Of chives and bandits

« previous post | next post »

Tension over the prolonged pandemic lockdowns in Chinese cities is growing.  Thus violence has erupted even in Beijing, where we get scenes like this in the suburb of Yanjiao, 21 miles east of Tiananmen, where workers are demonstrating for the right to travel to their jobs in the city, with continuous cries of "jǐngchá dǎ rén 警察打人" ("the police are beating people").  But it is Shanghai where the citizens have suffered most grievously and for the longest period of time.  Although the government has announced the lifting of the lockdowns, many of the most obnoxious mandates (e.g., repeated, frequent nucleic acid testing) are still being enforced.  All of this has led to extreme cynicism and a greater willingness to confront the authorities.  Some of these sentiments are conveyed on this card where, naturally in the land of the most severe censorship in the world, they must employ clever indirection, which I shall try to explain below:

I will not transcribe and translate every character on the card, but will cover all of its contents.

The part at the very top in the curved cartouche is a Shanghainese expression meaning basically "playing around".  The part at the very bottom says "Shanghai chives".  Why chives (jiǔcài 韭菜)?  As used here, it is a PRC internet neologism referring to "someone who can be repeatedly deceived and exploited, especially by the government or the stock market; dupe; shitizen" (source)  This neologistic sense derives metaphorically from the property of chives in regrowing tenaciously and quickly after their green leaves / tops are cut off and used by those who harvest them.

A central message that the creators of this card want to convey is that the lifting of lockdowns is just a joke, trying to mollify the undercurrent of resentment among Shanghainese, to be revoked before long. They have been going back and forth between lockdown and lifting for a long time already, hence the metaphor of cutting chives.  This "celebration" reeks, if I may, of irony.  Playing / toying with the people, as it were.

From a correspondent in China:

There will be more conflicts in the future. When the economy collapses, the regime will fall to pieces. People are shouting "土匪“("bandits"). They are fighting for their right to go to work, but I don't think they are literally aware that what they do is against dictatorship. How many people still remember May 35th* when it becomes a taboo and eliminated from media? Chinese people are lost in fake history while the country boasts of its incessant official historical recordings.

[*June 4, 1989]

Shanghai people celebrated their release from quarantine on June 1. It started from April 1 (Fool's Day) and ended on June 1 (Children's Day) 1, starting from a farce and ending like a child's play. Much ado about nothing. But what then? Shanghai residents as well as those in many other cities still have to take pcr test every 72/48 hours to be permitted into any public places. I've attached two pictures** of how they have to queue for hours to get tested.

Let's wait and see how the farce ends.

[**VHM:  Omitted here; available upon request]  

The author is a historian of dramatic arts.

Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 6:31 pm

    If anyone is interested, I have extensive notes on Yanjiao made by Denis Mair based on the years he lived in that intriguing satellite city of Beijing.

  2. Christopher Coulouris said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:26 am

    I am interested in Denis's notes on Yanjiao Professor Mair. Sounds very interesting.

  3. Brandon Conlon said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 1:55 am

    As someone who just returned to the U.S. after living in China for 17 years, I found this, as I do all your posts on Language Log, fascinating, Professor Mair. Please also do send me those notes on Yanjiao. I'm very interested!

  4. HZ said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 3:55 am

    “Fooling around" might be a better translation of "弄弄白相”.

  5. Toby Blyth said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 10:02 pm

    Any expats there now are fools and need to be getting out before it is too late.

RSS feed for comments on this post