Apparently, due to naming taboo.
During the Tang Dynasty it became necessary to avoid the word 民, due to its presence in the given name of Emperor Taizong, so instead of saying 人民, people started using 百姓 instead, which has come to be commonly said these days as 老百姓, lit. old hundred surnames, meaning “the people” or “the common people”.
This expression means you steal food but don’t know how to wipe your mouth clean afterwards, and is used as you would expect - to disparage someone sneaky enough to try and do the wrong thing but not smart enough not to get caught.
I heard first heard it said in response to a joke that was going around on the internet about the missing flight, in the form of someone asking for help for one of his friends who went to Beijing to visit his girlfriend, but told his wife he was going on a business trip to Malaysia, returning on MH370. Since the disappearance the friend and his lover have been hiding out in a hotel and don’t know what to do, does anyone have any ideas?
I’ve seen a couple of different versions of the joke in Chinese, here’s one of them:
一老哥的情人在妇女节前来京玩， 老哥决定陪对方几天，就对他老婆谎称去马来西亚开会了， 坐的3月8号的马航MH370回到北京。现在他和情人在酒店里十多天了，不敢回家, 要疯了，要疯了。。。。
Sitting on a bus in Wenzhou last month I saw a noodle restaurant with a nice creative sign on which the word 面, which means noodles, among other things, was written in a way I’d never seen before. An image search suggests that is is actually a pretty common rendering of the character, and I found another similar to the one I saw.
As you can see, the character now looks like two chopsticks over a bowl of noodles. If It wasn’t for the traditional character for (noodles) 面, 麵, being on countless other restaurants, I might have been fooled into thinking 面 was a pictograph, instead of the simplified version of 麦 （麥 wheat) for meaning + 面 for pronunciation.
I also found a few more creative ways of writing 面, including,
which is similar to the first but with the bowl shape formed by the space inside the character, and this one:
The character above doesn’t really look like a bowl of noodles, but I like it nonetheless. Interesting also how the designer went with the simplified version of 面 but the traditional version of 乡.
I met someone called 宋歌. The Pinyin for 宋 is Song, and 歌 means song. I thought it was quite amusing but for some reason 宋歌 didn’t.
抗 means to resist, resistant or anti-something, and I’ve noticed a couple of words containing it that are very commonly used here but not in my dictionary.
One is 抗冻, which is used to describe someone who doesn’t feel the cold. People here describe themselves as 抗冻 if they don’t wear gloves on even the coldest days, and it’s a well known fact that Russians are super-抗冻.
Another is 抗脏. 脏 means dirty, and the word is used to talk about clothes which don’t get stained easily or show up dirt, such as a dark coloured T-shirt. If you wear a mottled-grey shirt to a hot pot restaurant, for example, someone might comment it is very 抗脏.
Now that my mornings are free due to school holidays I’ve been going to calligraphy classes at the local calligraphy school. I’m the only adult in the class, the only one that is there for fun, and my calligraphy still sucks, but it’s a good exercise in patience and personal discipline, and good Chinese practice of course.
The teacher was telling me that before I write a character I should study it carefully first, figure out how it is written, think about how each stroke is formed, consider the stroke order, and only then try to write it exactly as it appears, in this case one of the characters written by the famous Tang calligrapher 颜真卿.
To explain this he used the chengyu 胸有成竹, which I didn’t understand, so he told me that once there was an artist who loved bamboo. He would take every opportunity to study his bamboo plants in great detail, and as a result was able to paint realistic bamboos and make them come to life on canvas. It has come to mean that whenever you do anything you should have a clear image of what you want to achieve in your mind, a clear strategy for how to go about it.
It’s interesting that in this case the teacher used the chengyu almost literally, not as a metaphor the way it would usually be used, but as a practical example. That is, if I want to write beautiful characters I need to be intimately familiar with them, have an image of them within my chest like the man in the story, so I can write them from my mind exactly how I saw them on the page.
Even after living in Korea and China for more than 8 years, and being bombarded with ads for skin whitening creams, seeing people wear arm sleeves, carry sun umbrellas, and hearing them constantly compare skin colour, sometimes I’m still surprised just how important for women having pale skin is in terms of being considered beautiful. I just forget.
In Korea, when guys talk about a place where there are lots of beautiful women, they use the phrase 물이 좋다, the water is good there. The Seoul neighbourhood where I used to live was well known for this, and when I gave taxi drivers directions home they would often say 아 거기 물이 좋다 “Ah, the water is good there” and smile, and I would smile back and agree. I always thought it was some kind of not-so-secret man code, a less sleazy way of saying “There are loads of hot chicks there”.
It wasn’t until a couple of months ago when my coworkers and I were discussing the water here in Daqing (famously bad due to the oil fields) that I even connected the actual water in a place to the beauty of its female residents. One of them said something like “That’s why Harbin girls are the most beautiful in China, the water is good there”, and Korea memories came flooding back (no pun intended, hehe). “What’s water got to do with beauty though?” I asked, and she said “Pale, Harbin girls have good clear pale skin”, as if it was obvious.
Later I was talking to my elderly neighbour about the water quality and she said the same thing, claiming that girls in Harbin have less freckles because the water is purer, and I realised that maybe the Korean saying comes from an old East Asian belief that good quality water actually affects how pale and clear people’s skin is, and by extension how good-looking they are.
There is also a saying in China 一白遮百丑 (or 一白遮三丑) - “white skin covers up a hundred other flaws”, meaning that the single most important factor in whether you are considered beautiful or not is your skin and how pale it is, important enough that as long as your skin is white you will still be considered beautiful even if you have many other facial flaws, whatever they may be.