Toys "Я" Us in Chinese

03 Jan 2007

I remember not long ago I was wondering how Toys “Я” Us would write their name in Chinese. I recently got my answer in an ad at People’s Square subway station:

Toys

So the obvious parallel is instead of the “R” being represented as the cutesy “Я”, the character is written upside down. This makes sense because 反 means “to turn over.”

What was not so clear to me was the meaning of 反斗. The Chinese name for Toys “Я” Us is 玩具反斗城, which partially translates to “Toy 反斗 City.” What is this 反斗, which doesn’t turn up in any of my dictionaries? I Googled it, and I got a rather lengthy explanation of the term in Chinese:

> 「反斗」一詞源自「反斗星」一詞,而「反斗星」又是從「魁星」中演化而來的。魁星,本來是指北斗七星中的前四星,即天樞、天璇、天機、天權的總稱。因此四星排列成梯形,狀似「斗」,而古代稱「羹斗」爲「魁」,故名。

> 不過,由於「魁」與「奎」同音,故又被後人錯認爲是白虎七宿的第一宿「奎星」,奎星主管文章(漢朝緯書《孝經授神契》:「奎主文章」),則俗稱的「文曲星」。顧炎武的《日知錄·魁》寫道:「奎爲文章府,故立廟祀之。乃不能像奎,而改奎爲魁,又不能像魁,而取之字形,爲鬼舉足而起其斗。」

> 所以,民間流傳的「魁星」形像就是一個用腳踢斗的鬼!則所謂的「魁星踢斗」。故廣東人又稱之爲「反斗星」。

> 所以,「反斗星」包含兩層意味,

> 一、它是「文曲星」,主管天下文章,自然是「聰明絕頂」;

> 二、外形是一個用腳踢斗的鬼,難免給人一種「頑皮不羈」的印象。故粵語的「反斗星」指的就是那些聰明而又頑皮的小鬼。

> 「反斗星」又可稱之爲「星君」。周星馳主演的《百變星君》,其片名就有一語雙關之意,這「星君」既可指「周星馳」,又可指「反斗星」,的確是個絕妙之至的片名。

So basically, 反斗 has connotations of “clever” and “a little naughty.” Like a kid who writes “are” as “Я”? I guess.

According to Wenlin, 斗城 also means “a very small city.” I wonder if that factors in too?

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John Pasden

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

Comments

  1. Huh — my first thought when I saw this was that 反斗 should be “somersault,” but I was thinking of 筋斗. Still, I’m wondering if 反斗 wouldn’t conjure up similar associations for a native speaker.

  2. Moderation? My comment is awaiting moderation? John — what did I do to offend?

    (Um – odd, anyway. There weren’t even any links in that one.)

  3. Brendan,

    I think maybe Akismet finds somersaults a bit dirty.

    (Or maybe my WP installation caught word of “Brendan” being a false name and found the whole thing a bit suspicious…)

  4. Is 「反斗」fanta[sy]?

  5. 反斗 simply means ‘naughty’. It is commonly used to describe kids in Hong Kong. If you cannot find it in the dictionary, it might as well be a Cantonese slang.

    I might be wrong, but I have the impression that the Chinese translation is Toysrus originiated from HK, which is likely to be the first city Toysrus landed in China. The first Toysrus opened in HK back in the early 80’s, when I was still a kid. That’s why I remembered it 🙂

    The name has nothing to do with 斗城.

  6. i guess 反斗 here means upside down that implies kids could play hilariously and get whatever they want.

  7. I wish I was a kid again. Being upside down and getting everything I wanted!

  8. I thought that “to turn over” means “翻” instead of “反.”

  9. Edwin,

    Thanks for the info!

    It’s funny, when I ask a (mainland) Chinese person if 反斗 is a word, they immediately answer that it is, but when you ask them to explain what it means, they typically can’t. I guess this is the case for a lot of slang from Hong Kong: they hear it, but since they don’t use it, it’s not part of their active vocabulary.

    Pepe, one of my Chinese friends, tells me that it has been part of the titles of several major Hong Kong films, which is one reason the word is immediately recognizable to many mainlanders.

  10. The Hong Kong origin story makes alot of sense to me, especially in light of Micah’s post about foreign movie titles first being translated in Hong Kong, then adapted to the Mainland’s, uh, eccentric tastes.

    Related: Toys R Us nearly got in trouble with Chinese Americans over its first baby of 2007 sweepstakes.

  11. Hello, everyone! it is my first time to visit this website. it is quite funny to read how overseas friends think about my native language which i have been taken for granted.

    as a Cantonese, i call tell you “反斗” is a Cantonese word, and the meaning you guessed is correct. but it is not neccessary from Hongkong. some Hongkong films does make many Cantonese words popular and known to the mainland. don’t brand anything as Hongkong, because many of them are part of the cantonese culture.

    “反”does mean “turn over” and it could be “anti-” as well.

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