Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuantuan & Yuanyuan - Communist Youth League Operatives

They're incredibly cute and fluffy and everybody loves them. That's why they make --- the perfect spies.

Recently China sent a pair of adorable pandas named Tuantuan and Yuanyuan over to Taiwan as a goodwill gift between the two countries (or one country and one rogue province, depending on how you look at it).

All the news reports are saying how the pandas names together mean "reunion." And this is true. In Chinese, their names are 团团 (tuan2 tuan2) and 圆圆 (yuan2 yuan2), and the word 团圆 (tuan2 yuan2) means "reunion," therefore suggesting that the pandas could be a catalyst for China and Taiwan to reunite into one China (which even a whole platoon of pandas would have difficulty achieving).

HOWEVER, a homonym for 团圆 is 团员 (tuan2 yuan2), which is short for "member of the Chinese Communist Youth League!" (中国共产主义青年团 zhong1 guo2 gong1 chan3 zhu3 yi4 qing1 nian2 tuan2). The CCYL is for people ages 14-28, and is a kind of precursor to joining the actual Communist Party. Although many high school graduates are members, most of them do not actually go on to join the Party. Most pandas are not Party members either.

But this panda duo could be moles, sent to Taiwan in order to recruit and cultivate a new CCP Youth League presence within the borders of the renegade territory! Ingenious, really.

Another important question is "why do they always give pandas names with one character repeated twice?" Actually, Chinese tend to do this with all of their animal friends. In fact, I once met and played with a real panda! Her name was Didi, and she lives at Wolong Panda Preserve in Sichuan.

When I lived in Beijing in the late '90s, pets were just starting to become popular. I remember one guy in an outdoor kungfu class I was taking had a dog named "Ben Ben." Oh, it was the source of endless fun for the other classmates.

People get double-character nicknames too, especially young people. It is a sign of affection and sounds cute. If they just called the pandas Tuan and Yuan, it would be far less amusing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Character revival: Jiong

Chinese is an old language, but it is still evolving robustly. Or perhaps devolving is a better word.
Recently I was looking on ChinaSMACK and I saw that the site's motto character is (jiong3). I did some research and found out that this character's original meaning is "bright," as in light coming through a window. The first Chinese characters were pictograms engraved on turtle bones and shells and used in oracles. Jiong's oracle-bone character (see image at right) meant simply "window," says Richard Sears. Weird looking window.

But, according to the website shenmeshi.com ("shenmeshi" is pinyin for 什么是 meaning "what is," dot com), "jiong" has now become an emoticon, like the ubiqitous ":)". The character 囧 is made up of three parts: 囗, 八, and 口. This from shenmeshi:

"In Web speak, 囗 = the face, 八= two drooping eyes, and 口 (under the eyes)= the mouth. 囧 represents surprise, or something to make your expression change, for example:

"Person A: Yesterday I woke up and discovered my body was covered with 100 cockroaches.
Person B: 囧."

It goes on to say that is related to the online phrase "orz," which I had also never heard of. Turns out orz is an emoticon that originated in Japan. It is an ASCII representation of a stick person on his knees, hands on the floor, with head down also touching the floor. The name of this emoticon is "失意体前屈" (shi1 yi4 ti3 qian2 qu1), or "disappointed body bent forward." You can kind of see that the "o" is the head, and the "rz" is the body, arms hanging down and knees bent on the floor." Originally it was used to express dispair or disappointment, but then changed to also mean "bowing down to you," or submission.

Now sometimes the "o" is replaced with 囧, or other similarly head-like-looking characters.

崮 = King of Jiong (actually gu4, steep-sided mountain)

莔 = Queen of Jiong (meng2, some kind of herb)

商 = Jiong wearing a Chinese hat (shang1, commerce)

The cyclical nature of things is astounding. In 5,000 years, you go from representing pictures of things on shells to tell the future to a complex character-based language system. Then computers are invented, and the characters which took so long to evolve and perfect lose their meaning and become simple emoticons. In conclusion, ;^)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Max Planck: Pimpin Ain't Easy

My brother Andy called this one to my attention. Thanks, Andy! Melbourne-based newspaper The Age reported that the scientific journal Max Planck Research used what it thought was a representative selection of Chinese calligraphy on the cover of its special China issue. However, it turned out to be a sordid advertisement for strippers! Yay science!

Supposedly the editors called on a "German sinologist" to approve the cover, but apparently this did not work out. The magazine eventually replaced the offending cover with a less-sexy one, which featured the cover page of a 1627 book, "Illustrations and Explanations of Strange Machines."
I looked at the original magazine cover, and even without reading it I could immediately tell that it was not a good choice. The calligraphy is bad, for one thing, and there are English letters in there, too! It was not easy for me to decipher on my own, but it is all over the Chinese webosphere so the characters were in electronic form, which helps me. Here is what it says in Chinese:


Here is the best I can do:

Hired for long-term daytime performances for lots of money,
Directors KK and Jiamei personally instructed these young jade girls,
Northern beauties with every kind of attitude.
Their bodies will inflame your desires, these young housewives,
Flirtatious and enchanting, they will be on stage soon!

That's good stuff. This is indicative of two things. 1) German sinologists are funny people and not to be trusted. 2) Many Westerners think of Chinese as a decoration (explored more intelligently on this great site, Language Log, from UPenn), and vice-versa. The fact that it was a bunch of Chinese characters was enough for it to qualify as a representation of China.

But Asians do the same thing with English. Just go to China or Japan and look at the t-shirts people wear. I remember shirts that looked like they were from a college, but the collegiate lettering just said "GSKNEB." I also remember another really popular brand of track outfit when I first went to China sported the logo: "Advanced For Better Concentration." My Thai friend from badminton's name is "Note." His brother is "Knot." I asked him why and he didn't really know, he just said that many people took English names for nicknames -- because it is cool!
I think the choice of the 17th-century book cover was a good choice for the magazine's revised cover, considering the scientific nature of the journal. The book it refers to was dictated by missionary Johann Terrenz Schreck, and is a description of Renaissance-era machines and technology. Planck, the founder of quantum theory, would probably approve. Although who knows, maybe the guy was into strippers!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chinese Coke: Tasty-Happy

Some brands don't translate well into other languages, like the Chevy Nova, which in Spanish means Chevy No-Go. But when Coke came to China in 1978 as the only foreign company allowed to sell packaged cold beverages, it hit the ground running and hasn't stopped. That's thanks in part to its great brand name in Chinese.

For some reason, last night at badminton we were discussing the Chinese name for Coca-Cola, which is: 可口可乐 (ke3 kou3 ke3 le4). This is really an ingenius translation, and no doubt helped propel the soft-drink maker into the Chinese stratosphere. The first part, 可口 (ke3 kou3) means "tasty," or "delicious." Then the next half, 可乐, (ke3 le4), literally means "really happy," although nowadays it stands alone as the generic word for "cola" of any kind. So Coke in Chinese is "Tasty-Happy." Or just "Tasty-cola," since cola has worked its way into the Chinese lexicon.

Pepsi's name is 百事可乐 (bai3 shi4 ke3 le4), which sort of means "100 Things to Make You Happy." Again, it is also just "100 Things Cola" now, but the literal translation still isn't bad. Sprite's name is a little more poetic: 雪碧, (xue3 bi4), "snowy green jade."

Some product names are translated with poetic names firmly in mind. Take furniture giant IKEA, for example: 宜家 (yi2 jia1). In "English," the name is apparently an acronym of Ingvar Kamprad (founder's name) Elmtaryd (his family farm) Agunnaryd (his home county in Sweden).

According to blogger Xie Zhichun, IKEA's Chinese name was taken from a poem in the ancient 诗经 (shi1 jing1) or "Book of Songs," that goes: 桃之夭夭, 灼灼其华. 之子于归, 其室. (tao2 zhi1 yao1 yao1, zhuo2 zhuo2 qi2 hua2. Zhi1 zi3 yu2 gui1, yi2 qi1 shi4 jia1) "The lovely peach tree displays its magnificent flowers. When the new bride arrives, she brings harmony and peace to the home." The word for IKEA is taken from the last part of the poem and basically means "harmonize the home." Good one, Ingvar.

Revlon is another poetic one. In Chinese, the make-up company's name is translated as 露华浓, (lu4 hua2 nong2). It kind of sounds like the English version (which is based on company founders Charles and Joseph Revson's last name with an "L" inserted in the middle for their chemist, Charles Lachman), but the Chinese version refers to a poem by Li Po, which he wrote about famously hot Tang Dynasty imperial consort Yang Guifei (杨贵妃, yang2 gui4 fei1). And it goes a little something like this: "云想衣裳花想容,春风拂槛露华浓." (yun2 xiang3 yi1 shang hua1 xiang3 rong2, chun1 feng1 fu2 jian4 lu4 hua2 nong2). "Clouds make me think of her clothes and flowers remind me of her visage, the spring breeze blows by her door and reveals her deep magnificence." So Revlon wants Chinese consumers to believe that they will reveal a woman's "deep magnificence," a good thing for a cosmetic product to do!

This is a clever translation that works on several levels: phoenetically (loosely); poetically (real nice) and historically (Yang Guifei is a well-known babe of historic proportions. See statue above!).

Next time: Brand names that don't work! (If I can find any...)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Radical, dude

Chinese characters are made up of distinct parts called "radicals," or sometimes called "section headers" (bu4 shou3 部首). (So called because of the way you look up characters in a Chinese dictionary.) The current 214-radical system is based on the Kang Xi Dictionary, which was formalized in the 18th century by Qing Dynasty Emperor Kang Xi (kang1 xi1 康熙 ). Most radicals are also characters on their own.

Each radical means something, and often the combination of radicals is a clue to what the whole character means, or sometimes it is a clue to the pronunciation.

For example: The radical represents "three drops of water (san1 dian'r3 shui3)." It even looks like it!

Then this radical, 目, represents "eye (mu4)." Unlike the 'three drops,' this is an actual character, as well as a radical. Put them together and you have "tears (lei4)"!

The characters I wanted to talk about today are characters that are made up of the same radical repeated 2 or 3 times within the same character. These are called "totally radical" characters. (Not really). With these you really get a sense of how cool and interesting the language is. Here are some good examples.

1) Forest and the trees: The character/radical mu4, 木, means "wood, or tree." Put two "mu's" together and you have 林 (lin2), which means forest (it's also a surname). Then put three of them together (森, sen1) and the meaning changes to "luxuriant vegetation!" Therefore a common word for forest is sen1 lin2, 森林. So the word for forest in Chinese is essentially "tree tree tree, tree tree."

2) Sound of Thunder: Thunder in Chinese (雷, lei2) is made up of two radicals, rain (雨, yu3) and field (田, tian2). But if you want to convey a really massive, intense, nerve-shattering thunderclap, throw three thunders together to get this insane ideogram:
This pen-destroying character takes a whopping 39 strokes to write, so if you use it you'd better mean it, buster.

3) Ancient chauvanists? The character for woman (女 , nv3) is a representation of a figure kneeling down. If you think that is sexist, check out this one: , jian1, which is three 'woman' radicals all together. This means "villainous, treacherous or debaucherous." (It really makes you wonder what happened to the guy who invented that character.) The 3-woman version is the traditional form of the character. In simplified characters it is , which is less blatant but still has one 'woman' radical in it.
In the same vein, the character 嬲, niao3, is two 'man' radicals on either side of a 'woman.' It means "to flirt or tease."

4) Five elements x 3: In Daoist philosophy, there are five main elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. (金 jin1, 木 mu4, 水 shui3, 火 huo3, 土 tu3.) Each of these is a radical as well as a word, and each element has a character that is made up of itself repeated three times:
3 Metals: 鑫 xin1, used in names to symbolize prosperity.
3 Woods: 森 sen1, lush vegetation (as described above)
3 Waters: 淼 miao3, vast expanse of water, infinity
3 Fires: 焱 yan4, flames (also has a 2- and 4-radical version: 炎 yan2, inflamed; 燚 yi4, lots of flames)
3 Earths: 垚 yao2, embankment (also has 2-radical version, 圭 gui1, a type of jade tablet.)

There are many more of this type of character. If I find some really weird ones, perhaps I will revisit the topic in the future. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sarah Palin in Chinese

In the interest of getting everyone super-excited to get out and vote, I have revisited this important topic: Wacky translations of U.S. candidates' Chinese names.

Previously I revealed the translations of the Chinese names of U.S. presidential candidates/hopefuls. But now that we have the VPs settled as well, it is about time to disclose how these two people - Joe Biden and Sarah Palin - are named in the Chinese press. Their names are two more classics in the 'messed-up-out-of-context-literal-translation' category.

Let's start with everyone's favorite right-wing mooseslayer Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. (莎拉佩林, sha1 la1 pei4 lin2). Her first name, Sarah, is composed of two characters: 莎 sha1; 拉 and la1.

The first character actually has two pronunciations: sha1 and suo1. Read "suo," it is a type of sedge grass apparently used to make ancient raincoats. The "sha" pronunciation is generally used as a phonetic element in foreign names like Shakespeare and Mona Lisa. But it also has a third meaning: a type of insect. The "sha"-bug is a katydid or long-horned grasshopper, otherwise known in Chinese as the (纺织娘 fang3 zhi1 niang2), which literally means "weaving girl." (I don't get it either.)

The second part of Sarah is "la1." Also a favorite with phoneticizers, this character actually means "to pull." OK onto the last name: 佩林 pei4 lin2, which in Chinese sounds pretty close to the English pronunciation.

Pei4 has multiple meanings including "to carry or hang off of," "admire," and "girdle ornament." The last refers to the practice in ancient China where women used to wear jade ornaments that hung off of their belts. And...

Lin2 is composed of two "wood" radicals, and therefore means "woods," or "forest."

Let's recap: Sarah Palin's name in Chinese means: "Katydid pulls the girdle-ornament forest."

OK, on to Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden (乔拜登 qiao2 bai4 deng1). Biden's name is usually written as just a 2-character transliterated surname: 拜登, bai4 deng1. The "qiao" part is supposed to sound like "Joe." Here's how it breaks down:

Qiao2 means tall or lofty. It is also a real Chinese surname, so it gives his name a slight air of authenticity, though here is it supposed to sound like his first name, Joe.

Bai4 means to bow, or kowtow, or to worship.

Deng1 means to scale, climb, or to mount.
Not terribly exciting, but in a nutshell Biden's name means: Tall kowtows and mounts. But, if we take the qiao2 to be "Joe" and combine it with Obama's Chinese name we have a more interesting-sounding final Democratic ticket:

Joe kowtows and mounts Mysterious sticky horse.

Who wouldn't vote for that?

Note: I admit that the title of this post is a shameless attempt to have Google find my blog, just in case someone searches for how to say Palin's name in Chinese.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The art of the Wait-For-It Phrase, or "xie hou yu"

In a previous post I described the 歇后语, xie1 hou4 yu3, or "wait-for-it phrase," (WFI) a figure of speech in Chinese that is used humorously to express an idea in an ironic or pun-like way.
Other languages have similar playful phrases.

Cockney rhyming slang, for example: "Shut yer bloomin' boat!" wherein "boat" refers to "boat race" which rhymes with "face," so it means "shut your face." Or: "Lend us a Percy, I need to make a call." Where Percy = Percy Thrower (British TV gardening personality), which rhymes with "blower,"which means "phone." ... I know.

Or American English:
(From the Fat Albert Show, courtesy of Eric, of the Internet, possibly classmate Eric Aldrich from Nanjing University)
"Man, you're like school in the summertime - no class."
"Mudbone, you're like Robinson Crusoe - all washed up."
"Your sister's like a doorknob - everybody gets a turn." (I don't think Fat Albert ever said that one)

The above examples are close to the Chinese wait-for-it phrase, but there is a slight difference. In English, the punchline says what you were trying to say about the person in the first place, e.g. "you have no class." But the xie hou yu takes it one step further. Observe:

1) "You're like an ant peeing on a book - you can't read well."
At first it doesn't make sense, but the WFI phrase is: 蚂蚁尿书上 -- 识(湿)字不多 (ma3 yi3 niao4 shu1 shang4 - shi2 (shi1) zi4 bu4 duo1). 'An ant pees on a book -- not many characters get wet' But the word 湿 (shi1, 'wet'), sounds like 识 (shi2*, 'recognize' - in this case referring to characters) so the answer sounds like 'can't recognize very many characters'. (*Even tho the tones are different, it is still a homonym in this case. I didn't know that before.)

The kicker, or second part of the phrase, is an established saying (that is the point of saying the phrase), but it is also a pun! Layers upon layers of cleverness.

Here is another one. 一百天不拉屎 - 坚持不懈 (yi1 bai2 tian1 bu4 la1 shi3 - jian1 chi2 bu4 xie4) "Not [going No. 2] for 100 days - perseverance without rest" (The kicker - 坚持不懈 - means 'perseverance without rest,' and is an established phrase sometimes used when referring to revolutionary gung-ho-ness. But here, the last character in the phrase, 懈 (xie4, 'to rest') and 泄 (xie4, 'to drain, or evacuate (the bowels)' are homonyms. Get it?

Not all are scatological of course. Those are just more immature and thus more easily understood by yours truly. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of WFI phrases. Sometimes they are fairly straightforward (and more directly translatable):

2) "You're like a dog catching mice - not minding your own business"
狗咬耗子 -- 多管闲事 (gou3 yao3 hao4 zi -- duo1 guan3 xian2 shi4) You know, because catching mice is the cat's job, so the dog is getting all up in the cat's business.

3) "A mute eating Chinese goldthread - can't express your troubles."
哑巴吃黄莲 — 有苦说不出 (ya1 ba1 chi 1 huang2 lian2 - you3 ku3 shuo1 bu4 chu1)
The plant Chinese goldthread (黄莲) is really bitter, and "eating bitterness" refers to troubles or problems in Chinese.

4) "A monk living in a cave - no problem."
老和尚住山洞 -- 没事。(没寺)(lao3 he2 shang zhu4 shan1 dong4 - mei2 shi4 (mei2 si4) )In this case, "no problem" (没事 mei2 shi4) sounds like "no temple" (没寺 mei2 si4) which is the pun. The monk lives in the cave cuz he's got no temple, but it sounds like 'no problem.'

This one is interesting too, because as we saw before, sometimes different-toned characters can be taken as homonyms (like with 'wet' and 'recognize' in #1) but here, we have what I like to call "regional consonantal elision." (Just made that up) In some parts of China phonemes like "shi" and "chi" are pronounced without the "h," so like, "si" and "ci." In Taiwan, for example, they will say "ci1 fan4," (eat) and "ci2 hui4" (vocabulary) whereas in Beijing they will say "chi1 fan4" and "ci2 hui4."

OK last one.

5) "Zhang Fei throwing a chicken feather - has great strength but difficulty implementing things"
张飞扔鸡毛--有劲难使 (Zhang1 Fei1 reng4 ji1 mao2 - you3 jing4 nan2 shi3)
This is an example of a literary/historical WFI phrase. Zhang Fei is a character in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (also a real general). He had legendary strength and skill, so him throwing a feather is like yeah, he could put all his strength into it, but it really would not accomplish much.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Water bears in Spaaaace!

[Note: This has little to do with Chinese or translation, just was interesting to me.]

The other day I read all about these weird creatures called tardigrades, also known as "water bears." [OK, there is some Chinese in this post: water bear = 水熊 (shui3 xiong2) ] They are microscopic invertebrates who have eight legs with little claws and look like strange, alien gummi bears. They also have a sweet skill called "cryptobiosis," where in extreme environments they dry up into little balls, called "tuns," and their metabolism slows to 0.01% of its normal rate.

I was reading a study today about an experiment where these German and Swedish scientists put a bunch of tardigrade tuns onto a spaceship and exposed the water bears to the vacuum of space and strong UV radiation. They brought them back to Earth, and most of them survived and were able to reproduce after being rehydrated.

What captured my interest was 1) the way these things look (see photos) and 2) the fact that they can survive in space unprotected. Altho it is important to note that the water bears are not actual "extremophiles" since they do not "live" in extreme environments (preferring to live in drops of water on moss leaves), but they can survive extreme conditions.

PREDICTION: Someday people will be injected with water bear genes and will be able to dry up, get launched into space at near light speed and wind up on a habitable planet 6,000 years later, rehydrate and begin partying.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beijing Dairy Air - the origin of "niu bi"

My most successful (in terms of views) posting so far was the one about the Chinese saying "jia you" (let's go!). In that entry I mentioned another, more infamous Chinese exclamation: "Niu bi!" (牛屄 niu2 bi1, pronounced "nee-yo bee"). This phrase is interesting for a number of reasons.

1) It is used as a cheer, but also an exclamation meaning "awesome," or "fantastic."

2) It literally means "cow [bad word for genitalia]."

3) The real character for "bi1" is so graphic and profane that almost nobody uses it. The substitute character most often used is "逼", which is a homonym for the other word but actually means "to compel." Another substitute is the Roman letter "B." [If you search Google for each of these combinations, the real phrase (牛屄) yields about 31,000 results. The second, euphemistic, 牛逼 comes up with 3 million, and "牛B" gives up about 5 million results.]

4) It's origin is an enigma, surrounded by riddles, shrouded in mystery. (You know, like Russia)

5) I will now attempt to explain, for the first time ever, the history of this colorful and bizarre phrase for the Western audience.

Theories abound online about the origin of the phrase. It is worth mentioning that there are two versions of the expression, with slightly different meanings. The first is as I described above, 牛屄, niu bi, meaning great or awesome. The second version is 吹牛屄 (chui1 niu2 bi1), which literally means "blowing the cow ****." This means "to boast or brag." You can also just say "chui niu," blowing the cow, which also means to brag. What the hell, you might ask. The prevailing theory is that 吹牛屄 (chui niu bi) is actually a corruption of the less-dirty 吹牛皮 (chui niu pi2), which also means to boast (lit. "blowing the cow skin"). The parables I found on Chinese search engine Baidu that make *the most sense* (they are still weird) are as follows:

1) The Boastful Butcher

Long ago (and still today) after a butcher slaughtered a sheep or a pig and drained all the blood out, the butcher would cut a small hole in the animal's leg, near the foot. They would insert an iron pipe into the hole, and blow into the pipe until the carcass was fully inflated. This made it much easier to skin the animal, and with just a light touch of the knife the skin would come right off. This was called "blowing the pig" or "blowing the sheep." If you do this to a cow, it is called "blowing the cow." But, butchers rarely used this method on cows, because the cow's body is so large, and its skin is tough, and there is little fat under the skin. So to inflate an entire cow carcass in this manner would take an incredibly strong diaphragm and super-powerful lungs, so only an extraordinary person could do it. So whoever says they can "blow the cow (吹牛 chui niu)" is 99.9999% "blowing the cow!"

2) Crafty Rafters

According to experts' research, the Chinese expression "blowing the cow skin" comes from the upper reaches of the Yellow River. As the river flows through the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi, the waters are fierce, the waves are hazardous and piloting boats is difficult. In ancient times, when bridges were not so developed, the people on the shores had to figure out how to deal with the difficult problem of crossing the river. So they came up with the idea of using leather rafts instead of boats. Until the 1950s, before trains had reached these areas, leather rafts were an important transport tool for the people living along the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

The basics of a leather raft are as follows: During slaughter, the butcher would remove the skin of a sheep or a cow as one piece. Then they used salt water to remove all the hair, spread plant oil on the four limbs and neck, soaked it in water, and dried it in the sun. After it became soft, they sewed it up with a thin cord to make a sealed bag, leaving just one small hole. After it was blown up the hole was sealed and several of these leather bags were linked together with wooden boards, and thus a raft was created. And in those days, there were no pumps so the only way to inflate these rafts was to use your mouth. A sheep skin was pretty small and you could just blow it up. But even with the sheep skin, it took a lot of lung strength to do it. But a cow skin was too big, and it could not be done by using your mouth only. So, along the upper Yellow River, if someone said he could blow up a cow skin raft, he was considered a braggart. The people there, not tolerant of boastful words, would say to those who bragged about themselves: "If you really have what it takes, go down to the river and blow up a cow skin! (吹牛皮 chui niu pi), " So, over time, "blow the cow skin" came to mean brag or boast.


Eventually the phrase was altered by Beijingers and the dirty part was added to connote extra vehemence when deriding a braggart. Then, the 吹 (blow) part was dropped and the last part, cow ****, was left and came to mean totally awesome.
Ah, Language. What a bizarre and twisted mistress you are.
Some other theories from Web forums:

"Some say that because a niu bi is pretty big, “niu bi” has the meaning of surpassing the ordinary. I think this makes sense, and submit it to the reader for consideration."

"The phonetics of the word were corrupted. 'Pi' was changed erroneously in Beijing to the similar sounding and oft-used word, 'bi.'"

"Beijingers have always been clever and inventive and full of humor. Maybe they thought that “pi” was too boring and abstract. Why would you blow a “pi”? Let’s blow the cow “bi”! This song is offered as evidence:

If you want to blow 'niu bi,'
First climb the West Drum Tower.
Buy a leather pipe
Aim at the 'niu bi'
Use a little effort,
And the cow will roll its eyes"

You decide!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Do old words ring true?

Chinese film director Zhang Yimou directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics this year. I could definitely see his influence, especially in the closing ceremonies, where they had the multi-colored banners flying up to look like the torch. The guy loves large swathes ot textiles for some reason, and they appear in many of his films.

Almost 10 years ago, I interviewed Zhang for the magazine "Beijing This Month" (Feb., 1999). In the interview I asked him if he thought he was an "international figure." At that time he had directed the movies "Raise High the Red Lantern" and "To Live," and "Red Sorghum." He had directed other films, but those were known to the West (in a limited capacity). At the time, he replied:

"I don't really think I am 'internationalized.' First of all, I can't speak English. I only speak Chinese, so it's not convenient to go abroad. My main activities are all in China."

Now, with the international success of his films like "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," and of course his work with the Olympics, the most international of all events, he might say differently. (I don't know if he has learned English yet.)

I was sifting through that old interview, and found a quote that I thought was kind of intriguing, based on some of the controversies centered on the Olympics. His quote was in response to a question about his being criticized for showing an unpleasant part of Chinese history, for example in "Raise the Red Lantern." That film is about a woman who becomes a concubine of a landlord in 1920's China. Some Chinese critics were saying that he only shows negative things about China and panders to Western audiences. So he said:

"China is very interesting... You know, 'Donkey sh*t is shiny on the surface.' [驴子屙屎外面光 lv2 zi e4 shi3 wai4 mian4 guang1] The Chinese traditional mentality is to dress up and present a beautiful side to everybody. People are not always willing to face reality."

In terms of language, with his donkey analogy, Zhang was using a mode of speech known as 歇后语 (xie1 hou4 yu3), or "wait-for-it phrases." That's not the real name for them, but they are pun-like phrases often used to express satirical ideas. I remember in school in Nanjing one classmate did a presentation on these types of sayings. His comparison was with an English language dis: "Your sister is like a door knob -- everybody gets a turn." The online dictionary mdbg.net defines "xie hou yu" as a "stable figure of speech contrasting two incompatible parts, such as English 'snowball's chances in hell.'"

I call them "wait-for-it phrases" because you say the first part, e.g. "A donkey takes a sh*t ---" and then say the punchline (wait for it....) "--shiny on the surface." (I think I will dedicate my next post to wait-for-it phrases. Stay tuned!)

In more profound terms, consider Zhang's words in light of the singing girls Yang Peiyi and Lin Miaoke. Yang was considered not perfect-looking enough to be in the ceremony, so Lin was substituted and lip-synched while Yang sang in the background. Then there is the gymnastics team. Who knows if they are 16 or not? But it seems like they are, so that is very important.

And then there is the entirety of the Olympic complex and the renovation of the city. Millions of people were displaced to make room for the buildings -- which are amazing, no doubt about that. The real thing to look for is what will happen from now on, now that the games are over? Will the shiny surface of Beijing be worn away to expose mere donkey dung, or does the city have new substance now that it has been the star of the biggest international show on the planet?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

China, add oil!

When Olympics fans are cheering the U.S. team, the main chant is "USA! USA!"

In China, the cheer is 中国队加油! (Zhong1 guo2 dui4 jia1 you2), Basically it means, "let's go Chinese team." Fairly simple, but there is an interesting story behind it. The first part 中国队, means "Chinese team." But the second part, 加油, (pronounced "jyah yo") literally means "add oil," or "add gasoline," as in "gas station": 加油站 (jia1 you2 zhan4).

NPR had a story about "jia you" being the officially sanctioned cheer for the games, but Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn said the origins of "jia you" are mysterious and might refer to stepping on the gas in a car, or adding cooking oil to a pot. There is also a NY Times blog about it. One of the responses to that post actually references the story I have translated below. Both the NPR and the NYT stories came out in the last couple of days, so for some reason people are thinking about it. (I am writing about it because Michala was asking me about the origin of the phrase last night.)

Here is a translation of the real story, according to the all-knowing international network of computers.

The origin of the phrase "jia you" dates back to the 14th century.

Liu2 Bo2 Wen1 (刘伯温) (1311-1375) was a famous Ming Dynasty general. But he always regretted that he did not live in the same era as the cleverest and most famous general of all time, Zhu1 Ge3 Liang4 (诸葛亮) (181-234). Since Zhuge Liang was long dead, there was no way for Liu Bowen to try and match wits with him.

One day Liu and his army came upon a plum tree forest. His mouth was dry and he spat on the ground, but when the spit hit the ground, it made a sharp "splat" sound. Perplexed, he ordered his men to cut the grass and brush around the spot to see what was there that would make such a noise. To his surprise, he found a stone monument that read: "Liu Bowen spat here." To his even further surprise, the monument was signed by Zhuge Kongming, the courtesy name of Zhuge Liang. He was impressed that Zhuge Liang would be that clever as to predict that Liu would spit there one day, but he was still not convinced that Zhuge Liang was smarter than he, so he kept going into the forest.

Before long, he came upon a tomb. Taking a closer look, he discovered that it was none other than the grave of Zhuge Liang. He thought to himself, "Not bad, Zhuge Liang. You predicted that I would spit here on this day, but I bet you couldn't predict that I would find your tomb."

So Liu had his men open up the tomb, and he walked in by himself. He looked around and finally found Zhuge's sarcophagus. Next to it was a small oil lamp, that was flickering, just on the verge of running out of oil. Liu thought: "Hmph. Everyone says how clever and awesome you were, but here you are today, with your altar lamp about to extinguish itself."

But then he noticed next to the lamp was a piece of parchment, so he looked at it more closely. On the paper was written: "Old Liu, Old Liu, add oil, add oil." At this, he was dumbfounded, and immediately kowtowed before the sarcophagus three times. He then swept the tomb, out of newfound respect for Zhuge Liang. Henceforth the phrase "Add oil" has been used to encourage people.

I'm not sure how the story translates into cheering for a volleyball team, but there are lots of these parables out there, and many of them are old, but have led to phrases that are used today.

"Jia you" is not only used in sports, though. Right after the Chengdu earthquake, for example, the phrase was all over the Internet as a general "keep your head up" type of sentiment.

In his NPR report, Kuhn also referred to one of the "unsanctioned" cheers used by Beijingers, "niu2 bi1," which literally means "cow [genitalia]." I'll save the origin of that lovely phrase for a later post.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Poor zoning

All right, I had to get a picture of this and post it. It is too strange. On my commute to work there is a big cemetery, and a bunch of death-related businesses. But this little mall has several things grouped together that I think are bad marketing choices.
You've got your crematorium -- and your bakery. Then there's "Casket Mart," which is odd in itself, next to a meat & sausage store.
Is it just me, or is that a little creepy?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Writers of the Future!

I found out today that I received "honorable mention" in the Writers of the Future contest for 3rd Quarter 2008!
It is very exciting because this is a large, international, reputable contest for unpublished science fiction/fantasy writers. I entered a story I worked on this spring, titled "Charged Contact." The story is about a planetary geologist who is sent to a planet to perform a simple mineral extraction, but things take a turn for the wierd when he discovers the extraction site is not as barren as it is supposed to be... . Maybe I will post an excerpt on this blog in the future.
This is one of the only contests I have entered, and it is a real boost to be named honorably mentionable. I think I might get a certificate too, plus I can include it on a cover letter if I want to submit the story to a magazine.

I just started a new job, so that is why I have been lazy about posting blogs. The new job is taking some getting used to, but it is still reporting, so I am in somewhat familiar territory, aside from the subject matter (veterinary medicine).

In other news, Michala and I played in the State Games of the West badminton tournament in Colorado Springs on Sunday. In Mens B Singles I won my first round, but lost in the second round to the eventual winner of the division, some dude from Oregon. In mens B doubles my partner and I lost the last round in the consolation bracket, so did not get the bronze. Michala and I won the silver medal in the Mixed C division. Should have won the gold, but oh well.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Ancient Enemies no more

Imagine trying to translate a book if all you had were the cover, and someone who had read it like 80 years ago. You could get an idea of what it was about, but the details wouldn't be there.

I just got back from an fantastic trip to Mesa Verde National Park down in southwestern Colorado. The main feature of the park is the series of ancient cliff dwellings, constructed from sandstone blocks and mortar, like the one above, which is part of the structure called Cliff Palace. (Taken by me with my awesome new used Nikon D70s.)

For some reason I really got into learning about the history of the place and the people who lived there. I had seen some of these ruins before, when I was on a Colorado Outward Bound School trip in high school. I remembered that the people who lived in the dwellings were called Anasazi, and they mysteriously disappeared. Well, a lot has changed since then...

Anasazi is a Navajo word, which means "ancient enemy," or "enemy ancestors," or "ancient people who are not us," depending on which web site you go by. But now, according to the parks people, the preferred term is "Ancestral Puebloans." This is because the accepted wisdom now is that instead of mysteriously vanishing, the people who lived there simply moved. The minor mystery is why did they move, but it is generally thought now that the Pueblo Indians who are around today, such as the Hopi and Zuni, are the ancestors of the "Anasazi."

The Hopi prefer to call them Hisatsinom (hih-ZAHT-sih-nohm), "the old ones," (not to be confused with Yog-Sothoth and Cthulu, Lovecraft fans) or more spookily, Moqui, "the dead." The Hopi apparently don't like the use of a Navajo word for their ancestors, which makes sense since the Navajo are a separate culture. Other Pueblo groups have other names for them.

The stuff they tell you at the park about the Hisatsinom culture is all inferred from modern Pueblo Indian culture (a method known as "ethnographic analogy"), since there were no written recordings left by the Hisatsinom. They did leave some rock art, or petroglyphs, but those are not considered language - yet, anyway. Obviously they had some sort of spoken language, because the traditions and culture have been communicated continuously for several thousand years.

Some details are still alive, like the "sipapu," a hole in the bottom of the kiva (a ceremonial underground room), that is a reminder of where the people came from, i.e. the Lower World. The kivas actually seem to be the evolved version of the pithouse, which was what they lived in from at least 1500 BC to 800 AD or so.

How well does a culture translate from antiquity into the present? The modern Pueblo Indians continue their traditions today, but how different are they from the time of the Hisatsinom? It probably doesn't really matter. The cool thing is that there exists a multi-millenial continuity in their cultural heritage. How many of us can say that?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What, the devil?

Recently, my good friend Mary Anne sent me this mysterious picture of an octagonal coin that she found somewhere. She was wondering if it had ancient and benevolent Confucian messages on it, and at first glance it sure does not.

The first thing that catches the eye when seeing this coin is the large encircled character in the middle. It says "KILL."

The character on the right I knew said "ghost" or "demon." And on the left it clearly says "thunder" but under that is a weird one so I tried to look up the entire poem in an attempt to see if there was an explanation somewhere.

One clue was on the other side of the coin, (not pictured) which has the Eight Trigrams or 八卦(ba1 gua4), from the Book of Changes (易经 yi4 jing1). They are used for divination and other types of fortunetelling stuff I am not real clear on. So the coin was some sort of Taoist medallion or a replica thereof.

Searching for the second stanza in the poem (which I did because I recognized all four characters in it) led me to a Chinese forum where someone had discovered a similar coin and was wondering about its value. Turns out (according to this person anyway), that the coin is a Taoist talisman, inscribed with a spell to ward off evil. Which as a former D&D player and eternal fan of sorcery, real magicks, weirde shite, the occult, et cetera, I found to be really awesome.

I figured out that this coin is called 符咒钱 (fu2 zhou4 qian2), or "charmed money." AKA 避邪钱 (bi4 xie2 qian2) "Ward-against-evil money." Its purpose is not to be exchanged for goods or services like regular money, but rather to protect your very soul from possession by demonic forces. Which I suppose is technically a "service," but what I'm saying is, you can't buy a veggie dumpling with this thing.
In Chinese the full text reads as follows:

lei2 ting2 lei2 ting2
sha1 gui3 jiang4 jing1
zhan3 yao1 chu2 xie2
yong3 bao1 shen2 qing1

feng4 tai4 shang4 lao3 jun1 ji2 ji2 ru2 lv4 ling3 chi4

The large words on the left middle and right say
"Thunder kills the demons"

Here is how I have translated this spell. Note that I have (masterfully) maintained the Chinese rhyming scheme of 1,1,2,1. (in this case ting, jing, xie, qing)

Sound of thunder, sound of thunder
Kills the ghosts, drives sprites asunder
Beheads the goblins, wards off evil
Forever keeps the soul from plunder.

Tai Shang Lao Jun says it is so.

Tai Shang Lao Jun is a Taoist deity and this line is apparently common in Taoist incantations.

It is interesting to note several things here. First, the repetition mark. On the coin, right side, there is the large character, then going left from top to bottom you see the first two characters and then two squiggles. That indicates repetition. I haven't actually seen a double repetition mark like that. But there it is, and it means to repeat the previous 2 characters. You can find the mark on the left side, below the fifth character. It looks like a "z" kind of. Anyway, there it indicates repetition of the previous character only.

The other parts to notice are the odd, ancient words for ghost, goblin and sprite, and evil. I will go into those at another time. Until then, think of this spell when you hear thunder. Perhaps it is best to recite it a few times as well... Now that there is a definitive English version you should be OK!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Dave Matthews should talk to me

The Mile High Music Festival is approaching. The two day event will be held at Dick's Sporting Goods Stadium in Commerce City, which happens to be one of the cities I cover at work.
When I first found out about the festival, which will take place in August, I saw that Dave Matthews was one of the dozens of bands going to play there.

So I tried to call him. I actually got a hold of his publicist, but she eventually said that he is not available for interviews. Oh, well. Anyway, it looks like I will be able to interview at least some of the acts coming to Commerce City, which ones remains to be seen....

However it seems that the PR people still will not let us interview Dave Matthews. Or Tom Petty for that matter. Anyway, I started thinking about Dave Matthews songs and I remembered one called "The Space Between."

The first time I heard the song, I was wondering if Matthews knew Chinese. Because in Chinese there is a specific word that means "the space between." It is one of my favorite characters, because its very existence is quite poetic.

The word is (jian1). It is poetic because of the different parts - or radicals - that make it up. There are two radicals. (men2) means "door" and (ri4) means "sun." The sun radical is in the middle of the door radical, so one can imagine the source of the word. Someone saw the sun peeking through the middle of a double door, and they thought that was an accurate descriptor for the concept of the space between things. It also means just "between," or "among," but by itself it is simply a beautiful character.

If Matthews had consented to an interview with the Commerce City Sentinel Express, I could have alerted him, but alas, he will have to wait until he discovers my blog to find that out.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

"random" post

In high school, I wasn't great at math. My mom always said to think of it as another language.

In the case of a recent job, I learned how little I know about that language. I was translating, as usual, a diploma and transcript. Often I come across a course or two in the transcripts that I am not familiar with, but usually it makes some sense, like Fundamentals of Biogenetics. But this person had a masters degree in computer science, and let me tell you there are some strange things in that field.

The first thing I learned, which I should have known already, is the word for "random." I'm not sure I really used this word much when I was in China, although I know when I was describing life in Beijing to English-speakers I would definitely use it. "Random" in Chinese is
随机 (sui3 ji1). Now, is a complicated word. It can mean "opportunity," but it can also mean "machine." Also "secret." It is also a type of tree. Anyway, the question here is which is it in 随机?

"Random" could be defined as "following an opportunity." Take the definition in the Xinhua online dictionary: It gives the example of "a reporter walked on the street, randomly interviewing people." In other words, interviewing people as he/she randomly encountered them. But in the context of computers, it could be interpreted as "following the machine," like randomly generated numbers, or random access memory. "Following the secret" and "following the tree" don't really work, so we will conveniently disregard them.

I am sure the Chinese word was invented before computers, so it is likely one of those strange, in-between words, that express concepts as they were developed in China, but don't translate directly into English, but are now used in certain contexts.

Here are some more odd math words I discovered.

离散数学 - (li2 san4 shu4 xue2) - discrete mathematics
Sounds like a euphemism for bookie math, but actually this is the branch of mathematics that deals with "discrete" objects like integers (-2, 0, 99), instead of "continuous" objects, like real numbers (-2.5, 1.1, 42.9). Basically it involves algorithms, graph theory, combinatorics, and other really complicated stuff that computer geeks know. (This information was cobbled together from various Internet sites, and is very likely incomprehensible and/or incorrect).
The first part of the word in Chinese, 离散, literally means "leave and scatter," and is usually used in terms of relatives who don't see each other. Probably because they are always doing lattice theory homework in the computer lab. It is also translated as "discrete" for some reason.

排队论 (pai2 dui4 lun4)- Queueing theory
This is a theory that explains why, when you are in the checkout line (or queue) at Costco, you get in the shortest line, but it actually takes the longest. Then it goes on to explain why when you jump lines, the cash register in your new line suddenly freezes up, or the 10 pound pack of cashews won't scan.
Actually that isn't too far off. Queueing Theory (apparently that is the correct spelling) is very complex, but it deals with formulas that try to anticipate how much resources are needed to provide service to customers who are either waiting in line on the phone or online or whatever. According to Shmula's Queueing Theory page, it also involves something called Little's Law and something else called heijunka. Now we are getting into multiple languages so I will stop.

Here are two more, just for S&Gs:

面向对象方法学 - Object-oriented methodology
统一建模语言 - Unified modeling language

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Physics of Falling Contacts

This is a poem I wrote after I almost lost a contact lens.

The Physics of Falling Contacts

The common laws of physics are suspended for a bit,
Some mornings when I get up and at the mirror sit.
I take a piece of plastic: small concave and blue,
And stick it on my eyeball -- if my aim is true.
Oftentimes I miss my mark and down the contact goes,
Or sideways, backwards, even up - why that is no one knows.
Shrodinger his kitty, has got nothing on these things,
For once they come out of their box, only trouble do they bring.
With the contact lens there's only one true state of being,
That's "aggravation," man, but it's worth it for my seeing.

Note: the Schrodinger's Cat reference is about this theoretical quantum mechanics experiment where there is a cat in a box and a vial of poison which is released or not by a radioactive particle decaying. Then there is something about the cat's existing as both a live cat and a dead cat until it is actually observed, at which time its state of being is fixed, or at least it is affected by the act of being observed. I probably got it wrong but it fit into the poem nicely I thought.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Working on a translation the other day, I logged onto Chinese Google. I was surprised to see the signature colorful "Google" title in grey, and a black and white banner with the exact date and time of the huge earthquake that hit Sichuan Province on May 12.

The banner reads: "May 12, 2008, 2:28 p.m. Let us always remember this moment, and wish peace for those who perished, and strength for those who survived."

Clicking on the banner brings you to an information page, which has links to news about the quake, and also has a feature where you can type in a message looking for a relative. Or, you can send a text message to a server with your name, location and contact information so others can find you. Google also has a search page where information for survivors has been posted. It says: "As of May 21, 5 a.m., 38,200 entries have been recorded, covering 80 hospitals."

A typical entry says:
Name: Ren Zhiping
Sex: female
Age: 21
Home address: Du Jiang Yan
Hospital: Chengdu No. 5 People's Hospital
Then it has the phone number and the last time of update: May 20

It is really interesting to see the online ripples of the quake. The first thing I thought of when I saw the 5/12 banner in black and white was 9/11. I remember looking up CNN.com that day and the whole Web site was messed up and the format was different. The fact that a familiar Web site looked so different was jarring and unsettling. Of course Google often changes its logo to suit an occasion or a holiday, but the change to black and white - the Chinese colors of mourning - had a similarly disconcerting effect.

I was in Chengdu once, and traveled through Sichuan Province briefly, but I have some vivid memories from there. It is a beautiful (and super poor) place with amazing food and a huge variety of people and cultures. I'm with Google in wishing peace and strength to all the people there.

UPDATE: Actually it looks like all of the search engines are doing the black&white color scheme as part of a whole period of mourning, not just Google.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Compassion vs. Competition

Competition is derived from the Latin, competere, which means "to strive for together." Compassion is also from a Latin word, compati, meaning "to suffer with." They both feature the "com-" prefix, meaning "together." And both of these concepts can translate into the setting of say, a badminton tournament, where players are both suffering and striving together -- to win.

But the questions I had to ask myself at the last tournament in Fort Collins were: Is it possible to be compassionate in the midst of competition? Or is the "killer instinct" necessary to become a winner?

Here is the scenario: Last time, Michala and I had played a tournament together in the B bracket at the Colorado Open. In our first match we got summarily trounced by a guy who was clearly an A-level player; and his daughter, who was clearly inexperienced (not to mention like 12 years old) and probably a C or below. We kind of avoided smashing at the girl, since she was young and it seemed kind of wrong. But we paid for it by losing the match. Our compassion for the opponent cost us the match; or at least it cost us a bunch of points, which is the currency of badminton medals.

This time at the Fort Collins Open, we played down a level, in the C-bracket, thinking we would have a better chance at winning. But, the lesson from our last tournament came back to us in a new and diabolical form. This time, our opponents were a really good woman, paired with a beginner guy. I had talked briefly with the guy earlier and knew he was a newbie, and we'd also seen them play together. So from a purely strategic point of view, we realized we had to play the guy as much as possible, and avoid hitting to the woman who could probably return anything we threw at her. Which is exactly what we did. I felt slightly sorry for the guy as we were hitting and smashing at him, but we were winning, and I figured that it was all in the name of competition, so let 'em have it.

OK, the game was won and we moved on. We were going to be in the finals! Yay! But wait. Here comes the guy from the previous game, walking over to me. I said Hi. But he was mad at me. He said I was "unprofessional" and played with poor character. He said he is good at pool, but if we were playing pool he would not treat me the same way. I didn't know what to say so I said I was sorry. The slight twinge of guilt I had during the match with him and his partner suddenly mutated into a giant guilt-monster. I had caused this guy to have a bad time, and it was because of trying to be competitive.

He was suffering alone by losing, thus there was a lack of compassion there from me. But were he and I both striving for the same thing, i.e. competing? I was striving to win. Was he merely striving to have fun? And is that really in the spirit of the overall tournament setting? His comment about pool made me wonder: if I was in a pool tournament with the guy, would he really not try to beat me, and instead play down or let me win? Probably not. (I am bad at pool anyway, so it is a valid hypothetical situation -- not that he knew that.)

In the finals, we faced a team of a high level male player, and his wife, who was not as good. We knew to play the woman as much as possible, but we wound up not being able to do that very effectively. Not because we felt bad about doing it, it was just that the guy was much better. So we got the silver medal, which was great, and we felt we'd earned it, especially because of the final match, which went to 3 games (you play best of 3).

It might just be that there are no clear lines here. We have another tournament coming up on Sunday, and hopefully we can continue to learn from our experiences. This time we have decided to play in the B bracket again, to test ourselves.

Is playing to win a sin? Honestly, I don't think so, as long as we are growing and learning and suffering along with everyone else while striving to get better. But I still feel for the guy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Character development

Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) (259-210 BC) unified China by standardizing weights and measures, building roads, burying Confucian scholars alive, burning books, and also standardizing the Chinese language.
This was no easy task because even today there are myriad dialects in China and many of them cannot understand each other. But, if you learn to read, everyone can read the newspaper. In mainland China they use simplified characters, as opposed to traditional characters, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Here is an example of a simplified vs a traditional character.
These two characters are the same (gui3, turtle):
However, there is also a third type of character: the crazy Cantonese characters. These characters are definitely not Qin Shi Huang approved, and they make no sense if you don't know what you are looking at. I recently had a translation project that used these characters, and it was pretty difficult trying to decipher it. Here are a few of them that I learned:

啱喇 (ngaam1 laa3): "That's correct." The first character is completely made up to fit an existing Cantonese word for "right, appropriate." The second is just a final sound to have the exclamation end in a long vowel noise. If you try to say it out loud, just drag out the "laaa" for about 3 whole seconds while trailing off, and you will be speaking expert Cantonese. It is interesting to note that many of the characters that are made up to fit existing words have a "mouth" radical (口) next to them, like these two do. In real characters that often indicates that the word has something to do with your mouth (the above 喇 is also part of a real word for trumpet), but it can also indicate a purely spoken word.

唔係 (m4 hai6): "No." Again we see the mouth radical on the word "m." In Cantonese this word basically indicates negation of any verb that follows it. However, it is also a real character that means "hold in the mouth." The second character is also a real word meaning "link, connection." In this case the words were probably chosen due to their similarity in pronunciation to the Cantonese words for "not" and "is," which equals the word for no.

細蚊仔 (sai3 men1 zai2): "Children." This is kind of a really weird one. If you take the meanings of the characters literally, it means "thin mosquito babies." I can only guess that it is a combination of pronunciation and a good sense of humor. Another word for children is 細路哥 (sai3 lou6 go1) "thin road brother." Yeah, I know.

Qin Shi Huang may have forced thousands of people to build the Great Wall, and created a huge tomb with terra cotta soldiers guarding his body, but the barbarians eventually went around the Wall to invade China, and people dug up the soldiers. (Actually there is a movie about him which I really like called 古今大战秦俑情 (Ancient and Modern War of the Terra Cotta Lovers), starring Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.) So I guess it is only fitting that the Chinese language is once again becoming divided. Which is OK, really. I mean the guy was kind of a maniac.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The lost language of trains

If you never thought about it, you might think trains just blow their horns randomly as they are going by.

I used to be one of those people, until I moved into an apartment that is approximately 100 feet from a "grade crossing," or crossing at street level.

Now, every night between 12 and 4 a.m., a train rolls by and blasts its horn at a bone-rattling 100 dB. While working on a news story for the Brighton Blade about train "quiet zones" I discovered that the trains blow their horns in certain patterns, which mean different things. In the loose constraints of the blogosphere, I figure this information fits into the translation motif, and so here is a brief posting about the strange language of trains....

Below is a list of the common signals. The main one we hear at night is the long-long-short-long ( = = o = ) signal, indicating the train is within a 1/4 mile of the crossing. Some engineers take liberties with this signal, and I can now identify the different drivers, based on their interpretation of the signal.

For instance, Mr. Longhorn makes all of his signals really long, so it just drags on forever. Shortround gives two shortish longs, then a really short short burst, but then he lays on the final long for like 10 seconds.

Anyway, here is a list of the now-de-mystified, secret language of trains. (Courtesy of the Union Pacific Web site)

means long
o means short

of short sounds

"Look out you fools"
An attempt to get people or cows to look up and get the
heck off the train tracks.
Hitting the air brakes while train is stopped.
= =
"Leaving Dodge"
AKA: woo-woo sound. Train releases brakes and proceeds.
o o
"OK whatever"
Acknowledgment of any signal not otherwise provided for.
o o o

"Backing the thing up"
Train is backing up, or acknowledging hand signal to back up.
o o o o
A request for a signal to be given or repeated if not understood.
= o o o
"Watch my back"
Instruction for flagman to protect rear of train.
= = = =
"Come back!"
The flagman may return from west or south.
= = = = =
"Come baaack!"
The flagman may return from east or north.
= = o =

"Wake up, Ben and Michala!!"
Train is approaching public crossings at grade with engine in front.
Signal starts not less than 15 seconds but not more than 20 seconds
before reaching the crossing. If movement is 45 mph or greater, signal starts at or about the crossing sign, but not more than 1/4 mile before the crossing if there is no sign. Signal is prolonged or repeated until the engine completely occupies the crossing(s).
In addition, this signal is used when approaching private crossings if pedestrians or motor vehicles are at or near the crossing.

o =
"Crap, no brakes!"
Inspect the brake system for leaks or sticking brakes.
= o

"Coming through! Quiet zone be damned!"
Train is approaching people or equipment on or near the track, regardless of any whistle prohibitions.
After this initial warning, "o o" sounds intermittently until the head end of train has passed the people or equipment.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tela Mundi

The Internet is fun.
I probably spent like three hours doing research for this graphic that I wanted to post with the tournament posting. Here's how it went down:
I searched for a picture of jousting. Then I found this one, and wanted to put the word "badminton" into the text so it was kind of funny and clever.
But after I inserted the word badminton, I wanted to find out what the original text on the thing actually said. Then it could be even more clever, since it would actually say something in Latin. So I searched for text that I could actually read, namely "di cam deo", and I found
(here is how awesome Google is) this site: http://www.aug.edu/augusta/psalms/psalm41.htm
Which happens to have the entire Paris Psalter Psalm 41 in Latin and its translation -- in Icelandic or something. But I was able to grab the Latin phrase "Apud me oratio Deo vite mee. Dicam Deo: Susceptor meus es."
Notice on the tapestry that "oratio" is actually "oracio." What that implies I don't know. Anyway, I then searched the whole Latin phrase and found this site: http://www.medievalist.net/psalmstxt/ps41.htm
Which in turn allowed me to discover that the phrase is actually part of two verses, that mean:
"With me is the prayer to the God of my life, I will say to God, thou art my support."
So then I played around trying to find other even cleverer things to do to the text. I had "dicam deo forma et filum meus es." Trying to say "I will say to God: thou art my racquet and strings," and I finally found a forum somewhere where I learned how to say "do you want to play __" (ludere cupio ___ ), and then threw in "badmintonus."
SO now it says "With me is the prayer to the god of my life. I will say to God: do you want to play badminton?"
Blasphemous? Maybe. Fun? Definitely.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rotten cake

糟糕 (zao1 gao1) in Chinese means "rotten cake." It also means "really bad," which is how I did at the Colorado Open badminton tournament last weekend.
Not that I had a bad time! It was really fun, but that doesn't change the fact that I didn't do very well. Fortunately, there are about 4 other tournaments in the area in the next couple of months, so I have plenty of opportunities to improve/try again.
To the right is a picture of me serving, with my doubles partner Note to the right.
We did well in our first match and moved on to the second round. There, we won our first game against a pair of brothers, I think, but then got sloppy and lost the next two games. Michala was watching from the rafters, and said we would have won the second game if we'd been keeping better track of the score, but such is the way of things I guess.
In mixed doubles, we had been sitting around for about 5 hours, then had 4 minutes or less to warm up. Things were running very late at that point, and needless to say we did poorly. We played an unscheduled match against a very good player -- and his 10-year-old daughter. If you ask me, that was a decision made in poor taste and sportsmanship. OK, he was giving her experience, but the fact was that she barely played, and we didn't want to smash at her (at first) so we got totally spanked.
By the time we caught on to the fact that the only way to beat them was to "attack" the little girl, it was way too late. Then, the same team beat the German guy I lost to in singles and his female partner. During their match I was trying to think of a way to tell him to go after the girl in German, but I couldn't think of it.
Later I thought it might be something like "blitzen der fraulein!!" but I'm not sure. That may have just confused him.
Well, the next tournament is the Fort Collins Open in April. But, I just got a large translation to do so I will likely be distracted by that. It is interesting in that it is written Cantonese, which is quite different from written Mandarin. Mostly the same, but some key words are altered.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Tournament time

Last night in Westminster the excitement was palpable. The one word zipping around the gym more than "shuttlecock" was: "tournament."
Oh, the heart races at the thought of it! The English word brings to mind ancient battles and jousts and tests of mettle, fair maidens giving away tokens to their champions.
In Chinese, the word for tournament is way more mundane: 比赛 (bi3 sai4), literally "comparison contest." We'll see how my skills stack up.
Today, Friday, March 28, is the first day of the Colorado Open Badminton Tournament. I will be playing singles, men's doubles and mixed doubles. The doubles events are Saturday, but tonight are the singles matches. My first match-up is against Steffen, a German guy who is pretty good. It will be a tough match, but it is good I am playing him early on. He's got more stamina than me so if I faced him tired I'd have less of a chance. My main hope is to overpower him early and bump him out of the way.
I am playing men's doubles with my friend Note, a kid from Thailand. Apparently lots of Thai youngsters have English nicknames that are random words. Note's real name is Pawis. His brother's nickname is Knot. He said most of his friends have similarly monosyllabic English nicknames, so I guess I would fit right in, although the names seem to be nouns.
Last night Note and I played against the pair who won Gold in men's doubles (B) last year, and we beat them 21-10. So we feel pretty good, but we'll have to be aggressive against the players we don't know.
Michala and I will be playing mixed doubles, and again, if we can make it past our first match-up (against Steffen - again - and this woman Addy), we should be OK. I think there are only 8 teams so we have a decent chance of medaling. We've been playing well together recently, and last night we both felt pretty confident.
M is guaranteed a singles medal since there are only 2 women playing singles at all! The winner will get gold in B, the loser will get a gold in C.
I'm excited. I'm wearing my shorts under my work pants. Stay tuned for an update!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Badminton street cred

Two weeks ago our good friend Gregory was passing through Colorado on his way to Washington state from Vermont. Two things to know about Gregory: he makes great bread, and he is a fantastic badminton player.
Having spent many hours in his Subaru driving across the country, the man naturally wanted to play some badminton. So we took him to our Thursday night badminton gathering in Westminster.
Westminster badminton is great, but there is a weird badminton hierarchy in place.
I've been playing there for six months, and had not played a game with the "A" players, of which there are about 6. I'm pretty good, but not A level. But still, you need to play up in order to get better. Which I suppose is why they don't mix with the riffraff. Anyway, Gregory shows up, plays one game and spends the rest of the night battling the various A players to fight for dominance.
It's kind of like a primal herd, with the strongest Alpha players constantly butting heads to try and maintain superiority. Then another Alpha shows up and they swarm down on him, to make sure they are still in control. It was amusing to watch. If I sound like I am exempting myself from the primal herd model of badminton clubs, I'm not.
Just like any other animal society, the smaller ones (B-level players) want to challenge up and take a shot at the big dogs, or elk, or sloths or whatever. So I figured, since I brought Gregory, (who proved himself firmly in the A category) that should garner me some modicum of street cred, badminton style.
In fact, it did.
Last week, the gym was crowded, with nearly 50 individuals vying for court space. Luckily, I was picked up by Steveboy, a player of decent abilities, to play in a match with two Alpha players: Paul and Rohit. (Steveboy picked me up after I noticed he was choosing people to play with, and I obnoxiously said "pick me pick me!")
I partnered up with Paul, a Canadian (I think), who was typically taciturn as I walked on the court. His only advice: stay up at the net as much as possible (i.e. stay out of the way). But, despite a few stupid shots and unforced errors, I held my own and we defeated Steveboy and Rohit (who is actually very nice.)
Later in the evening, Rohit and Paul and Brent (another Canadian A player) were picking a game, and their fourth was in another match. So I approached them and said cockily: "need a fourth?"
Rohit, being the nice guy he is, said OK, and I got into an unprecedented second A-level game! Inconceivable.
And guess what, this time Rohit and I defeated the Canadian dudes. Nice!
So, did Gregory's coming to visit gain me valuable credibility on the Mean Courts of Westminster Badminton? Well, at least it gave me the confidence to say to the upper level players: I'm ready. Let's play. Word to your shuttle.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ben's ming nian

....long hiatus between posts.....
Somehow, everything came together in March, shortly after the beginning of the Chinese new year. Coincidence?
First: I finally got a job! I am a reporter in a northern Colorado suburb. I will be covering the local government and business.
Also: My fiancee and I also found an apartment in a small city west of Denver.
This is the year of the Rat , (shu3), for those who don't know. That means it is my 本命年 (ben3 ming4 nian2), or "Year of Personal Destiny." (my translation) Everyone has one, and it occurs every 12 years, beginning with the year you were born, as the zodiacal cycle repeats.
I've heard that your personal Year of Destiny is either really good or really bad, no in-betweens. The year of the rat began in early February in 2008, and about a month later, things started to fall into place. First with a job offer, then an apartment offer.

WEIRD SIDE NOTE: Here's a little tidbit of information about Chinese years, not related to the Animal Years thing. In Taiwan, years are officially written as Republic of China Year X. Where the current (Western) year = 1911+X. So, if you see Republic of China Year 90, it really means 2001. Quiz! What is this year in Taiwanese years? Ding! 97.
This is because the Republic of China began in 1911, replacing the Qing Dynasty, and Taiwan recognizes that instead of the PRC which started in 1949. The PRC uses the regular year system.

In your Year of Personal Destiny, you are supposed to wear a 红腰带 (hong 2 yao1 dai4), or Red Belt, in order to secure a prosperous YOPD. I actually had one once, while I was working at China Today magazine back in 1996. I didn't actually wear it, but I did wrap it around my computer. It is basically a red ribbon or strip of cloth, or even a string.
It is meant to ward off evil and disaster, and to attract good fortune. Apparently, though, college girls in Hangzhou are using them as a weight loss device.
Red is usually a good luck color, along with gold. Black and white are mostly reserved for funereal-type affairs.
We'll see how the rest of the Rat pans out....