The Wheely Spotted in Shanghai

I saw this guy on the street the other day in Shanghai’s Hongkou District:


A little research seems to indicate that this is the Wheely 500W by BeInMove. €899 is over 7000 RMB. Not only is that expensive, but I’ve never seen this kind of thing for sale here. I wonder where this guy got it…

Update: it seems to be selling for 2999 RMB on Taobao. (Thanks, Brad!)

Meaningful Chinese Transliterations (for fun!)

One of the big headaches about learning Chinese is the relative dearth of cognates and loanwords. None of that “car” is “carro” stuff you get when you start learning Spanish. In fact, when you do learn words that were transliterated into English from Chinese (like 麦克风 for “microphone”), the result is often bizarre and a lot harder to learn than if it had been “more Chinese” (keep in mind that you also have to learn all the tones of the word transliterated into Chinese). Kind of a downer.

It seems to me that the Chinese aren’t too crazy about these transliterations either. When they can, they’ll do things like use the Chinese word 苹果 (“apple”) for the American company “Apple” rather than resorting to transliteration. But for foreigners’ names, foreign country names, foreign company names, foreign brand names, and foreign product names, you do get stuck with an awful lot of transliterations into Chinese.

Recently I came across this list of English words (probably taken from a list of vocabulary words for some horrible standardized test) that have been transliterated into Chinese in a humorous way. That is to say, the Chinese characters chosen, rather than being random or “standard transliteration characters,” were chosen for their meanings. I’ve added pinyin tooltips to the transliterations, and also English translations of the transliterations.


  • pregnant (怀孕): 扑来个男的 (“throw a man on me”)
  • ambulance (救护车): 俺不能死 (“I can’t die”)
  • ponderous (肥胖的): 胖得要死 (“ridiculously fat”)
  • pest (害虫): 拍死它 (“squash it”)
  • ambition (雄心): 俺必胜 (“I must win”)
  • agony (痛苦): 爱过你 (“having loved you”)
  • hermit (隐士): 何处觅他 (“wherever can I seek him?”)
  • strong (强壮): 死壮 (“damn strapping”)
  • abyss (深渊): 额必死 (“I must die”)
  • admire (羡慕): 额的妈呀 (“mama mia”)
  • flee (逃跑): 飞离 (“fly away by plane”)
  • gauche (粗鲁的): 狗屎 (“dog crap”)
  • morbid (病态): 毛病 (“mental issues”)
  • putrid (腐烂): 飘臭 (“wafting stench”)
  • obtuse (愚笨): 我不吐死 (“I’m not going to puke to death”)
  • lynch (私刑处死): 凌迟 (“kill by dismemberment”)
  • tantrum (脾气发作): 太蠢 (“too stupid”)
  • bachelor (学士/单身汉): 白痴了 (“turned dumb”)
  • temper (脾气): 太泼 (“too unreasonable”)
  • addict (上瘾): 爱得嗑它 (“love to the point of cracking it in your teeth”)
  • economy (经济): 依靠农民 (“rely on the peasants”)
  • ail (疼痛): 哎哟 (“Owww”)
  • coffin (棺材): 靠坟 (“leaning on the grave”)
  • appall (惊骇): 我跑 (“I’m gonna run”)

Chinese Baijiu Toasts as an RTS Video Game

The “Chinese Banquet Baijiu Toast” video game needs to be made. (Indie game developers, this idea is free. Hurry up and go start a Kickstarter campaign!)

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

I was having dinner last week with former AllSet intern Parry and current AllSet intern Ben, and we started talking about baijiu (白酒) drinking strategies. I told them about my friend Derek who kind of made himself into an authority on baijiu by drinking way more of the foul liquid than most white people ever have. And then we started talking about baijiu toasts at Chinese dinners. I told them about my experience in Baoding last CNY, and how our hosts had brought “baijiu assassins” to bring down my father-in-law, who’s kind of legendary in the bajiu-drinking department. And I told them about some of the different strategies that are used in big banquet situations where the baijiu flows freely.

What are these strategies, you ask? I’m not talking about cheap “drink water instead of baijiu” tricks, I’m talking about respectable above-board strategies for these drinking events. Some basic ones:

  1. Ganging Up: Individuals go toast one particular person, one by one, in rapid succession. That way each “attacker” only has one shot of baijiu, but the “victim” has many, with no time to recover.

  2. Table Takedown: Similar to “ganging up,” but you send one person from your table to toast an entire table (everyone at that table must do a shot). When that person from your table returns, you send another person from your table to toast the whole table again. Repeat ad nauseam (and I do mean nauseam!).

  3. Empty Table: If things get hot and heavy and there are enough tables at the banquet, it might be wise for everyone at the table to fan out and do multiple table takedowns (or ganging up) at the same time. That way there’s no one left at your table to get taken down! This is also a good time to go to the bathroom, but beware: if you seem to just be running from your drinking duties, you’re just asking to get ganged up on.

Now rarely is there really this much strategizing going on, I think (although there certainly was that dark night in Baoding!). But it makes me think that this could make a cool strategy game. It all reminds me of an RTS (real-time strategy) game like Starcraft.

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

Could some indie game developer make the Starcraft of Chinese Baijiu Toasts? That would be cool… As long as I don’t really have to drink any baijiu to play!

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

Thanks to Mei for doing the PSing!

The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.


These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”

But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.

So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.

From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)

After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:

  1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
  2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names

These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.

Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, and are both common in Chinese names. and … not quite so much.

Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).

But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.

The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)

Rose's Revelation

Shanghai had no Grid Plan

Shanghai: not being a grid

Shanghai: not being a grid

I saw this Speed Levitch video in which he rails against the grid plan of New York City, and I couldn’t help but think of my adopted home of Shanghai. Here’s a quote from the video below:

“Let’s just blow up the grid plan, and rewrite the streets to be much more a self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles… I mean, doesn’t she find this infuriating?”

Strong is good

Here’s another one for the Chinese pun file:


So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”

The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that and share the phonetic element , and that in this case the person radical in and the water radical in carry meaning.

On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…

Handwritten Chinese Numbers: Alternative Arabic Numerals

I mentioned before in my post “Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6” that I’d have a longer post on this topic. This is it (although not quite as long as I was hoping). Again, I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what foreigners are used to, and present serious potential for confusion and misunderstandings.

4 and 6

This is the issue I mentioned before, and illustrated with this image:


I actually had a hard time finding really good examples of this “in the wild,” but here’s a fairly representative example:


Here are some more “normal” 4s:



This one is the easiest to document, and by far the least recognizable to Westerners, in my opinion. How do you even describe it? Kind of like a cross between a “P” and a “q”? Spot the 9s!




This last one is interesting:


You’ll notice the same hand that wrote the wacky 9 also wrote 早餐 as the non-standard 早歺 (that’s a second round simplification character).


Sometimes it looks like a backwards Z, and other times it looks like a weird curvy thing with a line through it. In an un-5-like way!



One more…

As a bonus, here’s an 8 that looks like a 6:



Consider this post a little heads up. If you’re suddenly in a situation in China where you have to be reading numbers, running into these forms can be a little bewildering.

Also, I’ve been trying to collect representative examples for months, and this is all I’ve come up with. (And three of them came from ChinesePod co-host Dilu. Yes, the food-related ones were all me.) If anyone could share additional examples that I’m allowed to post, please email them to me, or link to them in the comments, and I’ll add them here as an update.

Other comments are, of course, also welcome!

Privacy: a great conversation topic


This whole PRISM debacle has freaked out and enraged a good section of the American population, and with good reason. But if you try talking about the issue with a Chinese citizen, some very interesting themes may emerge.

Here’s an imagined dialog to illustrate the point:

American: Did you hear about this whole PRISM thing going on in the U.S.?

Chinese: No, what is it?

American: The U.S. government seems to have made a deal with a bunch of major internet companies to get all kinds of supposedly “private” information on all kinds of people.

Chinese: And?

American: Well, it was kept secret until recently, when the truth was revealed.

Chinese: But this was actually surprising to the American people?

American: Well yeah! We have a right to privacy.

Chinese: Sounds like Americans and Chinese have pretty similar rights to privacy.

American: Whoa, whoa… not the same thing! We have rule of law, we have democratically elected leaders, and we can actually speak out against this thing and effect change!

Chinese: Yeah, good luck with that.

So the Chinese person above was depicted as overly cynical for dramatic effect, but seriously, you should have a conversation with your Chinese friends about the topic of privacy (隐私). It’s not just a political issue; it’s also a cultural issue, and it’s really interesting to hear the views of young Chinese people on privacy. I talked with some friends about some of the issues in the article Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, and it provided a great starting point for this complex topic.

Valuing Vocabulary

My daughter is now one and a half years old, and while she can’t say much yet, I know that little brain of hers is hard at work acquiring language.

One thing that’s become really obvious lately is how much she values the words she already knows. Every morning, as soon as she can, it’s all “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy…” and “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy….” It’s not just that she’s happy to see us in the morning; I’ve come to realize that she’s still slightly uncertain of her mastery of her earliest words (she still occasionally fumbles with the words she knows). She wants to use these words as much as possible because she worked hard to learn them, and doesn’t want to forget them.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: how much do we learners really value the words we learn? I mean, we value them enough to “learn” them in the first place, but do we value them enough to put in the ongoing effort to keep them? When we learn words that we know are useful, do we make damn sure that we use them right away, repeatedly, so that we never let them go?

Granted, not every vocabulary word is going to be as crucial to us as the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” are to a baby. But still, with applying a fraction of that earnestness would go a long way. I’m finding myself grateful for this new daily reminder I have.

Hopelessly Doomed Scooter Ride in China

This video is too amusing to just let it go by… This guy on his scooter is so comically bad that it almost feels engineered. Like it’s meant to be some kind of allegory or something. Anyway:

Here’s the 4.5 MB animated GIF version (blown up 2X):

[Sorry, had to remove the GIF... it was getting too much traffic, and it's a fairly large file!]

This GIF had the title “humanity is powerless to stop him from riding his scooter” (人类已经无法阻止他骑摩托车了) on the Chinese site it was posted to.

And a great comment from YouTube:

my computer must be muted… i don’t hear any benny hill music

On the other hand, if you’ve ever been afraid to ride a scooter on the streets of China, this video might actually give you some hope…

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