Human Flower Project

Illegal Flowers: ‘Feifa Xianhua’

Chinese authorities try to squelch the complaints of Google and its many users, restricting even floral protests of online censorship.


After Google announced it might suspend its Chinese operations, citizens brought flowers to the company

headquarters in Beijing (shown here) and Shanghai.

Photo: Josh Chin, via WSJ

After conforming to the Chinese government’s limitations on Internet use (a.k.a. rules of censorship) for nearly four years, Google made a public turn last Tuesday, signaling that it may close its operations here. The company reportedly changed its tune after detecting that hackers had tried to infiltrate, “violating its network and identifying advocates for human rights and democratic reform in China.”

As Google scuttles to moral high-ground, some commentators say that image management and simple economics spurred the company’s announcement rather than commitment to free speech.

At present, our interest is less in Google’s ethics than in the response of Chinese citizens. Many have brought floral tributes to the company’s headquarters in Beijing and Shanghai to register their support for the global IT company and, presumably, to protest government censorship.

S.L. Shen wrote for UPI, “Since Wednesday morning (Jan. 13), security staff at the Tsinghua Science Park near Zhongguancun – China’s Silicon Valley – in northwest Beijing have been busy chasing away people who went to pay their respects to Google….

“According to the citizen reporters, security guards told the visitors that presenting flowers to Google was illegal without applying for prior approval from the authorities. Otherwise, their offerings were ‘illegal flower tributes.’”

News and images of these floral demonstrations began coursing through the Internet instantly via twitter and other social networking systems. So did a neologism in the human-flower lexicon.

“The newly coined Chinese term ‘feifa xianhua,’ meaning ‘illegal flower tribute,’ quickly spread in online forums. It even appeared as an entry in online encyclopedias like Wiki and Baidu, Google’s top competitor in China. But, unsurprisingly, this term was later ‘unable to be displayed’ on Baidu and microblogs provided by Sina Net in China.”

Matthew Robertson, writing for the Epoch Times, reported “The newly coined Chinese phrase (feifa xianhua) now garners 151,000 hits in Google (144,000 on”...and that was 6 days ago.

imageApril 1989: Chinese students and allies gathered in Tiananmen Square to remember Hu Yaobang with speeches and floral tributes, a precursor to the June massacre.

Photo: Getty Images, via Epoch Times

Robertson notes, “The flower laying, and subsequent removal, may be linked to incidents in recent Chinese history, where flower tributes have closely followed expressions of political dissatisfaction.” Robertson’s prime example is the spring demonstration in Tiananmen Square after the death of reformer Hu Yaobang, in April 1989. Hu, an advocate of free speech and an autonomous Tibet, had been stripped of his rank in the Party. His death, largely ignored by the Chinese central authority, occasioned an outpouring of honorifics and mourning. Some 100,000 people, many of them students, gathered in Tiananmen Square to pay tribute with flowers and protest the authoritarian state. Only two months later, in June, another protest in Tiananmen Square became a massacre and a turning point in Chinese history.

Comparing perhaps a few hundred flower bearers at Google headquarters to the many thousands who risked (and in some cases lost) their lives in 1989 is a leap. Still the floral protest of authority, especially over freedom of speech, in China and elsewhere (we recall the memorial to Jan Palach in Prague’s Wenceslas Square),  bears scrutiny.

We find it intriguing that in the recent ‘feifa xianhua’ confrontation, and other incidents of floral protest, citizens who might expect repressive leaders to tear down banners or arrest marchers (and who, furthermore, tend to refrain from those more overt – and personally risky—kinds of demonstrations) nonetheless feel that a floral “statement” should be allowed.

“The kind of government [that removes flower tributes] makes people so angry their hair stands up,” wrote one participant in a Hong Kong discussion forum.

imageLi Qin, a college junior, lays a rose at Google’s Beijing headquarters.

Photo: Josh Chin, via WSJ

There’s a sense that even in the most antagonistic circumstances floral expressions should be permissible: above reproach and even outside the law. But why? Because flowers are “natural” and “subhuman,” so inherently non-threatening? Because their beauty takes the hostile edge off of an expression of resistance, making them “peaceful” weapons?

Maybe. But we also think a couple of other elements are at work. First, by their silence, flowers maintain a rich ambiguity. Nobody can really say what a flower laid on the Google logo in Shanghai means, so how can such an act be forbidden, much less illegal?

Also, we believe that a flower demonstrates something about the giver, and the giver only—not about its recipient. A floral tribute can’t say “you’re loveable” or “you’re the best thing that ever happened to China” but “I love you” or “I want full access to the Internet.” By their vivid interiority, floral expressions would seem to get a pass. They are behavioral, yes, but in the same way as smiling or crying is. And last we heard, crying was legal, even in China.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/20 at 01:15 PM


Such an interesting post. The Google story is amazing. Friends in China will be bereft without it which is too bad given how badly Google has served them with its acquiescence to censorship.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/22 at 04:33 PM
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