Taxis and Rain

12 Sep 2005

Yesterday as I rode in a taxi through Xujiahui I was glad that I was not one of the many people trying in vain to hail a cab. It can be extremely hard to find a taxi when it rains. Sometimes it’s completely impossible.

A thought struck me, so I asked the driver:

> Me: Master*, do you like rainy days better or non-rainy days better? On rainy days you get more business, right?

> Driver: With traffic like this, the rain doesn’t do that much for business. I can only get a few fares anyway, with all the traffic I have to sit in.

> Me: Well what about rainy days when the traffic isn’t bad?

> Driver: The traffic’s bad even when it doesn’t rain. When it rains it’s even worse.

> Me: Well what about late at night when it rains?

> Driver: Yeah, I guess business is a little better than usual then.

> * In China, drivers (and many other blue collar workers) are addressed as shifu, which is the same way students address their kung fu masters. I always get a little kick out of calling a taxi driver or a plumber a word that can be translated as “master.”

The typhoon is upon us here in Shanghai. What an auspicious sign for my first week of classes. This week I don’t actually have my first class until Thursday, though.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I like the thought on “shifu” too but know it is often used in a way that is talking down to the individual being addressed. The fact is that no matter how much an outsider might like the thought behind using a word, what it means to that person is what really counts. In Chinese expressing class and a persons place through subtle things like addressing someone as “shifu” is common and is certainly degrading to many. “Shifu” is almost exclusively used by rich people or snobs trying to talk down to a working class man. One of those strange words that for some reason takes on the opposite of its original meaning.

  2. Mike,

    I understand what you’re saying, but in the case of taxi drivers, in my experience everyone addresses them as shifu, regardless of the social class of the speaker.

  3. Hi John, I was browsing around all the blogs and linked to here, (from imagethief i guess?)

    I am a Chinese lived in Canada for 5 years already. I am pretty impressive with your Chinese skill after i watch all this. but I need to point out a little error here. Actually, taxi drivers and plumpers are called “师傅” while kungfu masters are called “师父“。Yes, both “师傅” and “师父” are read “shifu”. although in modern Chinese, lots people kind of mix them, they are still not the same in a formal way in terms of their social context.

    Good luck for your staying and Chinese learning!

  4. Mike,

    That is nonsense. That is reading too much into a very neutral word. That is equivalent to accusing the English address of “dude” as derogatory. The fact is how people are addressed and like to be addressed changes (in Chinese, at least) often historically, according to custom and according to fashion. You are right that this is often used among blue collar class, but believe it or not how this address regained popularity in modern China had to do with a usage to convey respect and honor. During the cultural revolution, everybody addressed each other comrade. It was so dull but calling anyone by anything else would be suspect. People who want to break out soon figured out that the workers class (the leading class of the proletarian society) had the exclusive honor of being addressed as something else, that is, a worker shifu. It, and its short version of shifu, started to spread.

  5. ellipsis,

    Interesting! I only studied kung fu for a few months in Florida before deciding it wasn’t for me, and that was before I really knew any Chinese.

    Here’s what my good dictionary (新时代汉英大词典) has to say on the matter:

    师傅 shīfu

    1. master who gives instruction in any trade, business or art
    2. polite title for one with accomplished skill usu. in a trade or handicraft

    师父 shīfu

    1. see “师傅”
    2. polite form of address to a Buddhist monk or nun or a Taoist priest or nun

    Any comment on Mike’s claim that shifu is sometimes used to talk down to working class people?

  6. Gin,

    Thanks for the insight.

  7. In my experience, shifu is not really used to address (or talk down to) working class people. It’s a polite form of address for an unfamiliar (usually) older male in some position of authority. For example, when visiting a construction site one may use shifu when addressing the security guard and possibly the foreman, but not a worker. My impression is that it’s similar to the use of “uncle” in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

    I’m curious, John, do you say shifu in Mandarin? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said in Mandarin in Shanghai — even non-Shanghainese speakers will say “sivu” and then switch to Mandarin.

    Also, a note on 师傅 vs 师父: According to my sources, the Shanghainese version is 师父. “傅” is pronounced the same in Mandarin and Shanghainese, while “父” is pronounced “vu” (where the v sounds like something between v and w).

  8. In my experience using shifu or sivu is much more of a regional phenomena in China and maybe more of a city vs. village phenomena. While I was living in Hainan I went up to Shenzen and picked up shifu after noticing a lot of my Shenzenren friends saying it in taxis etc. So, anxious to try it out, I came back to Haikou and it always mixed reaction. People from the mainland knew about it, but people average Hainan gave me blank stares or giggles.
    Then after using it in a small village, a driver told me…”I’m not your teacher.” So I stopped using it until I lived in Hangzhou, where it seemed quite standard.

  9. Your post reminded me that taxi (and minibus) drivers in Bolivia are also called “maestro” (possibly other S. America countries, not for sure though). The meaning is roughly equivalent to what the other commenters have said, that is, “skilled worker.” In Bolivia, it’s definately not a sign of disrespect, in fact it’s quite the opposite, since the first time I heard it used was when my wife and I didn’t have the full fare for a minibus in La Paz. She probably addressed the driver as maestro five or six times in the minute or so while we dug for as much change as we could find 🙂

  10. Brad,

    Yes, I really say shifu in Mandarin. (Are these Chinese people you mention the same ones that never eat rice??) I know I’m not the only one.

    I agree with your assessment of how the term is used.

  11. Oh man, I hear you on the taxis when it rains… I’ve been caught more than once in it (without an umbrella even).

    Anyway, back to the main topic of this post (despite your title ;-), I always refer to taxi drivers here in Beijing as siji (司机)… I’ve heard one of my friends use it, so I’m not sure if it’s a Beijing thing or if my friend is an asshole…

  12. I always heard 师傅 in Beijing and Harbin. You could use 的哥 to refer to a cabbie, but not as an address.

  13. You probably know more 乡下人 than I do, so if you say you’ve heard shifu in Mandarin then I believe you. (I go out to lunch with my Chinese coworkers every day, and in the past two weeks I only remember one person eating rice — an American guy who went out with us last week and had 3 bowls.)

  14. Brad,

    I strongly recommend you get out of Shanghai sometime and discover China.

  15. once upon a time…
    Chinese address each other with the word “comrade”…
    and you can still adress some stranger with “comrade”
    but remember, that sucks in the southern part of China, now

  16. Gin, Sorry for the nonsense. Thanks for pointing it out. I was just repeating the nonsense many Chinese people have told me and that is “shifu” has become a way to talk down to working class people. You prove my point though… I said it used to be a sign of repect and has been twisted to mean something else.

  17. Mike,

    Actually I think that comments above have shown that there are changes/variations, subtle or striking, from city to city. And this is a city word for sure.

  18. Haining Rd, Shanghai; last week.

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