I was caught off guard when I first saw the Chinese characters for month and day indicating May 35th (五月三十五日) and could make neither head nor tail of the image above those characters: an upturned bottle and (apparently) dead deer.

The person who posted this a few days ago [i.e. in late May 2011] as her Facebook profile picture, Lin Hsinyi, is Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty. Wondering what the image and the date have to do with her main preoccupation, I asked her and was told.

It was a “but-of-course” moment: Nothing to do with capital punishment, but with an important date in Chinese history. I too adopted that image (designed not by her but a Hong Konger) as my profile picture on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

“Upturned bottle” ( 瓶反 ) is a homonym of “ping fan” (平反) meaning “reappraise” in both Cantonese (Guangdonghua) and Mandarin (Putonghua).

[A digression: the bottle motif is a familiar one in China. When Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) trounced the Gang of Four, China rejoiced and “Xiaoping” or “small bottle” was greeted with shows of, well, small bottles. But when Deng’s authoritarian grip proved unyielding more than a decade after the reforms he initiated, people smashed small bottles…]

“Dead deer” (鹿死) is homonym of (六四) “liu si” in Mandarin and “lok sei” in Cantonese. The words, Pingfan Loksei have reverberated through the streets of Hong Kong many many times ever since mid 1989.

Liu si or lok sei mean six four, i.e. sixth month, fourth day — June 4. The date is etched in Chinese history. It is like 9/11, except that whereas both the government and the people of the United States mention and invoke 9/11 and agree on what it means (regardless of whether they all agree on why it happened and how to deal with its consequences), the government and the Communist Party of China regard 6/4 as an unmentionable date. “Liu si” is a no no whose use, even in innocuous situations, can and does get people into untold trouble in China today. [For the benefit of younger readers: Hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed on the night of June 3-4, 1989 when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army drove in towards Tiananmen Square to clear it of a mass of pro-democracy student demonstrators.]

Hence May Thirty-fifth (五月三十五日).
If you want to see Chinese people’s ingenuity in outwitting the authorities and finding ways around bans, prohibitions and censorship and mocking the Emperor by new coinages, this is yet another example. Can’t say June 4? Then try May 35.

A few words on “pingfan”, which is used as both verb and noun (reappraise, reappraisal): Chinese history is full of reappraisals. Power struggles are unceasing within the CPC. The faction that wins rewrites history to suit its current needs. Those dethroned and their ideologies become anathema. The “rehabilitated” ones and their ideas, depending on how high they may have bounced back, become the new heroes and their ideas get second wind. To take only the last 50 years, witness the fortunes and fates of Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehuai, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping himself, the Gang of Four, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Witness the disapproval and later exoneration of those who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square after the death of Zhou in 1976. (Why? Because Deng approved of those demonstrations.) What is to prevent a future regime in Beijing from deciding that the 1989 demonstrators were another group of patriots campaigning against corruption and for democracy and that they were not engaged in “turmoil” or “counterrevolutionary rebellion”?

However, the question is, should the Chinese people care? A few Party and state apparatchiks might feel that the current authoritarian system — based on robber-baron capitalism that is oppressing scores of millions of migrant workers and equal numbers of other voiceless people whose livelihoods are being upturned by rapacious local mafia in cahoots with the CPC — is so far removed from the Party’s founding ideology that some adjustments might be necessary.

But why should the people bother? Why ask the regime for a reappraisal of June 4? That only legitimizes the regime. In a country where the rule of law prevailed, citizens could and would sue.

The thoughts in the two preceding paragraphs (which I express crudely and bluntly) are not mine but adapted from a highly informative and interesting presentation I heard by Professor Eva Pils of the Chinese University of Hong Kong several months ago. She has also written on the issue in an excellent article entitled “The Persistent Memory of Historic Wrongs in China: A Discussion of Demands for Reappraisal” in China Perspectives, (journal of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China), 2007/4, pp 99-107. http://www.cefc.com.hk/article/the-persistent-memory-of-historic-wrongs-in-chinaa-discussion-of-demands-for-reappraisal/

The following, inter alia, is what she says:

“…the authoritarian conception of redress for injustice, centring on the correction of wrongs by a righteous ruler, is no longer appropriate to contemporary Chinese society. At the same time, the use of court litigation for rights violations requires one to accept limitations of redress that only make sense if court practice is fair and efficient.”

And she goes on to conclude:

“…the proper form of redress for historic wrongs is neither a new version of authoritative corrective reappraisal nor compensation or punishment in relation to individual cases. Rather, it must consist of an opening-up of public and collective debate of the wrongs in question while memories of these wrongs and calls for reappraisal persist.”

About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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  1. staphany says:

    Dear Jay, i like your article very much, especially pointing out, “But why should the people bother? Why ask the regime for a reappraisal of June 4? That only legitimizes the regime. In a country where the rule of law prevailed, citizens could and would sue.” That has also been in my mind for some time and you spelled it out. i mean we care about June 4, the victims and the calls from the movement very much. But reappraisal from the regime, before the regime gets a appraisal from the people, is not exactly what we (or i think we) should ask for. that simply doesnt sound “democratic”.

    btw, mind if i share it at my facebook??

  2. walkerjay says:

    Dear Staphany,

    No problems at all.
    Share away.


  3. Venky says:

    Lovely post, Jay. Han Dongfang of China Labour Bulletin too says he is uncomfortable with the 平反 slogan that gets raised at 六四 remembrance rallies. He says it’s like subjects demanding redress from their masters (I’m paraphrasing his words).

    I remember interviewing you a couple of years ago (on the 20th anniversary of T’men) as an eyewitness to that moment in history. It’s nice to see you’re still holding the torch.

  4. Pingback: Why today is May 35, not June 4, for many Chinese | Firstpost

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  6. Leroy says:

    Very good analysis! I got to your blog through the “Monde Diplomatique”.
    We need more serious articles like this one to understand what is happening in China.

  7. SMB says:

    Wonderful read! Subversion via Homonymy! Magnificent!

  8. shovonc says:

    Excellent post. Really helped me personall. I’ve taken money from someone pretending I know about China. But wasn’t this event inspired by the earlier events in Delhi in 1984? As far as I can make out, the only difference in Trilokpuri was that the lane was too narrow for tanks to get in.

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