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This Week’s Vocabulary: “Calling a Deer a Horse” (指鹿为马, zhǐlùwéimǎ)
This Week's Vocabulary: "Calling a Deer a Horse" (指鹿为马, zhǐlùwéimǎ)

This Week’s Vocabulary: “Calling a Deer a Horse” (指鹿为马, zhǐlùwéimǎ)

After a powerful magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck western Japan on New Year’s Day, there was a noticeable display of joy and Schadenfreude on Chinese social media. However, this was followed by two instances of xenophobic and anti-Japanese sentiments in China that were more ridiculous. One of these incidents involved the Nanning Metro, where a Douyin vlogger complained about a new colorful advertisement resembling the Imperial Japanese Army’s “rising sun” flag (known as 旭日旗 or kyokujitsu-ki in Japanese). In response, Nanning Metro promised to remove the artwork and improve their monitoring of future advertisements. However, upon closer inspection, it was revealed that the image was actually a traditional Chinese folding fan and not a Japanese rising sun. This flag is highly controversial due to its connection to Japan’s WWII conquest of East and Southeast Asia.

The panel looks like a picture of a red sun rising, with tan beams of light.

Upon closer observation, it becomes evident that the panel, believed to be a promotion for the China Sports Lottery, depicts a classic Chinese folding fan in red with visible tan lines resembling the “ribs” of the fan. Despite the Nanning Metro’s attempts to clarify this, they ultimately agreed to remove the fan artwork.

A recent article from the WeChat account 小宋威武 (Xiǎo Sòng Wēiwǔ) discusses the rise of online trolls who intentionally spread false information in an attempt to incite anti-Japanese or anti-foreign sentiment. This tactic, known as 指鹿为马 (zhǐlùwéimǎ), literally translates to “pointing at a deer and calling it a horse.” The author also notes that in recent years, there has been a growing fear among companies, organizations, and local governments about upsetting nationalists. As a result, they often choose to apologize and back down rather than stand up for themselves, even when faced with absurd accusations like the one mentioned in the article.

The Pingyao County Culture and Tourism Bureau recently caused controversy by banning the sale of clothing from non-Han Chinese ethnic groups in tourist photography shops located in the ancient city center of Pingyao. After facing backlash, the bureau retracted their decision, with a blogger on WeChat even proposing that it would make more sense to shut down the bureau altogether instead of banning the sale of non-Han clothing and costumes.

Some recent works discussing the issue of anti-Japanese sentiment include an article on WeChat by Huang Zhijie that compares the hostile reactions towards the 2024 Noto Peninsula earthquake with the compassionate responses from both the Chinese government and citizens a hundred years ago during Japan’s Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Another WeChat article from the account 走读新生 (Zǒudú Xīnshēng) laments the trend of labeling Chinese individuals as “traitors” for simply expressing sympathy towards Japan or its people. In an article for China Story, Phil Cunningham makes interesting observations on how state broadcaster CCTV covers natural disasters, particularly the recent earthquake in Japan, and the stark contrast between their coverage of disasters in China and other countries.

If a news story from China cannot be portrayed positively, it will not receive coverage on state television. The typical standards of journalism do not apply in this situation.

CCTV and other state media occasionally engage in a form of journalism when covering international events, but only for opportunistic reasons. This is because the most effective way to support a perspective that portrays China in a positive light and the rest of the world in a negative light is to report on well-researched stories about negative events happening globally.