The New York Times, July 2, 1989
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
A PUNDIT CARE-less with his usage wrote this about the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, the Beijing dissident who is now a house guest of the United States: ''You can send him and his family a welcome note care of the U.S. Embassy in Peking, where they are holed up under our protection. The asylum granted him has infuriated the Deng regime. . . .''
As soon as I saw this in print, I barked, ''Gotcha!'' despite the fact that the offending pundit was me (not I). This is a manifestation of Writer's Self-Flagellation Syndrome. One's own words always seem different in print; a writer reads himself with a touch of disbelief because the words stand proudly out there on their own, more respectable and permanently independent than the author. That's why some of us get a perverse kick out of finding mistakes in our own work; it makes the creator feel smarter than his smugly frozen creation. Asylum was not quite the right word. Nor were Fang Lizhi and his family granted sanctuary, strictly speaking; better to say they were granted refuge. Splitting hairs? Hardly; in the synonymy of haven, we are stepping into a sensitive field of international law. A call to the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of State meets with a stiff rebuff; in this case, the normally instructive Judge Abraham D. Sofaer won't say a word about choosing the right word. With legal eagles seeking maven-haven, let us approach the subject linguistically. Haven is the oldest and broadest term. The noun is related to the Middle High German habene, ''harbor,'' and its early English use about a millennium ago referred to an inlet for safe anchorage. Now the word's figurative extension carries it beyond a safe port in a storm to any safe place for people in trouble. Harbor, on the other hand, has taken a sinister turn in its verb form: you can offer haven to the hunted, thereby winning sympathy as a protector of the persecuted, but you harbor a criminal or a suspect on the run, thereby abetting a crime. Asylum is rooted in the Greek asylos, ''inviolable,'' from a-, meaning ''not, without,'' and sylon, meaning ''right of seizure.'' The right of asylum in a sanctuary is ancient, going back to Egypt's Temple of Osiris and Greece's Temple of Apollo at Delphi. But frequent abuse of this right, and the decline of the secular power of organized religion, led to its curtailment in modern penal codes.
To provide for the extradition of fugitive criminals, nations sign treaties voluntarily limiting asylum - making it clear that the ''right of asylum'' belongs to the state to offer, and is not an entitlement for the individual to claim. (Another sense of the word, as a place where care is given to an unfortunate -as in orphan asylum or insane asylum - is no longer used.) Refuge today has a more temporary and less legal connotation. Rooted in the Latin fugere, ''to flee,'' it first appeared in ''The Canterbury Tales,'' as a captured knight tells the ruler Theseus: ''Yif us neither mercy ne refuge,/ But sle me first.'' (''Give us neither mercy nor refuge,/ but slay me first.'') Refugee, which was used in America as a word for marauders in the Revolutionary War who claimed British protection, in 1914 gained the meaning of ''someone displaced by war or driven from home by fear of death or persecution.''
For the difference between asylum and refuge, let us turn to Duke Austin, a press officer of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service: ''It depends on the process and place of applying, and the formal status received. To get asylum in the United States, you must be within our territory when you apply. Also, you must be able to prove a well-founded fear of persecution based on your race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.''
How is a refugee different? ''Refugees must also establish that they will be persecuted,'' says the immigration official, ''but a refugee applies outside the United States and is examined by an I.N.S. examiner -- no judicial review, no appeal, though you can ask for a reconsideration based on new information.'' Sanctuary? ''We recognize no such concept; no one is above or beyond the laws of the United States, whether in a church or hospital or whatever.''
Presumably, then, Fang Lizhi sought refuge in the United States Embassy, and may now be seeking asylum, since he is under our protection and is obviously in danger because of his political beliefs. However, the Beijing ''authorities'' (a more neutral term than ''blood-spattered regime'') have ordered his arrest on criminal charges, and remind us that we do not harbor criminals. That's why State clams up on definitions.
Associated terms are safe conduct and safe convoy, by which a person in legal limbo in an embassy is permitted to leave the country. This began in the Middle Ages, according to Robert of Gloucester's 1297 chronicle of a nobleman let out of England. Sanctuary was short-term; fugitives could stay in sanctuary but not leave without being arrested.
To get around this, a process of abjuration was designed -- from abjure, ''to swear away, to renounce under oath'' -- requiring a renunciation of citizenship and a promise to leave the realm. This was the way the impasse of the state, the sanctuary and the persecuted was resolved. As part of an agreement of abjuration worked out among the United States, the Vatican and the Hungarian Government, Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty was allowed to depart Hungary after leaving the protection of the United States Embassy in Budapest in 1971.
That may or may not be the route taken in the case of Fang Lizhi and his family. In any event, the vocabulary of haven will be in the news, along with the name that Americans will not find easy to pronounce. Is it fong lee-DZUH, as I have advised readers, or fong lee-JER, as we hear on television? That final syllable gets the emphasis, and some of us pronounce it like the French je, while others add an r. Chinese officials in Washington don't use the r, to my ear. According to Norman C.C. Fu, chief of the Washington Bureau for the Taiwan-based China Times, ''There's a sort of r sound at the end, but it isn't completely sounded.''
This is disputed. ''Pinyin spelling looks funny,'' writes John S. Major, a senior editor of Book-of-the-Month Club, ''but its rules are reasonably consistent. The initial consonant cluster zh is pronounced exactly the same as an English hard j; thus, for example, Zhou (as in Zhou Enlai) is a homophone of Joe.
''I as a final vowel following c, s or z is pronounced 'uh,' as in huh; as a final vowel following ch, sh or zh, it is pronounced 'ur,' as in urgent. Therefore, zhi in Fang Lizhi is pronounced 'jur' -- approximately a homophone for the start of journalist, spoken with a New York accent.''
That makes the pronunciation of Beijing bay-JING -- with the j as in Joe or jingle -- rather than bay-SHING.
Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company