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!