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.

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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.

Did you know that pianos produce sounds with steel strings? Armed with that knowledge it’s not hard to see why the piano is written as 鋼琴, or steel instrument, in Chinese. While this name isn’t as epic compared to other things featured on this blog it is rather awesome relative to the English word piano, which is short for the Italian clavicembalo [or gravicembalo] col piano e forte, or “harpsichord that does soft and loud”. Those of you who read music will know that piano means soft. So basically, of all the words that we could have shortened the full name to we chose “soft”. Imagine a bunch of Italian dudes seeing a piano for the first time and going “oh man this thing can be not loud!” and a bunch of Chinese dudes seeing a piano for the first time and going “oh man this thing is made of steel!”. We can see where cultural priorities lie.

The word 琴 isn’t exactly Chinese for “musical instrument”. It’s more “musical instrument that are referred to as 琴”. I tried figuring out what musical instrument qualifies as a 琴 but I couldn’t so I gave up. The fun thing though is that, like pianos, many Occidental instruments have names that are practical descriptions followed by 琴 in Chinese. Some examples with direct translations follow. See if you can guess what they are without seeing the actual translation!

小提琴 (small carried instrument)
中提琴 (medium carried instrument)
大提琴 (large carried instrument)
手風琴 (hand wind instrument)
口琴 (mouth instrument)
豎琴 (vertical instrument)
大鍵琴 (instrument with large keys)
木琴 (wooden instrument)
低音提琴 (low sound carried instrument)
班卓琴 (class desk instrument)

The answers, from top to bottom: violin, viola, cello, accordion, harmonica, harp, harpsichord, xylophone, double bass, banjo. Everything makes sense! Except for the banjo. In reality it’s called a “class desk instrument” in Chinese not because every schoolchild in China is forced to play the banjo in school. It’s just because “class” and “desk” kind of sound like “ban” and “jo”. I mean, if you were tasked with translating “banjo” to Chinese, how exactly would you even begin to try and do that? I get the sense that they just gave up and called a banjo a banjo.