Yesterday was Ching Ming Festival, the day that Chinese in Hong Kong and elsewhere set aside to remember the dead–it’s a bit like Memorial Day in the US, but with more technicolor. There is grave-visiting and tidying, and flowers, of course, but you’ll also see people doing things like burning life-sized paper models of Mercedes sports cars to send to their deceased loved ones.
Every year on Ching Ming, a group of pro-democracy activists (the Alliance) gathers in Tsimshatsui, near the ferry pier, to memorialize the dead students of the 1989 June 4th Tienanmen Square demonstrations. It’s always a solemn affair. The Alliance members bring funerary wreaths and black banners emblazoned with the group’s now-famous slogan “Ping faan luk sei”.
“Ping Faan Luk Sei” makes for a clunky English translation. Usually it’s rendered as “Vindicate June 4th!”. But that doesn’t quite do it justice, in my book. The literal Chinese meaning is “Return to ordinary the fourth of June”. (As most of you are probably aware, the Beijing government denies it did anything wrong at Tienanmen. The incident has been virtually blacked out of Mainland history. China’s internet censors have their search engines set to filter for blogs and email that contain words like “Tienanmen” and “June 4th”. Just by writing this, I may be shooting this blog in the foot for my Mainland readers. I hope not.)
Anyway, back to ping. Ping, on its own, means ordinary, usual, normal. (The 平 ping in
平反 ping faan is the same character used in the combination
和平, wo ping, peace.) In English we are dismissive of “ordinary” things, and often use the O word in a pejorative way. But for Chinese, ordinary is desirable and good. You want ordinary. It means that life is moving along as it should, with no upsets and surprises. No yi ngoi–accidents, the Chinese word that literally means “things outside of reason”. Pick up a map of Guangdong province and you’ll find dozens of villages called “Ping” this and that.
The “Ping faan” in the famous slogan is a call to turn the extra-ordinary back to ordinary. To set things straight, as much as possible. Put right the distortion of history. Correct the consequences of the horrible mistake. Let the mothers of the victims mourn their dead children publicly, and let the political prisoners from that incident out of jail.
But in this memorial ceremony about yearning to return to the ordinary, a very un-ping thing happened. An embarrassing deviation from the usual required a correction–and some fast talking.
Ming Pao newspaper reporters were on the scene when a few incorrect Chinese brushstrokes were banished in the nick of time. (Since I am constantly making mistakes in Chinese, it cheers me up to find out that even native speakers make a whopping faux pas every now and then!)
Lee Cheuk Yan is the Prince of Correction
Yesterday was Ching Ming Festival, and it’s been 18 years since the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China has been struggling to “Vindicate June 4th”. As usual, they held their annual flower wreath laying event by the clocktower in Tsim Sha Tsui, to memorialize the April 5th action at Tienanmen Square. It’s a memorial that brings up more than a few sad thoughts and feelings.
But at the event, one sharp-eyed person walking by the many flower wreaths with their black satin banners discovered there was one banner in the bunch in which the letter for “Faan” (reverse) 反 was written as “Faan” (go back)
This sharp-eyed person surmised that this was a clumsy calligraphy mistake by some clerk in the flower-wreath maker’s shop.
Later, after Alliance chairperson Lee Cheuk Yan was informed, he immediately assumed the role of “Prince of Correction”. Quickly grabbing a black ink pen, he colored over the little black “boat border” of the
返 “Faan” charater and turned it back into 反 “Faan.”
And then, after the successful completion of the “Correction”, one observer with a sense of humor remarked : “Finally, June 4th is now put right!”
There’s a very Cantonese epigraph to this embarrassing tale of public correction. Some witty person on the scene noticed a Cantonese pun floating in the air, and as Cantonese people love to do, grabbed it and ran with it. The Cantonese word for “Correct the spelling/character” is “Jing jih”. The Cantonese word for “Government” happens also to be “Jing jih”–pronounced in slightly different tones. And so, our punster spoke up, which caused the assembled crowd to chuckle, and–by the way– relieved the embarrassing moment so the solemn cermony could return to its correct state of ping.
You can guess what he said:
Jing jih tuhng maai jing jih dou haih yat yeung gam gan yiu ge!
“Correcting words (Jing Jih), and government (Jing Jih) are both equally important!