Brush Strokes




Fubai is a two-character word for corruption. It is a cornucopia of meaning, having within it the character for ‘government’, for ‘meat’, and also of a hand breaking a ding, or ancient ceremonial pot, with a stick.

Later, the object being broken was changed to a shell (which was used as money in ancient China).

It’s tempting to see the two characters as a visual representation of graft among government officials. Yet as with many characters, this interpretation is probably too simplistic. Fubai owes at least as much to pure phonetics, with the top of the ‘fu’ character giving the character its pronunciation. Still, the presence of government, a destructive hand and money makes it hard to shake off the idea of the ideogram as a moral indictment (for thousands of years, it has been normal to buy public office in China.)

The top half of the character fu, consisting of seven strokes, 府, means seat of government, government repository or official mansion. The roof of the mansion is easy to spot; the strokes underneath it represent documents and financial goods. The lower half is meat, 肉 (see the old, oval character, which really does look something like a piece of meat).

Though it’s pronounced rou, in the overall character fu the phonetic fu dominates. Taken together, the character means “putrid”.

In bai, the second character, the right-hand side is a hand holding a stick; the left-hand side is a ding, or ancient ceremonial pot. Later that changed to the simpler character bei, or shell, used to this day.

In his book, Tracing the Roots of Chinese Characters, Li Leyi says the basic meaning of the hand striking a pot or shells (i.e. money) is “destroy”. He quotes the Zuo Zhuan (the ancient historical narrative known as the Commentary of Zuo, written circa 380 BC): “Fording the river, the marquis’ chariot was destroyed,” using the word bai.

Fubai, has the visual association of rotten meat and associates corruption with destructiveness. Another word commonly used for ‘corruption’ is tanwu, which comprises two characters denoting ‘greed’ and ‘dirt’.

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