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?


Susan said...

t this---very interesting. I think you should send to Vince and other Chinese translationists' blogs, also to Zhang Yimou. Great to see a new post on my fave blog!

Anonymous said...

Mian(4th) Zi(0) - it is such an interesting value system! You see it in Olympics, weddings, etc. Awesome translations again!

Can't wait to see your insight on those Xie Hou Yu :) Those ought to be really interesting!


Anonymous said...

Dude, I seriously think your Chinese is better than mine - and I'm not just saying that!! ~Vince~

Ben Moger-Williams said...

Thanks Vince, but i don't think so! I haven't had a real chance to speak for a while. Just reading and writing!

Anonymous said...

I'm OFTEN finding myself having a hard time searching for the appropriate words and phrases in Chinese when I talk to my parents on the phone. ~Vince~