Getting to the Bottom with Music

Some people will tell you that repetition is the key to memorizing the words of a foreign language, but the words I remember the best are the ones that had a story associated with them. I remember the first time I heard Madonna’s name in Chinese, and I never forgot it, worthless as it may be. I still haven’t forgotten the word for bug light. I’m going to share one more of those little stories in this entry.

Flashback time!

> I had been in China for about two months. I had just started rooming with a Chinese guy, and the week before had discovered that the little restaurant right outside my apartment stayed open until 3am. Going out for a late plate of fried noodles was a real joy. I was still in that “I can’t believe I’m in China!” daze.

> I was perhaps only witnessing it for the first time that night, but I later decided that the most charming of Chinese habits had to be public singing. You know that cliché “dance like no one is watching” advice you get on how to “live life to the fullest?” Well, quite a lot of Chinese have a “sing like no one is listening” philosophy. Well, to be more accurate, it’s really just that no one cares if you can’t sing. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon to hear guys on the street burst into song as if they’re part of a musical. I find it quite uplifting, coming from my “if you can’t sing, don’t” mindset.

> As I sat waiting for my noodles, one of the restaurant staff was cleaning a pot outside, and singing as he did. I had never heard the song before, and didn’t know enough Chinese to understand what he was singing, except for one or two lines of the chorus:

> 你爱不爱我?你到底爱不爱我?(Do you love me or not? Do you love me or not?!)

> He was really putting his heart into it, and something clicked for me.

“你爱不爱我” was extremely simple Chinese that I had learned in the first few weeks of Chinese class. “Do you love me (or not)? But what the song drove home for me so nicely was the word 到底, which, up to that point, I only had a very loose grasp of. If you break it down to the character level, 到底 literally means “to the bottom.” And that’s what the word does, it tries to get to the bottom of the matter. It tells the listener to cut the crap and tell it to you straight. Depending on the tone of voice, 你到底爱不爱我? might be asking sincerely, “[I need to know, so just tell me:] do you love me or not?” If the asker is a little angrier, it might be, “do you love me or not, dammit?!”

Funny how some random singing busboy in Hangzhou, China is the teacher I’ll never forget for the word 到底.

Later, I heard the song on the radio and it really reinforced. Here it is, from YouTube:

Recently I shared the “Chinese learning power” of this song with Ken and Jenny, and we even worked it into a ChinesePod episode called Whatever. You’ll hear a clip of the song in the podcast.

The song is called 爱不爱我 and it’s by a band called 零点. I don’t know much about the band, but I do know that they’re old, they shot videos in the cold, and they’re now very (uncool). My wife really doesn’t appreciate it when I play that song. I guess it would be like her playing Def Leopard. No wait, that still kind of rocks. Billy Ocean? Maybe. You get the point.

Anyway, 到底.


John Pasden

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


  1. I still remember how to say bug zapper because of your experience.

    That’s what’s so cool about the InterNet.

  2. That’s one of the few songs on which I can do a decent job at karaoke.

  3. I absolutely agree about songs helping you. It happened for me for Leon Lai’s song, “Will you come tonight?”

    Also, interesting that you just say “tu” for uncool. The pinyin for the Cantonese is “laotu”, including making it “old” “earth”.

  4. 到底 got reinforced for me in a similar way. The song was one that you still here sometimes. 告诉我你到底爱着谁?

  5. I learned loads of chinese and word structers from songs, I love old chinese songs, esp Jacky cheung songs, I have been asked by the chinese acadamy of Ireland to sing 4 chinese songs at tomorrows china town festival.

  6. I will never, ever forget how to say “I love you like a mouse loves rice” in Chinese.

  7. I have a friend who taught English in China five or six years ago. I was just starting to learn Mandarin when he came back to the states. Needless to say we would wander our town a bit drunk, singing this horribly crappy song. I thought it was just something he had made up…
    This is indeed hilarious for me to find out.

  8. dim_summary Says: March 1, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I have a (completely different) story, actually from Chinese class, about 到底. Jin Laoshi at the U of MN, if you’re reading, you’re the best!

    Anyway, he brought in a video about Jackie Chan that said, many times, “成龙到底是谁?” I will never, ever forget a) 到底, and b) Jackie Chan’s Chinese name.

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