Wednesday, November 30, 2011


It’s occurred to me that if you, Dear Reader, are going to be following me, Dear Writer, that if we are really going to plunge headlong into this relationship, then, err, there are a few things you should know …
So here’s a glossary of terms you need to get by in China. The first installment anyway. There’s a lot of them. Some you’ll need every day. Others are for occasional moments like when you need a small pot to spit the remains of your chicken feet into. Others just sound funny in this exasperating-cum-difficult-cum-impossible language I like to call “Mandarin”.*
(*World’s quickest asterisk explanation record attempt! Told you this blog had everything. I like to call it Mandarin, and so do a few billion others. But “liking to call” is a great trick I’ve learned from my father-in-law in order to sound old and wise. It’s something all fathers should adopt. In my father-in-law’s case, nothing is too outlandish to claim the rights to, such as “Something I like to call a ‘fork in the road’,” or “A branch of faith I like to call ‘Christianity’.” Try it. You’ll impress people.)
Anyway here we go. Most of these words should have little strokes above them indicating which of the four tones of Mandarin you should use. But I, in my mastery of the language, have deemed these tones superfluous. They just complicate things. I’ll write on the language more fully one day to explain. Just pay attention for now.

MANDARIN: I’ll resist drawing the obvious comparisons to that thing in the fruit bowl (although my friend Steve did once ask if I was learning in segments). It is in fact the language that’s so good it’s got several names! We call English “English”. But just to make a complex thing confusing, Mandarin is also called Putonghua, Zhongwen and Hanyu. (OK pointy heads, they refer to very slightly different uses of the language but are basically the same. Sheesh!) “Putong” means common or standard, while “hua” is language. Zhongwen refers to the language of Zhongguo, which is Chinese for ‘China’ and is where we get “Middle Kingdom” (Zhong is middle, guo is state. This comes from the old but still evident belief that China is the centre of the universe). Then there’s Hanyu - the language of China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese. There are 55 other groups such as the Manchu from the north-east, Uyghur from way out west and the northern Tatars, who provided Genghis Khan’s army with many soldiers and its Steak Tartare – raw beef tenderised by a day in a saddlebag. Then there are others like the Miao – one of several ethnicities without a written language – and a personal favourite, the Ewenki. How good do they sound? Most Chinese refer to their language in English as “Chinese”. But there are many different dialects in China, such as Cantonese, spoken down south. If you thought Mandarin and it’s four tones was hard, try Cantonese. It has nine tones, in China’s Guangdong province at least, but is said to have six, or seven, when spoken in nearby Hong Kong. People don’t seem able to agree. Do you see what we’re up against here people? Still, this one paragraph shows what a fascinating country this is. Well, a fifth of the world lives here, so I guess it should be.

A member of the Miao minority wearing a headpiece
woven from the hair of her ancestors. It's a touching
mark of respect. However, one of them sat in front of me
in the cinema the other day and I wasn't happy.

Members of the Ewenki, yesterday - not the point heads
I was referring to earlier.

More members of the Miao, having once again spent too
much time getting dressed to come up with a system of
writing. If they charge, you are supposed to
run away in a zig-zag fasion.

AYI (eye-ee): After the language, perhaps the second-most important thing here. Most expats and a large percentage of Chinese have an ayi. She’s a housemaid with add-ons. For westerners, who may find China intimidating, she’s particularly important. Why without her, many would never find the time to get their nails done or their feet massaged every second day at China’s ubiquitous primping salons. The word means “Aunty”, which touches on an ayi’s multi-faceted role. She’ll clean house, cook, mind/teach/babysit/raise the children, shop, sniff out a bargain, track down a taxidermist, and argue over a parking space on your behalf. Depending on her experience, she may also put the sheets on your bed while still wet or spray mouthfuls of water onto them to iron them (both true). Finding and holding onto a good one can be tricky, but they’re hard to do without.

NIU BI (neuw bee): A great bit of this old language. It means “the cow’s vagina”, only a little bit rougher. A cow is a niu. A bi is the other bit. It’s actually something that’s very good. You know – that’s the bees knees/the cat’s pyjamas/the cow’s vagina? See how it flows? Best shouted when your team does something good in football. Depending on which tone you use, a bi can also be a pen or a nose. Asking a woman if I can use her pen is the only time tones are important.

One of the best things in China.

MEI YOU (mae yo): Chinese for “no”. Literally translates as “don’t have”. Also suspected to be Chinese for “Umm …” because it’s often the first thing that pops into someone’s head when you ask them for something, particularly government employees who have more pressing matters to attend to, like a nap.

ADDRESSES: A particular favourite of mine. I asked Ayi to post a letter to my daughter’s school around the corner. The first thing she wrote on the envelope was CHINA. “Well … we know it’s in China, don’t we?” I said. “Shhh,” she said. “Just let me do it.” Next thing was BEIJING, then DONGCHENG DISTRICT (our quarter of the city), right on down to Street, Number, name of school, and then right down the bottom, name of addressee. Pretty much the exact opposite of what we’d do. Aren’t people neat?

DIRECTIONS: How would you say the four cardinal points of the compass? North-South-East-West? Here, they go East-South-West-North. The east is very important here. It has a mystical significance. Perhaps the best known revolutionary anthem is/was Dongfang Hong (The East Is Red). Most Chinese satellites and a few of their rockets have been called Dongfang. Coincidentally, in Medieval Europe, maps were hung in a way we’d now call sideways, with the east at the top, which is why we use the word ‘orient’ for ‘the east’ and ‘to spatially align’. We should probably let the Chinese hold sway on this one, for they invented directions after all, having come up with the compass. Which is why I find it odd that if you ever need directions here, you should under no circumstances ask a local. I’m not saying they never know but if they don’t, they’ll tell you they do. For if they admit to not knowing they risk losing …

FACE: The granddaddy of Chinese concepts. To lose it is to lose esteem, be embarrassed or shamed. It is taken seriously. Western bosses have learned, for example, the most ostensibly subtle admonishment in the workplace can take weeks to overcome, or lead to an employee suddenly quitting to look after a sick aunt. I once made a hired driver lose face. He was driving our family and that of my visiting friend Tony around Beijing for a few days, and helping out by buying tickets for shows. I learned he was ripping us off. I called him on it, and got in trouble from someone more culturally sensitive than I for making him lose face. “Well what happens now?” Tony said. “Does he have to kill you? Or himself?” It’s not that serious. Often the face loser might have a good hard look at themselves. More often they’ll end up wondering how someone could be so mean as to make them lose face.

TAI CHI (tie chee)The very popular low-impact form of exercise you’ll see in Chinese parks at dawn and on re-runs of The Karate Kid. Serves the dual purpose of toning muscles and making participants look silly while they’re doing the best praying mantis impression seen outside of a junior drama class. Practitioners also sometimes embrace other exercises like hugging trees and walking backwards for long periods of time. These solely serve the purpose of making them look silly.

Tai chi - some like to do it in a serene setting like this ...

... others prefer a location with more atmosphere.

The discipline involves many different poses with
all sorts of evocative names, such as
"Where's my contact lens" ...

... and "Trick the Old Man".

A man is ejected from a class in Beijing yesterday for
 performing "The Ranting Dissident".

Then there's this guy, seen yesterday in a
manouevre most commonly known as
"Acting The Weirdo".

RIVETTING STUFF HUH? (In fact, it’s what I like to call “The best thing you’ll read all day.”) MORE NEXT THURSDAY!


  1. Yes, yes, but how do I sing the Tiger! Tiger! song in just 2 short weeks in Mandarin? For the end of year concert? That's what I really need to know. I'd love to be able to sing it (with the whole class) so well that I'm told our singing was niu bi.

  2. Now singing is where it gets really tricky if you want to do the tones. Heads have been known to explode.

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  4. Everything you say is so nonsensical and so true at the same time. Great blog, it makes me cry with laughter!

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