Hong Kong protesters messing with the characters

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Nothing is sacred.

Tiny Hong Kong with a little over 7 million population facing off against ginormous PRC with its population approaching 1.5 billion, yet the Hongkongers have held out with their large (as many as 2 million people at times) protests for 8 weeks now — despite the pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds that police have fired at them, and the metal and wooden sticks and rods wielded against them by triad gangsters.  The central government is displeased and keeps threatening to send in the PLA.

Meanwhile, the Hongkongers employ every means at their disposal to counter the CCP, above all wit and satire.  Part of the latter is their linguistic irreverence, as we have demonstrated in numerous posts (see "Readings" below).  One of the ways that the Hongkongers get their points across is to create new characters conveying potent messages, which is more effective even than the coining of neologisms from already existing characters — they are also very good at making up new words.

The latest example of composite, newly invented characters may be found on the sign carried by the protesters in the second video (the first video shows the immediate cause of what they are protesting against) here:

The two large characters bring together easily identifiable parts of the following four characters standing for opposing forces the protesters wish to criticize:

gun1 / guān 官 ("government")

hoeng1 / xiāng 鄉 ("villages")

ging2 / jǐng 警 ("police")

hak1 haak1 / hēi 黑 (lit., "black", i.e., triads"), that refers to saam1 hap6 wui6*2 三合會 ("triad society; secret society") or hak1 se5 wui6*2 黑社會 (lit., "black society", i.e., "organized crime; gangsters") in HK

It's fairly self evident why the HK protesters would want to criticize the first, third, and fourth of these groups, but upon initial encounter I couldn't understand what they had against the hoeng1 / xiāng 鄉 ("villages").  Indeed, one might think that the urban workers and students who constitute the main body of the protesters would want to join forces with the villagers.  However, when one looks more deeply into the most notorious incident of violence against the protesters, which has outraged practically everyone who is not aligned with the government, including many people outside of Hong Kong who are sympathetic to the cause of the protesters, it becomes clear why the "villages" were culpable.

The outrage in question occurred on July 21, 2019 in Yuen Long, a town in the western New Territories, Hong Kong, and is now referred to as the "2019 Yuen Long violence":

A mob of over 100 armed men dressed in white indiscriminately attacked civilians on the streets and passengers in the Yuen Long MTR station including the elderly, children black-clad protesters, journalists and lawmakers. At least 45 people were injured in the incident, including a pregnant woman.

Because of its proximity to the border with Shenzhen, a mammoth new city just to the north, Yuen Long is rife with trafficking, smuggling, and parallel trading, leading to a serious shortage of milk powder and other essential goods, inflation, social disturbances, and a general intensification of Hong Kong-Mainland conflict.  Much of this semi-licit and illicit cross-border activity takes place through the villages surrounding Yuen Long town.  Many of these villages are not only the conduits for the illegal trading between the Mainland and Hong Kong, they are also hotbeds for the proliferation of Triad gangsters, the very type of individuals who perpetrated the brutal attacks at Yuen Long station and surroundings on July 21.  Consequently, one can readily understand the resentment of the protesters against the disreputable elements from these xiāng 鄉 ("villages").

The power of language never ceases to amaze.


"Graffiti correction" (7/26/19)

"Hong Kong anti-China graffiti" (7/26/19)

"The enigma of the black hands" (7/25/19)

"Ich bin ein Hongkonger" (7/18/19)

"'People's Re-fu*king of Chee-na'" (10/12/16)

"A Sanskrit tattoo in Hong Kong" (10/4/16)

"Hong Kong protest puns" (6/20/19) — featuring an ingenious new character ostensibly meaning "Freedom, Hi!", but with a vulgar subtext

"Hong Kong protest slogan" (6/20/19)

"Cantonese protest slogans" (10/26/14)

"'Cantonese' song" (10/24/14)

"The umbrella in Hong Kong" (10/19/14)

"Translating the Umbrella Revolution" (10/3/14)

"The backstory to seven of the most popular protest slogans in Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement" (10/23/14)

"Hong Kong interlingual contrast" (11/26/14)

"New Cantonese word" (12/8/14)

"Thick toast: another new Cantonese pun " (12/11/14)

"The perils of '7' and '9' in Cantonese " (9/28/16)

"A new polysyllabic character" (4/3/16)

"Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing " (8/2/11)

"Polysyllabic characters revisited " (6/18/15)

[Thanks to Pui Ling Tang]


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 12:31 pm

    >with THE characters

    I am intrigued by the use of the definite article here; what does it imply?

  2. Chas Belov said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

    I find the choices for English translation interesting.

    For the first character: GOV&HICK (hick as US slang for people from rural areas)
    For the second character: POPO&GANGS (popo as US slang for police)

  3. Eric Vinyl said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 4:31 pm

    Credit where it’s due: I don’t think of po-po as merely “U.S. slang” but, specifically, AAVE.

    Also interesting to me is that gangs marks plural with -s, whereas hick does not.

  4. John Carr said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 6:55 pm

    The only guy I hang out with who uses popo is a white man from the working class suburbs of Massachusetts. He also picked up some dialect from mostly white poor folks he used to hang out with in the city. Whether or not the word started out as AAVE, I think it's now more generally lower class or urban. Spoken by the kinds of people who worry about encounters with the police.

  5. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    "Tiny Hong Kong with a little over 7 million population facing off against *[gi][normous]* PRC"
    "One of the ways that the Hongkongers get their points across is to *create new characters conveying potent messages*, which is more effective even than the coining of neologisms from already existing characters — they are also very good at making up new words."

    I see what you did there.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 11:00 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    A video shows some demonstrators in Yuen Long holding up signs on which is written a new (previously nonexistent) character with 敬 ging3 on top and 黑 hak1 underneath it. This new character seems to be a compressed form of 黑警 hak1 ging2 'corrupt police' by replacing 言 jin4 with 黑 hak1. I assume the demonstrators are accusing the police of corruptly colluding with the triads who had attacked people in the Yuen Long MTR station last weekend.

  7. Philip Anderson said,

    July 31, 2019 @ 7:14 am

    @Benjamin Orsatti
    “Ginormous” is hardly a new word; it’s slang but has been used since the 1940s.
    But I wouldn’t call a country of 7 million people “tiny”, except relative to China.

  8. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    August 1, 2019 @ 6:58 am

    I've heard "ginormous", but only within the last 5 or so years, and only from my children (7, 9, 12). I don't quite understand its value, in terms of its contribution to the language. That is to say, I'm not sure why it would ever be used in un-ironic speech, though it's perfect for this setting — where we're talking about taking apart hanzi and reassembling them in politically significant ways.

    The "gi-" part comes from "gigantic", which itself derives from "γίγας", which is a member of a race of mythological giants. But the word, "γίγας", isn't, itself, reducible to any smaller unit of meaning. "γί" doesn't mean anything all by its lonesome.

    The "-normous" part comes from "enormous", which comprises "ex-" (out of) and "norma" (rule or norm).

    But "γίnorma" doesn't signify "really big" anymore once you've excised "ex-" and incised a meaningless morpheme fragment. If you liberally take "γί-" as an abbreviation for "γίγας", it still doesn't do what you want it to do, because then what you're left with is "giant-norm". What that could possibly signify, other than, perhaps, a high degree of social homogeneity, is very little.

    Therefore, on behalf of the νέοformatus "Anglo-American Academy for the Extirpation of Words We Don't Need because English Already Has More Words than Most Other Languages Anyway and We Really Shouldn't be Careless about Adding New Ones which Don't Carve up Reality Any Finer than Our Language Already Does" (AAAEWWDNEAHMWMOLAWRSCANODCRAFOLAD (meetings — biennially)), I hereby designate "g*n*rm**s" as having been officially extirpated, and classified as "obscene", to be discussed only among linguists in peer-reviewed journals for exclusively academic purposes.

    Punishment for violators has not yet been determined by the AAAE… Enforcement Committee, but, given the linguistic nature of the offense, it will likely have something rather unpleasant to do with your tongue.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    August 6, 2019 @ 6:32 am

    Too late, I am afraid. "Ginormous" is officially sanctioned by the LPD (1990) and pronounced /dʒaɪ ˈnɔːm əs/.

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