Ping’s Chinese in Elmhurst, NY is my favorite Chinese restaurant in New York City. Or at least it was, because I haven’t had Chinese food in New York for half a decade. Ping’s is also a prime example of Chinese business naming practices: a ridiculously epic Chinese name coupled with a very unassuming English name.

昇輝 is the Chinese name of the restaurant. means, roughly, “raise”. However it is a more formal kind of “raise” and so “ascend” and “promote” may be better. (Google Translate suggested “hoist”, which is hilarious but not really true.) 輝 means “brilliance”, as in literal brilliance from light and “splendor”. Put together we have splendor that ascends, or is ascending (昇 being a verb and 輝 being a noun, we can’t say it’s a splendid ascension).

Now, why doesn’t the restaurant actually call itself Ascending Splendor? Well, there are three reasons. First it’s marketing. Which of the following sentence rolls off better, in English?

Hey guys let’s grab some crab at Ping’s.

Hey guys let’s grab some crab at Ascending Splendor.

Second, it’s cultural. While it’s perfectly reasonable to have outrageous names for pretty much anything in Chinese it’s not so in Occidental cultures. Third, while naming something in Chinese is easy if you’re used to it translating that name is not. It took me, someone who is fluent in both languages and is on vacation, a whole twenty minutes of thinking and dictionary-searching to figure out a decent translation of the name; likely the folks who named the place didn’t have much time and resources to make the translation.

Haven’t updated in a while since I’ve temporarily relocated to the West Coast and have minimal Internet access on my computer. But! This means that I’m no longer in Vermont and closer to sources of hilarity and epicness in lack of translations so I can actually take my own pictures and perhaps upload them once I get back to New England.

Anyway, this post is about 秋刀魚, or pacific saury. It’s a common fish in East Asian cuisine, especially so in Japanese food. The character 魚 means fish while 秋 is “autumn” and 刀 is “blade”. The origin of this rather epic name is possibly because the pacific saury looks like of like a blade and breeds during the spring. Nobody (on Wikipedia, at least) really knows for sure…

Star of the Deep King

May 23, 2010

This is actually not an Epic Chinese Thing, but an Epic Roman Thing That Became More Epic in Chinese Because It Sounds So Exotic When You Say It. Also, there are some scientific errors involved.

The “Deep King” here refers to the god of the Underworld. In particular, the Roman one. Also, Chinese refers to every shiny heavenly body as a “star”, with a qualifier in front of it to distinguish between star-stars, planets, comets and such. So 冥王星, or “deep king star”, actually means “the heavenly body named after the Roman king of the Underworld”. We call it Pluto, which doesn’t sound nearly as convoluted or awesome but that is what Pluto actually is. It’s a planet named after the king of Hell because it’s really cold and dark.

The character 冥 means dark and/or deep. It is really only used to refer to supernatural deep/dark things so you won’t hear anyone using it to describe a closet. Unless the closet is a portal from which demons spawn. Or the person describing it is an obnoxious liberal arts school graduate.

Appropriately the other (dwarf) planets of the solar system (with the exception of Mercury to Saturn, which were discovered by Chinese astronomers and named after classical elements before they learned the Occidental names for them) as well as other heavenly bodies named after mythological figures have similar naming schemes:

  • Uranus is called 天王星, the star of the heavenly king.
  • Neptune is called 海王星, the star of the sea king.
  • Eris is called 鬩神星, the star of the goddess of discord.
  • Makemake is called 鳥神星, the star of the (Easter Island) bird god.
  • Haumea is called 妊神星, the star of the (Hawaiian) goddess of being pregnant.
  • Ceres is called 穀神星, the star of the goddess of grains.
  • Vesta is called 灶神星, the star of the goddess of kitchen stoves.

The list goes on, but here are some of them. The compact nature of the naming scheme means that the name needs to summarize the unique characteristic of the god or goddess in one character. Conveniently, Chinese has a character for everything. However, like 冥 some of these characters are not often used by themselves in these days. For example, 鬩 is rarely used to describe chaos and 妊 is only really used as parts of technical terms to describe pregnancy.

A note: the character 神 translates to “god” (or, more modernly, “God”) but is used to refer to any sort of god or goddess in general. When gender needs to be taken into account goddesses are referred to by 女神, literally “female god”.

Song of Piercing

May 3, 2010

A song is called a 插曲 (“pierce” and “song”, literally) if it is inserted in the middle (or sometimes the end credits) of a TV show or movie and is not considered the “theme music”. The character 插 is also used for “insert” (as in “insert a picture into this Word document”) or “interject” and “penetrate” (yes, even in a sexual context; especially in a sexual context). Then 插曲 basically means “a song shoved into something”.

The most famous 插曲 in American pop culture is probably As Time Goes By, which was played in the movie Casablanca. It was by no means the main musical number of the song; it was scene appropriate and was used somewhat as an interlude. But like many other 插曲 in Chinese entertainment (for example, 郊道, “country path”, a song that the main character of an old Chinese musical sang while walking down a country path to meet his girlfriend, the song that inspired this post) it became overwhelmingly popular relative to all other musical pieces from the movie.

Note: You may have noticed that the postings here have diminished over the last few weeks. If you want to know why you can take a look at my latest personal blog entry.

Electric Brain

April 15, 2010

Computers are, in Chinese, commonly referred to as 電腦, which literally means “electric brain”. If you want to be boring or formal you can use 計算機 (“figure out” “counting” “machine”), which directly translates to “calculator” instead. When you think about it, the words “computer” and “calculator” both really mean “a thing that computes” anyway, but just as they refer to different things in English different Chinese words are used for them.

Bullet-Dodging Clothing

April 7, 2010

Like a “thunder-dodging needle” that does not help you dodge lightning “bullet-dodging clothing”, or 避彈衣, does not actually help you dodge bullets. In fact, it is better referred to as 防彈衣, or “clothing that protects from bullets”. In both terms 彈 means “bullet” and 衣 means “clothing”. The difference is that 避 means “dodge” while 防 means “defend/protect”. For former is used colloquially in Hong Kong and nowhere else. Clothing that heighten your speed and reflexes enough to dodge bullets do not actually exist in real life. Sorry.

In case you haven’t noticed, by the way, this post is about bullet-proof vests.

Photo from Flickr page of Haags Uitburo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

While the term 爵士 is the formal Chinese title for a British knight—爵士 is placed after names of knighted individuals in Chinese just as Sir is placed before the same names in English, with the exception that 爵士 is used with full or surnames only while Sir is used with full and given names only; yay for grammar—the term 爵士樂 (樂 meaning “music”) actually refers to jazz music. The term doesn’t come from the “fact” that British knights are frequently into jazz music. It’s really only because 爵士 sounding a whole lot like “jazz” when it is pronounced by a Chinese tongue. The fact that 爵士 normally refers to a highly elevated and Western thing does not hurt either.

When I think jazz, I think of trumpets. As I promised in a previous post on diarrhea medicine, let’s talk about trumpets. In that post I mentioned that 喇叭 is Chinese for trumpet. Except that if you actually looked up “trumpet” in a dictionary—especially one that is in simplified Chinese—you would get 小號 instead. What’s the difference?

Let’s start with 喇叭. I do not believe that there is a simplified Chinese equivalent for this word since it is not used in mainland China. 喇叭 is really Cantonese slang pronounced “la ba”. Except it really sounds like “la” and “ba” are a major third apart; in standard solfege (or the more-familiar-to-me shape notes) “la” would be “fa” and “ba” would be “la”. The point is that 喇叭 sounds like a trumpet. Or something like that. So in Cantonese a trumpet is called a 喇叭. Actually, 喇叭 also is a common term for sound amplifiers, i.e., speakers.

The term 小號 can be most literally translated as “little number” as 小 means “small” and 號 usually means “number” when used by itself. However, here 號 refers to “signal”. Why would a trumpet be called a “small signal”? Well, when you want to signal the arrival of an important person or an invasion, what do you use? A bugle (號角, or “signal point/corner”) or a trumpet.

Many brass instruments’ Chinese names include the word 號 along with a somewhat descriptive prefix. Let’s see how many of these you can figure out:

小號 (small signal [wait didn’t we do this already?])
短號 (short signal)
柔音號 (soft note signal)
中音圓號 (mid-note member [as in marching band member] signal)
長號 (long signal)
粗管上低音號 (thick tube upper low note signal)
大號 (big signal)

And the real English names, in order from top to bottom: trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, mellophone, trombone, euphonium and tuba.

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DuneChaser

While the character 矛盾 mean “spear” and “shield”, respectively, you often hear people refer to 矛盾 in phrases like 聖經的內部矛盾 (the internal spear and shield of the Bible), which is the second Google search result for 矛盾 in traditional Chinese, and 我很矛盾 (I’m very spear and shield), which appears in teenagers’ blogs often. Those phrases do not refer to the reasons behind the Crusade or the desire of modern Chinese teenagers to go and reenact scenes from the movie 300. 矛盾 is an idiom in Chinese that means, most directly, “contradiction”. And so those phrases would actually refer to “the internal contradictions in the Bible” and “I’m feeling conflicted”.

The 矛 and 盾 in 矛盾 refer to a spear and a shield that appears in a story in the classical Chinese philosophical work known as 韓非子 written around 250 BCE during the Warring States period. The story難一 (Difficulty the First) is blockquoted below.

楚人有鬻盾與矛者,譽之曰:「吾盾之堅,物莫能陷之。」以譽其矛曰:「吾矛之利,於物無不陷也。」或曰:「以子之矛陷子之盾,何如?」其人弗能應也。夫不可陷之盾與無不陷之矛,不可同世而立。

There is a translation available commercially, but since I am too lazy to go hunt down a possibly out of print expensive academic book I will translate it for your pleasure in accordance to the blog’s tagline. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve translated any classical Chinese and it’s always a lot of fun. (Yes, the double negatives are intentional since the original text uses double negatives to refer to “everything”. Also they make the translation sound awkward and wisdom-filled.)

From the people of Chu is a man who sold shields and spears. In regards to his shield he said, “my shield is strong; no object can penetrate it.” In regards to his spear he said, “my spear is sharp; it encounters no object it cannot penetrate.” A man said to him, “if your spear strikes your shield, what happens?” The man was unable to answer. A shield no man can penetrate and a spear without an object it cannot penetrate cannot in the same world be established.

If you want to see a poorly animated video of the story with additional irrelevant details you can find it on YouTube. This story is the origin of the idiom 自相矛盾, literally “self” “mutually” “spear” “shield”, or more usefully, “contradicting yourself”. 矛盾 refers to the all-penetrating spear (矛) and the impenetrable shield (盾) which, according to the ancient philosopher 韓非, are too awesome to exist in the same world simultaneously. While 韓非 originally wrote this as a parable of political thought in a world that’s been plunged into war the idiom 矛盾 has become an overarching term for things that fit the “there are two things but you can’t have both of them” category. Now 矛盾 refers to not only contradictions but also oxymorons, paradoxes, Escher paintings and, more modernly, whether one should date a vampire or a werewolf.

Pills of Orthodox Dew

March 23, 2010

Anyone who spent some time watching television from Hong Kong before 2000 would probably at some point encounter a TV ad for 喇叭牌正露丸, or Trumpet Brand Orthodox Dew Pills. Featuring trumpet-led marching band music and catchy advertising jingles mixed with Cantonese slang describing stomachaches that words actually cannot express it’s a pretty addictive marketing campaign. At some point they switched to smooth elevator music hip hop, which, frankly, is a whole lot less addictive.

These pills are marketed as cures for diarrhea and stomachaches. I really don’t know nothing about them besides the fact that they smell kinda funny and are supposedly sugar coated. The TV claimed they worked but I never really tried.

The name 喇叭牌正露丸 can be dissected into the brand (喇叭牌 means trumpet brand—we’ll explore this term in another post on musical instruments at some point) and the actual product name. The characters 正露丸 translate to “orthodox/right”, “dew” and “pill”, respectively. There is a small pun here: in Cantonese 露 sounds the same as 路, which means “road”. 正路 means, obviously, “the right path” or maybe “the path of good” in more religious/metaphysical contexts. So these are also pills that send you to the right path which, according to the advertising jingles, is not towards the bathroom while clutching your stomach with both hands.

Thunder Fire

March 19, 2010

The term 激光 (stimulated light) was coined by scientist Qian Xuesen, who was one of the founders of the JPL. He was later accused by the US government as a communist, which basically ruined his career. Since he couldn’t really do anything in the US anymore he just went “oh screw you guys” and went to Red China where he was welcomed with open arms and helped China build its first aeronautics program and first ballistic missile. His research eventually enabled China to create its own spaceships and send people into space. Just imagine how many years China’s rocket/space technology would have been set back if only the US government did not stupidly accuse a brilliant MIT educated scientist who knows the secrets of sending explosives across the globe of being a communist.

Back to the linguistics: 激光 means “laser”, which is really “LASER”, which is short for Light Amplification of Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Since Chinese does not allow acronyms as English did trying to translate the full expansion of LASER in a reasonable manner was actually a really hard task. Without a commonly accepted name Chinese scientists had a lot of trouble communicating with each other. Eventually a journal’s editorial board asked Qian to give LASER a Chinese name. He called it 激光. The character 激 means “stimulate/irritate” and 光 means “light”, which in true Chinese name-shortening fashion captured the essence of what should be named. Also, it’s an exciting name and exciting names are exciting.

But wait, you say, the post’s title has nothing to do with stimulation or light! You are angry that you were promised thunder and fire and I did not deliver. Well, let’s talk about another name for the LASER: 雷射, which literally means “thunder” and “fire” (as in the verb, not the noun). So perhaps 雷射 could be taken to mean “shooting lightning” because we all know that Chinese has this problem with shortening “thunder and lightning” to just “thunder”. And when you think about it, it is kind of like shooting lightning when you point at things with a laser pointer, right? If someone who does not actually know anything about lasers or even physics in general saw you with a laser pointer they may say “this is a harbinger of God who shoots lightning!”. And so 雷射 is a very reasonable name for a laser; perhaps not as scientific as 激光, but certainly a good, poetic name, right?

Here’s the problem: none of that is why a laser is called a 雷射. The reason why we also call a laser 雷射 is because 雷射 sounds kinda like “laser” when you say it out loud.

That was anticlimactic, wasn’t it? This is one of those rare instances where transliterating English into Chinese gives something that not only sounds like a real term but kind of makes sense for what you’re transliterating. To make things even more interesting, sometimes 雷射 can be written as 鐳射, which sounds exactly the same except that 鐳 means “radium”. That sounds wonderfully scientific! Except that you don’t make a laser by shooting radium at anything so it really isn’t that scientific.