Sensitive Word of the Week: King Sager

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On Twitter, University of British Columbia law student Shawn Zhang noted that had misread a portion of text while delivering his closing address to the First Meeting of the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 20. In a nationalistic-tinged closing address that warned against division, Xi called on members of all of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnicities to support his “great rejuvenation of Chinese dream.” In a section of the speech, Xi recalled the long ideological, artistic, and creative history of China. While doing so, he misread the name of King Gesar from the Tibetan epic that bears his name, flipping the first two characters of the Mandarin rendering of the name (格萨尔王) to “King Sager” (萨格尔王):

Following the gaffe, Xinhua edited the video to unscramble the misspoken name of the mythological Tibetan king into something that more resembled the correct pronunciation (the edited portion can be seen at 6:36 on the video embedded here). Shawn Zhang notes on Twitter, and Victor Mair confirms at Language Log:

On Sina Weibo, discussion of Xi’s misreading is being controlled. While searches for both “King Gesar” (格萨尔王) and “King Sager” (萨格尔王) are allowed, attempting to post the latter currently prompts the message “content is illegal.”

If the ongoing official campaign to portray Xi as well-read and erudite is any indication, he should have remembered the correct order of the characters in the epic king’s name. CDT Chinese editors note that official media last month listed the Epic of King Gesar as one of Xi’s recent reads.

Xi’s misreading recalls a 2016 gaffe that prompted fast action by censors. In a speech at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Xi misread the phrase for “be lenient to farmers” to the suggestive phrase for “loosen clothing,” and censors sprung to action. At Language Log, Victor Mair described this as a “horrendous gaffe” that “even someone with a middle school education should not have made.”  Following that embarrassing episode, at the 90th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the People’s Liberation Army last October, the unusual first character in the phrase kuīrán bù dòng (岿然不动, to “steadfastly stand one’s ground,”) was annotated on Xi’s teleprompter with tone-marked pinyin. This was accidentally captured in TV footage of the audience.