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 emanated across a vast land. It is, perhaps, 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 managing the Forbidden City handed two ceremonial banners to local police officers to congratulate them on nabbing a suspect in the theft of precious curios from an exhibition at the Palace Museum this month. The slogan on one banner read, “To shake the great strength and prosperity of the motherland, and to safeguard the stability of the capital.” The treasonous-sounding 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 seems to have stemmed from 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 apparently should have read “to guard” rather than “to shake.” No officials at the ceremony seemed to notice the mistake.
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 literacy level of the person who had designed the banner, and Chinese news organizations demanded an explanation. The Forbidden City 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.”