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.


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.

天文台 is both a poetic and suitable name for an observatory. The term 天文 translates directly as “heaven/sky” and “language” while 台 is “stand”, “pedestal”, or in a more modern context, “station”; the word 台 is also used in the context of television or radio stations. Although the definition of 天文 is “astronomy” it actually refers to “general stuff you can see in the sky”; anything that the ancients could interpret as communication fromthe heavens (meteorology/weather as well as arrangements of heavenly bodies) could be considered as part of 天文. In fact, the term 天文台 usually refers to a meteorological observatory in common use. However, when referring to weather and meteorology Chinese speakers would use 天氣 (heavenly air, or perhaps heavenly currents) and 氣象 (air/current display) instead of 天文. Sometimes 天文氣象 would be used together as one phrase to refer to everything heavenly or just weather.

Great Unifying Commander

March 11, 2010

As the last post mentioned, the term 水師提督 is no longer used to refer to an admiral in the People’s Republic of China navy; the rank died along with the Qing Empire. Instead, when the PRC was first formed the highest rank in its navy (and more) is 中華人民共和國大元帥, which translates to “Great Marshal of the People’s Republic of China”. Taken separately 大元帥 translates to “great/big”, “unifying” (as in “unifying theory” in physics”) and “commander in chief”, which is taken to mean the same thing as “Generalissimo”. Famous people who had a military rank include Joseph Stalin, whose name is really “Joe Steel” and would be the first entry in Epic Russian Things if such a blog existed.

Now, what about that missing picture on the post? Well, the problem is that the PRC never had a 大元帥. The only person who ever qualified for the rank was Mao himself and he declined. So it sat there unused; it was later abolished presumably because the title was too epic and the Party had to prevent the Chosen One from obtaining that title and therefore supreme power to overthrow the Communist Party in a glorious battle involving an army of terra cotta robot warriors, ghost dragons and a strange lady with a sword hiding in the Yellow River.

The story is a little different in the Republic of China, where founding father Sun Yat-sen did in fact have the title 大元帥. However, like the President of the United States he was merely the commander of the armed forces because he was the executive leader of the country so it was not a rank but more something he just did and could put in his resume if he needed another job.

The term 水師提督, somewhat literally translated as “Elevated Governor of Water Division”, is not actually a ceremonial title for Moses given by a Chinese dude who claimed that he was Jesus’ little brother. It’s actually a Qing Dynasty (read: last Chinese dynasty ever, so think 1700s to early 1900s) military rank. More commonly (and less epically) translated as “admiral”, 水師提督 was the rank given to the highest ranking officials in the Qing navy. There were three of them (each in charge of a fleet) and so perhaps it may be more accurate to translate the term as “fleet admiral”.

The dude in the picture was an admiral Si (though he is referred to as a general in the painting the Chinese term for general is really more a general [see what I did there?] term for “dude who leads a bunch of troops”) who accepted some kind of surrender from some other dude at what we now call Tainan in 1863 or so, when they made that painting of him. Now his badass portrait is immortalized in digital form on to accompany historical facts about Taiwanese vegetables.

The characters 提督 mean “elevate” and “governor/supervisor” separately. Put together they become something like “high ranking commander” in a military context. The character 師 usually means “master” or “teacher” (it’s the first half of sifu) but here it means a military division. Since 水 means “water”, 水師 means “water division” or, since we’re referring to the armed forces, “navy”. It’s a rather archaic term that is no longer used in the Chinese military. Originally I wrote a ton here about current Chinese navy ranks but the Internet decided to eat my work so I will make that the next post.

Ironically, the only place where 水師提督 is still used is to refer to 水師提督門 (門 means “gate” or “door”), more commonly known as Admiralty Arch in London, England, which honors the very queen (give or take a generation) whose naval prowess the 水師提督 of the past had fought to keep out of the Great Qing Empire.