Tag Archives: Chinese vocabulary

In which Mr Bamboo relaxes


To celebrate the mid term exams, the weather turned wet yesterday afternoon and has shown no sign of letting up since until about half an hour ago when the deluge eased sufficiently for me to head home without getting as saturated as I had going or coming to school in the past twenty-four hours. The weekend, as I may have noted, was rather humid and by Sunday evening, the smell of smoke in the air, which I took to be from stubble burning, was noticeable. Monday was even hazier than Sunday had been and eventually a windy cold front arrived, washing away the smog and drowning the uneven roads and occasional cycle lanes in deep puddles.

At times like these, I have to wonder whether the Chinese word for drainage (排水 páishuǐ; or 旅水 lǚshuǐ; or 排水法 páishuǐ fǎ; or 排水设备 páishuǐ shèbèi; or 排水系统 páishuǐ xìtǒng; or 排出的水 páichūde shuǐ[1]) has quite different connotations from its English counterpart. Downpipes from gutters spew water all over the ground without any attempt to direct the water somewhere. (Perhaps northern China might be a good place to send it.) The surfacing of roads and footpaths seems to have been done without considering the consequences of inclement weather.[2]

However, as a consequence of the exams, I have, of course, been doing some marking. I got through the PAL 2 English exam yesterday which, if it’s an indication of anything, suggests that most of the class should consider the extended curriculum. I marked a few of the AS exam papers this afternoon and was dishing out A’s as if I was giving them away.

And now, a slight digression. The year is 1984 (I think) and I’m doing German in my second year at university. I remember our German teacher telling us about teaching English in Germany and how easy it was after seeing the same error so many times to begin to doubt yourself. I’m beginning to get that way with relax which, as any EFL teacher here knows, is regularly misused, being treated almost without exception as a reflexive verb when I’d use it intransitively.

I have no idea where this comes from, but it’s so common that I can only suspect it’s either how the verb is used in Chinese or some peculiar feature of the Chinglish students get taught in schools. I have to admit that relax is a good candidate for a verb which might indeed be used reflexively. It can be reflexive in Italian (rilasciarsi, rilassarsi); in French ([se] relâcher, [se] détendre); and in German (sich lokkern; sich entspannen). Latin and Greek, on the other hand, appear to be like English in that the equivalent of the intransitive form is not a reflexive verb. And, for that matter, Chinese appears to be the same (although appearances can be deceptive).

But having seen relax used reflexively so many times, it’s beginning to seem quite natural and I’m beginning to think that the error lies with me. I even wondered whether it’s a feature of American English. The crude stats from Google are

relax myself 39,600
relax yourself 277,000 (including a UK website with that very name)
relax himself 60,200
relax herself 54,000 (which leads to adult sites and an EFL quiz from the Beeb)
relax ourselves 106,000
relax themselves 21,000

But this information is of limited value because I don’t know who wrote these phrases or whether they might be in a sentence such as “I like to relax myself with a glass of wine” where myself is an emphatic reflexive.[3] A lot of instances might come from Chinese students on EFL websites. I don’t know whether the predominance of 2nd person sg/pl and 1st person pl forms is significant.

It’s not just relax that’s bothering me. There’s been more than one occasion of late when I’ve wondered whether my correction to some solecism is actually just as un-English as what I’m trying to correct. It seems that the shepherd may be becoming like the sheep.

1. 排水设备 and 排水系统 seem to refer to drainage systems; 排水法 might as well. Once again, it seems that Chinese has at least half a dozen words for everything.
2. Lest it appears that I’m deriding the quality of road construction in this country, I should note that attempts to drain roads in wet weather in 18th century England by placing a cant on them led to coaches toppling over where such a method of drainage was attempted.
3. Probably I’d say “I myself etc.” If I say the sentence out loud, there’d have to be noticeable pauses either side of myself.

I’m not alone in my vice

No, not that one, the other one. All right, the other other one.

Chris has an entry about chinesepera-kun in which he mentions Barking at the Sun as the source of his discovery. I followed the link and found that BatS (d’you mind if I acronymise you thus? [Acronymise? I’m reaching for the Paracetamol. –ed.]) is the product of at least one Chengdu-based expat. I did check the list of Chengdu-based blogs on the CBL when I first came here, but most of them (being few in number to begin with) seemed to be moribund or the blogger had long since departed. Off the top of my head, I’m not aware of any other foreigners blogging from Chengdu, although I’m sure they’re out there.

Somewhere, and I don’t recall where exactly, I ran into the phrase “barking at the sun”. No, I do recall. I was looking up the character 蜀 (Shǔ) in my dictionary. The entry has the phrase 蜀犬吠日 (Shǔ quǎn fèi rì) “Sichuan dogs bark at the sun”, meaning ignorant people are easily surprised. Makes sense if you recall that we rarely see the sun.

In unrelated news, I note that I’ve been getting a lot of hits for bamboo this, that and the other recently. I had one for bamboo stories:

Once upon a time, there was some bamboo. It grew for a few years and was then cut down and turned into chopsticks, brush holders, and many other ingenious things.
The End.

And there was one for the world’s tallest bamboo, which is not a thing I believe I’ve ever mentioned. All right, I have no idea which sort of bamboo holds that particular record and will leave the intrepid explorers of Cyberia to find out for themselves. Another recent visitor wanted to know the pronunciation of 竹 (zhú) “bamboo”.

竹 zhú "bamboo"

The initial is a non-aspirated retroflex affricate, and the word is 2nd tone.

I’ve also been getting hits for how to pronounce words in French ever since I posted an entry about Jérôme Kerviel’s name. One wanted to know how you pronounce “green” in French. Of course, the real question should’ve been how to pronounce “vert”, which is the French word for “green”. I assume the -t is silent unless followed by a vowel, audible or otherwise.

One of my most recent hits via Baidu was for vagna, which is 3rd sg pres indic of the Piedmontese vagné “to win”. How curious that someone in China (who isn’t me) should be searching for a Piedmontese word. Perhaps they were looking for some other word, although I can’t even begin to guess which one.

[11.08.14. Shifted post from Computers and Internet to Linguistics, where it seems a little more germane.]

What’s in a name?

Or is it serendipity?

In The Chinese Language, Daniel Kane devotes a large part of Chapter 4 to kinship terms, a system which is horrendously complex. At the end of the section he mentions some less reputable terms, including 姨太太 (yítàitai) “concubine”.

In Lust/Caution, the name of the collaborationist minister is Mr Yee and throughout the film, in Chinese, his wife is Yee Taitai (Mrs Yee). Because of the similarity to 姨太太, I was wondering whether this was a deliberately ironic choice of name, that emphasises the importance of the mistress over the wife. Mind you, there was no indication in the story that the wife had the faintest idea what was going on.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Adult Shop Ever since I’ve been in Chengdu, I’ve passed the sign in the picture (which is on the corner opposite the school) every day. I’ve managed to look at it without really thinking about what it says. On a recent post-prandial venture, I noticed for the first time an adult shop down the road across the river. That’s what this is advertising, but it wasn’t until I saw[1] the shop that I finally bothered to think about the sign itself.

I assume that the second entry 情趣内衣 (qíngqù nèiyī) means “lingerie”[2]. 内衣 isn’t in my big dictionary. Ah, there it is in my FLTRP dictionary and means “underwear”. I suppose that you’re not allowed to say 性感的内衣 (xìnggǎnde nèiyī; das stimmt?) in case the feeble-witted youths of China are all horribly traumatised.

Later. I was passing this corner from the other direction this evening (about 9pm) and realised that the shop is actually just on the other side of the wall. It’s hidden from view by the news stand that’s just out of shot and thus this is not advertising for the shop that I did see. The shop here has no front; it’s just an open door. My dictionary translates 情趣 in much the same bland manner as Chris notes in his comment below.


1. I was going to say “ran into” (i.e., “encountered by chance”), but knowing some people, you’d all assume the other meaning.

2. An image search via the inimitable Baidu confirms this and throws up a whole bunch of pictures, many of which, you’d think, would cause Nanny to have one of her turns. A random survey reveals that the most of the pictures are apparently accessible. But what about all those young people with their easily addled brains?

Don’t tell me. You’re, um…

Forgettable character No. 978.

There are some characters which seem instantly forgettable. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, the only trace of it that remains in your memory is that you’ve seen it before. It might’ve been five minutes ago, but it’s gone.

My current nemesis is 求 (qiú) “ask, beg”, which I keep seeing and keep instantly forgetting. I think the problem is that it’s like 球 (qiú) “ball”, which I do know, although rather fear that I’m about to start doubting that I know it at all because the two are so similar.

On the other hand, I walked into the kitchen yesterday or the day before and realised that I could read the name of the washing-up liquid, which is called 采奇 (cǎiqí). What word that’s meant to be (i.e., it’s a foreign word), I can’t tell. The Chinese is literally “pick strange”. A Google search actually gets 5 million hits for this collocation, although it’ll always be followed by some other word. I noticed quite a number of instances of 采奇石, which seem to take you to sites about odd-shaped rocks.

27.07.07 求 has a friend, 课 (kè) “class, lesson”, who keeps appearing and who I keep forgetting.

07.06.14. Seven years later and I still can’t remember this character. It’s found in quite a wide range of words such as 求爱 [qiú’ài] (vb) “court (a girl)”, 求婚 [qiúhūn] and 求亲 [qiúqīn] (vb) “propose marriage”, and 求救 [qiújiù] and 求人 [qiúrén] (vb) “ask for help”.

Case closed

Guess what I found.

Here’s a mystery from the character-a-day pad.

relative pronoun (he, she, it, they)

The two lexical definitions in my dictionary are

  1. (prn) – he, she, it; they
  2. (prn) – that; those; such

but two other books give the meaning “his, her, its; their”. The dictionary also has three functional definitions, including the formation of adverbs. The word gets no special mention in any of my grammars so that I can’t determine whether this is formal or informal, written or spoken, bound or free, productive or frozen.

The basic sense would appear to distal, “that over there” rather than “this here” (e.g. 其次 qícì “next, then; second, secondary”; 其他 and 其它 qítā “other” [其他人 “other people”]).

I assume that 他/她 are the unmarked third-person pronouns. Perhaps 其 is used to mean “that person over there”, but this is just a guess.

How to say…

…”blog” in Chinese.

I was wondering about this a couple of weeks ago. As a neologism in English, I wasn’t expecting to find it in any of my dictionaries, although I’m sure it’s probably appearing in more recent editions. I found the answer on Danwei this morning.

Anyway, the Chinese word for “blog” is 博 (). [05.08.14. Or more fully, 微博 (lit. “micro-knowledge”) as a quite cunning way, I think, of tran­scribing “weblog”.] As is typ­ic­al of such matters, the word appears to have been chosen because of the other senses it has. It can also mean

  1. rich; abundant; extensive.
  2. be knowledgeable and well informed.
  3. win; gain
  4. gamble

although I’m sure Nanny thinks “pesky; bothersome; potentially subversive” might be more suitable. For example, there’s also the character 薄 () which means, among other things, “frivolous”. 博 is also found in the word 博士 (bóshì) “doctor (an academic degree)”. “Doctor of Philosophy” is 哲学博士 (zhéxué bóshì). It’s a long time since I’ve seen 博物馆 (bówùguǎn) “museum”, although I don’t believe I’ve ever been able to recall the first, second, or third characters. Some unkind people might say that I can’t remember any of them.

Civilisation and culture

At least I was paying attention to it.

If I look up my dictionaries, I find that Chinese has several words for “civilisation” (开化 [kāihuà], 教化 [jiàohuà], 文明 [wénmíng], 文化 [wénhuà]) and “culture” (文化 [wénhuà], 文明 [wénmíng]). As you can see, the same words do duty for both concepts. Curiously, 开化 is translated “become civilised” in the Chinese-English section of all the dictionaries I have. Neither Manser’s dictionary nor the FLTRP Collins dictionary include 教化 in the Chinese-English section, but my FLTRP dictionary translates it as “enlighten by education”, and my New Age Dictionary (not that sort of New Age) translates it as “educate; cultivate; edify”. I’m not sure why 开化 and 教化 should be found under “civilisation” in the English-Chinese sections of my dictionaries. Both words seem to be verbs, although word classes in Chinese can be nebulous things.

I hasten to remind readers of my scant knowledge of Chinese and my even scanter knowledge of the connotations of Chinese words.

文化 encompasses several meanings:

  1. civilisation; culture.
  2. education; culture; schooling; literacy.

whereas 文明 means “civilisation; culture” or can be an adjective, “civilised; civil; civic”. My New Age Dictionary also gives “modern; western” as one of its meanings, but if I look “western” up in the English-Chinese section of my dictionaries, 文明 is not given as one of its translations. I assume that “western” means “coming from the West”, ergo modern.

This may shed a little light on something else. I heard from some source that when they Chinese use the English word “western” of a film, they don’t mean it in the cowboys-and-Indians sense, but use it rather to mean “coming from the west”. In the recent Progress Test we gave our little dears, one or two pupils wrote that their favourite films were westerns. I find it hard to believe that the Chinese would enjoy such a genre and suspect that the writers meant “films from the West”.

This apparent blurring of “civilisation” and “culture” got me thinking, and I came to the conclusion that these cannot be one and the same thing. Culture does not depend on civilisation (in the sense of a society which is predominantly city-based) because nomadic tribes must’ve had their own culture such as stories, songs, tribal histories, acceptable modes of  behaviour, etc. There would be some aspects of culture which could only be found in a city-based society (e.g. sculpture and art galleries; although nomads might have body art in the form of tattoos). I can be uncivilised but cultured, and I can be uncultured but civilised.

[10.08.14. Nearly eight years later, and there are still innumerable injunctions on display exhorting the dull cits to behave in a civil fashion with respect to one activity or another. The problem with the banners and the posters is that they’re repeated so much that the force of what they’re saying is entirely lost. It also says something detrimental about a society when a country that thinks it’s the epitome of civilisation has to urge its citizens to act in a civilised manner.]