China has a long History and a culture rich of metaphors and symbols.
The Chinese language is known for its characters that can be interpreted in a poetic or amusing way to memorize them. Let’s give some examples that demonstrate that learning chinese can be a delight: a “heart” (心xīn) caught in a “door” (门mén) means to be “bored” (闷mèn). A popular funny story says that a woman (女nǚ), because she is “muddled” (昏hūn), “get married” (婚 hūn).
The Chinese language is also known for its 4 tonal intonations with homophones that can give rise to countless play on words but also hidden messages. For instance, it is interesting to note that “ambition” (抱负 bàofù) sounds like “getting rich quickly” (暴富 bào fù) and “talent” (才cái) rhymes with “fortune” (财 cái). If a woman receives 9 roses in China, the underlying message of her partner is that he will love her forever since the number “9” (九 jiǔ) sounds like “eternity” (久 jiǔ). If she is offered an iPhone, it will mean that he “loves her like crazy”.(爱疯 ài fēng). At times, one of the characters that composed a word is changed by another character with the same (or a close) spelling: In 2015, on the occasion of the New Year of the “Goat” (羊yáng), the word “full of joy” (喜气洋洋 xǐqìyángyáng) has been turned into 喜气羊羊 xǐqì yáng yáng, litterally the goats bringing happiness.
Needless to say: a wrong pronunciation can generate misunderstandings. For instance, the ““stock markets” (股市gǔshì) should not be confused with “an ancient poem” (古诗 gǔshī) or a “story” (故事 gùshì), although this could sometimes be plausible…..Homophones can also be related to superstitions. Some drivers will put real or fake “apples” (苹果 píngguǒ) in their car as they remind them of the word “safe and sound” (平安 píng‘ān). On the opposite, the number “4” (四 sì) is avoided when choosing a phone number or a licence plate as it sounds like “death” (死 sǐ). Another interesting example is a real story that a friend told me: During an official dinner, a Chinese VIP cut a pear in two and shared it with a foreign negociator. The underlying meaning was clear: “cutting a pear in half” (分梨 fēn lí) rhymes with “to depart” (分离 fēn lí ). Fact is that this high ranking Chinese was irritated and, in a very sophisticated way, invited this negociator to go.
In a digital world, the Netizens create neologisms and buzzwords that provide an insider perspective into a society striking a subtle balance between traditional and modern values. They describe “modern-day” tribes with humor and a zest of irony. Those profiles reflect with accuracy their lives and concerns. For instance, young people dedicated to luxury brands, employees struggling to settle down, women resisting the pressure to marry, couples who avoid falling into a routine….As they identify categories of individuals sharing the same traits, the Netizens have conceived interesting play on words. For instance, they have identified the “young people” (年轻人 niánqīngrén) who are “broke at the end of the month” (年清人 niánqīng rén); The “Overseas Returnees” (海归hǎiguī) that includes those returning to China after studying abroad, definitely remind us of “Sea Tuttles” (海龟hǎiguī).
Chinese creativity, ingenious communication style and sense of humour are a long tradition. For the native speakers of Chinese language, it is common to play with characters and their spelling. All these homophones, rimes and neologisms are fascinating as they reveal a culture that is open to the world and evolves rapidly. It is not important to be an Expert, what counts is to be curious and question ones’ beliefs to initiate oneself to the Chinese mind.
Véronique Michel is a multilingual conference speaker. She has published LA CHINE BRANCHEE (Chinese Netspeak, March 2012) and LA COMMUNICATION A LA CHINOISE (Chinese communication style, August 2013) with SEPIA publishing in France. In March 2015, her book CHINA ONLINE (the original version is LA CHINE BRANCHEE) has been published in the United States by Tuttle publishing. Véronique Michel can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org