Chinese Corner

Meowing in Mandarin2 min read

Cat memes, cat life – Liz Carter

 

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that cats meow the same in China as they do everywhere else – the onomatopoeia for their sweet siren call is miāo 喵. The word for cat practically mewls itself: it’s māo 猫, which is also a close homophone of the word for fur or hair, máo 毛, all of which is just as ubiquitous as their miāoing. In addition to meowing, cats can also cèng 蹭, which is when they headbutt/rub up against you (or a table, or a door, or anything as yet unmarked).

Somewhat less intuitively, a cat owner is slangily referred to as chǎn shǐ guān 铲屎官, literally “the official in charge of shit scooping,” as well as the more direct māonú 猫奴, or “cat slave.” Cats themselves may be called “master” (zhǔzǐ 主子) or “People from Planet Meow” (miāoxīngrén 喵星人), i.e. “Meowtians.”

cat addiction meme

Recently, new ways of joking about how crazy people can get about their cats have emerged, with people talking about “inhaling” cats like people huff glue. The old Mandarin adage against drug use goes, “Inhale drugs one day, and you’ll be quitting them for a decade, then thinking about them for life” (yí rì xīdú, shí nián jièdú, zhōngshēn xiǎng dú 一日吸毒,十年戒毒,终身想毒). The new Mandarin adage goes, “Inhale cats one day, and you’ll inhale them for life” (yí rì xī māo, zhōngshēn xī māo 一日吸猫,终身吸猫). Inhale here means not just smelling the tops of their heads, which has a scent so compelling it is now available in perfume form – but more broadly giving them love, affection and endless attention.

Lest this lesson in cat-related Mandarin neologisms make it seem that cats are a new fad in China, some Chinese cat history is in order. While not always the most culturally favored of animals, the cat has always had its fans. Cats have been hanging around in a semi-domesticated capacity in China for 5,000 years. Famous 20th century writers Lao She and Qian Zhongshu, for instance, were known to have cats. Lao She even wrote a novel, Cat Country, set on a Mars that has been colonized by cat people – although the book is less about cute cats bouncing around in low gravity and more an allegorical criticism of China. But cats as drug of choice? That’s a new one. ∎

Mandarin terms are transliterated in pinyin.

Liz Carter

Liz Carter is the author of Let 100 Voices Speak (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon (China Digital Times, 2013). Formerly managing editor of Tea Leaf Nation, she is currently based in Los Angeles pursuing a PhD in Chinese linguistics at UCLA.