Wrong Gong

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m sort of married. I see it as a year-long process beginning with a legal marriage and ending with a religious and social ceremony. Between point A and point B, however, is the acquisition of a new residence. Perhaps more significant is the subsequent decoration of said residence. This has been keeping us quite busy for the past month.

In China if you buy a new apartment (OK, I know it’s not really an “apartment” if you “buy” it, but this is what I say), it comes as an empty concrete shell. No drywall, no internal wiring or plumbing, no nothing. This condition is known as 毛坯. Starting from such a husk is a lot of work, because you have to design everything (or hire a designer), and you have to hire a contractor to get all the labor done. It also brings a lot of freedom, though, because you’re literally free to do anything with your apartment, short of knocking down key structural walls or tearing out the building’s shared plumbing or wiring.

So my wife has a pretty cool vision for our new apartment. It’s sort of an adapted “Mediterranean” design. That means it incorporates arches in some places. There are many things my Chinese is not yet good enough for, and architecture is certainly pushing it.

It appears that in Chinese, an arch shape is usually referred to as a gongxing, a word that, until recently, I was unfamiliar with. When I hear a new Chinese word, lots of things happen in my mind:

1. My brain checks it against all the vocabulary I know or might have once known
2. My brain factors in the possibility of southern-accented Mandarin distorting a word I know in proper Mandarin
3. I analyze and note the tones
4. Given the context and my understanding of the meaning of the word, I try to mentally match the syllables with appropriate Chinese characters I know

In this case, checks #1 and #2 were not helpful. When I got to step #3 I focused on the fact that xing was definitely second tone, so must be , meaning “shape.” It just made too much sense to be wrong. Without paying much attention to the tone of the gong syllable, I moved on to step #4. I decided that what made the most sense was the character , meaning “bow.” In this way I concluded that the word we were using for “arch shape” was 弓形 (tones: 1-2).

It was a reasonable guess. 弓形 is, in fact, a word. According to Wenlin, it has the (very logical) meaning of “bow-shape” and “curve.” In math it can also mean “segment of a circle.”

I got away with saying gōngxíng (tones: 1-2) for a while, and somehow remained blithely unaware that everyone around me was saying it slightly differently. My wife is not my Chinese teacher and really never has been, so she rarely corrects me. She corrects me when my mistake is so blatant that it pisses her off, or if it’s a chronic error that eventually gets under her skin. Such was the case with my “gōngxíng.”

“It’s gǒngxíng,” she told me finally. “Gǒngxíng!” (tones: 3-2).

I looked it up later. The dictionary showed me 弓形. And it showed me 拱形, meaning “arch.” An architectural term.

It’s little incidents like this which firmly cement a word in one’s memory.


John Pasden

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


  1. This is very interesting – it mirrors the similarity between arc and arch. Seems like that would be just as easy of a mistake for a non-native English speaker.

  2. Was the word, “cement,” in the last sentence a reference pun to the concrete, red brick (earthquake hazard, impenetrable to tack nails) walls of Chinese modern architecture?

  3. Greg Pasden Says: November 30, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Sounds like a great floor plan. I can’t wait to see it. Will you be in town over christmas. I’ll be in PVG then.

  4. Wilson,

    Not a pun, but I guess it’s fitting.

  5. Greg,

    Cool, see you then!

  6. A note on 毛坯:

    I actually had the “pei” character wrong for 毛坯 when I originally published because: (1) the word isn’t in any of my dictionaries, and (2) the 坯 character is normally read “pī.” It doesn’t have the reading “pēi” in any of my dictionaries. I checked with my classmate Pepe regarding the correct character.

    What’s the deal?

  7. Wenlin has 毛坯 pronounced máopī. Perhaps pēi is some strange accent thing? Or people assume it’s pronounced the same as 呸, maybe?

  8. I think it was a pretty logical mistake, especially since the English word “arch” (and “arc”, etc.) are rooted in the Latin ‘arcus’, which means “bow”.

  9. John – I’ve heard it as mao pi when I bought my house, and ive heard the same since when I did some deals regarding unfinished frames.

    Never heard it as pei, never!

    Baidu says it pronounced as pi

  10. John B and ash,

    That’s weird, because I’ve only ever heard it as “maopei.” This is both in Hangzhou and Shanghai, which I know are both Wu dialect areas, but I talked about it with three classmates from Fujian, Anhui, and Hubei. They all called it “maopei” and thought it strange that the reading “pei” for 坯 wouldn’t be in the dictionary.

  11. OK, regardless of what I’ve heard the most of, I think it’s pretty clear that the standard pronunciation of 毛坯 is “máopī,” not “máopēi.” But being a descriptivist, I don’t want to just throw out the “máopēi” pronunciation altogether if it’s a “mispronunciation” that is as widespread as it seems to me. So I added “máopī” to the tooltip as the first reading.

  12. John – thanks for cleaning up that link – Im a lazy lazy boy.

  13. There does seem to be some confusion over pronunciation – check the results here, and 毛胚 returns quite a few results, though still an order of magnitude below 毛坯. I wonder what the distribution is? (There’s also quite an interesting sort of overlap among 胚, 肧, 坏, and 坯.)

  14. You forgot step 5:

    5. Begin to cry. Hammer fists repeatedly into nearby concrete support beam while muttering the new word in druidic fashion until hands are bleeding or word is learned, whichever comes first.

  15. Was this 3rd tone stuffup the inspiration behind today’s Chinesepod lesson on the third tone?

  16. maxiewawa,

    No. That’s pretty basic material. But if you had to link it to a Sinosplice blog post, it would be this one.

  17. Very interesting story. I didn’t know that’s how the Chinese apartment process began. Furthermore, I know what you mean about the girlfriend/wife not really being a teacher until she’s too annoyed to let it slide any longer. Good stuff.

  18. The way you were corected by your wife, leaves no doubt about her being your wife. Incidents like this “cement” the pronunciation, the interior structure of your new apartment, and your marriage.

    Belated congratulations. For some reason, I missed your posting in August.

  19. I would confirm that the pei pronounciation is indeed widespread, and is not limited to few regional dialects. I myself have pronounced it pi but always known the pei variety. I don’t consider it a mispronounciation but, rather, a correct pronounciation of a 多音字 not listed in dictionaries, and I think many, many Chinese would agree with me. If I have to guess, and don’t you hold me to this, I would say that there might have been a history between 胚 (pei1, beginning/unfinished stage of a life, embryo) and 坯 (pi1, early/unfinished stage of an object, rough form). For example, there exists an expression that describes a person who’s natural in or destined to something, peizi, where I have seen these two characters used interchangeably: 打球的坯(胚)子、导演坯(胚)子、犯罪坯(胚)子、美女坯(胚)子、风流坯(胚)子. Zhwj has mentioned the 胚/坯(坏) overlap.

  20. Faisal: Actually, John has been low-key about the wedding, making it exclusive news for those closer to him (which is cool!) — him expressing his commitment is definitely a surprise.

  21. Isn’t it funny…people hear you’re married to a Chinese woman and think you’ve got your own private tutor. Sounds like your wife and mine have exactly the same amount of patience for teaching their language!

  22. Frank Law Says: February 9, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Mightily decadent – when those in Shanghai have to say it like those in Xinjiang, like wanting the French to speak like those that are two Germanys away.
    Easily a useless pastime, to identify the “accepted” or “correct” radicle on the charater based on a logic that is inconsitent and selecting at one’s wish what to consider as the base evidence to apply that logic.
    Not allowing for district terms, that do not get much recognized over the next range of hills, is also, the basis of much erudite pontification – all very
    entertaining, so keep it up.

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