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 http://www.leek.tw/ 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.

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.

Thunder-Dodging Needle

February 27, 2010

Actually, this is in fact a magical device that helps you dodge lightning bolts. Assuming of course you place it somewhere high up away from where you are and properly ground it.

In Chinese the phenomena of lightning and thunder are usually referred to as 雷電, with 雷 meaning the thundering sound and 電 meaning electricity, or lightning. Strangely a lightning rod is called 避雷針 (dodge, thunder, needle, respectively) in Chinese. This could be because it’s unwieldy to use th whole of 雷電 and so only the first character was used. Or because people wanted to be confusing. You know, like how we call a lightning rod a lightning rod even though it does not in fact shoot lightning at things.

Flying Tiger Squadron

February 18, 2010

Flying Tiger Squadron (飛虎隊) usually refers to the Hong Kong Police’s Special Duties Unit (SDU), which is pretty much Hong Kong’s version of the American SWAT team or the British CO19. Except instead of names like SWAT or CO19 the one in Hong Kong is called Flying Tiger. Because their emblem is a tiger. And Flying Tigers are awesome.

As you’ll probably notice the picture I posted is neither a tiger with wings Photoshopped on to it or even a bunch of guys holding assault rifles ready to arrest some drug lords or the Triad or whatever.

The name 飛虎隊 actually originally came from the Republic of China Air Force American-National Volunteer Great Squadron (中華民國空軍美籍志願大隊), or American Volunteer Group in English, established during World War II (in 1940, actually, which basically means that American pilots were fighting the Japanese before Pearl Harbor). According to <a href=”http://www.flyingtigersavg.com/“>The Official AVG page</a> these guys were well paid (salaried plus a bonus that is worth $6,000 in 2008 money per confirmed destruction of a Japanese plane) and were pretty epic even without the nickname Flying Tigers. The name came, according to legends, because the AVG painted shark decals on their planes but Chinese peasants who have never seen sharks before (presumably because they live inland where tigers dwell) thought the planes had tigers painted on them.

And now you know.

Dragon Eye

February 17, 2010

More commonly known as the longan fruit, this fruit’s name actually translates directly to Dragon Eye. Because it looks like the eye of a dragon? There’s a whole tradition of Chinese names for things that take the form Dragon X (such as the previously mentioned Dragon Core processor) and this blog will attempt to bring them all to light with a series of scathing blog posts in the near future.

Heaven Thread

January 29, 2010

It’s antenna, people!

This is what happens if you take the name of an object, translate each of the characters separately and pick the coolest sounding combination of translations you can find.

Wall Vaulting Buddha

January 25, 2010

Despite the fact that this sounds like a nickname for a Chinese track and field champion it’s actually the name of a famous dish: 佛跳牆, or, literally, “Buddha jump wall”. Basically it’s a couple dozen awesomely delicious things (including ham, abalone, shitake mushrooms, shark fin, quail eggs, etc.) slow cooked together for a while. The history (or legend?) claims that when this dish was originally served it had no name. But then these dudes were like, dude, this dish is totally flippin’ epic in fact if you were to cook it while Buddha himself was meditating next door he would vault over the walls of the monastery and nom on this here epic bowl of ambrosia.

Except that these guys were rich liberal arts majors so they did not just say that out loud they had to write a poem about it. The lines that the dish got its name from are


They basically mean something like “the aromatic cooking smell spreads to four grottoes away, when a buddha smells it he will abandon the state of zen and come leaping over walls”. Technically it’s “four residential units measured by the level of governance immediately below that which is designated a ‘village’ in the Chinese governmental structure” instead of “four grottoes” and also, although the word for “buddha” is used it really should be translated to “monk” or “holy man”. But then again we’re established that accurate translation is not the goal of this blog.

What is important is that, two hundred years ago, there’s this dude in China who created a dish so delicious that in theory if it was to exist centuries before his time it would prevent a major religious figure from achieving nirvana and prevent one of the largest religions on the planet from really forming. That’s pretty darn epic there.

Actually, it’s almost 9000km long. Except that in Chinese the number that stands for “a whole heck of a lot” is “ten thousand” and ten thousand li (one of which is officially, as of now, 0.5km) basically means “really freakin’ long”. Therefore the Great Wall of China, the Ten Thousand Li Fortress, is actually an understatement. Not a common thing in Chinese names for awesome things.

So… when they were building the Great Wall of China it may have actually been the first time when humanity built something that exceeded the imagination of language, proving for the first time that engineering majors (or at least emperors with ten thousand slaves) are superior to liberal arts scholars.