Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Today we continue our look into the rich, fascinating, amusing, maddening, silly, old, ancient and mysterious world of Chinese culture with Part II of our Glossary of Middle Kingdom terms.

Let’s start with the horse, one of my favourite things. I am a horse, as in I was born in the year of the horse. And my name means horse. Westerners here take a Chinese name often sounding like their real name. The Chinese don’t like non-Chinese food, or names. My surname being Marshallsea, my interpreter suggested the Chinese surname Ma, which means horse. I also like betting on them, which is, alas, no good to me here. As I often complain – 5000 years of civilisation and still no racetrack! (Gambling is, strictly speaking, illegal in China, like so many other things that are, strictly speaking, illegal. This surprises many westerners used to seeing Chinese riding their luck in their home countries. It is precisely because of that love of superstition that the Communist government has kept such a tight rein on gambling. “God – can you imagine?!” you can hear them thinking in the corridors of power). My point is the horse features heavily in China.

MA SHANG (Pron: ma shung): To do something quickly. To get on one’s horse, shang meaning “on top of”. So: “Ayi, have you finished making those dumplings yet?” “I’m on my horse”. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
MA TONG (ma toong): The horse bucket. The toilet. It sounds like slang, but it’s not really. It’s the word for it.
MA NIAO (ma nee-ow): Horse urine. Reassuringly universal in that it is slang for bad beer.

A bottle of China's biggest-selling brand of
horse wee, yesterday. Note how the
photographer has opted not to pour it
into the glass. Or even open it.
MA MA HU HU (ma ma hoo hoo): An all-time favourite – horse horse, tiger tiger. It’s slang for something which is a bit mediocre, OK but not great, neither one thing nor the other. (Tiger is lao hu). “How’s your Chinese?” “Horse horse, tiger tiger.” Trouble is, if you tell a local your Chinese is “ma ma hu hu”, they’ll often think that by knowing the slang for bad, you’re actually pretty good, and will start speaking to you, pretty fast.
Non-horse terms:

FENG SHUI (fung shway): Another of these mystical eastern practices which is essentially the ancient art of making your house or office lucky. Hang a mirror here so the evil spirit will be reflected back out, often with a hissing “Go’orn git!” Block a doorway here so any money coming into the house can’t get out again. This might well stem from the old days when paper money, which was invented here, would blow into a courtyard house and blow back out again. Feng shui might well fit into another key facet of Chinese life - respect for ancestors. Someone once thought this stuff up. If we turn around now and say this is ridiculous, it’s making that ancestor look silly. Perish the thought.

This is the design for a house with ideal feng shui. All the
doors and corridors are arranged so that any good fortune
which walks through the front door will have a hard time
getting its way back out again if it decides to leave.

This house, on the other hand, is said to have "terrible"
feng shui, with all the good luck rising up to a corner of
the basement, where it is hard to access.

LUCK/FORTUNE/THE WHOLE BOX AND DICE: The Chinese are famously superstitious, especially in the south. Numbers are important. Eight is lucky. The word for it – ba ­– sounds a little like the fa in fa cai, also known as fat choy, which is Cantonese for “make lots of money”. Don’t think about it too long or it gets tenuous. What is true is lots of caesarean sections are requested for August 8, the 8th of the 8th, to give a child a lucky birthday. However, four is desperately unlucky, as the word for it – si (pronounced suh), sounds like the word for ‘death’ with a different tone and so should be avoided at all times. Therefive, most modern buildings (it’s a relatively recent thing in the north) don’t have a fourth floor. Or a 14th, 24th, etc.

In our building they've really covered their bases by also
not having an unlucky-for-some-westerners 13th floor.
Trying to teach your kids how to count whilst in an
elevator is horrible.

However, really tall buildings don’t mind having floors 40 through 49. I thought they might miss a whole ten floors, but of course it’s only unlucky if it ends in a four, stupid! The government has had campaigns against superstition, which after all doesn’t sit too neatly amidst the whole socialist philosophy: “Comrades! Let’s all work hard and make a productive state!” “Not today silly – it’s the fourth of April!”

MAO TAI/ER GUO TOU (maow tie/ar gwoh toe): Variants of China’s best known home grown liquor bai jiu – clear spirits distilled from sorghum. It’s fire water, kind of the equivalent of Japan’s rice-based sake, only with a palate more reminiscent of petrol and with a fermented potato-peel aftertaste of approximately three days. Also, sake has an alcohol content of about 15 per cent. These Chinese demon drinks go up to about 60 per cent. Imbibers will the next day often report a feeling similar to having swallowed a wire brush, and then having had that wire brush pumped up and down several times in their throats by a large, heavily-tattooed man with a shaven head. These drinks have a way of getting into the body’s system so that for a few days you’re still smelling it on your skin and burping up its taste.

A bottle of the cheapest form
of this drink, erguotou.
Sometimes, when you're out
and really really drunk, it
seems like a good idea to
get on the erguotou. Don't.
It never, ever, is.

NAO DAI (now die): Not as bad as that rough pronunciation guide suggests. It’s the skull, or head – nao being brain, and dai meaning bag. So the word for skull is essentially “the old brain bag”. Again it sounds like it should be slang, but it’s not.

PEKING OPERA: Another ancient art showcasing the ability of people to wear lots of make-up, cross dress and, using only the voice, to replicate the noise made when a circular saw slices through a partially-frozen cat. It goes for ages and ages. Like five hours or something. People have ducked out for a wedding and come back to see the finish. They now have a shortened version for the tourists which puts them through only an hour of it. But in a recent exit poll of 100 visitors who saw one of these shows, 93 per cent still rated it as less favourable than eating ice cream with a cavity in a molar. Still, don’t take my word - go see for yourself. No don’t. Take the easy way and just take the word of someone who has seen it for you. Well, I’ve never actually seen it. Someone saw it for me, after someone saw it for them. Oh look it’s probably really good.

You have to hand it to the costume makers
and make-up artists. If only they could sing.

GUANXI (gwanshee): A major factor in the Chinese way of doing things. It means “connections”, having friends in the right places to help. Particularly important and pervasive in business. Can be enhanced with that other great Chinese invention, paper money.

MA FAN (pron: mah fahn): A great Chinese word meaning “hassle”, but a little bit more. It can be too much ma fan for an ayi to darn a sock. Equally, our ayi used “a whole lot of ma fan” to describe the Japanese earthquake. A well liked term as it is best hissed out in whiny, bitter tones.

LAO WAI (laow why): Us. The foreigners. Previously thought to be derogatory, a bit like “long nose”, but it really isn’t. Down south, westerners are called gweilo – which translates as “foreign devil” or “white ghost”. But “lao” is actually a term of respect with which one addresses their elders, like Mister. And “wai” simply refers to “the outside”. Perhaps in the old days the colonial officials regarded as offensive anything that wasn’t “Sir” or “Lord”. What is striking, however, is how and when the Chinese call us this. I was standing at the checkout in IKEA recently when the assistant asked two Chinese men in front of me if the item on the conveyor belt was theirs. They said: “No it’s the laowai’s”. I didn’t take offence, but I did wonder how it would sound if we were in the Sydney IKEA and I’d said: “No it’s this Chinese guy’s”, or “No, it’s this black man’s”. We used to be rare, but not so much now. Occasionally, especially out of Beijing, I’ll still hear passers-by comment: “Lao wai!” I always look back and say: “Chinese person!”


  1. Thanks for the laughs, and chinese lesson. I had so much fun reading this.Good for you, "Chinese Person!"

  2. Excuse me, Good to you and yours.Thanks again. Hahahahhahahha.