Here’s a quick summary from the AllSet Learning blog post:
Each newsletter consists of roughly 5 short pieces (excerpts of longer articles, which are cited and linked). The 5 pieces typically consist of:
- a news item
- a “social trends” item (less time-sensitive, more focused on modern China and “the buzz” currently en vogue)
- a visual piece
- an alternative piece related to art, poetry, music, propaganda, or something else
- a joke
(If this stuff reminds you a little bit of Reader’s Digest, or the Chinese version 读者 (Dúzhě), you’re not crazy! There was definitely some inspiration drawn from those.)
Advanced learners, head on over to the Substack ARC newsletter page and check it out!
Spotted this sign in Guilin:
This is not Chinglish. This is not bad translation. This has got to just be someone’s idea of a joke.
What the Chinese actually says is:
应急避难所 (yìngjí bìnànsuǒ) emergency shelter / place of refuge in an emergency
I feel a little bad for the foreigner sprinting for a toilet like the guy on the sign, and unable to find one in time…
(It is kind of funny, though!)
I snapped this photo in Shanghai under a light rail line:
So it’s an empty storefront with the following text plastered across it:
失业了！ [Lost my job!]
租了个店！ [Rented a storefront!]
不知道做什么！ [Don’t know what to do!]
你们想吃啥！ [What do you guys want to eat?]
留言告诉我！ [Leave me a comment and tell me!]
一经采纳，红包奖励！ [If your idea is used, cash reward!]
快扫码上车，挺急的！ [Get on board quick, it’s urgent!]
给我扫！ [Scan me!]
It’s fairly obvious that it’s not a random person’s idea; it’s a company’s promotional gimmick.
I didn’t scan the QR code, but it’s fun to see stuff like this.
The Chinese government has been big on slogans for quite a while, and when it goes all out, you see those things everywhere. Perhaps it is starting to feel like the “era of slogans” is over, but these red banners no longer feel as effective as they once did.
I noticed this one the other day next to a bus stop here in Shanghai:
It’s hard to translate (I know, the second one is laughably bad), but it would be something like this:
(Jiānchí “fángyì sān jiàn tào”, “fánghù wǔ háiyào”)
Persist in the “set of three virus preventions” and the “five protective ‘still gotta'”
When I asked Chinese friends and co-workers about the slogan, no one could name the “set of three virus preventions” or the “still gotta” things you’re supposed to do, but they could guess.
When I asked about the effectiveness of such a slogan, I got a very noncommittal, “well, it rhymes….”
防疫三件套 (fángyì sān jiàn tào)
I found these on a government website:
The word 套 means “set.” The idea is that these three measures form a core set.
- 佩戴口罩 [wear a face mask]
- 社交距离 [social distancing]
- 个人卫生 [personal hygiene]
(Kind of funny that they used the WeChat app icon for #2!)
防护五还要 (fánghù wǔ háiyào)
I found these on the same government website:
So the idea behind the 还要s is that you still need to do these things (even though you’ve been doing them for almost two years now).
Here’s the Chinese text, to which I’ll add a few simple notes:
- 口罩还要继续戴 [masks]
- 社交距离还要留 [social distancing]
- 咳嗽喷嚏还要遮 [cover mouth when coughing or sneezing]
- 双手还要经常洗 [wash hands]
- 窗户还要尽量开 [open windows]
Note that each line always uses the exact same number of characters. That’s a slogan thing.
Masks and Social Distancing
I’ve noticed in Shanghai that people are very good about wearing masks, but not so good about social distancing. Clearly the government is trying to enforce both of these (both of these appear in both lists above), with social distancing officially encouraged by marks for where to stand when waiting in line, etc., but these social distancing queues seem largely ignored, with a few exceptions.
It definitely feels like the government’s best tool for enforcing social distancing is simply forcibly shutting down social activities, such as classes, meetings, etc. (Church services have once again been canceled in Shanghai, since last week.)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 19 years since I was last in Yangshuo (near Guilin). I spent 4 days there with fellow English teachers from Hangzhou Wilson and Simon. We paid 100 RMB per night for our hotel.
This time was a family trip. I was there all last week. Our hotel room was a bit more expensive (although still reasonable), and definitely nicer. It was a very different travel experience, and due to the time lapse, you could say it was a wholly different destination. I recognized literally one place from my previous visit in 2002. It was a bridge.
One thing that was consistent is that this time, too, the trip was all about outdoor activity and natural scenery. We explored two different caves, hiked to an amazing waterfall for a cool swim, spent an afternoon scrambling over rocks on a river trek, and just non-stop enjoyed that gorgeous Guangxi mountain scenery you see everywhere you go. Recommended (still, after 19 years)!
Also, if you’re looking for a guide for hiking, caving, or rock climbing, 蓝天攀岩 was quite good, and reasonably priced. We found them on Taobao.
I won’t share my family photos, but you can see the pics from 2002 on Flickr (and the mountains haven’t changed).
I took this photo here in Shanghai:
Check out that logo:
Believe it or not, there are three characters in there! You might need to be advanced to make them out. Can you read them?
I let my coworkers (native speakers of Chinese, and also Chinese teachers) see this logo, and of course they could read it when they focused on it, but it took them a full second to make out those characters.
The answer is below:
胖达叔 (Pàngdá Shū)
- 胖达 (pàngdá) is just a phonetic representation of “panda” in Chinese, and uses the word “fat” (胖) so that it feels both semantically appropriate and cute.
- 叔叔 (shūshu) means “uncle,” but is sometimes shortened to one character, as in this case. (I wouldn’t recommend trying it on your own, though, with people you’re trying to be respectful toward! Stick with 叔叔 for those people.)
Since this logo uses actual characters, it perhaps doesn’t fit my usual definition of “characterplay” (where new characters are created), but close enough! For more characterplay (much of it easier), see the Sinosplice characterplay tag archive page.
Wildcard search is one of Pleco’s super useful features that a lot of people don’t know about. I want to share not only how to do it, but also some actual use cases (otherwise you might never remember to use it when the time comes).
Pleco’s Wildcard Characters
In case you’re not aware, “wildcard characters” in computing are characters that can stand for anything, kind of like variables. They’re frequently used in search. It’s like how the joker can be used to substitute for any card in many card games.
When you’re searching a dictionary in Pleco, there are two wildcard characters you can use:
*” (asterisk: can match any number of Chinese characters, including zero)
?” (“at” sign: will match exactly one Chinese character, and not zero)
If this isn’t clear enough, the examples below should clear everything up. (Otherwise, you can check out Pleco’s own documentation.)
Use Case 1: What was that 成语??
Most chengyu (成语) are 4 characters. Eventually you’ll find yourself having to learn a lot of them, and recalling just the right one when you need it can be difficult. This is the perfect scenario for the “
?” wildcard character, when you know there are 4 characters in the entry you’re looking for.
Here are some examples:
(That last one showed up in the search results because the search term matched exactly a part of a longer entry. This is kind of rare in longer search terms, and it’s not a problem.)
Use Case 2: Gimme more like that!
Another great use case is discovering patterns and using those to learn new words and phrases. For example, numbers in chengyu. You might learn 一心一意 and then want to find more examples of “一……一……”. Perfect! Just search: “
In this case, you’d want to use the character 一 and not the pinyin “yi.” You can see the difference:
Another good example is the 丢三落四 pattern: “……三……四”. Search: “
This way of searching is not just for chengyu, of course. Maybe you just learned the result complement ～不了. Since there are tons of examples of this pattern in Pleco, both as entries and in examples sentences, the search “
*不了” turns up quite a lot:
You might also try searching for the complement in one-character and two-character verb combos separately, by doing the searches “
?不了” and “
Use Case 3: “jì ~ jì ~”
This one relates directly to my recent article titled Shanghai Urges Residents to Get Vaccinated… via Megaphone! (audio). In that one, I mentioned that the speakers in two of the audio files mispronounce the word 即 as “jì” (fourth tone) when it should be “jí” (second tone).
But how could I be sure? If there’s one thing that learning Chinese all of these years has taught me, it’s that humility is always warranted. So before I can be too sure about a statement like that, I search dictionaries and check with native speakers, too. Below is how I used wildcards to check Pleco for the pattern.
First, if I’m lazy, I might just search for “
ji*ji*” (no quotes). This does not yield good results:
Then, I might reason that searching for 4-character patterns makes more sense. So I search this: “
ji?ji?” (no quotes). Results:
Again, not great. Lots of noise. Well, I can also mix in pinyin with tones to get more precise. I can search for both “
ji2?ji2?” and “
ji4?ji4?“. This gets me:
Finally, if I suspect that 即 (second tone) and 既 (fourth tone) are the most likely candidates, I can search specifically for those: “
即?即?” and “
既?既?” (I’ll spare you those screenshots). Those results, combined with with native speaker feedback, allowed me to be confident in my assertion that the speakers meant “jí” (即, second tone), even though they said “jì” (fourth tone).
Experiment! It’s easy and a fun way to discover new words, since no one flips through paper dictionaries anymore….
I’m not going to write much here about Chinese pronouns 他 / 她 / TA (all “tā”), because the images below sum everything up nicely. (If you want more detail, be sure to click through to the full article).
For uses of TA “in the wild,” see this article: TA: Pinyin with a Purpose.
I’m definitely not a fan of inserting the “X” into a Chinese character. It just breaks the natural aesthetic when done with an English X.
(So if you ever see the text “X也,” now you know what it refers to.)
Here’s a more creative attempt at a new pronoun character:
The 无 (wú) on the left side, of course, means “none” or “does not have.”
So it seems that we currently have these three gender-neutral Chinese pronoun options, each of which require two characters to type:
- TA (tā)
- X也 (tā)
- 无也 (tā)
Finally, if you’d like to see the “god pronoun” (closely related to these) be sure to check out this article: Respectful Characters.
Recently every time I go out on the street, my ears are affronted by recorded audio messages played on loop via megaphone. They’re super annoying, but they’re for a good cause: urging any unvaccinated residents to hurry up and just do it (and also get a prize!).
Over the past few weeks I have recorded the following audio on my phone, so it’s not super high quality, but have a listen if you’re curious (transcripts and translations will follow). This audio is notable because it’s clearly recorded by non-professionals, so some interesting pronunciation issues creep in.
Please note that this stuff is not easy to understand. “Loudspeaker” recordings are among the most difficult to understand in any language, so these are no exception… plus they’re about vaccinations, which is not exactly a softball topic! (Please excuse my rough translations!) AND, on top of everything else, most of them also include a pronunciation curveball or two.
Here we goooo…
[Get vaccinated. Free vegetable oil or yogurt. No wait.]
Linguistically, this one is interesting because the guy clearly says “jì dào jì dǎ” (即 pronounced as 4th tone), but the word 即 (which he definitely means) should be pronounced “jí” (2nd tone). It’s one of those “pronunciation variants” (possibly due to the speaker’s regional accent) where although it’s not really standard, native speakers have no trouble understanding.
[Today is the last day for your first vaccination shot. Don’t delay.]
We have another “pronunciation variant” here. The speaker pronounces 接种 as “jiēzhǒng”, but it’s officially “jiēzhòng.” (You hear both.)
This one sounds like it’s dropping a chengyu on us, but it’s using a recognizable 4-character phrase as a template: “欲 + [one-character verb] + 从速”. It just means “if you want to [that verb], ASAP.” It’s often used in sales, for “limited time offers.”
[Get your vaccination, get your vaccination! Vaccination location next to the Pudding Hotel. Get a prize on the spot for your second shot. Everyone come get inoculated!]
This time the speaker pronounces 接种 as “jiēzhòng.”
This one is kind of funny to native speakers, because the tone the girl uses sounds like she’s announcing a two-for-one sale at the supermarket, but it’s about vaccinations.
And yes, 布丁酒店 literally means “Pudding Hotel.” It’s the name of the hotel where they’re doing the vaccinations. (Don’t ask me!)
[Anyone who had their first shot before May 24th can get their second shot! If you get your vaccination today, receive a free gift at the blue bus ahead.]
There’s the same “pronunciation variant” again. The speaker pronounces 接种 as “jiēzhǒng”, but it’s officially “jiēzhòng.” (You hear both.)
Sorry, this one is the hardest to understand, since people around me were talking. And yes, there was a bus there, parked on the sidewalk, full of “gifts.”
If you look in the above two photos, you can find the megaphone.
OK, when I saw this “Atlas Shrugged” ice cream bar at a local convenience store, I just had to buy it.
Any mention of Atlas Shrugged always takes me back to freshman year of high school in the IB program. I felt confident in my English abilities at first… until I saw one of my classmates, Ted, reading one of the thickest paperbacks I had ever seen. It was Atlas Shrugged. At this point I had never even heard of Ayn Rand, and had no clue while my fellow 14-year-old classmate would want to read such a book. (I still don’t! Ha…)
But I digress.
The Chinese name is: 阿特拉斯耸耸肩, which is the official title of the translated Chinese novel. (Literally, something like “Atlas gave a shrug.”)
How was it? Ummm… absolutely terrible. Couldn’t finish it. It claims that the flavor is “lemon powder with sea salt,” but it came across more like “fake cheesecake with caramel shell.”
Ayn Rand would not approve. I highly suspect Ted wouldn’t either.
P.S. Yeah, unmistakeable “Junk Food Review” vibes here… I still need to fix up those old pages.
I saw this in a hair salon here in Shanghai:
The text reads:
手机保管箱 (shǒujī bǎoguǎnxiāng)
Cell Phone Storage Box
The employees at the salon are allowed to use their phones while they’re waiting for a task, but as soon as they’re given one (washing hair, cutting hair, etc.) they have to stick their phones in here for “safe keeping” while they do their work. This is the first time I’ve seen this system in a hair salon.
I know a household or two that could use one of these!
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about vocabulary lately, and how many learners treat vocabulary as the sum total of language learning, as if memorizing a bunch of vocabulary was basically all you had to do to learn a language. It got me thinking about how these learners must be conceptualizing vocabulary, about what mental models they must be using. This led to thinking about metaphors, and what metaphors may be in their minds.
Vocabulary as Building Blocks
Referring to vocabulary as the “building blocks” of a language is fairly common. Anything you want to say requires vocabulary, much like anything you build requires building blocks (bricks?). I suppose that feels like it works on a very elementary level.
There’s one big problem with this, though… “building blocks” or “bricks” are typically uniform and largely interchangeable. While it would be convenient to be able to speak with words that were “uniform and largely interchangeable,” that’s not really how this whole language thing works! Every time we speak, we need to choose our words to convey our specific meaning. There’s a bit of interchangeability here, but not a lot!
Vocabulary as Legos
If you think of regular old bricks as being uniform and non-specialized, you might think that LEGO bricks make a better metaphor. So many different kinds of bricks, with different functions, colors, sizes, etc.
Still, those LEGO bricks are all largely interconnectable, and there’s quite a bit of repetition. It’s still not quite as demanding as the units we use to build language-based meaning.
Vocabulary as Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces
I propose that we should be thinking of each vocabulary item as more of a puzzle piece. When you don’t have the right piece, not just any similar piece will do. The others don’t fit. And it does take some time to familiarize yourself with the pieces, identify the ones you need, and start to assemble a picture.
Furthermore, if you’re a word hoarder and are not practicing using those words in any way, you’re basically just working on a big ‘ol bag of puzzle pieces. Sure, you’ve got the pieces, and sure, they can be assembled into a picture, but that takes time and effort.
However, if you’re regularly looking at those new pieces and trying to figure out how they fit with the other pieces you already have, then you’re steadily making progress toward forming that picture. And the picture is the meaning that we’re all striving for, the meaning that words are meant to convey.
Starting in February 2020, all English-language church services were suspended until further notice. (I believe this was a nation-wide policy, but cities like Shanghai and Beijing, with large foreign populations, and most affected.)
Last year, I posted these thoughts on the matter:
I hear a lot of foreigners assuming that this is the government taking the opportunity to “tighten its grip” on religion, and that’s certainly possible, but I’m not so quick to assume malicious intent. I think it’s just way easier for the government to control the situation when there are no foreigners or foreign languages involved, and it just doesn’t want the hassle. (Nor does it place great value or priority on any kind of freedom of religion, however.)
I still feel the same way. The government has taken a “we’ll get around to it when we get around to it” approach to religious services in English.
Well, about 15 months later, the time has finally come. Last Saturday, May 15, services in English resumed:
The announcement came with a few guidelines:
So… still slowly making progress towards “normal”…?
Over the past few years, I’ve personally observed that the expression “立flag” has become quite popular. It simply means to set a goal (定目标), in younger net-slang parlance (网络语). It’s usually a personal goal, not something like a company’s revenue goals or anything that formal.
Here’s a simple usage of it in our webcomic:
I don’t want to go too far down the etymology rabbit hole here, but here’s where it gets weird… It’s not hard to imagine that somehow (remotely??) planting a flag on a mountain peak is equivalent to setting it as a destination, the mountain peak serving as a metaphor for the goal.
But then why isn’t the verb 立 normally used for planting a flag? (It’s not… that would be something like 插.) What’s going on there?
Here the trail gets confusing (the origin is in obscure internet forums, after all). It apparently relates to the Chinese translation of some Japanese anime. Not that weird… the weird part is that the “flag” referred to is not a physical flag, but the parameters passed into into a command line program on a computer. (Like in the Linux command “
ls -a“, the “
-a” is the flag which means “show all.”) Wha..? WHY in the what?!
Anyway… 立flag. The expression itself isn’t too difficult.
As of this week in Shanghai, some districts have started giving out rewards for getting the COVID vaccine. Here’s a sample:
Apparently for that one, you could choose between 200 RMB and a “grocery gift package” including biscuits, rice, and cooking oil. There were also rumors of some districts offering 500 RMB.
“I should have waited to get my vaccine!” my co-worker lamented. (He’s already had both shots.)
Word is that each district has vaccination quotas it needs to hit by the end of April, and when the numbers were looking low, the rewards came out…
So Nomadland won big at the Oscars, but the Chinese media machine is not celebrating the win. In fact, it’s censoring all mention of Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, and even the Oscars altogether!
Variety gives a rundown of how the Chinese people are trying to get around the censorship:
The term “无依之地,” the censored Chinese title of “Nomadland,” became WYZD, the first sound of every character, or “有靠之天” (characters that nonsensically mean the exact opposite of the ones in its official title), or even “Nonameland.” One of the most clever played off the popular choice “无一之地” (which subs in the character for the number “one,” a homophone) to turn the title into “023456789.” The first two characters of that version mean “without a one.” (Get it?)
Crazy stuff! Paradoxically, censorship’s stifling of creative expression in China results in new creative ways to circumvent censorship.
Also, I’m not a regular reader of Variety, but I was pleased to see the use of Chinese characters in an English article. I hate it when articles don’t do this, considering how easy it is to do nowadays. Is this becoming common?
Wow, this is quite the noodle shop name I photographed here in Shanghai:
The Chinese name is 麵麵麵麵館 which is written in traditional characters. (Sometimes shops do that because they simply prefer the traditional character aesthetic.) The simplified characters would be 面面面面馆.
It’s kind of fun how the traditional character 麵 has 麥 as a meaning component, which means “wheat.” And of course wheat is the main ingredient of noodles. You could say that the character ingredient is the main noodle component. Or whatever. The simplified version, 面, retains none of those semantic shenanigans, using just the no-nonsense “miàn” sound component to mean “noodles.”
A friend shared this technological park’s logo, and the 智 character caught my attention:
The full text of the slogan is:
集智未来 (Jí Zhì Wèilái)
Although “集智” is not a word, through the semantic power of Chinese characters, 集 brings to mind the idea of 聚集 (to assemble) or 集中 (to concentrate), while 智 suggests 智慧 (wisdom/intelligence). Also, 集智 sounds identical to the word 极致, which means “highest achievement.” Furthermore, the character 智 is associated with the word 智能, a very common word in tech nowadays, meaning “intelligent” or “smart” in the sense of “smartphone.” 未来 just means “the future.”
While I think the 智 character in the logo looks cool, as a non-native speaker (reader) I find the 日 element at the bottom just a little hard to immediately recognize. What do you think?
When I wrote my last post, COVID in Shanghai: March 2021 Update, I had been unable to make a vaccination appointment. I was unsure why at the time, but it looks like the vaccine rollout to foreigners was just intentionally slow to get going, and the first few days were quickly fully booked (maybe even at midnight?).
My wife and mother-in-law got in touch with our local community officials, who promised to give them a call when more vaccine slots were available. And they actually did! We got the call on Friday, April 2, and I was able to follow the exact same process I followed before (using the official online system on my phone). This time there were appointments available. I was able to schedule one of the very next day.
A few photos:
So yeah, I’ve had one shot of the Sinopharm vaccine, and I’ll be returning for a second shot 21 days after the first. Vaccinations seem to be proceeding quite swiftly here, with foreigners and the elderly alike all signing up.
I’ve been reading a lot of American news about progress getting the U.S. population vaccinated against COVID-19. Up until last week, it did not feel like much progress with vaccinations was being made around me, where I live in Shanghai. Then BOOM! starting last week, it seemed like suddenly everyone around me was getting their first shots.
There’s an interesting attitude about the COVID vaccination among Chinese friends I talk to. Almost no one I talked to wanted to get it early, but pretty much everyone seems to be getting it now. Last week when I mentioned that old people (over 59) can’t get vaccinated yet, the universal reaction was, “that would be too risky!” So there seems to be a common distrust in the quality of the medical testing, but also a general commitment to everyone getting vaccinated. But this week the elderly are starting their their vaccinations in Shanghai already. My 70-year-old Shanghainese mother-in-law is getting vaccinated right now, as I write this.
And what of us foreigners? There has been more than a little cynicism among expats I’ve talked to. Surely we’re absolute lowest priority? A Chinese friend, echoing the lack of faith in medical testing I mentioned, said something along the lines of, “it’s too risky to give the Chinese vaccinations to foreigners early, because if anything goes wrong, it’ll turn into a big news story.”
But COVID vaccinations for foreigners started this past Monday, March 29. You can sign up through WeChat. Still, I don’t actually know anyone here who’s done it here, and my own attempt to make an appointment failed. Whether that was due to high demand or a buggy reservation system rollout, I can’t say.
I expect that a lot of foreigners living in Shanghai will be getting the vaccine in April, though. You could say that vaccine is the key that unlocks our gilded cage. A lot of us are itching to get out of China, even for just a little while (even if it’s not yet practical to go back to our home countries for a visit).
Meanwhile, life continues in Shanghai more or less as usual, with masks required in some places (public transit, hospitals, etc.) and large shopping malls taking the temperature of anyone who enters.