June102014

Calligraphy Joke

This is a joke, apparently a true story, about Wang Xizhi 王羲之, the Sage of Calligraphy 书圣.

The story goes that when Wang’s son, Wang Xianzhi 王献之, who later went on to be a famous calligrapher in his own right, was young, his father would have him practice for hours on end.

One day, Wang Xianzhi wrote long enough to use up three large jars full of water, and then couldn’t practice any more. He brought the results to his father, hoping for praise and encouragement. Wang Xizhi wasn’t impressed, however, and looking at one character in particular, 大, said it was unbalanced and too loose on the bottom, took a brush, and added a small dot, turning it into the character 太.

Later that evening, Wang Xianzhi showed his work to his mother, and asked her if he was as good as his father yet. She went through the characters one by one, and being familiar with her husband’s calligraphy, was able to tell that her son still had a long way to go until he matched his father in skill.

But when she got to the character 太, she said, “This one is okay, it looks like a little like your father’s.”

It doesn’t translate so well into English, but in Chinese it’s funny because she says 唯有一点像王羲之. 有一点 means a little, and the small dot stroke that Wang Xizhi added is also called a 点. The sentence, therefore, can mean either, “It only looks a little like your father’s”, or, “Only the dot looks like your father’s”.

May272014

Old Board

I’m pretty sure that the first time I learnt that the word for boss, 老板, was made up of the characters for old and board, I thought it was pretty funny, if a little confusing.

Lately I’ve been studying traditional characters, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that the 板 in 老板 does not mean board or plank, but is actually the simplified version of 闆, a character which also has an alternate pronunciation, pàn​, and meaning, “To catch sight of in a doorway”. Pronounced bǎn​ it means boss or owner.

A quick search failed to turn up exactly why they decided to simplify 闆 to 板, but I suspect that as the rather complicated and fiddly to write (17 strokes versus eight) 闆 isn’t a commonly used character except in the word 老板, they decided to do away with it, and replace it with a more common one with the same pronunciation.

It seems like they could have made a brand new simplified character, changing 門 to 门, and keeping 品 in the middle, or even changing 品 as they did in 区(區), but maybe they thought the result was too ugly.

Does anyone know for sure?

May132014

What does 鸿门宴 mean?

鸿门宴 was a banquet that took place in 206 BCE. It’s quite a long story, but basically a rebel leader called Xiang Yu tried to have his rival Liu Bang killed at a feast, but Liu Bang got away, and eventually defeated Xiang Yu in battle, becoming the first emperor of the Han Dynasty.

It’s one of those stories everyone in China knows, and has come to mean a banquet that is held to trap a guest. If a rival, enemy, or someone you don’t like or trust invites you to dinner, for example, you could ask, “Is it a 鸿门宴?” either seriously or as a joke. I think it can also be used in non-dining situations.

Aside from 鸿门宴, the idioms 项庄舞剑,意在沛公, and 人为刀俎,我为鱼肉 both originate from this event.

项庄舞剑,意在沛公, which means, “Xiang Zhuang performs the sword dance, but his mind is set on the Duke of Pei (Liu Bang)”, refers to an incident during the feast in which Xiang Zhuang, a relative of Xiang Yu’s, performed a sword dance which was supposed to allow him to get close to Liu Bang and kill him, a plan eventually foiled by another relative, Xiang Bo. The idiom now means to disguise an attack on another person in an cunning and elaborate way.

人为刀俎,我为鱼肉, literally, “They are the knife and the cutting board, we are the fish and the meat”, comes from the words said to Liu Bang to convince him to leave the banquet. Now it is used metaphorically to mean that someone’s life and death is in another person’s hands, that you are at somebody’s mercy.

April152014

Why do people say 老百姓?

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”.

April32014
I took this photo in Shanghai in February, and although I didn’t try the food, I thought the of the restaurant was a great pun on 乐不思蜀.
The 乐 in the original chengyu is replaced by 辣, meaning spicy - fitting because Sichuan province is modern day Shu Han 蜀汉, famous for hot food, and the home of 麻辣烫, which the restaurant serves.
So I guess the name could be translated as “So spicy you forget about Sichuan” suggesting it is a great place to go for people from the Sichuan region who are missing spicy food in Shanghai.

I took this photo in Shanghai in February, and although I didn’t try the food, I thought the of the restaurant was a great pun on 乐不思蜀.

The 乐 in the original chengyu is replaced by 辣, meaning spicy - fitting because Sichuan province is modern day Shu Han 蜀汉, famous for hot food, and the home of 麻辣烫, which the restaurant serves.

So I guess the name could be translated as “So spicy you forget about Sichuan” suggesting it is a great place to go for people from the Sichuan region who are missing spicy food in Shanghai.

March262014

偷吃还不知道怎么擦嘴

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。。。。

谁有办法救救他!

March82014

面字

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.

February232014

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.

February132014

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.

February62014
I’m just back from a short trip to Japan, where it was great to see the different uses of 汉字 (I know they call it kanji but I’ll keep saying 汉字 otherwise I get confused) over there. Lots of variety in calligraphic styles and typefaces too, and I took loads of pictures of nice characters.

It also made me realise how many Korean words must have come from Japan, even though they are words with Chinese character roots. The picture above, for example, says parking prohibited, and would be 주차 금지 in Korean, but in China they usually use a different character for park, 停 rather than 驻(駐). 

Then there are some which as far as I can tell make no sense at all in Chinese, like 无料 무료 (無料 in Japan) meaning free (of charge), and 录画 녹화 (録画) meaning to record/tape/videotape. 

Interestingly, in the last example, the Japanese write the first character 录 as 録,a variant of the traditional Chinese 錄,but for the second character they use 画, the same as in simplified Chinese, whereas in Korea they would write it as 畵, which is a variant of the traditional Chinese 畫.

I’m just back from a short trip to Japan, where it was great to see the different uses of 汉字 (I know they call it kanji but I’ll keep saying 汉字 otherwise I get confused) over there. Lots of variety in calligraphic styles and typefaces too, and I took loads of pictures of nice characters.

It also made me realise how many Korean words must have come from Japan, even though they are words with Chinese character roots. The picture above, for example, says parking prohibited, and would be 주차 금지 in Korean, but in China they usually use a different character for park, 停 rather than 驻(駐).

Then there are some which as far as I can tell make no sense at all in Chinese, like 无料 무료 (無料 in Japan) meaning free (of charge), and 录画 녹화 (録画) meaning to record/tape/videotape.

Interestingly, in the last example, the Japanese write the first character 录 as 録,a variant of the traditional Chinese 錄,but for the second character they use 画, the same as in simplified Chinese, whereas in Korea they would write it as 畵, which is a variant of the traditional Chinese 畫.

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