Epochal Shanghai drone quote: "Control your soul’s desire for freedom."

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This "DroneSpeak" was shared by Garson O'Toole on the American Dialect Society mailing list:

Tweet From: Alice Su @aliceysu,
Time: 12:18 AM,
Date: April 6, 2022
Accessed on twitter.com on May 6, 2022

[Begin tweet]
As seen on Weibo: Shanghai residents go to their balconies to sing &
protest lack of supplies. A drone appears: “Please comply w covid
restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the
window or sing.” https://m.weibo.cn/status/4755028135383701
[End tweet]

Twitter bio for Alice Su @aliceysu
[Begin twitter bio]
Senior China correspondent @TheEconomist covering China & Taiwan.
Former Beijing bureau chief @latimes, previously in the Middle East.
[End twitter bio]

In case the video disappears from Weibo, it can be seen on YouTube.  We have also archived a copy at Language Log headquarters.

Here's the haunting quote in Mandarin:

kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng


"Control your soul's desire for freedom"

Outside of China, people were stunned when they read that quotation.  Inside China, people recognized it as a lame attempt at humor.  Vast is the discrepancy between emic and etic interpretation of cultural phenomena.

Unbelievable as it may seem to Westerners, "Control your soul's desire for freedom" is immediately taken for jocularity in China.  I will explain how so below.

Here's the quotation in context:

Jiǔtíng jiāyuán de jūmín péngyǒumen, zài yìqíng fēngkòng qíjiān, qǐng yángé zūnshǒu shì zhèngfǔ xiāngguān fángyì guīdìng, kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng, bùyào kāi chuāng gēchàng, cǐ xíngwéi yǒu yìqíng chuánbò de fēngxiǎn.


Residents and friends of Jiuting Homestead [i.e., "Nine Pavilions Gardens"], during the epidemic control period, please strictly abide by the relevant epidemic prevention regulations of the municipal government, control the soul's desire for freedom, and do not open the window to sing. This behavior has the risk of spreading the epidemic.

Despite the faint, muffled, barely audible sound of the drone speaker, it is relatively easy to understand what is being said because it is so highly formulaic.  Such messages are routinely broadcast to persons subject to mass quarantine.  Except that, in this case, someone tried to insert a bit of black humor by slipping in the clause about controlling one's soul's desire for freedom.  This amounts to a gěng 梗 ("shtick"), about which I have written extensively here.  Its usage falls roughly into the same category as memes, emojis, and the like.

Under such dire circumstances, humor seems the last thing enforcing authorities would resort to in an effort to have their diktats accepted, yet the roots of irony and satire run deep, though their manifestations are quite different in China than in America and Europe (see here and in the "Selected readings").

As to when the mock injunction to "control your soul's desire for freedom" became popular in China, it's hard to trace it back before the mega Shanghai lockdowns (e.g., on Baidu.com).  This one is earlier, from March 3 2020.  However, it’s still pandemic related.  Be that as it may "control your soul's desire for freedom" is so widespread that one gets the feeling it began to spread before the coronavirus pandemic that erupted in Wuhan in early 2020, but that is difficult to prove.

"Control your soul's desire for freedom" has seeped into all sorts of nooks and crannies of young netizens' lives.  Whoever it was that attempted to lighten the mood of those who were suffering quarantine restrictions by trying to be humorous seriously misjudged the sentiments of the internees.  People locked in their own homes and unable to get enough food or medical care were just not in that sort of mood.

From one Chinese citizen who has studied this case extensively:

In any event, from the setting of the video and the atmosphere, as a Chinese native I can guarantee that what the drone says is not supposed to be in a serious tone). If it were a normal time, people would even laugh about it and spread it in their WeChat groups and treat it as a gěng 梗 ("shtick"). I mean it. It should belong to the kind of shādiāo xīnwén 沙雕新闻 (“sand-sculpture news”), a variant for shǎdiǎo xīnwén 傻屌新闻 (“stupid dick / prick news”, i.e., "silly news") that is concoted on purpose for a laugh among the netizens.  Sadly, however, it’s the context now — the lockdown — that makes everything serious in those poor people’s eyes — because the lockdown is indeed serious, isn’t it?

And another Chinese citizen:

Well, maybe it’s still not that exclusively covid-related as one might think — because, first of all, Baidu or Google only shows the most recent news. Covid has already been around for 3 years. Of course it will be quite hard to find this sort of news that occurred 3 years ago. Also, since there are so many pieces of news, memes, and other covid-related reports connected with "kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng 控制灵魂对自由的渴望" ("control your soul's desire for freedom"), I believe that this vast amount of "new news” would already  have quickly replaced all those which were pre-covid, even if they did exist. 

One can’t really say that "kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng 控制灵魂对自由的渴望" ("control your soul's desire for freedom") is for sure covid-related, or the use of which was commenced by covid, simply because the first ten or fifteen pages on search engines are covid-related usages of this gěng 梗 ("shtick"). 

Regardless of when "kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng 控制灵魂对自由的渴望" ("control your soul's desire for freedom") began to spread as a gěng 梗 ("shtick") in China, it isn't funny to people who are stuck in lockdown.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. AntC said,

    May 8, 2022 @ 8:57 pm

    In Ukraine, they know how to deal with drones — at about 9:40.

    Except in Shanghai there's no food, not even jars of cucumbers.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 8, 2022 @ 9:59 pm

    It guess it won't be for long since Google sucks, but for now it remains easy to use date parameters to find when "控制灵魂对自由的渴望" first occurs; it is near the end of March 2020 within press conference remarks of Xie Bin 谢斌, who it seems is 上海精神卫生中心主任医师. Contemporary reports like this one in Pengpai/The Paper give the quote
    There seem to have been several press conferences where a very similar series of prepared remarks was read out by Xie; some short pieces of video are floating around. While intended to be relatable to the masses, the dark humor / memeability here comes precisely from the eerie capacity of such a line to be uttered unironically.

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 7:26 am

    This brings to my mind an incident in the last days of May, 1989, when I was coming out of my study space the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on Jian Men Nei Da Jie, and a helicopter flew over scattering anti-student movement leaflets. I heard some yell (in Chinese),
    "Gather them and rip them all up so they can see ! (gei tamen kan !)", which they then proceeded to do. (I abstained.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 8:12 am

    Cartoons contrasting the lockdown styles of Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, with Shanghai represented by a spokesman delivering the epochal quote: "kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng 控制灵魂对自由的渴望" ("control your soul's desire for freedom")

    This proves that "kòngzhì línghún duì zìyóu de kěwàng 控制灵魂对自由的渴望" ("control your soul's desire for freedom") has by now indeed become a meme, one with considerable satirical resistance value.



    [Thanks to Mark Metcalf]

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 9:01 am

    From a Chinese colleague:

    This reminds me of some videos last month where little kids danced for the 防疫人员 (I forgot how to say this in English [VHM: fángyì rényuán {"epidemic prevention personnel"}]), but no one appreciated their cute little dancings for “gratitude expressions”. Rather, most of the netizens chastised the kids’ parents for wasting everybody’s time. Yes, the kids were cute. Yes, the families were trying to express gratitude to the people who served them, like medicare workers who gave them covid tests, or couriers who climbed upstairs in the old buildings and distributed food to them. However, the 场合 [VHM: chǎnghé {"occasion}] was not appropriate for a “children’s dance show”. Those who danced kept everyone waiting in line, prolonged the workers’ working time, and it was super difficult to talk and say “thank you” back to every dancing kid when wearing one's N-95 mask (imagine if you had already worn it on your face for 12 hours!). Therefore either dancing or flying drones to play a not-so-funny meme would be a bad way to “cheer people up”.

    After all, most people don’t care what the government or other people do to “cheer up the atmosphere" — they want the lockdown to end, and that’s the only way to make them really happy and be able to enjoy whatsoever humor in life!

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 11:30 am

    Now it's on an expensive t-shirt (in Chinese and English, no less!):

    https://www.artsy.net/artwork/li-xiang-aka-gulu-1984-t-shirt (use arrows to switch between front & back; you can enlarge the photographs by clicking on them; look closely at the image on the front of the shirt and then think why it is being advertised as 1984 vintage)

    Looks like some Chinese person in Germany is being a good capitalist!

  7. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    May 16, 2022 @ 6:39 am

    Thesis: Animum rege, qui nisi paret imperat. (Horatius)
    Antithesis: Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions. (Hume)
    Synthesis: Control your soul’s desire for freedom. (Anon)

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