For 600 years, the Forbidden City, with its vermilion walls, labyrinthine passageways and sloping tiled roofs, has stood in the heart of Beijing as the ultimate symbol of power, the inner sanctum from which authority emanates across a vast land. It is the last place one would imagine as a base for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet, photographs have circulated on the Internet over the last few days that seem to hint at exactly that. On Friday, officials in charge of management of the Forbidden City handed two ceremonial banners to local police officers to congratulate them on nabbing a thief who had stolen curios from an exhibition at the ancient palace this month. The slogan on one of the banners said: “To shake the great strength and prosperity of the motherland, and to safeguard the stability of the capital.”
The treasonous slogan instantly set the Chinese Internet aflutter, spreading as quickly as court gossip. Barring the possibility of a secret revolutionary cabal inside the palace, the problem has to do with a common headache in Mandarin Chinese: homonyms. The pronunciation of the word for “shake” — han, with a falling tone — is exactly the same as that for “guard,” even though the written characters are different. In other words, the first phrase should have read to “to guard” rather than “to shake.” No officials at the ceremony seemed to notice the gaffe. Ji Tianbin, vice director of the Forbidden City, handed out the banner, and Fu Zhenghua, head of the Beijing police, was in attendance.
By Monday, photos of the ceremony had ignited derision across the Internet. Many Chinese mocked the bad grammar of the person had designed the banner, and Chinese news organizations demanded an explanation. The management office issued a brief apology on its microblog on Monday: The banners had been designed by the security department, it said, and no official had examined them “due to a lack of time.” It added that the security department had defended the mistake and had refused to apologize. Officials have “investigated the incident and criticized and educated the security department,” the managers said.