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 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?