Three exhibits from the streets of Shanghai, each replacing one “yi” character of a chengyu (typically 4-character idiom) with the character 疫 (yì), which means “epidemic”:
‘疫’言九鼎 is a pun on 一言九鼎 (yīyánjiǔdǐng). The original idiom refers to solemn statements, and the poster exhorts people to be honest (about their true health).
断章取‘疫’ is a pun on 断章取义 (duànzhāngqǔyì). The original idiom refers to quoting out of context, and the poster warns people not to spread unsubstantiated rumors about the epidemic (you could end up in prison for as long as 7 years if you do!).
仁至‘疫’尽 is a pun on 仁至义尽 (rénzhìyìjìn). The original idiom refers to fulfillment of moral obligations, and this poster implores people to remain compassionate while battling the epidemic.
In all fairness, “yi” is one of the most common readings for characters in Mandarin Chinese, so choosing that one to focus on with the puns really made things easier.
A recent topic of conversation among friends in Shanghai is the new app “Xue Xi Qiang Guo.” It’s a news hub for state-sponsored news and commentary, as well as a way to show devotion to the Chinese Communist Party by studying what’s in the app and proving mastery through quizzes. In this way you can get points which can earn you nominal rewards, and it also ties into China’s “social credit” system. (For more info on Xue Xi Qiang Guo, you can check out its official site as well as the Wikipedia’s article.)
What I want to talk about today is the name: 学习强国. If you plug that into Google Translate, Wenlin, or Pleco, you get a similar two-word breakdown: 学习 强国 (xuéxí qiángguó). You’ll note that English news coverage of the app (including Wikipedia) all write the name in pinyin as two words: “Xuexi Qiangguo.”
But this is Chinese, where clear word boundaries are not provided, and that is not the only breakdown. It’s not even the one that occurs first to most native speakers of Chinese.
1. Xuexi Qiangguo
OK, so 学习 is a given. it means “study,” and it’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of the app. No problem there. The word 强国, meaning “powerful country,” however, is not so common. The overall interpretation here seems to be “learn from the powerful country (China),” which seems plausible, but it’s just not what occurs to Chinese users first. So let’s drop the 强国 parsing (which, unfortunately, seems to be the norm in English language coverage of the app) and see what else we can get.
2. Xuexi Qiang Guo
Classical Chinese was remarkably flexible, most words consisting of individual characters that can serve as various parts of speech in different contexts (noun, verb, and adjective fluidity being common). This trend carries over to modern times for certain words, and 强 is one of them. So while 强 used by itself is most often used to mean “strong” in modern Mandarin, in certain contexts, 强 can also mean “strength” or “strengthen.” So from there, we can get the two-word phrase 强 国 (qiáng guó), “strengthen the country.”
Since the word 学习 (meaning “study”) can also be a noun or a verb, you might translate the full app name literally as something like “Studying Strengthens the Country,” “Study Strengthens the Country,” or even “Study to Strengthen the Country.” This interpretation would likely be the official meaning of the name if you asked the CCP.
3. Xue Xi Qiang Guo
There’s one other unofficial, sly interpretation which goes unnoticed by few Chinese these days. The word 学习 can also be broken down into two separate words. Since the first character, 学, can mean “study” on its own, and the second character, 习, is also the surname of Xi Jinping (president of China), you can also interpret 学 习 as the phrase “xué Xí,” which means “study Xi” or “learn from Xi.” A quick look at the content of the app shows that this interpretation is, indeed, fully grounded in reality. In fact, some are calling the app the “Little Red Book” of the modern age.
In this parsing, the final meanining of 学 习 强 国 would be “Studying Xi Strengthens the Country.” Since cause-effect relationships are often implied in Mandarin, you could also make that a command: “Study Xi to Strengthen the Country.”
Pretty clever name. It is indeed an age of 学 习 (xué Xí). Now there’s an app for that: Xue Xi Qiang Guo.
Nov. 25, 2019 Update: Dr. Victor Mair shared with me his take on this app, which he wrote on Language Log way back in May of this year. I would have linked to it originally if I had been aware of it: The CCP’s Learning / Learning Xi (Thought) app
I’m not sure how to classify “normal” Chinese government propaganda. As a foreigner, it all seems kind of pointless, like background noise. Almost a stylistic choice, rather than some kind of effort at shaping (or just nudging) the direction in which society is developing.
Often, the propaganda is of the “values” kind, cheerily informing the population what values Chinese society holds so dear. Other times, they’re more focused on specific objectives. I guess the recent “Sweep Black, Eliminate Evil” campaign from June of this year is of that type, although for the average Shanghai resident, it didn’t really mean anything.
That’s why the recent campaign for recycling and garbage separation feels really different to me. It feels like meaningful propaganda with a tangible (and achievable) objective! I’m not sure what the locals feel about it, but to me, it feels like a rare effort at actual social progress. Here is some of the “propaganda” I spotted in a local neighborhood or two:
I noticed these posters near my home a while back:
They’re propaganda from the Changning District police department, telling people not to tolerate 10 types of illegal behavior. But the first 7 of the 10 items in the list relate specifically to 机动车 (motorized scooters), including illegal parking, blocking lanes of traffic, reckless driving, etc. All are extremely common on the streets of Shanghai.
These 机动车 are often blamed for bad accidents, and the drivers of motor scooters can be seen to flagrantly ignore traffic lights and other traffic rules all over Shanghai. The drivers frequently do not even have legal plates. Many in Shanghai (especially drivers of cars, but also pedestrians) have been hoping for a police crackdown for quite a while, but normally very little is done. There are rumors that Shanghai may eventually ban them entirely. I sure wouldn’t mind.
But what’s with the fists in the graphics above? Is this some kind of subtle suggestion that violence is the answer? It definitely feels odd. (Although the graphic of the fist punching through the wall sums up pretty well how the drivers of these motor scooters can make other residents of Shanghai feel.)
Here’s one that seems a little less extreme (and more in keeping with the usual propaganda style):
Here’s the text of the 10 illegal behaviors (same on all 3 posters) if you’d like to study it:
Note: This article originally mistranslated 机动车 as “electric scooter,” when “motorized vehicle” (normally referring to a scooter, not an automobile) is the correct meaning. “Electric scooter” would be 电动车 or 电瓶车 (both normally referring to scooters, not electric cars). Thank you to reader E.T. for pointing out this mistake!
I was impressed by the “propaganda” handed to me in the subway yesterday. I had seen lots of elementary schoolers on the streets engaged in some sort of volunteer work, and then in the subway I experienced it firsthand. Here’s the flyer I was given:
The “汪” represents the barking sound a dog makes in Chinese. (In panel 3, the little girls is saying “妈妈“, “mommy.”) The characters in the lower righthand corner read:
What impressed me was the idea that the school is (1) educating the kids to be “civilized” (文明), but also (2) trying to use the kids to influence the less civilized adults (who are arguably most in need of this type of education, but also prone to negatively influencing the kids). Made me think of the brilliant Thai anti-smoking ad that also used kids.
Here’s hoping these efforts pay off! We’d all like a “more civilized” Shanghai (with less dog poop).
The following photo was snapped in a subway. It’s a public service announcement (or “propaganda poster,” if you prefer) that reminds passengers to be polite. I thought it was kind of interesting to take note of what expressions were chosen to illustrate politeness.
Here are the words, with pinyin and English translations, and a few observations of my own:
This clearly polite word is nevertheless just a little awkward for foreigners trying to speak polite Chinese, because it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as “please” is in English.
没关系: it doesn’t matter
The nice response to “I’m sorry.”
This word is a bit old-fashioned. It’s also modern slang for a gay person.
您请坐: please sit
您 is the polite form of 你, plus you have the 请 in there. You might say this if you were being super polite to an elderly passenger while giving up your seat. (您 is also more common in northern China.)
谢谢: thank you
Can’t go wrong with “thank you!”
您 is the polite form of 你, so this is the politer form of 你好. (It also poses a translation problem… Maybe you come close if you use “hi” for 你好 and “hello” for 您好? The difference is still bigger in Chinese, though.) The expression 您好 also reminds me of customer service reps.
不客气: you’re welcome
Literally, “don’t be polite.”
I never really thought of this as polite, exactly, but I guess it’s better than taking leave without a word?
It’s time for a special treat. In fact, today you get two great treats in one: Flash animation and modern Chinese propaganda! It’s cheesey. It’s trippy. It’s got music, a disembodied constitution-procuring hand, voting, lime green birds, and a scene stolen directly from Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All.” Perhaps most mystifying is the fact that for all the people that appear in the cartoon, there is exactly one nose. Check it out for yourself.
I’ve seen it so many times in Shanghai… propaganda telling Shanghai residents to “be a cute Shanghainese.” The word for cute in Chinese is 可爱, and it’s not one of those tricky words to translate. “Cute” is pretty much just “可爱,” and “可爱” is pretty much just “cute” (except when it’s being “lovely”). So why is the government always telling its people to be cute? I have no clue.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to get a picture of one of those “be a cute Shanghainese” messages for a long time, but never have. Brad at Shanghai Streets recently captured a good example of it, so I guess I can stop trying.
Exciting news! The Public Control Department of Shanghai Public Security Bureau has teamed up with the Exit-Entry Administration Bureau of Shanghai Public Security Bureau to produce yet another free, attractive, and informative propaganda pamphlet entitled SAFE AND SOUND IS THE WORLD’S BEST WISHES!
Please don’t think this is an entry devoted to making fun of Chinglish. That joke is a little tired by now, and I think it’s sort of mean-spirited sometimes. Rather, I would like to share with everyone what I learned from this educational pamphlet. Here we go!
Pickpockets mix with visitors! Even when going sightseeing! Those crafty devils. Therefore beware.
Your car is not a safe. So you know all those sacks you have marked with dollar signs and stuffed full of cash? Don’t keep them in your car. They could get stolen. You should carry them around with you.
Apparently my foreigner habit of relaxing at night with a wineglass of XO whiskey in front of my flatscreen TV, my back to the open door, is not safe. Good to know!
My habit of gravitating toward stealing and snatching could actually result in me getting my own things stolen! I should in fact stay far away from stealing and snatching.
The theft situation in Shanghai is so bad that luggage actually steals other luggage!
Here in Shanghai we don’t just “eat.” Oh, no… We enjoy delicacies, you country bumpkin! (Meanwhile our things are getting stolen.)
You know that guy that comes into the office with a big black sack and rummages through our stuff? Be suspicious of him!
The production of this pamphlet was truly a kindness on the part of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau. There are some things we foreigners just don’t understand.
The other day on the way home I checked my mail. There was no real mail; it was mainly just flyers for satellite TV installation. There was also a little booklet which was quite clearly unrelated to satellite TV, however. It was a Changning District propaganda handbook issued by the government. “What do you want that for?” my girlfriend asked. “Just throw it out.” She doesn’t really get why I would find something like this interesting.
What I find most interesting is that the government still goes to such trouble to even publish something like this. The little booklet is obviously very professionally printed. It’s glossy, in full color. How many people were involved in its publication, and how much money was spent on its production? Was it distributed to all residences in Changning District? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the government is clearly still putting a lot of money into traditional forms of propaganda that seem ineffectual to a new generation of Chinese.
I’m not about to read the whole booklet cover to cover, but it does have some amusing sections. I recommend the Q&A section (30 questions) and the Slogan section (50 slogans). Be sure to click on the “ALL SIZES” button at the top of the photo to see the pages in a readable size. I find Chinese propaganda particularly difficult to translate, so I’m not going to bother. If you read Chinese, have a look. If someone wants to put up a translation, that would be even cooler.