I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).
Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)
Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.
唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)
OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:
The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)
If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.
I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:
I was tempted to use a title like, “You think this guy is just selling watermelons, but you won’t believe what he does next!”
Anyway, on my morning commute, I passed this dejected-looking vendor, eyes downcast, as he shirtlessly watched over his truckload of watermelons. He was staring at his scale, and I imagined he was thinking about how absurd it is that this electronic device determines his income.
As I got closer, I saw what he was actually doing.
Yeah, that’s an iPad. Watermelon guy was watching some kind of drama (but due to bad luck, the screen was black right when I snapped this shot).
The character there is 家, meaning “house,” “home,” or sometimes even “family.”
The first thing I noticed was its Escher-like quality, updated to a modern aesthetic. (Reminded me of Monument Valley even more than Escher directly, actually.) Very cool, and not something I see much in China, for sure!
The second thing I noticed was that the stylized character on the poster is missing a few strokes. If this character is 家, then the bottom part is supposed to be 豕, which has 7 strokes. Instead, the bottom part looks more like the 5-stroke 永, minus the top stroke.
I found this odd, because this is a pretty big difference, and in my experience the Chinese don’t take character mutilation too lightly, especially when it’s not just private use. My wife’s response was just to shrug it off, though, with a, “yeah, but it’s still supposed to be 家.”
What do your Chinese friends think? Cool design, or heinous affront to the sanctity of the 10 strokes of the Chinese character 家?
Passing by Chinese “Italian-style” ice cream shop “Iceason” with a friend yesterday, we were startled to see an ad featuring “3D printed” ice cream bars in the likeness of the late Steve Jobs:
The surname “Jobs” is normally written in Chinese as “乔布斯,” or “Qiaobusi” in pinyin (a transliteration, where the characters are chosen for phonetic value only, and essentially have no meaning). For this ice cream bar, it’s written as “乔不死,” also “Qiaobusi” in pinyin, but with different characters so that it includes the phrase “not die” (不死).
The same shop also sells “3D printed” ice cream bars in the shape of the Apple watch and iPhone.
One thing that many non-Chinese may not realize is that the average Chinese person doesn’t really care about dragon boat races on Dragon Boat Festival. Sure, we call it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English, but the dragon boats (龙舟) are just the easiest part of the festival’s traditions to translate. In fact, Wikipedia uses the name Duanwu Festival for its English article, reflecting the Chinese name 端午节.
The most visible tradition of Duanwu Festival for me personally has always been the zongzi (粽子), those bamboo-leaf-wrapped, stuffed glutinous rice triangle-ish things. They’re quite tasty (although you might want to be careful if you have an aversion to pork fat; some of them are a little high on fat and low on meat).
One of the traditions I just recently became aware of is the Duanwu Festival use of a plant called 艾草 (Artemisia argyi in English). It’s a strongly aromatic plant, and the idea is that you hang it by the doorway of your home to ward off bugs and disease.
Apparently this tradition is not observed by young people very much (at least in Shanghai), so I’m not sure how long this particular tradition will be around. But today I snapped some pictures of (mostly old) people loading up on 艾草 at the wet market in preparation for Duanwu Festival. (Those bundles are two for 5 RMB, which to me seems to reinforce the idea that only old people buy it.) Photos below.
Here’s what a zongzi gift set looks like:
This one, sold by a Korean bakery chain that pretends to be French (巴黎贝甜), includes 12 zongzi and retails for 158 RMB. (Normally individual zongzi sell for less than 10 RMB.)
> One who makes douchebag statements, particularly sexist, racist or otherwise bigoted ones, then decides whether they were “just joking” or dead serious based on whether other people in the group approve or not.
(In case you’re not clear on the original original reference, it’s to Schrodinger’s cat.)
> […] Almost every time someone (White or Chinese Americans alike) ask me something about China, it’s always bad or weird: do Chinese people eat dogs? do Chinese people pee at street? are Chinese people still can’t afford this and that? do you have internet? Is it true that you really can’t get on facebook or google? What about Tibet and/or Taiwan? Do Chinese people killing infant baby girls because of one child policy? Just how corrupt is Chinese government?
> From time to time, I think people get off on [asking purely negative questions about China]. People enjoy the feeling of superiority, that no matter how bad his personal life is, at least he’s better than someone. And they disguise that (intentionally or unintentionally) with a fake curiosity.
> I call this Schrodinger’s douchebag – Chinese version: Someone would ask an offensive question about China and then decide whether they’re “just curious” or dead serious based on whether other people in the group approve or not.
> Are there people how are really, genuinely curious about a certain bad aspect of Chinese culture? Sure there are. But the same kind of genuinely curious people are also interested in the good things about China as well. If someone comes to you asking only the bad things, you can just make an excuse and politely walk away from the conversation. People like this don’t deserve your time. They can rot in their ignorant and racist bigotry for all I care.
Of course, douchebaggery about China isn’t limited to those with little working knowledge of China. I had a conversation with a friend recently about the frequent representations of “the Chinese” as “the other” by even the Old China Hand expats often labeled as “experts” that should know better. I’ve been accused myself, in the past, about this act of carelessly “othering” when talking about China.
Does that mean that we can’t talk about cultural differences or point out problems for fear of offending people (not that!) and being politically incorrect? Of course not! (It had better not.) All it means is that we’re all better off and have a better chance of actually being heard by thoughtful individuals if we try to apply just a little discernment and dial down the blanket statements. (Hint: generalizations that start with “Chinese people” are worth investigating.) If something feels a little too “they’re not like us,” try a more sensitive treatment of the topic. At the very least, you’ll likely get fewer racists agreeing with you in your comment section (how embarrassing!).
Here’s a little puzzle for you. Why is this women’s restroom labeled with the letter “C”?
Here’s another clue: the men’s room is labeled with the letter “W”.
It took me a few minutes to work this out, but eventually I solved it. It’s like this:
1. Men’s and women’s rooms in China, when the traditional “男” for “men” and “女” for “women” are abandoned for a more international feel, are often labeled simply with a letter “M” for “men” and a letter “W” for “women”.
2. Someone noticed this, but only remembered the “W” (and not what it stood for).
3. That same person knew that restrooms in China are often called “WC” (there’s even a hand gesture for it), and assumed that that’s where the “W” came from.
4. The letters “W” and “C” were arbitrarily assigned to the men’s and women’s rooms.
It makes me wonder if all the international quirkiness around us in China has a similarly comprehensible explanation.
This Wednesday, February 17, is Ash Wednesday, the Catholic holy day that kicks off Lent. In an interesting turn of events, the church in China made this announcement recently:
> Please also note that China Dioceses grant a dispensation from Fast & Abstinence on Feb. 18 this year because it is the eve of Chinese New Year. We are encouraged to offer acts of charity and other sacrifices instead on Ash Wednesday.
So when a holiday of firecracker-exploding, gut-busting Chinese merriment clashes with a holiday of fasting and quiet reflection, the Chinese holiday is ceded the victory. (Well, on its home turf, anyway.)
I noticed that this past Saturday, Valentine’s Day, there was far fewer promotions, flowers, and chocolates to be seen around Shanghai, compared with last year. I imagine it was because so many people were already preoccupied with trying to get home for the holiday, and most companies didn’t see the point into putting too many resources into selling to an audience that was paying little attention. (Hey, China has a backup Valentine’s Day anyway, so no big deal.)
An interesting article hit Hacker News the other day, relating to the Chinese model for innovation among hardware startups: From Gongkai to Open Source. The article uses the Chinese words gongkai (公开), meaning “open,” and kaiyuan (开源), meaning “open source.”
> About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a $12 “Gongkai” cell phone… that I stumbled across in the markets of Shenzhen, China. My most striking impression was that Chinese entrepreneurs had relatively unfettered access to cutting-edge technology, enabling start-ups to innovate while bootstrapping. Meanwhile, Western entrepreneurs often find themselves trapped in a spiderweb of IP frameworks, spending more money on lawyers than on tooling. Further investigation taught me that the Chinese have a parallel system of traditions and ethics around sharing IP, which lead me to coin the term “gongkai”. This is deliberately not the Chinese word for “Open Source”, because that word (kaiyuan) refers to openness in a Western-style IP framework, which this not. Gongkai is more a reference to the fact that copyrighted documents, sometimes labeled “confidential” and “proprietary”, are made known to the public and shared overtly, but not necessarily according to the letter of the law. However, this copying isn’t a one-way flow of value, as it would be in the case of copied movies or music. Rather, these documents are the knowledge base needed to build a phone using the copyright owner’s chips, and as such, this sharing of documents helps to promote the sales of their chips. There is ultimately, if you will, a quid-pro-quo between the copyright holders and the copiers.
> This fuzzy, gray relationship between companies and entrepreneurs is just one manifestation of a much broader cultural gap between the East and the West. The West has a “broadcast” view of IP and ownership: good ideas and innovation are credited to a clearly specified set of authors or inventors, and society pays them a royalty for their initiative and good works. China has a “network” view of IP and ownership: the far-sight necessary to create good ideas and innovations is attained by standing on the shoulders of others, and as such there is a network of people who trade these ideas as favors among each other. In a system with such a loose attitude toward IP, sharing with the network is necessary as tomorrow it could be your friend standing on your shoulders, and you’ll be looking to them for favors. This is unlike the West, where rule of law enables IP to be amassed over a long period of time, creating impenetrable monopoly positions. It’s good for the guys on top, but tough for the upstarts.
Today is December 12, AKA 双十二, literally, “double twelve” in Chinese. It’s a day when Taobao (淘宝) and JD.com (京东) offer huge discounts online (and this year, Taobao is really pushing its AliPay mobile phone payments, sort of similar to Apple Pay, but using barcodes on users’ phone screens instead of NFC). So today is kind of like China’s Cyber Monday.
12-12 is clearly riffing on 双十一 (“double eleven”), a modern Chinese holiday that was once known as “Singles Day” (光棍节) but has since been largely co-opted by online retailers and remolded as China’s Black Friday.
At first I was kind of amazed that this 12-12 holiday even “took.” It’s just such blatant commercialism to follow up a 11-11 shopping holiday with a 12-12 shopping holiday. But so far, as long as the discounts keep coming, no one seems to mind. What’s next, co-opting 1-1 (元旦节)? I have to say, 双一 certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Some screenshots for today’s sales from the aforementioned sites:
I’m not buying anything. I’m having my own little Buy Nothing Day. (不消费日 in Chinese, but make no mistake: this is not a familiar concept in China, and people find it pretty ridiculous.)
The following photo was snapped in a subway. It’s a public service announcement (or “propaganda poster,” if you prefer) that reminds passengers to be polite. I thought it was kind of interesting to take note of what expressions were chosen to illustrate politeness.
Here are the words, with pinyin and English translations, and a few observations of my own:
This clearly polite word is nevertheless just a little awkward for foreigners trying to speak polite Chinese, because it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as “please” is in English.
没关系: it doesn’t matter
The nice response to “I’m sorry.”
This word is a bit old-fashioned. It’s also modern slang for a gay person.
您请坐: please sit
您 is the polite form of 你, plus you have the 请 in there. You might say this if you were being super polite to an elderly passenger while giving up your seat. (您 is also more common in northern China.)
谢谢: thank you
Can’t go wrong with “thank you!”
您 is the polite form of 你, so this is the politer form of 你好. (It also poses a translation problem… Maybe you come close if you use “hi” for 你好 and “hello” for 您好? The difference is still bigger in Chinese, though.) The expression 您好 also reminds me of customer service reps.
不客气: you’re welcome
Literally, “don’t be polite.”
I never really thought of this as polite, exactly, but I guess it’s better than taking leave without a word?
I recently read China Simplified’s book, Language Gymnastics. It’s a great entertaining introduction to the Chinese language which combines Chinese and foreign perspectives. The book included this passage in chapter 4, which is aptly titled “Sorry, There Is No Chapter Four“:
> Enter a Hong Kong residential tower elevator and you’ll often discover buttons for floors labeled 3A, 12A and 15B–no doubt alternative universes guarded by daemons and fairies. Other times the 1st floor is renamed the “ground floor” (following British conventions) and the 2nd floor is counted as the 1st floor, so then the 3rd becomes the 2nd and abracadabra! — the dreaded 4th floor becomes the less deadly 3rd floor right before our very eyes. Problem solved.
> Whenever a lift whizzes past the imaginary gaps between the 3rd and 5th floors or the double gap between the 12th and 15th floors, I’m taken by cleverness of it all. A property agent can show her clients a breathtaking flat on the “16th floor” without admitting it’s only 13 floors up. Sweet–higher rent and nobody dies. So depending on your perspective, apartment 4D at 1441 West 14th Street is either a deathtrap or the bargain of a lifetime. I say drop that cash and grab that key.
I recently gave a talk to some Chinese teachers about IB and AP Chinese programs in the US. In my research for the talk, I did quite a bit of reminiscing about my own 4 years in the Hillsborough High School IB Program. I had all but forgotten about “CAS hours,” and I seriously can’t remember at all what my “Extended Essay” was on. But one thing I totally haven’t forgotten about was “Theory of Knowledge.” That class was seriously cool!
It’s also a nice talking point for Chinese teachers, who are always eager to hear about how western schools systems foster creativity and independent, critical thinking. Theory of Knowledge fits in nicely there.
But the truth is that Theory of Knowledge would be far too little, too late if that’s all our school systems did to try to encourage independent, critical thinking. And it’s not exactly “creative” either. Those aspects of our western educations begin far earlier, even before we start school.
I was reminded of this the other day when I tried to buy a coloring book for my daughter. I had only two criteria: (1) it had to have lots of nice pictures to color (no text), and (2) it had to be cheap. Criterion #2 was the easy one. I had no idea I was apparently asking for way too much with #1. Take a look at what I found in the book store I went to:
Do you see a trend? In each book, the child is shown exactly how to color the picture. There’s a right way and a wrong way. (Oh, and also, you generally can’t just color without having new vocabulary forced on you.) I checked every single coloring book candidate in the children’s book section, and they were all like this. Not a single one just had blank pictures without “models” to follow. (Those models, by the way, waste a lot of space and paper, which could be more pictures to color.)
As if that weren’t enough, take a closer look at this picture:
At the top, that reads:
> Coloring reminder: When coloring, be sure to use different colors for the different parts of the dragonfly’s body.
Why can’t a 3-to-4-year-old just color the dragonfly all one color? Well, because dragonflies are never a solid color in nature, of course!
What’s even more heartbreaking is what’s at the bottom of that same page:
That’s right. If you’re going to color a dragonfly, you have to put your name on it and claim responsibility for your crayon crimes, and then stand judgment for the objectively right or wrong colors you have committed to that paper.
I can imagine the harsh frowny faces the publishers would give a child that artistically attacked one of their pictures, American-style, and ended up with something like this:
To be fair, the kind of coloring book I was looking for does exist in China. In fact, I’ve bought one before at our local Carrefour supermarket. I was expecting higher quality and more variety at an actual book store, but instead, all I could find was this prescriptivist nonsense.
This is only a post about coloring books. I really wish this were the biggest problem with the Chinese educational system.
I suspect a coloring catastrophe of this magnitude could get you permanently banned from Chinese kindergartens.
The first line is where the pun resides. It reads:
> 月圆月期待 [moon round moon looking forward (to it)]
This is pretty nonsensical because the character for moon, “月” has replaced the identical-sounding character 越. Most intmermediate learners will recognize this character as being part of the 越……越…… pattern.
So the meaning is:
> 越圆越期待 [The rounder it is, the more you look forward to it]
Still seems kind of nonsensical to me (in this context, anyway), but it’s just a lame pun for a billboard.
We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)
Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.
Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:
1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.
2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.
3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)
But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.”
So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.
So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):
1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
3. Housekeeper Ayi
4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi
If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.
The webcomic Itchy Feet has some great comics on learning to communicate in a foreign language. I especially like his visualization technique for representing a low level of competency in a foreign language. These are about German and French, but could be about any language, really:
This one will feel relevant to ABCs in China:
Itchy Feet is also the comic that did this amusing take on various Asian scripts which went semi-viral a while ago:
I recently saw a link to this article on Facebook: One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong (China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it). So it’s a post laegely about how baijiu (白酒) cannot success outside of China because it’s a terrible, terrible liquor. (Some of the comments I read on Facebook went much further, and I’ll address that sentiment below.)
Now I’m no fan of baijiu; I’ve made this clear in the past. And when I say it’s terrible, I know it’s because I personally will never develop a taste for it, and I’m not interested in “giving it a chance.” I’ve done that. Plenty of times. (Same goes for chicken feet.) I think part of it is that I resent a certain idea that sometimes gets tossed around: if you’ve been in China this long, you should have learned to like baijiu by now. Nope, sorry. Don’t like it. Now leave me alone.
But I’ve also learned–thanks to my friend Derek Sandhaus–that it is possible for westerners to develop a taste for baijiu. I seriously doubt it’s ever going to go mainstream, but the Chinese will ensure that there’s always a market for the stuff.
The article linked to below, though, goes way beyond the idea that the Chinese like it and westerners typically don’t. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s “chopsticks bigotry” (which is actually funny, because it’s a bit more self-aware):
> I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day… Shovel… Spoon… Come on… There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues….
What’s interesting about this type of opinion of baijiu is that this is a truly dividing issue. Some westerners will actually hold the opinion that “this is a vile alcohol and no one should drink it, Chinese or not.” You might hear some cross-cultural statements of the some ilk about peeing in public, or disregard for safety, but attacking another culture’s favorite alcohol? It’s just a bit bizarre.
I saw this sign on the door of the AllSet Learning office building that leads out to the patio:
Here’s a closeup:
> 请大家去阳台后 随手关门 以免雾霾进入楼层
> Please, everyone, when going out on the balcony close the door behind you to prevent smog from entering the building
A young Chinese guy (presumably the one who put up the sign) came by our office to call our attention to the sign and ask for our cooperation. It was a little awkward because our window was open at the time (oops).
It’s weird… there’s a very traditional Chinese belief in a need for “fresh air” (even in the depths of winter). This air pollution problem is now quite visibly butting heads with that belief.
Here’s a short exchange I had with a friend recently:
> Me: So are we doing lunch?
> Him: I can’t come at 12pm. How about 1pm?
> Me: OK, so after lunch?
> Him: What time do you eat lunch then? You’ve been in China too long…
It’s true that the Chinese are pretty rigid about their eating schedules, and now I realize that I have been reprogrammed. I think of 12pm as “the lunchtime,” with deviations as early as 11:30am or as late as 12:30pm acceptable.
Recently I had an evening meeting with an American AllSet Learning client that wrapped up around 10pm. He and his wife (also American) went out for dinner after the meeting, and I was a little incredulous that that was normal for them.
I realized that I now think of 6:30pm as “the dinnertime,” with deviations as early as 6pm or as late as 7:30pm acceptable.
This cultural norm for mealtimes also affects my business. Occasionally AllSet Learning clients want to do 2-hour Chinese lessons starting at 11am or 5pm. Those time slots make it impossible for the Chinese teacher to eat lunch or dinner at an even remotely acceptable time, so I have to explain that for cultural reasons, those are bad times for lessons.
I’m not sure exactly how “Chinese” my eating habits are, or if they’re sort of a hybrid of my original American ways and my Chinese life. One habit I’ve yet to “go native” on is breakfast. I like some Chinese breakfast (煎饼 in particular), but I frequently skip breakfast. This, of course, horrifies Chinese friends.
I think I used to fight this kind of change, these insidious creeping ideas that attempt to slowly win over my brain. This one is kind of hard to fight, though. The stomach wants what the stomach wants, and China’s been whispering in its “ear” for quite a while now.
This is my second “Year of the Horse” Chinese New Year in China, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: a certain chengyu (Chinese idiom, typically 4 characters long) gets thrown around like crazy in Chinese New Year’s greetings.
That chengyu is 马到成功.
There are a few interesting things about this chengyu, and some points worth exploring.
Is it worth knowing?
Like many learners, you may not want to junk up your brain space with too many useless chengyu. So is this one worth it? Well, it sure gets liberally tossed around at the beginning of the Year of the Horse, that’s for sure.
But aside from that, it’s not a terribly uncommon chengyu. I’ve learned it without trying just by living through one Year of the Horse CNY, and you probably can too, if you live in China or if you’re tuned into Chinese media for the holiday. Tons of repetition of this chengyu.
What does it mean, really?
The nice thing about 马到成功 is that its components are so easy:
– 马: horse (easy!)
– 到: to arrive (easy!)
– 成功: to succeed (not bad, intermediate-level vocab)
It’s all high-frequency vocabulary, so that’s great. What does it really mean, though? “Horse arrives, success!” Something is missing. Is there some mystical luck-horse that runs around providing success to all it encounters? Not exactly.
If you look up 马到成功 in a dictionary, you get something like this:
> win instant success
Or, more literally:
> win success immediately upon arrival
OK, so if you take 马到 to mean “instant,” than isn’t it just the same as 马上, “immediately?”
But it’s not. At Chinese New Year, the chengyu is used in New Year’s wishes to others. If you were wishing people “马上成功” it sounds like they’ve already started something, and you want them to succeed immediately (like really soon!). Wishing them 马到成功 is wishing a speedy success to whatever endeavor someone undertakes. That makes a lot more sense.
OK, but does that explain why it’s 马到? Not really. Fortunately Baidu has the answer (in Chinese, of course). The chengyu actually refers to ancient warfare, in which cavalry played an important role. If your cavalry could get there on time right as the battle began, you’d frequently be assured a swift victory. (There’s a more complicated story behind the chengyu which Baidu relates, but it’s related to cavalry.)
This isn’t to say that Chinese people have images of cavalry slaughtering their enemies as they wish their friends 马到成功. In fact, most Chinese people probably aren’t aware of the origin of the saying. If you Baidu image search it, you see a whole bunch of images of horses frolicking around, not an enemy soldier in sight.
Even though the 马到成功 literally means “swift success,” you can also use it by itself to wish someone success in the New Year. You don’t need to add 祝你 in the front for “I wish you” (even though it’s not wrong to say that).
A common greeting that won’t stretch any intermediate learner’s abilities is:
> 新年快乐，马到成功！ (Happy New Year, and swift successes!)
And with that, I wish everybody a 马到成功 in their Chinese studies!