Category Archives: Folk speech

Deceiving Yourself 掩耳盗铃

Background: My friend and I were talking about how different countries cope with the pandemic. We found that a few politicians around the world didn’t take the coronavirus seriously enough at first and pretended that it was only a small problem. My friend described them as “掩耳盗铃”.

Main piece:

掩耳盗铃

Pinyin: yan er dao ling

Transliteration: Cover your ears and steal the doorbell.

Informant’s explanation of the phrase: 

I think it came from a story. Well I’m not sure if it really happened, probably just a fable. A thief went to another person’s place because he wants their doorbell somehow. He tries to steal it, but he realized the doorbell would ring! So his genius solution is to cover his ears and then steal the bell. His logic is like he wouldn’t hear a sound, so other people won’t either. This dumbass got caught of course.

Context: As it was used by the informant in describing politicians who refused to take action, the proverb is used with irony to describe people who clearly understand what they do is wrong but still carry on with self-deception. 

Analysis: This particular form of proverb, 成语 (cheng yu), is very similar to another form of Chinese folk speech, the enigmatic folk similes. Both contain double meanings, with one layer of superficial storyline and a deeper connotation of advise, mockery, or knowledge. The difference, however, is that cheng yu often adhere to a uniform form of strictly four characters. While cheng yu are also proverbs that illustrate folk wisdom, in most cases the user must be familiar with the legend or history they allude to in order to use them in common speech. Cheng Yu thus becomes an identity marker. They reflect the culture, values, and identity of their “folk”, as well as a bigger reservoir of folklores that provide them with derivative connotations.

For a different version of this proverb, see

郑荣萍. “掩耳盗铃.” 中学生英语:少儿双语画刊 5 (2012): 13–13. Print.

Chinese High School Military Training

Context: All across China students join a mandatory military training for two weeks to a month before officially entering a public high school. The training usually takes place in the school. Students live in their dormitories together, and parents are not allowed to visit. Trainings are conducted by soldiers and head teachers. 30 to 50 students in the same class are trained together to learn basic marching techniques and military formalities. Trainings also include disciplinary housekeeping, for instance, military standards for making the bed are enforced. However, actual combat techniques are not taught.

The interviewer and the informant went to two different high schools in Qingdao, China.

Interviewer: Did you guys sing or chant during the military training?

Informant: Yeah, yeah, that was probably the only fun thing during the two weeks. It was kinda intense though.

Interviewer: Yeah, I’m wondering if it’s the same for your school.

Informant: Did you do the 1234567 one? hahaha that’s the only one I remember. I feel like they’re all the same no matter which school you go to…because the officers are all from the same troop hahaha.

Interviewer: Yeah that’s the one! Can you do it for me? Was it between two groups of students?

Informant: Yeah, yeah, but I think you do it with the officer, it’s like a “imaginary enemy” situation. So the officer yells things at you, the goal is to get you excited, then you guys [the students] yell back at him.

Interviewer: So you yell back at the officer, but you’re actually talking shit to another groups of people that are not there?

Informant: Yep. It’s basically shit talking. It’s called “pull the song” (拉歌,la ge), but it’s actually not a song. ok, here we go.

original script: 

officer: 对面唱得好不好?students: 好!

officer: 再来一个要不要?students: 要!

officer: 让你唱! students: 你就唱!

officer: 扭扭捏捏! students: 不像样!

officer: 像什么? students: 像大姑娘!

officer: 一二! students: 快快!

officer: 一二三! students: 快快快!

officer: 一二三四五? students: 我们等的好辛苦!

officer: 一二三四五六七? students: 我们等的好着急!

officer: 一二三四五六七八九? students: 你们到底有没有!

Phonetic (pinyin) script:

officer: dui mian chang de hao bu hao?

students: hao!

officer: zai lai yi ge yao bu yao?

students: yao!

officer: rang ni chang!

students: ni jiu chang!

officer: niu niu nie nie!

students: bu xiang yang!

officer: xiang shen me?

students: xiang da gu niang!

officer: yi er!

students: kuai kuai!

officer: yi er san!

students: kuai kuai kuai!

officer:  yi er san si wu?

students: wo men deng de hao xin ku!

officer: yi er san si wu liu qi?

students: wo men deng de hao zhao ji!

officer: yi er san si wu liu qi ba jiu?

students: ni men dao di you mei you!

Transliteration:

officer: Opposite singing good or not?

students: Good!

officer: Another one yes or no?

students: Yes!

officer: Make you sing!

students: You should sing!

officer: Looking coy!

students: Not like anything!

officer: Look like what?

students: Like a girl!

officer: One Two!

students: Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three!

students: Quick Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three Four Five!

students: We are waiting very hard!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven!

students: We are waiting anxiously!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine!

students: Do you have it or not!

Translation:

officer: Is our opponent’s singing good?

students: Good!

officer: Do you want another one?

students: Yes!

officer: Make you sing!

students: You should sing!

officer: Coy and sissy!

students: Not like other things!

officer: Like a what?

students: Like a girl!

officer: One Two!

students: Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three!

students: Quick Quick Quick!

officer: One Two Three Four Five!

students: We are waiting very hard!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven!

students: We are waiting anxiously!

officer: One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine!

students: Do you have it or not!

Analysis: The chant is taught by the training officer to students. It’s performed often during breaks, when officers and students from different classes can mingle with each other. It softens the training atmosphere and boosts morale in a lighter tone. The chant is fairly rhythmic and easy to follow. The fact that it’s chanted between a class and their officer implies that the chant is performed to show aggression, but rather to foster the unity and identity of the class itself. It does not specify who the opponent is, and in fact the identity of the opponent does not matter. The pure existence of an opponent framed in the chant leads to emphasize that the class is an entity and it might face obstacles from the outside environment. 

“Like a what—Like a girl!” This detail shows another element of identity formation in teenage students. The military training happens at the liminal point of when a child is separated from their parents and absorbed into a completely new, pre-adulthood collective. The format of the military training, with the hyper-emphasis on order, obedience, and aggression, reinforces the patriarchal social order. Thus the liminal period of adolescence is enforced with patriarchal social expectations. 

The one being emasculated becomes the weak and the oppressed, and emasculation then becomes an act of aggression.

Slurs and Insults in a Coastal City

Background and context: The interviewer and the informant are both residents of Qingdao, a Northeastern coastal city in China. The city is known for its beaches, ports, and seafood. A big portion of the city’s economy relies on tourism. 

The informant talks in Mandarin, but with the Qingdao dialect. The interviewer and the informant talk about unique slurs and insults that only Qingdao people use.

1. 潮巴

pinyin: cháo ba

Transliteration: moist [“ba” doesn’t have meaning]

Translation: Idiot

2. 你脑子进水了

pinyin: ni nao zi jin shui le

Transliteration: You’ve got water in your head.

Translation: You’re so stupid.

Analysis: Because Qingdao is a coastal city and the sea has a very important role in Qingdao people’s life, language used by Qingdao people is heavily influenced by imageries and characters associated with the sea. In both insults, water or “moist” is directly linked with the geographical character of the city. “Moist” or having water in one’s head both signify a loss of control, a form of imbalance between humans and the ocean. This shows that Qingdao’s connection with the ocean is more complicated than people’s dependence on the sea. There might be an implicit fear as well in not being able to control the ocean and maintain a balance between human life and natural forces.

Chinese Enigmatic Folk Similes

Background: A friend and I were talking about the COVID-19 situation in the US. She mentioned that at late February, when COVID started to spread in the US, some people bought masks and sent them to Wuhan, China to support the medical workers there. She brought up this common saying:

Main piece: 

泥菩萨过河——自身难保

Pinyin: ni pu sa duo he——zi shen nan bao

Transliteration: A mud Bodhisattva crosses the river——She can’t even save herself.

Context: This piece of folk speech is often used to describe people who are well-intentioned to help others, but are themselves in dangerous or unstable situations. In the context of COVID, the informant means that it is kind for those people to send masks to Wuhan, but their very own lives are at stake in the US already.

Analysis: This is an example of a particular genre of folk speech in Chinese, 歇后语 (xie hou yu), which has been translated as “Chinese enigmatic folk similes” or “quiz-cracks”. Different from proverbs, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t directly offer a conclusion or an advice. Different from riddles, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t propose an explicit question and doesn’t have an answer. Enigmatic folk similes often contain multiple meanings. Its form is often separated into two parts. The first part succinctly tells a story, often alluding to historical or religious instances, and the second part provides a proverbial conclusion that is in line with the context created by the first part, but often with deeper connotations. In this case, the story, “a mud Bodhisattva crosses the river”, requires the audience to imagine and suppose that mud dissembles in water, and therefore a mud Bodhisattva in a river, no matter what good intention she has, might perish before she is able to help others. The deeper connotation is that regardless of good intention, one must first be responsible for themselves before considering others, or else no one is benefitted. 

For different versions of enigmatic folk similes, see 

Rohsenow, John Snowden. A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (xiēhòuyǔ) = Han Ying xie hou yu ci dian. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

“Mountains do not meet but people do”

The original language and script: Munte cu munte nu se-ntâlnește, dar om cu om se-ntâlnește.

The original is represented in Roman form as a Romanian proverb

The transliterated proverb: Mountain with mountain does not meet, but man with man meets

The fully translated proverb: A mountain doesn’t meet a mountain, but a man meets a man.

H: My mum always told me mountains do not meet but people do. I tell that to people till this day.

The informant communicated that this saying is one that always gives them hope of seeing someone again. That their paths will cross again for them to come face to face. It’s a reminder, for most, of how small our worlds really are. We are more connected than we know.

守株待兔 – Guarding the tree to wait for a rabbit

“In Chinese, we have 成语, “cheng yu,” which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”

Original script: 守株待兔

Phonetic (Roman) script: Shǒuzhūdàitù

Transliteration: guard tree wait rabbit

Full translation: 

The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:

EW: Okay so the story of this is that one day, there was like this wood-cutter guy and he saw a rabbit in the forest. He saw the rabbit run into a tree stump and it like, died immediately. And so he took it home and ate it and he was like, really happy. So he was like, oh if I just wait by this tree stump another one will come and kill itself, so I never need to hunt anymore! And then, he like, died of hunger.

MW: So then what does it mean?

EW: It means that like, basically if something good happens and then you get lazy, you’ll…die of hunger, I guess! It’s basically a way of saying, “don’t be lazy” or don’t think that good things will always happen the same way. 

Context:

My informant was born in America but her parents are from China, and she herself lived in China for a year. She learned it from her mom, who she still speaks Chinese at home with. Her mom would tell her this story when she was being lazy, and she enjoys this story because it reminds her of her time in China and just generally makes her feel connected to Chinese culture. Especially given that she lives in America now, she notes, staying connected to chinese culture is important. 

Thoughts

I think the idea of good things not always happening in the same way is really interesting. It’s interesting because it’s of course an idea that we have in western culture, but no one ever really puts it into words like this, and I think that’s the beauty of the Chinese cheng yu. They are full of concepts that we don’t have words for in the West, yet still perfectly encompass these nebulous ideas.

井底之蛙 – The frog at the bottom of the well

“In Chinese, we have 成语 which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”

Original script:  井底之蛙

Phonetic (Roman) script: Jǐngdǐzhīwā

Transliteration: frog at the bottom of the well

Full translation: 

The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:

EW: There’s this classic cheng yu, 井底之蛙 (jing di zhi wa), which is just this frog who lives at the bottom of the well, and it thinks that the world is the size of the well. And whenever birds come and tell it that the world is much bigger, it refuses to believe it.

MW: And what do you think of this?

EW: Well, I just think it’s kinda cool because it’s a lot deeper than just the Princess and the Frog story. Yeah. Chinese people have good sayings. 

MW: And what does it mean?

EW: Well basically it means that some people have a very narrow way of viewing the world, I guess. Like, you think that you know everything but really you’re letting your perspective and biases hold you back from understanding the truth of things.

Context:

My informant, EW, was born in America but her parents are from China, and she herself lived in China for a year. She learned it from her mom, who she still speaks Chinese at home with. This piece was collected over a phone call, when talking about Chinese traditions.

Thoughts

I like this cheng yu because it’s reminiscent of the Platonian cave theory, and in general I believe a lot of other cultures have similar ideas about the world not being what it seems and that we are only viewing a small portion of what the reality of our universe is. I think it’s interesting to see how other cultures all come up with similar ideas, and how they express them differently.

Sana, sana, colita de rana – a Spanish children’s rhyme

Spanish: Sana sana colita de rana si no sana hoy sanara mañana

Translation: Heal, heal, little tail of the frog. If you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow.

Full translation

AG: This is something that parents tell their children basically, when they complain about something hurting or something going wrong. It rhymes, too, which is why kids like it and why people remember it. It’s basically saying that it’s okay if something isn’t fixed right now, because it’ll be fixed by tomorrow on it’s own. So don’t worry about it too much.

Background:

The informant, AG, was born in the US. His parents are from Mexico, specifically Jalisco and Hidalgo. AG remembers this rhyme because his parents used to tell it to him.

Context

This story was collected over a zoom call. I asked a group of friends what things their parents used to tell them when they were little, and when this rhyme came up, they all laughed in acknowledgement. That makes me think that this must be a fairly popular saying.

Thoughts:

This rhyme is interesting because I feel like it is more meaningful than a lot of other American rhymes for children (the main, and actually only one, that I can think of being “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” which is not very deep). The fact that this was the first thing that AG thought of spoke to its prominence, and also probably that it’s a good representation of Spanish rhymes for children. I once spoke to a songwriter, MW, who said that it is a lot more difficult to come up with meaningful songs in English than Japanese and Chinese, simply because there are so many more words/sounds that rhyme in Japanese in Chinese. In English, a lot of common words end in a rhyme with “ee,” “oo,” or “ay” and if it doesn’t, then it’s a little harder to rhyme with anything else in a casual way. I wonder if this is the same for Spanish, because then it would explain why we have no common meaningful rhymes for children where Spanish might have more.

Elementary School Riddles

Background: 

My informant, NK, is 19 years old and of South Korean descent from both her mother and father’s sides of the family. Her grandparents live close to her, so she spends a lot of time with them. She is very passionate about cooking. Even though she is majoring in biochemical engineering at UC Berkeley, she has always been, and remains to be, extremely interested in conspiracy theories. While she may not necessarily believe them, she enjoys hearing lore from across the world. (I’ll be referring to myself as SW in the actual performance).

Performance: 

NK: I remember there used to be a lot of riddles from when I was a kid, like you describe a situation, what it looks like after something happened, and you have to guess what happened. There’s only one I remember, where you go into an empty room. It’s 4 walls blocked off and the only way in or out is like teleportation, and there’s a guy hanging in the middle of the room, like dead, and there’s a puddle of water below him on the floor, so what happened?

SW: Um..I’m not sure. What’s the answer?

NK: So, he stood on a block of ice with the rope around his neck, so as it melted he was hanged and he died. 

SW: Oh. Very dark.

NK: Yeah, I feel like I remember most of those were pretty messed up.

Thoughts: 

It was interesting to hear about these riddles that kids would tell, because as NK was describing them, I realized I remembered hearing similar riddles when I was in elementary schools. I think kids liked to one-up each other and prove how clever they were by stumping the other kids, or solving their riddles. I didn’t realize how dark these riddles were until now looking back and I wonder how we were so casual about topics like suicide at 8 or 9 years old.

The Hidden Language of Gamers

Abstract: Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic a huge wave of online gaming has consumed all platforms and with that new interaction amongst all communities. In the game, terms have been adapted with the meaning being to give up on a match or to lose because the game wasn’t played correctly. These terms are analyzed below

Background: JL is an amateur gamer with a plethora of experience in the gaming community. He’s 20 and lives in Florida with one of his favorite pastimes is joining up with his team and competing in competitive matches in the evening or over the weekend at potential tournaments. The interview conducted below contains the phrases which he says are most common when he games. The topic came up when discussing how the virus is affecting the gaming community and those who’ve recently joined.

Slang: “You’re throwing”

JL says the term is similar to saying “you’re messing up” or along the lines of “you’re ruining this for the whole team” if he’s on a team with other people. Basically I am doing something that I should be doing that affects others in a negative way. In reality, they’re probably a better way of conducting the task but they chose the wrong method. 

Example:

Person 1: I’m moving forward to attack the energy. *Fails*

Person 2: Fall back, person 1 is throwing and now we have to regroup.   

Interpretation:

At first, the term sounds like something that would be said to someone play a sport with a ball and yelling at them you’re throwing to such person. However, in the gaming world, this term takes a new meaning and is especially common when used in a team game with players utilizing their microphones to speak with others and discuss strategies. The term You’re throwing tends to come about when your teammates are frustrated with their loss or when the opposing team is allowing for an easy victory. This term could’ve originated from a baseball game in which many players are required to throw balls and compete as a team and have developed into a gaming slang culture that infects gaming platforms with no requirement to throw anything such as shooters and team-based combat games. 

Slang: “GG no Re Plebs”

JL: A term which means “smoking the kids” who challenged you the first time to a rematch after they lost the first time. Essentially the GG means good game and the Re stands for a rematch and finally, the term plebs describe. Typically this phrase is brought up really during a team fighting video game. 

Example

Team 1: Let’s re-compete in a new match to prove we messed up the last one. 

Person 2: Alright let’s compete.

*loses the match again*

Person 2: GG no Re plebs.

Interpretation: GG is a phrase most common when playing in any competitive games whether they’re shooter games or games focused more on a professional sport. Hearing this phrase used quite a few times when I would play games. This phrase was generally used when we were opting to rematch an opposing team and then continuing to beat them. The phrase is commonly used through voice but also text chats are also populated by the phrase when a match is completed. The toxicity in the phrase also helps with adding a minor advantage by agitating the opposing team and throwing them off of their momentum with these phrases. The phrase is a combination of two phrases since it incorporates the GG term and the term plebs which is the main word meant to tick off your opponents.