Chinese Corner

Happy New Year to Zhu

Pig out on these Lunar New Year puns – Anne Henochowicz

Lunar New Year, a.k.a. Spring Festival, a.k.a. Chinese New Year, begins today. This is an auspicious time of year for punsters – if, for instance, someone wishes you “year upon year of fish” (niánnián yǒu yú 年年有餘), that’s because “fish” ( 魚) sounds just like “abundance” (餘). Mandarin has very few phonemes (the sounds that make up words), so opportunities for punning abound. (I speak here for Mandarin only, but other varieties of Chinese have their own new year puns, and some of the Mandarin ones work in other varieties, too.)

As this year is the Year of the Pig, I’ve been signing off my emails with “I pig you a happy new year” (zhū nǐ xīnnián kuàilè 猪你新年快樂), as “pig” (zhū 猪) and the verb “to wish” (zhù 祝) are near-homophones, separated only by a tone.

Chinese Corner


Expressing misfortune, and resistance, in Mandarin – Anne Henochowicz

Strunk and White’s classic textbook Elements of Style taught us to avoid the passive voice in our writing. Our verbs should take action, not a back seat, whenever possible. (This advice is not universally accepted.) In Mandarin, however, the passive voice packs a real punch. When something is done to you, the passive evokes your great misfortune.

Chinese Corner

East South West North

Which way does the compass point? – Anne Henochowicz

Back in 2013, Sam Duncan posed an etymological question on an old collective, the Anthill, that turns out to be a scientific and cultural question:

When I first learned the word for compass, “south-pointing needle” (zhǐnánzhēn 指南针), I thought: That’s weird, why isn’t it “north-pointing needle” (zhǐběizhēn 指北针)? I read somewhere that the reason the needle points south is because the ocean is generally to the south in ancient China. Does anyone know if this is true?
When I looked it up the other night, I discovered that people also say zhibeizhen. There don’t seem to be any obvious usage differences between the two. Baidu gives me 29,300,000 hits for zhinanzhen, and 2,720,000 for zhibeizhen, so I guess the latter isn’t used that often.

You’ll find “north-pointing needle” in the dictionary, but not really anywhere else. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with the Earth’s magnetic field in China. (Or with Chinese compasses – they invented them, after all.) And of course, all compasses point both north and south – each end of the needle is pulled toward one pole or the other. But there’s more to the “south-pointing needle” than arbitrary choice.

Chinese Corner

Of Rice Bunnies and Grass-Mud Horses

Punning the system – Anne Henochowicz

How do you say  #MeToo in Mandarin? Not how you might expect: it’s all about the rice bunny.

This cute mascot is a linguistic response to a very uncute situation. The first Mandarin variations on the #MeToo hashtag to appear at the end of 2017 include the direct translation #Wǒyěshì (#我也是#) as well as #MeTooinChina (#WǒyěshìzàiZhōngguó #我也是在中国#). Of the many women who came forward to share their stories, one drew particular attention: a graduate student whose former doctoral advisor had tried to force himself on her posted her story anonymously to the Quora-esque site Zhihu in October. In the new year, she republished her story under her real name on Weibo. Shortly after Luo Xixi’s post went viral, her advisor, Chen Xiaowu, lost his job. Women were heartened and #MeTooinChina gained momentum, speaking out about the harassment they have suffered on campus and in the workplace and circulating petitions for their universities to address the issue head-on. Unfortunately, China’s party-state apparatus pounces at any hint of a social movement. Soon women soon found their stories and petitions had been deleted, while #MeToo posts disappeared from search results.


Chairman Mao Is Dead!

A personal history by Tang Danhong – translated by Anne Henochowicz

When Chairman Mao died, I was looking at caterpillars.

Here's what was going on when it happened: every summer break, my terrifying father went to the Aba Valley to collect botanical specimens and research the cultivation of the native yellow Himalayan fritillary. It was just my mother and me at home. As my parents used to say, when the cat’s away, the mice come out to play. I always liked summer best, but that summer was especially great, because everywhere it was all about the earthquake. Everyone was anxious. An “earth wind” even tore through Chengdu, and we all had to move into earthquake tents. So kids all sat around waiting for the ground to move, not wanting to miss the chance for a good show. Finally the earthquake came to Songpan and Pingwu, and then the earth winds were done, and it was decided that all the children “might as well” be moved back into their houses. They wailed, “That was it? We didn’t even feel anything!”