Picking at Alternative Word Choice

Among students of Chinese, it’s relatively well known that Taiwan and mainland China have a few differences in terminology. Things like “peanut” and “potato” and various household appliances. Nothing to get excited about, or even very interesting. There were only two such word usage differences that I found interesting when in Taipei, Taiwan.

First is the word for “internet cafe,” which is 网吧 in mainland China. The 网 means “net” and the 吧 means “bar.” It works quite neatly. In fact, the Chinese love this “net bar” literal translation into English so much that they use it at every opportunity and even brainwash foreigners into abandoning the term “internet cafe” in favor of “net bar.” (Not me, though — I’m onto them!)

The Taiwanese don’t say 网吧, though, they say 网咖. It’s short for 网络咖啡厅 (“network cafe”), just as, presumably, 网吧 is short for 网络酒吧 (“network bar”). In this sense, the Taiwanese version is closer to the English, but I just couldn’t get used to it. For one thing, wang ka just sounds kinda ridiculous to me. For another thing, it sounds to my ears a lot like the British word wanker. Nice one, Taiwan. (The mainland term for “network card,” 网卡, sounds less to me like “wanker” because the ka is third tone rather than first.)

I just mentioned the mainland term 酒吧 up above, and that brings me to my next Taiwanese coinage. Instead of saying 酒吧 they said pa bu. This apparently has no characters (gasp!); it’s an approximation of the English word pub. Lame.

[Check out a similar rant of Micah’s on one of China’s most beloved words: 朋友! Those in China may find it more convenient to visit Micah’s RSS-aggregated entries.]

Note to my uptight commenters: the above are my opinions on language, and if you are upset by them, I don’t care.


John Pasden

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


  1. I never had that problem with wang ka, but it really does drive me crazy the way they use pub down here. wether it’s a bar or a nightclub, it’s a pub! also the way they used the word “high” here to mean good feeling (not related to drugs) gets on my nerves.

    but then I try to remember that it’s ok for language to change based on the needs of the people who use it and it’s not like I own those words.

  2. Ark,

    Yeah, I definitely agree that people shouldn’t try to control the natural evoultion of a language.

    But we can certainly be annoyed by certain things. It’s our right. 🙂

  3. I remember reading a travel article a few years ago in which the writer was impressed by the web cafes in Dalian going by the name 网苑, which she said gave a much more favorable, upscale impression.

    I particularly remember this because a few days later I arrived in Dalian and was unable to find a 网苑 amid the clusters of 网吧.

    吧 is overused, anyway: 酒吧、网吧、书吧、茶吧 and 发吧 (though that last one could be a salon/saloon mixup…)

  4. I once asked a guy from Taiwan if he was going into business and (confidently) tossed out the phrase “下海”. Maybe someone down there now can confirm — he told me it was local slang for going into prostitution.

    More on topic, I also vote against 网咖, if only because I’ve yet to see any of the 14 year old CS regulars chug back a nescafe while grinding their way through a round of CS. Not too hard to find a place serving beer though.

  5. I think it’s strange to call cafe as 咖啡, which also means exactly as “coffee”. It is unnecessarily confusing. In Hong Kong, a cafe is just translated into restaurant in Chinese. There are a lot of different terms for different type of restaurants in Chinese language. For example, there are Chinese terms just for icehouse, coffeehouse, teahouse, dim sum restaurant, fast food restaurant, steak house, bistro…. So why call a cafe 咖啡?

    A 苑, I think it means courtyard originally.

  6. trevylin
    “下海” means the act of prostituting in Cantonese also.
    “Calling spring” means looking for prostitutes.
    “Road angels” means prostitutes.

    I agree, 书吧、茶吧 and 发吧 are all abuse of the word bar. It is annoying just like 网咖. They should just call them bookstore, teahouse and etc.

  7. Micah,

    While I understand your sentiments, I don’t like pushy salespeople also, but 朋友 can be used as a polite term to refer to strangers in Chinese. It doesn’t just mean friendship. Is that similar to calling people amigo? Other Chinese here, what do y’all think about Chinese calling others 朋友?

  8. Michael Says: March 8, 2005 at 1:59 am

    I wasn’t aware there words for “peanut” and “potato” are different from the ones in China. Just curious, what are the Taiwanese vocab for those terms?

  9. schtickyrice Says: March 8, 2005 at 9:25 am

    Speaking of jiuba 酒吧 (bars), has anyone ever wondered why restaurants are called jiujia 酒家? Despite the fact that it literally means the home of booze, most of the ones I’ve been to are all about the food and I don’t see any major differences between that and fandian 饭店, fanzhuang 饭庄, caiguan 菜馆, and canting 餐厅.

  10. schtickyrice Says: March 8, 2005 at 9:44 am

    Never mind Taiwan, the mainland alone has many different regional terms for potato:

    yangyu 洋芋(ocean taro),
    tudou 土豆(earth beans),
    malingshu 马铃薯(horse bell yams?)…any more?

    and tomato:

    xihongshi 西红柿 (western red persimmon),
    fanqie 番茄 (barbarian eggplant)

    The descriptive names above are a dead giveaway that potatos and tomatos are foreign to China.

  11. Schticky rice,

    A jiujia 酒家 is a quality restaurant which serves banquet dinners and wines. However, the term has been over-used and abused and lost its original meaning.

  12. schtickyrice,

    Good job with those descriptive names of potatoes and tomatoes. BTW, tomato is so notorious at being called different names that in English it’s got at least two pronunciations. (But why doesn’t potato?)

    The term jiujia 酒家 for a restaurant has a root in ancient Chinese literature, where presumably all eateries and breweries were home based.

    Canton (and Micah),

    To me, friends (or buddy) in English and 朋友 in Chinese can very similarly describe a spectrum of human relations, from botherly to intersexual, from serious to casual, from sincere to sarcastic, from intellectual (penpals) to commercial (hussling), from comradary to darn right deadly (mafia or cop marked).

  13. I recall being quite disappointed the first time I entered a 大酒店 and is was just a hotel!
    As for cafes, its the English translation that annoy me. “Coffee Language?” Does that make any sense?

  14. Canton,

    While I uderstand how Micah feels, I agree with you. So is 朋友 the new 同志, or did it predate that?

    It seems like in a lot of languages you can call strangers “friend,” although it normally seems weird in English. Seems weird in Japanese, too.

  15. Michael,

    The exact terms are no longer so clear in my memory (learned this in first year Chinese in 1998), but I think the mainland’s 土豆 (potato) means peanut (花生) in Taiwan, or something like that.

    Other people, feel free to correct/embellish.

  16. John: the 土豆 potato/peanut thing was the example everyone was citing after last year’s publication of the Taiwan/Mainland dictionary.

  17. I am enjoying this post (and the last one about the fantastic critters in Wuhan). Of course, I do not understand why anyone becomes annoyed at how words are used in a language foreign to oneself, I have never found it any skin off my nose how they wish to use words. If I am not mistaken, and I may, the potato, tomato, and sweet potato became adopted in China perhaps as early as the end of the Ming Dynasty, but certainly no later than the Kangxi emporer. I believe the potato came by way of the Dutch, the sweet potato by way of the Portuguese, and I do not know who brought the tomato. Likewise, if I recall correctly, there are something like 20 or more different Chinese names for the potato in various parts of China.

  18. In addition to “wang ka” and “pa bu”, many of the Taiwanese ignored my “yao” and replaced it with “yi” – for example when I read out a telephone number.

    But the real attention grabber is the big difference between “KTV Karaoke” and “KTV Karaoke (making quotation marks with hand gestures while saying it)”.

  19. Dan Maas Says: March 8, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    I remember a chain of internet cafes that was actually named “Wonka” or “Wanka” in Taipei.

    More accurate might be “house of young chain-smoking CS gremlins”

  20. in the ROC peanut is “hua sheng” and potato is “ma ling shu”

  21. Do the Taiwanese sing “Happy Birthday” with the tune that all Westerners know?
    What do people in PRC sing?
    I have been told that “Chinese” people use the same simple melody when singing Zhu sheng ri kuai le, but I assume this is due to Western/US influence?
    Grateful for PRC and ROC views.

  22. Phil – There’s this song, to a completely different tune:
    恭喜你 恭喜你
    but I’ve never actually heard it sung outside of movies, and then it’s always in Cantonese. Otherwise, I’ve always heard the same Western tune with Chinese lyrics.

  23. Two things:

    Street angel? Is that like “马路天使”?

    And the other is that I don’t object to the word 朋友, I just used those two stories to show that the phrase 外国朋友 is not just the literal “foreign friend”, but has a different connotation. And from the choice of stores it should be clear that it is my opinion that this connotation is a condescending one, worse than the connotation that 老外 may carry.

  24. Ark,

    Thanks for clearing that up. So “tu dou” doesn’t mean anything in the ROC?

  25. Kikko Man Says: March 9, 2005 at 3:42 am

    I always mispronounce internet bar as wangba, idiot, in Chinese.

  26. Kikko Man Says: March 9, 2005 at 3:51 am

    I’ve heard southerners in China and Taiwanese refer to “peanuts” as “tu dou”. Makes sense.

  27. Micah,

    Yes Street angel Is “马路天使”.
    I think the origin of this term was from a famous movie from 1930s Shanghai.

  28. John,

    Do Chinese in Mainland still use the term 同志, which literally means comrade. There was a strong anti Communist sentiment in Hong Kong in the 1980s, people used to poke fun by using 同志 as refering others as comrade. However, there is no more bad connotation with this term anymore. I think it is kinda endearing just like to call your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband and wife as Ai Ren(an unique Chinese communist term).

  29. 同志 is often used as “homosexual” now, as far as I can tell, and the “comrade” usage seems to be more formal (or ironic).

    The Beijing News yesterday ran this comic strip (by an artist from Taiwan, though), in which the new meaning is taken for granted. I had to read it twice myself before I got the joke.

  30. I know the “homosexual” meaning of 同志 is very common now, but I have to say, I still see the original usage more often. I see it most in the office, when people are trying to be “cute.” It’s pretty much always at the beginning of an announcement, to get people’s attention: “同志们…”

  31. schtickyrice Says: March 9, 2005 at 9:06 am

    zhwj, Thanks for the toons. What a hoot!

    Speaking of comrades 同志, is the replacement term shifu 师傅 still used in China today? I remember my aunt using it to address everyone she dealt with when we went shopping in Beijing in the 80’s. Her explanation was that it was a working class thing and that nobody wanted to use the term comrade anymore after the Cultural Revolution.

  32. schtickyrice Says: March 9, 2005 at 9:10 am


    I always thought wangba王八 or wangbadan王八蛋 meant bastard, not idiot.

  33. 師傅 is definitely still in use – it seems to have become the preferred substitute for 同志.

  34. The very latest, I’ve been led to believe, is 老师, whether or not the person you are speaking to or about is actually a teacher. Can anyone confirm this?

  35. Yes, 老师 has been used among intellectuals or on campuses, for decades. Before that the title of 先生 had the origin of meaning teachers.

  36. {“Michael,

    The exact terms are no longer so clear in my memory (learned this in first year Chinese in 1998), but I think the mainland’s 土豆 (potato) means peanut (花生) in Taiwan, or something like that.

    Other people, feel free to correct/embellish.

    Posted by John on March 8, 2005 11:38 AM “}

    I am speaking as a Taiwanese to tell you guys that John is right, 土豆 (potato) = peanut (花生) in Taiwan.

  37. schtickyrice Says: March 11, 2005 at 9:08 am

    Off on a slight tangent but I recall that the last time I was in Taiwan, cabbages were referred to as Gaolicai高丽菜 (Korean vegetable). They served at a mountain guesthouse in the interior and all the guests were oohing and aahing about how sweet it was and how it didn’t need any MSG. At first I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about over something as plain and boring as datoucai 大头菜 (big head vegetable), but I guess in subtropical Taiwan cabbages are an exotic item.

  38. A lot of terms in Taiwan are leftover from the Japanese colonial times, and those words are often ones the Japanese got from English, words like Pub, lighter, autobike, battery, etc.

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