"Will life be better in the coming year?"

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So asks the Chinese colleague who sent me this photograph:

He says that the answer is to be found in this sign:

Rénmín qúnzhòng duì méi hǎo shēnghuó de xiàngwǎng
jiùshì wǒmen de fèndòu mùbiāo


"The yearning of the masses of the people for no good life
Is the goal toward which we struggle"

Instead of "měihǎo shēnghuó 美好生活" ("beautiful life"), which is what they wanted to write, they wrote the nearly homophonous méi hǎo shēnghuó 没好生活 ("there will be no good life").  With tone sandhi taken into account, the two phrases are perfectly homophonous.

My friend, who is very sensitive and insightful, continues:  "I am curious who could be so careless as to make such a mistake!"  Understanding my friend well, I know what he means by that — in the context of China where any misspoken utterance can land one in dire trouble.

Even more daringly, my friend continues:

Though reluctant to admit, it is beyond PRC's capacity to achieve what one hopes for now. There is no escape of the past legacies, yet if it is still hooked to the rest of the world, changes will come in the future, no matter how slow its pace will be. No one can resist the change of people's mind.

My friend is brave even to think such thoughts, all the more to utter them in a message to me.

Selected readings


  1. Dimon Liu said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 1:03 pm

    This is more than a Freudian slip. This is sabotage.

    So much for Xi’s “total” control of the propaganda apparatuses…

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 1:04 pm

    From Perry Link:

    Great stuff. A question that pops to my mind: could the "mistake" have been intentional?

    It pops to mind because a similar thing happened in May 1973 when the PRC Ping-Pong Delegation visited a high school in Maryland, outside Washington. A large banner read:


    Rèliè huānyíng Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gōnghéguó pīngpāng qiú dàibiǎo tuán


    "Warmly welcome the People's Gung-ho Country of China table tennis delegation"


    instead of:


    Rèliè huānyíng Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó pīngpāng qiú dàibiǎo tuán


    "Warmly welcome the People's Republic of China table tennis delegation"


    [Pinyin, English translations, and the "correct" Chinese version (the second one) provided by VHM.]

    I was traveling with the team as an interpreter hired by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. One of the PRC officials came to me at once and said, "Tell them to take it down immediately; otherwise we leave immediately." That official thought that the "mistake" was intentional–or at least might have been.

    [VHM: Judging from my correspondence with colleagues and friends in China, I'm certain that they think many of these gaffes (which are not infrequent) are not unintentional.]

  3. Louis Xun said,

    January 8, 2020 @ 12:39 am

    Could be they intended to write 设 (she4=establish) and it came out 沒.

  4. Steve Jones said,

    January 8, 2020 @ 6:10 am

    On an almost related note, I just retweeted this unfortunate English-language slip-up

  5. Steve Jones said,

    January 8, 2020 @ 7:17 am

    And this classic story about a Czech-Chinese delegation from the late great Paul Kratochvil (apologies to those who have already seen it):


  6. B.Ma said,

    January 9, 2020 @ 2:35 am

    I often make these gaffes using pinyin input.

    Suppose characters were replaced with pinyin – I wonder if seeing méi instead of měi as part of this slogan would be just as jarring…. particularly as méi is the actual pronunciation.

  7. John Swindle said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 4:52 am

    I agree with Louis Xun that it was probably intended as 设。I doubt that there's any way to prove it one way or the other. It's a funny mistake. Even in English, though, with its small number of written characters, we sometimes see similar-looking letters of the alphabet mistakenly switched.

  8. John Swindle said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 5:14 am

    No, I was mistaken. On November 27, 2019, Xinhua ran an article from Study Times that opened with 人民对美好生活的向往是我们党的奋斗目标 ("The yearning of the people for a beautiful life is the goal for which our party struggles"). That's the same slogan except for "masses" and "party." The sign is indeed supposed to say 美好生活 "a beautiful life" and not 没好生活 "no good life" or 设好生活 "establish good life."


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