.S. officials are even behind such incidents," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

China's allegations of U.S. "black hands" fomenting unrest in Hong Kong have been all over the news during the last few days.  Politically, no one knows exactly what the PRC is referring to (they haven't given any evidence for the involvement of American officials).  Linguistically, the origin of this expression in Chinese is far from clear.

The expression "black hand" is widely used outside of China and, as an expression referring to nefarious actors, earlier than in China*. Even as a child in Ohio, I was aware that "La Mano Nera" (Italian for "Black Hand") conveyed the meaning of "extortion".  As La Mano Negra, it could also refer to anarchism in the Andalusian region of Spain during the early 1880s.  As Црна Рука, it referred to a secret society devoted to Serbian unification in the 1910s.  In Mandatory Palestine as al-Kaff al-Aswad الكف الاسود, it signified an Islamist militant group in the British Mandate of Palestine during the 1930s. As Črna roka, Black Hand was a terrorist anti-communist organization that carried out assassinations in the Slovene Lands during World War II.  As the Yiddish Black Hand, a.k.a. Jewish Black Hand Association, it was a criminal organization that operated on New York's Lower East Side during the early 20th century.  "Black Hand" has also been the name of various wrestlers, artists, drug cartel hitmen, comic book figures, punk bands, books, and films.  (Source)

[*I only know of one 10th-c. occurrence where it refers simply to black, dark-colored hands.  See Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Sinitic), 12.1324a.]

Here was my first reaction to the current use of the term with regard to the tumultuous events in Hong Kong:

They may be trying to refer to us (the US) as mafia.  See my discussion of "hēishǒu 黑手" ("black hand") and Hēishǒu dǎng 黑手党 ("Black Hand Party", i.e., "Mafia") here:

"Baffling propaganda: 'black' and 'evil' in contemporary Chinese society" (4/7/19)

Most Chinese I know believe that Hēishǒu dǎng 黑手党 ("Black Hand Party") gets its name from the practice of leaving a black hand mark at the scene of a crime.  I think that I've also heard Americans say something similar.

There is, however, an alternative theory for the current usage in Hong Kong based in puppetry, such as Japanese Bunraku (文楽), where the puppeteers are dressed entirely in black and manipulate large, colorfully garbed puppets which they hold with their black gloved hands.  See here and especially here.  The puppets appear to be moving on their own, but in fact are completely controlled by the invisible puppeteer.

Thus my second surmise was that, by "black hand", the CCP / PRC mean "stealthy manipulator who remains totally out of view".  But how does it get that meaning in Chinese?

One thing is certain, the CCP government was already using this term to make vague accusations against individuals whom they thought were instigating student unrest during the leadup to the Tiananmen Massacre (TAMM) in May-June, 1989.  These include the progressive General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1987 to 1989, Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005), and the renowned astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (1936-2012), both of whom were sympathetic to the student protesters.  That time, the black hands were Chinese; this time in Hong Kong, the black hands are supposedly Americans, though we still haven't seen a shred of evidence for how the latter are doing this.

There are lots of puzzling aspects to hēishǒu 黑手 ("black hands") and báishān 白衫 ("white shirts"*) these days!  We'd better get them sorted out soon or there is likely to be a repeat of the TAMM, or worse.

[*"Triad" gangs, supposedly "patriotic" thugs and goons who are allegedly often coopted by the government or the Party to carry out beatings, assassinations, and so forth, as recently happened in a horrifying fashion in Hong Kong.  "Hong Kong’s Mafia-Like 'Triads' Are Terrifying Pro-Democracy Protesters", by Crystal Wong, Angad Singh and Vicky Liu, VICE News, Jul 24, 2019]

[Thanks to dako-xiaweiyi, Yana Way, June Teufel Dreyer, Lincoln Parker, Zeyao Wu, Qing Liao, and Chenfeng Wang]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 6:31 pm

    There is now a Junius Ho parody account on the popular ‘micro-blogging’ website Twitter.

  2. Rumiko Sode said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 8:09 pm

    In Taiwan, organized crime groups and people have been called 黒手/ [heishou] for decades. Heishou is the Mandarin-ized reading of a Taiwanese word which I cannot recall the pronunciation of. Ask any speaker of Minnnan or Minbei.

  3. Lai Ka Yau said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 11:18 pm

    Related is the phrase 幕後黑手 (black hands behind the scenes), which became particularly popular in Hong Kong after a campaign to encourage people to wash their hands (lest they become the 'black hands' behind disease).

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

    I checked for the word mentioned by Rumiko Sode on the electonic Taiwan Minnanyu changyongci cidian 台灣閩南語常用詞辭典 at

    烏手 oo-tshiú (lit. 'black hand')
    2. (名) 背後的操弄者。例:背後有一支烏手。Puē-āu ū tsi̍t ki oo-tshiú. (背後有一隻黑手在操弄。) ( Tr. (Noun) One who manipulates/controls/directs from behind the scenes. Ex.: "There is a black hand [at work] behind the scenes." :D )

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 12:43 pm

    From Melvin Lee:

    In Taiwan, the word for organized crime groups is actually 黑手黨 instead of 黑手. Also, it is more a Mandarin word. The Taiwanese word for 黑手 is oo-tshiú (烏手). It's the word for "mechanic workers" whose hands are usually dirty with grease or oil. So in Taiwanese, 黑手 is an occupation that has nothing to do with the mafia or gangsters.

    From Grace Wu:

    In Taiwanese , “黑手” o*-chhiu means "mechanic". Not "mafia".


    黑手 means 機工

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 1:25 pm

    The materials gathered in this comment and the next two comments are for specialists, so I am not providing Romanizations and translations of all the Chinese terms and quotations. But the findings are important enough and sought after by enough China watchers who are closely following events in Hong Kong to make them available here.

    I have divided the results into three stages because that is how they were sent to me, with the researcher getting closer each time. The third comment shows that the current usage of the PRC Foreign Ministry which initially used the term to tar the US in general, then specified the CIA — without providing a shred of evidence in either case — now reveals itself to be based on a usage that was common during the Cultural Revolution and emanates from Mao himself to be applied to his enemies in China.

    From a colleague in China:

    I did a search on some websites, but still can't figure out how 黑手 gets its present meaning.

    黑手 appears in a number of Ming and Qing essays, such as in《子不语》(“见两大黑手,掷我于此”),《酌中志》(“如门神,黑面黑手”), etc., all with its literary meaning "black hand". The only exception I found is from 《大八义》(《大宋八义》"Eight Heroes in Song Dynasty"), in which "使黑手" is used, with similar meaning to current "黑手". 《大八义》 is a traditional storytelling work created in late Qing dynasty. However, I can't find when it was first edited and published,so it is impossible to decide when "使黑手" appeared.

    It 汉典,黑 has meanings of evil and clandestine.

    (6) 狠毒;象征反动,坏 [evil;sinister;wicked;reactionary]。如:黑店;黑色恐怖(指无政府主义或恐怖主义者所进行的暗杀活动,或恐怖性的激烈行为);黑款(黑钱);黑爪(罪恶之手)
    (7) 秘密,非法 [clandestine]。如:黑档子(以非法项目贪污米粮);黑楼子(暗娼户);黑经(暗中使歪点子);黑腥事(暗中干的凶残事)

    Here is the link :黑

    When "黑手" is used in the situations you mentioned in the previous emails, sometimes "幕后" [VHM: behind the scenes] is added before "黑手" as "幕后黑手". Could it be that "黑手" acquires the meaning of "幕后" when users tend to omit "幕后" ?

    I don't see the connection of meaning of "黑手" to “黑手党”, as that word comes from the black hand mark left by mafia members after the crimes.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 1:26 pm


    It seems "幕后黑手","揪出幕后黑手" werere very popular during the Cultural Revolution. I googled "揪出幕后黑手" and most of the entries are related to that period.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 1:27 pm


    I have suspected that 黑手 is a cultural revolution word and below are the clues I found from google books.

    First source

    Second source

    Please note the second link. It is from a book, 文化大革命:史实与研究. On page 74, Mao used the word 黑手. On page 368, the title "斩断刘少奇伸向画界的黑手“ resembles the Chinese warning to Hong Kong's 黑手.

    See this article's title.

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 3:59 pm

    I should have quoted the whole TWMNY dictionary entry, where meaning (1) is "從事機械方面工作的人". It is useful to know from native speakers that (2) is not very live in Taiwanese.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 8:17 pm

    And Liu Xiaobo was a / the black hand behind June 4:

    1989 CCTV "Zhuā zhù Liú Xiǎobō de hēishǒu 抓住刘晓波的黑手" ("Capture the black hand of Liu Xiaobo")

    Original source

    Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize winner

    6/4/89 Tiananmen Massacre

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 12:24 pm

    I only know the phrase because the Serbian group of that name was involved in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that triggered the First World War.

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