In yet another example of the unfortunate real-world influence of virtual Chinese trolls, Alipay recently felt the need to clarify the meaning of the Chinese character zhi (支 zhī) in marketing materials — this after these trolls made a nationalistic fuss about the character being disrespectful to China.
The absurd dispute started when Weibo user @PITD亚洲虐待博士组织 snapped a photo of an Alipay ad in Hong Kong promoting the company’s mobile payment feature, featuring this slogan: “Global week for Alipay. Running into an old friend away from home.” (支付宝全球周 他乡遇故支 zhīfùbǎo quánqiúzhōu tāxiāng yù gùzhī)
To understand this, we have to learn an ancient Chinese idiom: 他乡遇故知 (tāxiāng yù gùzhī), translated as “meeting an old friend in a foreign place.” The Alipay ad replaced the final character, 知 (zhī), with the homonym 支 (zhī), meaning “pay” — a little play on words, as 支 is also the first character in Alipay’s Chinese name, 支付宝 (zhīfùbǎo).
But the backlash began when internet users pointed out that the character zhi 支 is also used in the term Shina (支那 zhīnà), which is a phonetic Japanese term for China often considered derogatory.
UPDATE: Thanks to Ed Connelly for this clarification: The reason ultra nationalists hate the character 支 is because the Japanese militarists referred to China as 支那 vice 中国 to portray China as an area vice a country. 支那 is the ancient Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word for China. Until the early 1950’s there was a Buddhist institute in Nanjing, for example, named the 支那内学院, the China Buddhist Institute for Inner Learning.
The Weibo user added a caption — “Running into an old friend away from home?” — which repeats the part he found problematic. He also mentioned Alipay’s official Weibo account in the post.
A group of patriotic Weibo users very quickly picked up on this, who claimed that Alipay’s use of 支 was a deliberate insult to its Chinese users.
“Who the f**k did you hire for your team? Are you insane?” one angry internet user said (in Chinese). “Who are you referring to as zhi?”
Under mounting pressure, Alipay cleared the air on October 1 — China’s National Day — asserting that the 支 in its ad is an overt reference to its name. “I am ‘little zhi’ (小支 xiǎozhī), zhi from Zhifubao,” the explanatory post reads (in Chinese). “I hope every Chinese traveling abroad can use me and have a sense of warmth.”
The moral of the story? Be fully prepared to offer a convincing justification for using 支 in any social media post, or you’ll be hearing from whiny, hypersensitive, flag-waving trolls.