A story that’s been doing the rounds of the international Chinese press (example (in Traditional Chinese)) concerns Taiwan’s Kuomintang presidential hopeful Ma Ying-jeou: while touring the electorate, he was asked to autograph a fan’s shirt. He wrote “盡忠報國” (jin zhong bao guo), “serve the country with utmost loyalty“, a phrase reputedly tattooed on the back of Song Dynasty national hero, Yue Fei. Beside it he wrote “– Yue’s Mother, Northern Song Dynasty”.
Immediately, reporters pointed out his “mistakes”: that the tattoo had been “精忠報國” (the first character being jing instead of jin), and that Yue Fei was of the Southern Song Dynasty. The story then spread across the world, carried by all major international Chinese media, all pointing out Ma’s mistakes.
What nobody bothered to check, though, is that Ma was correct – or at least, arguably correct. While there has long been a popular view that the first character of the tattoo is “jing“, there is no historical evidence for that view. The History of Song, the official dynastic hsitory, records it as “盡“, “jin“. The inscription on the wall of Yue’s tomb in Hangzhou (see my photo at right, larger photo here) also reads “盡忠報國”(jin zhong bao guo). Even if we can’t be sure of what was written 1000 years ago, all the historical evidence point to Ma being correct.
The second matter is whether it should be “Northern Song” or “Southern Song” dynasty. Yue Fei was born in 1103, and enlisted in the Song Army in 1122, and again in 1124. The Northern Song dynasty ended in 1127, replaced by the Southern Song dynasty. By that time, Yue Fei was 24 years old, and an Officer in the Song army of the 7th rank. If the story of the tattoo is to be believed, his mother gave it to him to motivate him to fight for his country. This would hardly be necessary after he had already achieved distinction – and pretty hard to achieve, considering that she was at home and he was fighting on the front! In all likelihood, Yue Fei received the tattoo when he was young – during the northern Song dynasty. Again, Ma is most likely right.
I have another point, though, in addition to vindicating the honourable Ma Ying-jeou, JSD (which is like PhDs for lawyers in the US). This whole story of “Ma Ying-jeou makes a mistake” is based on an erroneous understanding of history. A brief flick through any serious historical source will tell you this. However, it has travelled the world, and no media source has corrected the�error of the initial report. This shows up the poor quality of the international Chinese press. “What about the Chinese Chinese press?”, I hear you say. Well, such an error would not escape the rigorous checks of the PRC state media – or at least I would like to think so. But Chairman Ma being a Chinese nationalist, is viewed as “friendly” by the PRC government, and thus no negative news about him ever gets mentioned, let alone discussed.
As a result, the international Chinese media really has no authoritative, responsible source to look to for guidance, whereas here in the Anglophone world we know we can rely on, say, the BBC even if the SMH sometimes gets it wrong. In the Sinophone world, no media organisation has the resources or the expertise to be that ultimate authority except the Chinese state media; yet censorship and propaganda in the Chinese state media means that it often cannot provide this guidance. Even where it does, its message is often warped by political agendas, so that other media sources are reluctant to trust it.