Mastery of pinyin is important for every beginner learner of Mandarin Chinese. This much is widely agreed upon (although not always thoroughly executed). But what about adult native speakers of Chinese? Aside from using pinyin to type, or maybe occasionally to look up an obscure character which they can guess the reading for, there’s not much use for pinyin in their literate lives, right?
Well, you’re mostly right. Pinyin is mostly supplanted by characters among the literate Chinese population. But there is one small exception: TA.
These Shanghai Metro ads are entirely in Chinese except for the “TA.” This phenomenon is fairly common in advertising in China, although these are definitely the best examples I’ve seen because not only are they incredibly clear and highly visible, but they also actually include the meaning of the pinyin “TA” in characters underneath. In case you can’t see clearly, what it says under “TA” is:
（ 他 / 她 ）
So the point of using “TA” instead of characters is that it leaves the gender unassigned, so that the hypothetical person referred to in the ad can be male or female in the minds of the consumers. I’ve noticed that it is typically written in all caps, as well.
This is, in essence, doing what pinyin does best: providing the sound while leaving the meaning in question. This is something that Chinese characters are often not especially well-suited for, particularly in this case.
It’s kind of interesting how her English name in the U.S. shows no trace of Chinese heritage, but when she appears on ads in China, her English name is not used at all.
Turns out that “Wang” is her surname by birth (her father is Chinese), and she actually pursued a singing career in mainland China as a teenager, using the name 汪可盈.
According to Wikipedia:
While pursuing an acting career in Hollywood, she changed her name to “Chloe Bennet,” after having trouble booking gigs with her last name. According to Bennet, using her father’s first name, rather than his last name avoids difficulties being cast as an ethnic Asian American while respecting her father.
Furthermore, she has explained Hollywood’s racism this way:
“Oh, the first audition I went on after I changed my name [from Wang to Bennet], I got booked. So that’s a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works.”
The ad, using super simple Chinese, reads:
找工作 [(when) looking for a job] 我要跟 [I want to] 老板谈 [talk with the boss]
This ad is hanging in Shanghai’s “Cloud 9” (龙之梦) shopping mall:
First of all the repeating character is 鹅, which means “goose.” In the circular logo, you can see a little characterplay going on with the goose head.
Above that, you have “鹅，鹅，鹅” which, of course, reads “goose, goose, goose.” This is a famous first line of a classical Chinese poem. It’s famous because it’s so simple, so a lot of kids memorize it as one of their first (if not the first) classical poems committed to memory.
The name of the service is 盟盟 (and apparently all the good domain names have been taken for that one). You can see how the “盟” character blends nicely into the drawing of the ship.
But no, the brand has nothing to do with ships or cruises or whatever… So while the characterplay looks like it kind of works, the picture really has nothing to do with what 盟盟 is all about: franchising (加盟) other brands.
The “Double 11” (AKA “Singles Day”) Chinese shopping holiday has been over for 10 days, but I think this is still worth sharing. This ad by Tmall remains the best (unintentional) metaphor for “blinded by consumerism” that I’ve seen:
The mask is in the shape of Tmall‘s logo, a cat. Tmall’s Chinese name is 天猫, which literally means “Sky Cat,” but it seems like it was chosen based on the English name (“T” for Taobao, which owns Tmall, and “mao” sounds like “mall” to Chinese ears).
It’s funny that you sometimes see the 双11 (literally, “Double 11”) manufactured holiday translated in English as “Singles Day” (formerly “Bachelor’s Day”). This day was once celebrated as such, but in a few short years, the shopping aspect has completely taken over the “holiday.” Single people feel entirely irrelevant now. But hey… who cares about human connections when you can spend money on all these great deals??
So there’s this word “skr” being used a lot in China these days, mainly by Chinese kids online. As with any popular internet slang, however, it has found its way into real-world marketing materials. Here’s a usage I spotted the other day in Shanghai:
So the part we’re focused on here is:
Which means, essentially:
This could be restated as:
If you’re trying to make sense of “skr,” it’s usually used to replace 是个 or 死个 (normally it should be the intensifying 死, as in the example above). The word has its roots in Chinese hip hop, and specifically the performer 吴亦凡 [Baidu Baike link], who is pictured several times in the GIFs below (red background).
This is a screenshot from a search of WeChat’s 表情 animated GIFs showing how popular “skr” currently is:
I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:
The text reads:
At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers
100% TEFL/TKT double certification
100% full-time teaching
100% university graduates
So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?
This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.
Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:
In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.
The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.
The ads roughly translate to:
Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
Exercise, not just because everyone else is
Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
Exercise, not because of what other people think
Exercise, not for the selfies
(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)
It might be hard to make out the characters used in this furniture store’s ad:
They are: 生活现场. 生活现场 is a phrase that’s not easy to translate… if you ask a native speaker what it means, they’ll have trouble answering you without a context. It’s something like “scenes of daily life.” The characterplay kind of works, I guess… I like the 场 the best. The 生 is not impressive.
Anyway, the ad is for 美好家 (MEHOS), a furniture store in Shanghai.
As a parent, I am keenly aware of all the work that goes into educating a child on what is “dirty” and how to avoid getting dirty, as well as why getting dirty is (normally) bad. The concept of “dirty” is surprisingly complex when you think about it, since some of it is visible and some not, and the “clean” and “dirty” objects can have all kinds of interactions. You really just have to be taught.
Shortly after I arrived in China, I went on a trip to a park with some Chinese friends. It had been a while since I had seen grass, so I was happy to sprawl out on it, which promptly resulted in my Chinese friends’ disapproval. “It’s dirty!” they told me. I just shook my head. In a corner of the world where there’s so little nature left to enjoy, they regard what little is left as “dirty”? That’s so sad! Then, as an afterthought, I ran my hand across the grass. My palm was turned gray. Dust. From the grass.
That little incident drove home that I really didn’t know how everything worked here, even when I was so sure I had it all figured out.
Just like children, as a China newbie, I, too, had to be educated on what was “dirty” in my new environment.
A similar example comes to mind: foreigners often think nothing of storing their bag on the ground next to their desks or chairs, but this frequently causes Chinese acquaintances to recoil in disgust. In China, you don’t put things you want to keep clean (like your bag) on the ground, even indoors. You also don’t put your bag on your bed at home. There are lots of “rules” to learn.
I was surprised, then, to see this ad:
“脏”显个性 [“Dirty” shows personality]
Of course we have “dirty desserts” in English as well, which is likely the source of this idea. But this concept feels even more eye-catching in China, where you’ve got to constantly be on your guard against the “dirt.”
I noticed these ads on the Shanghai Metro recently:
妈妈， [Mom,] Tom老师 教我的发音 [The pronunciation Teacher Tom taught me] Amy老师说不对！ [Teacher Amy says is not correct]
妈妈， [Mom,] 今天外教 [today the foreign teacher] 把我的名字 [got my name] 叫错了三次。
“Dada English” is one of a new wave of Chinese online English learning platforms which includes “VIP KID.” What makes these platforms special is that they all purport to offer native speakers as teachers, and many of them are from North America or Europe. (I understand that some of the competition uses mostly teachers from the Philippines.) The first ad above emphasizes 欧美外教: teachers from North America and Europe.
What about the Chinese teacher of English? A resource long known to be often “less than perfect” with regard to native-like English abilities and yet nevertheless a crucial component of the educational system, is not even a part of the discussion these ads are trying to create. Rather, it’s a matter of where your foreign teacher is from and how professional he is.
I’m really curious if there is enough of the right kind of labor in North America and Europe to keep these business models afloat in the long-term. I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder building and maintaining a team of online freelance English teachers when those teachers are not Chinese or physically in China.
This ad (spotted in the Shanghai Metro) is interesting for a number of reasons:
What caught my attention was the font. “Blocky” (sometimes pixely) fonts are quite common, but I’ve never seen one so “spaced out” like this before. Yet the word 流行 (“popular”) is clearly visible.
And I didn’t even realize it at first, but the word 流行 is also written backwards! This is not something I have seen before, and I’m not sure what the intended effect is. (Maybe if I were a fan I’d get it?)
Nice of the poster to include the pinyin for 流行 (liúxíng), though!
Chris Lee is the English name for Li Yuchun (李宇春), which some of the older “China watcher” crowd might remember for her rise to prominence on the popular “Super Girl” singing competition in 2005.
While perhaps not the cleverest characterplay, I like this treatment of the character 城, which means “city” (as in 城市), or sometimes “wall” (as in 长城). The phrase 不夜城 (literally, “not night city”) is similar to “the city that never sleeps.”
The text is:
龍之梦购物公园 新食代 不夜城 千人自助餐盛宴
Note: The way that “Cloud Nine Mall” (龍之梦) is written breaks the “golden rule” that I learned in Chinese 101: Either write entirely in simplified characters or write entirely in traditional characters. Never mix the two. The simplified dragon character 龙 is written using the traditional 龍. “食代” is a pun on 时代.
This ad made me wonder: cultural differences aside, is the bandwagon effect stronger in China because there’s a larger population? Similarly, is the bandwagon effect more powerful when used in advertising in China?
The ad reads:
200 million Chinese people use Miss Fresh
The brand name is 每日优鲜, which could be translated to something like “Daily Excellent Fresh.” But then they called themselves “Miss Fresh” in English, so that’s the name I used.
Spotted this sign on 老外街 (“Laowai Street”) on Hongmei Road (虹梅路).
First of all, “xu” in pinyin is how you spell the word for “SHHH” (the “shushing” sound) in Chinese. It even has a character: 嘘.
Second, the translation “don’t be too noisy still get happy” is understandable, I guess, but let’s look at the original Chinese:
声音小一点 一样HIGH 得起来
So 声音小一点 refers to one’s voice being a little quieter. The “if” part and the “you” subject are implied.
The 一样means “the same,” but here it’s more naturally translated as “equally” or “just as.”
The “HIGH” in Chinese is not (usually) some kind of drug-induced state, but rather the “natural high” of just getting all excited and having a blast. There could be some drinking involved (think karaoke), but the emphasis is on the fun had.
The interesting thing here is that the word “HIGH” in Chinese is translated as “happy” in the English version. In fact, a co-worker of mine told me that she used to assume that the Chinese word “high” (sometimes written as “嗨“) was derived from the English word “happy” (a direct translation of 开心), rather than the English word “high.” (Who knows!)
Being a little quieter,
you can still have
just as much fun.
Not as much fun, though, right? (XU!)
Nov. 13, 2017 Update: a friend wanted more explanation of the complement thing, so here it is, copied over from Facebook comments:
Question: The example in the Chinese Grammar Wiki makes sense: 早上 五点 出发 ， 孩子们 起 得 来 吗 ？… but that is 起得来 not 起起来！
Answer: In that example, 起 is a verb, and 来 is the direction complement. You insert 得 between the two to make it into a potential complement, adding the meaning of “can.” 起得来 = can get up.
The same is true for HIGH, only the complement is 起来 (in this case, 起 is not the verb). So that’s how you get HIGH得起来. (This one is harder to translate literally, though… “can get high” would be literal, but misleading (no drugs!).) “Can have a blast” is closer to the meaning, but you lose more of the V+起来 literal translation. “Can get happy” maybe, if you don’t mind a little Chinglish!)
In the blog entry, I linked to one grammar point on uses of 起来, and another on potential complements. It’s the combination of the two that you need to understand to fully get this. It’s a little tricky!
I found this sign interesting, both for the characterplay with the 南, as well as for the interesting font design (which, unfortunately, also makes it a bit harder for learners to read):
The top reads 江南 (Jiangnan), which is the Chinese equivalent of “Gangnam” (yes, as in “Style”).
The bottom hard-to-read part says 偶巴尔坛, a transliteration of the Korean word “Obaltan” (오발탄), which apparently is the best Korean movie ever made? (I’m a bit out of my depth on this one.) Anyway, don’t feel bad for not knowing what 偶巴尔坛 is as a Chinese learner!
There’s a word 嘎 (“ga”) in Shanghainese (and other Wu fangyan) that just means “really” or “very.” Because it’s not standard Mandarin, you don’t see it written a whole lot, but I noticed it in two different ads in Shanghai recently (and one even has pinyin!):
噶便宜 – really cheap
Also, extra points for:
最WOW – “WOW-est”
嘎实惠 – really a good deal
(And yes, if you want to try using this adverb, you are quite likely to amuse your Chinese friends.)
UPDATE: Commenter Lin and reader Danny point out something I glossed over in the original post: the first ad uses the character 噶, and the second ad uses 嘎. Both are “gā” in this context. So what’s the difference? Well, the short answer is that since this is not a standard word (both characters can be found in the authoritative 现代汉语词典 dictionary, but neither list this meaning), there is no “officially correct” character for it. In my experience, however, 嘎 is more widely used, and it’s also the one my computer’s pinyin input prompts first.