Cryptic, allusive messages from Hong Kong's wealthiest tycoon

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People have been wondering when Hong Kong's magnates would speak out on the prolonged protests in their city.  Finally one has.  That's Li Ka-shing, the richest of them all:  "HK Billionaire Li Ka-Shing Breaks Silence Over Protests" (8/15/19 newscast on YouTube).  He took out full page advertisements (both seem to be on the front page) in two of Hong Kong's most influential financial newspapers:  Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Economic Journal.  Here's the first:

It looks straightforward, simple, and heartfelt, with that big crossed-out "bàolì 暴力" ("[NO] violence") in the center of a big, red circle.  Here's the rest of the entire text, which looks innocent and innocuous enough, especially with the striking repetition of "ài 愛" ("love"):

zuì hǎo de yīn
kě chéng zuì huài de guǒ
"The best cause
can become the worst result"

ài Zhōngguó
ài Xiānggǎng
ài zìjǐ
"Love China
Love Hong Kong
Love yourself"

ài zìyóu
ài bāoróng
ài fǎzhì
"Love freedom
Love tolerance / inclusivity
Love rule of law"

yǐ ài zhī yì
zhǐxī nùfèn
"With loving justice
Stop anger"

yīgè Xiānggǎng shìmín Lǐ Jiāchéng
"A citizen of Hong Kong, Li Ka-shing"

But that's not the end of it.  No sooner had Li Ka-shing's ad been published than sharp netizens began to see that it contained an artfully constructed hidden message:

If we extract the final characters of the eight lines of the text, we obtain this powerful advice from Li Ka-shing:

yīnguǒ yóu guó
róng gǎng zhìjǐ


"The cause and the result depend upon China ([Zhōng]guó [中]國)
let Hong Kong rule itself"

The last two characters of the two phrases of the bottom horizontal line above Li's signature are being widely interpreted as "yìfèn 義憤" ("righteous indignation").  Some decoders are reading the last two characters of the two parts of the signature line as mín chéng 民誠 ("sincerity of the people").

Finally, and this may be going too far, but numerologists are seeing that the first horizontal line has 4 characters, the second has 6, the third horizontal line has 8 characters, and the last horizontal line has 9 characters, and everyone knows what 4 / 6 / 89 signifies.  Moreover, the symbolism of 4 / 6 / 89 is reinforced by the 6 ài 愛 ("love") characters separated by 4 dots.  Last, there is a wish for prohibition of red at the very center.

Here's the second of Li Ka-shing's two ads:

This is quite a different genre, but equally subtle and suggestive.  It reads:

Huángtái zhī guā,
hé kān zài zhāi


"The melon of Huangtai
cannot endure further picking"

The poem is by the dauphin (crown prince), Li Xian (655-684) under Wu Zetian (624-705), the only female emperor in Chinese history.  In the fierce factional and internecine politics at her court, she repeatedly picked at the crown prince, to the point that she hounded him to commit suicide.  Her murderous maneuvering was all for the purpose of consolidating her supreme power.  "The melon of Huangtai" is a reference to the crown prince himself.  Not long after the crown prince's demise, her usurpatory rule came to an ignominious end.

The above two lines of the poem are preceded by this remark of Li Ka-shing:

zhèngrú wǒ zhīqián jiǎngguò / Cant. zing3 jyu4 ngo5 zi1 cin4 gong2 gwo3 (although there are no overt lexical items that would mark this as Cantonese)
("Just as I have said before")

Indeed, Li Ka-shing has quoted this poem at strategic moments in the past, such as in 2016, when he was asked whether Leung Chun-ying, who was Hong Kong chief executive at the time, but who had been discredited by his handling of the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 and large scale civil unrest in Mong Kok in 2016, whether "CY" would run for a second term.  Since the lines quoted can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending upon the circumstances, but usually imply that someone should not persist in a course of action that has shown itself to be unsuccessful.  In the present case, it could be interpreted to mean that current HK chief executive Carrie Lam and PRC president Xi JInping should withdraw the extradition bill completely and take steps to satisfy other requests the protesters have made.  Otherwise, if they keep picking at the Hong Kong melon, the vine is likely to wither and die.  I don't believe anyone in his / her right mind wants that to happen.

You may think that China's netizens are overthinking what Li Ka-shing intended by his two full-page newspaper advertisements, but I don't think so.  The PRC government has completely blocked all references to his pleas for peace:

"Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing’s poetic call for peace blocked on Chinese social media", by Chow Chung-yan, SCMP (8/16/19)

The hashtag #LiKa-shingSpeakingOut recently was one of the most searched-for phrases on Weibo (huge microblogging site), until it was taken down, no doubt at the demand of the Chinese government.

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer, John Lagerwey, and Abraham Chan]



[Fuller account of the context for the original composition of the "Melon of Huangtai" (Huángtái guā cí 黃台瓜辭) from the SCMP article cited just above.]

The poem was written by Li Xian, the crown prince of the Tang dynasty who lived between 654 and 684AD.

The sixth son of emperor Gaozong and the second son of the legendary empress Wu Zetian, Li Xian was known as an intelligent and capable prince. As his brothers fell one by one in a Byzantine court intrigue, he was installed as the crown prince and the heir apparent.

But his ambitious mother concentrated all of the power in her hands as her ailing husband succumbed to illness. She became suspicious of Li Xian and put him under house arrest.

In desperation, Li wrote the poem as a subtle protest to his mother.

Here is a rough translation:

Growing melons beneath Huangtai,
Hanging heavily, many grow ripe,
Pick one, the others will be fine,
Pick two, fewer are left on the vine,
If you want to get yet another one,
That’s where we must draw the line,
For if there is any more reaping,
You will end up with an empty vine.

The prince’s lament did not move his mother. The empress accused Li Xian of treason and he was sent into exile. In 684, shortly after his father’s death, empress Wu forced her son to commit suicide.

The melon of Huangtai, however, became a popular expression in Chinese culture, symbolising suffering in the face of persecution.


  1. Guy_H said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 4:50 am

    The hidden meaning in the “no violence” ad is referred to as a 藏尾詩 in Chinese, very roughly translated as “hidden in the end poem”. Very clever and ridiculous enough of an assertion to give Li Ka Shing plausible deniability. Brilliant really.

  2. liuyao said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 11:43 am

    I’d have to say that the first stitched-up phrase, 因果由國, is a little forced. 容港治己 and 義憤 are brilliant indeed.

  3. David M. Gross said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

    Here's another example, post-Tienanmien, of a hidden protest message — this one in the Chinese Communist Party's overseas newspaper, the People’s Daily:

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 2:48 am

    Hong Kong's Richest Man Follows the Pound and Political Chaos to Britain: Fri, Aug 23, 2019

    Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, is nicknamed Superman for his investing prowess. This week, his CK Asset Holdings conglomerate has inked a US$3.3 billion deal to buy the British pub chain Greene King , which has 2,700 pubs, restaurants and hotels in Britain. Li has faced allegations of disloyalty to China over the last few years. …
    Read more at:

  5. Jonathan Silk said,

    August 27, 2019 @ 3:20 am

    There appears to be a small historical confusion in the following: ""The melon of Huangtai" is a reference to the crown prince himself. Not long after the crown prince's demise, her usurpatory rule came to an ignominious end."
    Rather, the crown prince died in 684, and six years later in 690 Wu Zetian assumed the throne in her own right, ruling until 705. I'm not quite sure what Victor meant to write, but it got confused somehow, it appears.

  6. A-gu said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 9:35 pm

    Agree totally with Liuyao:
    [quote]I'd have to say that the first stitched-up phrase, 因果由國, is a little forced. 容港治己 and 義憤 are brilliant indeed.[/quote]

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