Hong Kong protests: "recover" or "liberate"

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From Alison Winters:

I am a regular reader of Language Log and really enjoy your digging on unusual Chinese turns of phrase.

One word I have recently been puzzling over lately is the usage of guāngfù 光复 in the Hong Kong call to arms 光复香港时代革命*. The dictionary description indicates it has to do with reclaiming land from an occupier, and specifically references the end of Japanese occupation in Taiwan, but in English the slogan has been translated as “liberate”. When I look up “liberate” in the other direction, the dictionary suggests jiěfàng 解放, but note that it’s also associated with the CPC victory over the KMT.

I wonder if the usage of 光复 for liberate is a quirk of Cantonese (I live in mainland and only speak Standard Chinese), or if it’s a political choice to use that word based on previous “liberations”? I am curious about the etymology and would be interested to see a write-up on the blog, if you know a bit more background.

[*VHM:  A "standard" English translation of this slogan is "Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times", the "loose" Cantonese Romanization for which is "Gwong Fuk Heung Gong! Si Doi Gark Ming!"  Source

Since I myself have been pondering the same matter of how guāngfù 光復 started to be used this way (as "liberate") in the HK protests, I think that Alison has asked a very good question.

The two characters that make up guāngfù 光復 literally mean "gloriously restore / recover".  Together, as a word, they mean "recover; reclaim; retake" territory / sovereignty / rights".

This usage was already well established by the Six Dynasties (220/222-589), as attested by sources in zdic.

When I was living in Taiwn during 1970-72, a clarion call that I constantly heard was "guāngfù dàlù 光復大陸)" ("gloriously retake the mainland"), together with talk of "gòngfěi 共匪" ("communist bandits") and "Máo qiú Zédōng 毛酋澤東" ("Mao chieftain Zedong").  Because I heard "guāngfù dàlù 光復大陸)" ("gloriously retake the mainland") so often, I knew what it meant long before I knew how to write it.

I don't think the interpretation and usage of "guāngfù 光復" ("recover; retake; reclaim") has anything to do with a special Cantonese twist.  Indeed, "gwong1 fuk6 光復" is not even in Robert S. Bauer's massive, monumental ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press).  If "gwong1 fuk6 光復" had a special Cantonese usage, it would certainly be in Bauer's huge dictionary.  Nor is "gwong1 fuk6 光復" to be found in the popular online CantoDict (sheik).

It's remarkable (and commendable) that the Wiktionary entry for "guāngfù 光復" ("recover; retake; reclaim") takes note of this special Hong Kong protesters' use of the expression in the sense of "liberate":

to recover; to recapture; to restore

光復舊物 / 光复旧物  ―  guāngfù jiùwù  ―  to recover former territory

光復國土 / 光复国土  ―  guāngfù guótǔ  ―  to recapture national land

光復香港[MSC, trad.]
光复香港[MSC, simp.]

From: 2019, 2019 Hong Kong protests

guāngfù Xiānggǎng [Pinyin]

liberate (lit. reclaim) Hong Kong

So, if it's not a quirk of Cantonese, to what may we attribute this dramatic shift in meaning from "recover; retake; reclaim" to "liberate"?  In this regard, I believe that Alison's suggestion that it may be "a political choice to use that word based on previous 'liberations'” is close to the mark.  In other words, the Hong Kong protesters are expressing their wish to be liberated from the communist yoke.  In so doing they would be recovering a pre-communist Cantonese identity with greater freedom and justice that they once enjoyed.


"Vocabulary of Hong Kong protest slogans and new characters" (9/1/19)


  1. Bathrobe said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

    It looks like a straightforward desire for independence, or at least the authorities in Beijing are likely to see it that way. 'Splittism' is one of the great cardinal sins in China.

    Unfortunately, cultural genocide in the pursuit of a powerful, united, glorious China isn't regarded as a cardinal sin in Zhongnanhai; it's a virtue.

  2. Alison said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 7:15 pm

    @Bathrobe this is why I think the choice of words is interesting. If it were about independence, why not use jiěfàng 解放, which seems to more clearly indicate liberation as we understand the term in English? Is guāngfù 光复 a softer callback to good times, one that may be less controversial?

    I do agree that the Party is likely not to see a difference.

  3. ttth said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 9:04 pm

    @Alison My understanding is that the term jiefang has been seen as being co-opted by the communist party, with various conflicts being named the wars of liberation and numerous mainland streets being named liberation roads. guangfu is certainly less socialistic sounding, though perhaps as you have pointed out, may also has the effect of declaring mainland sovereignty illegitimate.

  4. Haibo said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 9:19 pm

    I think the problem with using 解放 would be that it would bring to mind 解放軍 (PLA). 光復 feels much less… communist.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 9:31 pm

    It doesn't strike me as softer at all — although I've only heard this term for the first time today. If anything it is the opposite. 解放 implies 'throw off oppressors'. That is straightforward, a call for Hong Kong to be allowed to determine its own course.

    光复 seems to me to imply that China (especially the CCP) is a conqueror and invader who does not belong there at all. There is also an implied appeal to colonial rule as a preferable model. Both of these are particularly unfriendly, perhaps even insulting, to the Chinese government. It not only calls them oppressors, it challenges their very right to be in Hong Kong — the very legitimacy of their presence. This strikes where it hurts, given the government's pride in taking back a part of China's territory from the colonialists, and its insistence that such territories 'inherently' belong to China.

    What 光复 means in practice is a different matter. Unlike 解放, which would be a call to arms, what could be done to 光复 Hong Kong? I suspect the word's power lies in its historical and emotional resonance.

  6. John Swindle said,

    November 3, 2019 @ 11:59 pm

    Make Hong Kong great again!

  7. Justin said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 4:12 am

    Without any evidence that the two are indeed linked, the use of 光here is quite reminiscent of the end of Japanese-occupied Hong Kong after WWII. It was celebrated as 重光日 (“the day of seeing the light again”) and, in English, Liberation Day.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 8:24 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    I suppose one obvious way to look at this is that the word 光復 gwong1 fuk6 now has come to mean what the people who are currently saying it conceive its meaning to be in Hong Kong Chinese – in contrast to mainland Chinese, Taiwan Chinese, Singapore Chinese, etc.

    Standard Chinese 解放 gaai2 fong3 may sound too mainlandish, ‘gloriously restore’ too wordy, while ‘liberate’ what’s desired.

  9. Siu Jiu said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 9:29 am

    The origin of "Gwong fuk heung gong, si doi gak ming" is explained here: https://www.vjmedia.com.hk/articles/2019/07/28/197626.

    As to just what it means today, I'd second Bob Bauer's suggestion, adding only that since the phrase is deliberately ambiguous, it's likely to mean different things to different speakers. It'd be interesting to see a feature compiling many protesters' interpretations of the slogan.

    When I shout it, I mean "Take back Hong Kong for the people of Hong Kong; we need a massive change, here in our time, in how this place is run."

  10. Seong of Baekje said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:03 am

    The analogous Korean word gwangbok is used to refer to Korea's liberation from Japan, as in 光復節 (Gwangbokjeol, National Liberation Day of Korea).

  11. liuyao said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

    I've always thought that it was a very unfortunate choice of word, but has not seen it much discussed. To anyone who has seen the word used elsewhere (in Taiwan or Korea), the implication is that HK is under occupation by a foreign state or regime, and the protesters are seeking to be freed from it by returning to its previous rule. 復 is to return, and not so much going forward. It would be much better for their cause if they had framed it so as to "return" to the promise of 港人治港 (self-rule by HKers).

    To me at least, 光復 really jumps out, much more than 革命 (revolution) which one could argue is just as bad at face value, probably because 革命 is also used in non-political context (industrial, green, etc.) and does not necessarily imply overthrowing a regime violently.

    Lots of information on the usage of the word/phrase in HK: https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%85%89%E5%BE%A9%E9%A6%99%E6%B8%AF%EF%BC%8C%E6%99%82%E4%BB%A3%E9%9D%A9%E5%91%BD

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