Chinese Corner

If Elephants Could Fly

Illuminating Cantonese idioms – Rosalyn Shih

In February 2014, Hong Kong cartoonist Ah Toh (阿塗) published a Cantonese comic through the independent magazine Passion Times that became an instant viral hit. Based on the 16th-century Flemish painting Netherlandish Proverbs, Ah Toh’s version includes illustrations of 81 Cantonese idioms:

The cartoon shows just how colorful Hong Kong and southern Chinese idioms (jin6 jyu5 諺語) can get. These include four-character idioms (sing4 jyu5 成語) such as “the elephant flies across the river” (fei1 zoeng6 gwo3 ho4 飛象過河) – to do something unexpected or break the rules – and everyday slang such as “to stir-fry squid” (caau2 jau4 jyu2 炒魷魚) – to fire someone (or to be fired, if you add the passive participle bei before it).

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

Trump(et) King Mushrooms

Move over French fries, for Trump little crisp strips – Victor Mair

Chef Jon seems to be very fond of king trumpet mushrooms. They occur as an ingredient in three of his dishes on this menu. As might be expected, in the Chinese names of two of these three dishes, the word 菇 (mushroom) appears, but in the third it does not.  Instead, in the latter, it is called simply Chuānpǔ 川普 (Trump), with nary a mention of an equivalent for "-et" nor for "mushroom."

The name of this dish in Mandarin is Chuānpǔ xiǎo cuìtiáo 川普小脆條, which Chef Jon calls "Crispy King Trumpet Mushroom" in English, but which may more literally be translated as "Trump little crisp strips."

Chinese Corner

Let’s Go Laaaaaaaa

And learn Cantonese particles – Rosalyn Shih

“If you’re picturing someone in your head speaking Chinese and it sounds really funny,” Canadian comedian Russell Peters said, “you’re picturing Cantonese.”

Even to non-speakers like Peters, Cantonese is easily identified as the “funnier sounding language” compared to Mandarin: “It’s the more flamboyant one," he joked, "with the extended sounding words. … Sometimes they speak and it sounds like they’re falling off a cliff. Dong laaaaaaahh…”

Chinese Corner


Invented Chinese characters, old and new – Alec Ash

Growing up in England, one of my favorite books was The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and John Lloyd (creator of the British comedy show QI). Described as a “dictionary of things that there aren't any words for yet,” Adams and Lloyd took place names – often those funny-sounding Welsh ones – and reassigned to them meanings for concepts that should have words but don’t. For example, “Ahenny: The way people stand when examining other people’s bookshelves;” “Flimby: The safe place you put something and then forget where it was;” or “Goole: The expression on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.”

Chinese is like that too: full of ideas for which there should be a character, but isn’t. Only when it comes to inventing those characters, we can have even more fun with an ideographic writing system by mushing together two existing characters in novel ways.