muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Tomorrow is the Moon Festival so today we made the trip down to South Chinatown for mooncakes. I knew we were cutting it close and I wouldn't've been surprised to find that they were out of their proprietary mixed nut mooncakes. I didn't expect that they'd be out of mooncakes altogether. We ended up buying a couple from Chiu Quon instead (lotus paste and winter melon, so the Old Man will end up having a bite or two at most). We also got a few other sweets to tide us over, since Nuphy wasn't due to meet up with us for another half hour.

We all vaguely remembered having spotted on our last visit a place we'd like to try in future, but as none of us could recall the name or any details, I simply Googled "best dumplings Chinatown", since [livejournal.com profile] monshu said he wanted jiǎozi. Among the chaff we found Mike Sula's write-up from last February of a place in the Richland Food Court called Qing Xiang Yuan (青香苑) which specialised in a kind of soup dumpling called guàntángjiǎozi (灌湯餃子). That didn't catch my attention as much as the fact that they were hand-filled to order, so we made a beeline for the place and texted Nuphy the location.

Sula had lamented that the food court was "almost always nearly empty", but that wasn't the case today, which meant that there was a 20-minute wait for food. But that and the fact that the locale was almost too authentic (the bunker-like lack of ambience and general grottiness bringing back culture shock from our trip to Beijing) were the only drawbacks. If anything, the dumplings exceeded my expectations, being every bit as tender and fresh as the ones we got in China but more juicy and perhaps even more delicate as well. We kept going back until we'd had three orders: lamb and coriander, pork and leek, and zucchini and mushroom (alas, the least interesting of the three).

Both the old farts had brought their appetites, though, so the GWO ended up ordering a big plate of yakisoba from the Taiwanese/Japanese noodly place in the corner while Nuphy plumped for the "spicy lamb chops" from 紅辣椒 (the English name might be "Snack Planet" unless that's where he got his mango smoothie). Fortunately for me, the chiles and chili flakes were sprinkled on after the fact, so I could shake them off to sample the meat, which was curiously fluffy in texture. Oddly, none of the places served hot tea (I joked with the Old Man about asking for some dumpling water, like we had to drink in Chongqing)--not even the sushi place in the corner.

We decided to walk off lunch with a circuit through the mall, which was packed with attendees for the Moon Festival, and then back to Feida, since Nuphy wanted jindeui. Amazingly, they were out of those, too, so we looped back to the Saint Anna Bakery, stopping on the way to check out the new Chinatown Branch of CPL. We were impressed by the exterior on our last trip, but lots of beautiful buildings are badly non-functional inside. Not this one. It's a great space, with enclosed community rooms on the main floor for activities (including what looked like it could've been a funeral) and study rooms upstairs. The noisier areas are concentrated on the north side, and it gets quieter going south towards the study room as the stacks switch from English to Chinese. (There seemed a roughly equal number of both and plenty of new acquisitions.) I had a great chat with one of the staff, who turned out to be a graduate of UofC's library school back when there still was such a thing.

Saint Anna was a blast from the past as well. I don't think it's changed since that mall was built over two decades ago. Unfortunately, this meant the sweets were less than satisfactory (not to speak of the bag tea), but the experience was something else. A smiling 91 year-old came up to compliment me on my beard and chat briefly about his trajectory, which had him landing here in '62 and eventually starting a business hauling computer waste back to Hong Kong for recycling. Nuphy asked me about the specials pasted on the wall, and I attracted the attention of the waitress trying to explain the difference between the flesh and moon radicals. (Sadly, I managed to misread 酸 "sour" as 脆 "crispy", only discovering my mistake as a thumbed through McCawley on the trip back.)
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
One of the little mysteries we brought back from Chinatown with us travelled on a package of noodles. The Old Man has a Mid-Autumn vegetarian feast planned for tonight and he wanted a noodle course. The grocery carried several varieties of 拉麵 or hand-pulled noodles, and we opted for a thicker variety labeled "爽滑". These are both characters which look familiar but I don't really know. (I feel like I need a term for this parallel to 提筆忘字; perhaps 認字不清?)

The first one was a bastard to find. It clearly and quite centrally contains the element 大, so you'd naturally assume that was the radical. But since this is Chinese, it's not, it's one of only two characters listed under 爻 (the other being the transcription-oriented 爾). I felt better about not really knowing what it meant when I saw the fuzzy lexicographical attempts to define it. Lin Yu-tang gives "to fail in promise; to err" alongside "exhilarating; high-spirited; forthright". Wiktionary and the Oxford Chinese give "happy" and "refreshing", and McCawley has something similar. nciku explains "Originally used to mean being comfortable and cheerful. Now it refers to feel delighted and happy, or intoxicated with something."

In fact, since the second character, 滑, contained the water radical, I initially assumed that it was the name of a river, that 爽滑 together denoted a place name, and that therefore the literal meaning of each character was unimportant. So I was chagrinned to determine that 滑 huá actually used to be in my active vocabulary. Its meaning is "slippery" which helped explain why, in tiny print on the back of the package, I found the gloss "slippery noodles". However, none of the resources I consulted had an entry for the compound 爽滑 and only nciku had an example of its use: 它需要柠檬汁来让已变干的扁豆入口更加爽滑。"It needed lemon juice to sharpen the flatness of the dried lentils." The last part of the sentence literally translates as something like "make enter the mouth even more 爽滑".

So, at the end of the day, I'm still no wiser as to what 爽滑 is supposed to mean in this context. We seem to be dealing with a particular variety of noodle intended for a certain preparation, but what? Sounds like [livejournal.com profile] monshu is just going to take the easy way out and serve them in some miso broth. In the meantime, there's a Chinese-speaking coworker I can turn to for some guidance.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)


Formally, "lesbian" is translated into Chinese as 女同性戀者 ("female same sex lover"). But since this is a mouthful, it gets shortened to 女同 or transcribed as 蕾絲邊 lěisībiàn instead. That's actually kind of long for colloquial Chinese as well, particularly if it's qualified in any way. So in turn, 蕾絲邊 gets clipped to simply 蕾 (lit. "bud") in compounds like 歐蕾 (歐 here representing 歐德 ōudě, a transcription of "old" and not a shortening of 歐洲 or 歐羅巴 "Europe").

But here's the rub: 歐蕾 ōulěi is also used to transcribe "au lait" as in 咖啡歐蕾 café au lait. I imagine someone was just looking for a fancy name for their strawberry milkshake and misfired badly.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Since dessert at Thanksgiving was a pumpkin cheesecake with a maple-pecan praline topping, it's not surprising that the current pecan shortage became a topic at the table. Nuphy called up the recent NYT article which ascribed the situation to, among other factors, a surge of demand in China. This came as news to me, because I've never come across pecans in Chinese cuisine before, not here nor over there. In fact, only a week ago when [livejournal.com profile] monshu bought some for use in our stuffing, I remember musing that East Asians probably wouldn't know what the hell these were.

It goes without saying, then, that I hadn't a clue what the Chinese word for "pecan" was. The NYT claimed they used a phonetic loan, but I couldn't find it in the Wikipedia entry as it appeared on Nuphy's phone. Now that I have access to the full version, I can see that it's 碧根果 bìgēnguǒ, lit. "jade root fruit". (The semantic value of the characters is all but arbitrary, of course, but I do wonder if Chinese children think the tree must have petrified green roots.) The usual name, on the other hand, seems to be 長山核桃 or "long mountain walnut".

At first I thought this might indicate it was introduced to them by being cultivated at a place called Changshan, but it appears that 山核桃 or "mountain walnut" is the name of the most closely-related Chinese species, Carya cathayensis, the Chinese hickory, whose nuts are (as the accompanying image shows) rounder even than walnuts. Pecans are, in my father's words, essentially thin-shelled hickories and, in fact, an alternative name for the tree in China is 薄殼山核桃 "thin shell mountain walnut". Another name is the very straightforward "American mountain walnut" (美國山核桃).

I also had Asian pears on my mind ever since the Snore King had mentioned he was making a cranberry-Asian pear relish for Thanksgiving, so when I went to the market (on Thanksgiving Day, because I despise retail workers, y'all) for milk, I looked for them. I was surprised to find "Yali pears" on one side of the aisle and "apple pears" on the other because I thought these were synonyms. Or rather, I thought the Yali (鴨梨 yālí "duck pear") was a cultivar of the Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) colloquially called "apple pear" on account of its shape. Turns out the Yali is a variety of Pyrus × bretschneideri, a hybrid of P. pyrifolia with P. ussuriensis, the Siberian pear. And, in fact, they are also named for their shape, which apparently recalls a duck's head.

Whatever they are, they were selling for three times as much as the domestically-grown "apple pears" which were so tasty and sweet that the Old Man just came back from the grocery with more. Sad that it literally took a prescription from my doctor for me to rediscover a fondness for apples, pears, and dried fruits of all sorts. But now I'm back on the fibre train and loving it!
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
To be honest, [livejournal.com profile] monshu's been something of a slacker recently in the business of keeping me on my toes. But he may just have made up for lost time with his latest object d'art acquisition. There are many ways a kanji identification request can bedevil me, but perhaps none more effective than to find a character that is perfectly clearly written, whose every element is familiar to me, but which is nonetheless unfamiliar and--worse--unfindable.

The character in question is 蜑. It looks straightforward: the radical must be 虫 ("insect"), which leaves 延 (yán "stretch") as the phonetic, right? Trouble was, I couldn't find this character anywhere. In fact, I couldn't even get close. I finally dug out my Nelson's and found 蜒, which is glossed as "serpentine". It's not that unusual to find variants with the radical in a different place. But I just couldn't get the semantics to work out. The other two characters next to it were 少女 "young woman", and what would this be doing written on a piece in the shape of a boat?

I wish I could say I cracked this on my own, but ultimately the seller came to my rescue with the translation "young woman diver". Apparently, the kun reading for 蜑 is あま ama which (in addition to all its other meanings) apparently means "diver". This obscure character appears to be the only gender-neutral way to write this. In ordinary usage, one either uses the characters 海人 (lit. "sea man") for a male diver or 海女 ("sea woman") for a female. The reading of 蜑少女 is actually あまおとめ ama-otome.

But why didn't any of my Chinese dictionaries have 蜑? Perhaps it's not actually a Chinese character? What I mean is, there are kanji which are 和製 "Japanese-made". For example, 榊 sakaki, the sacred tree of Shinto. (A simple combination of 木 "tree " and 神 "divine".) Could this be one? It is listed in Wiktionary, but with the reading dàn. That is, it seems to be treated as a variant of 蛋 "egg". Which does fit with the phonetic value of 延 but otherwise makes no sense in reference to the Japanese usage.

The one and only connexion that occurs to me is 蛋家 (Cant. Dahngā), now euphemistically called 水上人 "on-water people" in the same way as the Japanese eta have become burakumin. And like Japan's Burakumin, they have the curious distinction of being an ethnic group which is physically and linguistically indistinguishable from the majority population and yet treated as outcastes. Unlike the Eta, the Tanka have always been "boat people". And their name is also written 蜑家, with the same mystery character.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I was annoyed at forgetting my copy of McCawley yesterday evening, but between our collective knowledge and the power of multiple smartphones, we did very well in deciphering the menu. But being both a language geek and food asshole, I took the receipt home with me in order to research the dishes further.
  • 成都凉麵 (Chengdu cold noodles)--If it's got "Chengdu" in the name, you know it involves chilis.
  • 鍾水餃 (Chengdu dumplings)--Literally, "Zhong water dumplings" for their inventor, Zhong Shaobai. As we learned when we visited Chongqing, dumpling culture is a rather recent arrival to Sichuan, which makes it interesting that this and chāoshǒu ("folded hand" wontons) are so well known outside the province. I wonder if the evacuation of the Guomingdang to Sichuan might've been instrumental in their spread. After all, the chef who first introduced us to Sichuan-style wontons was Taiwanese. According to one website, Zhong's innovation (pure pork filling without vegetables) is less than a century old.
  • 蒜苗炒臘肉 (Bacon with leeks)--Lit. "garlic sprout stir-fry preserved meat". We're still not sure what "garlic shoots" actually are, since all I saw in the dish were scallions and leeks. The meat was advertised as "half fat" and had been boiled before sautéeing to reduce the saltiness, but the fattiness and limpness was off-putting to [livejournal.com profile] monshu.
  • 雲南鐵鍋雞 (Yunnan iron pot chicken)--We have [livejournal.com profile] lhn and [livejournal.com profile] prilicla to thank for the most theatrical of the dishes, which was served bubbling in an iron bowl above a can of sterno. It was like a saucier General Tso's.
  • 孜然羊羔 (Cumin lamb)--An old fave and the one dish the Old Man insisted on ordering.
  • 熊掌豆腐 (Bear paw tofu)--According to an article [livejournal.com profile] tyrannio found, so named because the appearance of the pan-fried tofu resembles the skin of a bear's paw (a claim none of us were in a position either to confirm or refute).
  • 蒜炒空心菜 (Tong choy with garlic sauce)--No dish required more negotiation than this, so it was ironic that it ended up being the weakest of the lot due to overcooking. At least it wasn't drowned in hoisin, as it tends to be when you let a Cantonese chef at it.
  • 腐乳 (Fermented tofu)--I've always wondered about this peculiar delicacy and I'm glad I don't have to any more. Unfortunately this particular variety was super salty, otherwise I think I might've enjoyed it.
[livejournal.com profile] monshu and I agreed that the standout dishes were the lamb and the tofu, though I particularly loved the bacon dish as well. The tofu also came with what I consider to be the best-cooked vegetables in the mix (a bed of flash-fried spinach).
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Before he left early for the day (hopefully without first infecting me with whatever ails him), Pablo asked me about a DVD of My neighbour Totoro his wife had bought. Despite having a parallel title in English on the cover, it turned out to be in some other language and they weren't sure what. I glanced, saw kana, and said it must be in Japanese. But I was puzzled by the presence of the characters "龙猫" ("dragon cat") under "トトロ". At first, I thought this might be something to do with that crazy Japanese habit of using completely arbitrary and unpredictable readings for names (e.g. the comic title 悪魔, read "Deimos"). But I was surprised not to have encountred this before. I had a closer look and saw that it was actually a Mainland Chinese release.

But the questions didn't end there. To confirm my suspicions, I looked up the film in the English Wikipedia and then went to the Chinese version of the page. The default version of this is Mainland in simplified characters, but the title it gives is not "龙猫" but "邻居托托罗" (a literal translation of the Japanese name incorporating a transcription of "Totoro" into Mandarin pronunciation). Out of habit, I changed the display to Taiwanese Mandarin with traditional characters and the title changed to "龍貓", the traditional equivalent of "龙猫". Neither version of the article uses the half-transcribed title again, so I'm not really sure what is going on.
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転法輪寺 新築記念
The above is part of a dedicatory inscription on a kogō (incense case) in [livejournal.com profile] monshu's collection. He's been obsessed with the little buggers lately, which is bad news for me since (a) the inscriptions are in bloody Japanese and (b) they generally aren't too legible, especially on the ceramic specimens. In this case, I had a bit of a Rosetta Stone deal, what with a portion of the text (the name of a temple, as it turns out) being repeated on the box in seal script. Honestly, I don't know if that was a help or a hindrance in the longer run, since it included a character variant so obscure (灋) that I couldn't find it anywhere. I can't remember this happening before, where I came across a character in my seal script dictionary that I couldn't look up in any other lexicon online or in my personal library.

Fortunately, we have the Giles dictionary here at work, so that's one mystery solved: The object commemorates building done on the Expounding-the-Dharma Temple (Tempōrin-ji). I still haven't narrowed it down to which Expounding-the-Dharma Temple since there are apparently a fair number of them.
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Jul. 13th, 2010 02:50 pm

後識字

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I've long felt the need for a Chinese equivalent to Japanese wapurō-baka and now I finally have one, thanks to this Los Angeles Times article: tíbǐwàngzì (提筆忘字). Literally, this means "pick up brush, forget character". (The Japanese, a contraction of "word processor idiot", is more explicit regarding the cause of the phenomenon.)

It's a linguistically sound article overall, with only a couple of questionable statements. One is:
The Chinese do more text messaging than anybody else in the world, perhaps because it is an inexpensive way to communicate and because the Chinese language can squeeze a lot of information into a small space. (One example is a single character, pronounced "zha," which means the red dots that appear on your nose when you are drunk.)
Sure enough, the character 皻 zhā does exist and is glossed by Lin Yu-tang as "Red blotch (esp. on nose from excessive drinking)". But he follows this with the compound 酒皻 jiǔzhā (酒 means "alcoholic beverage"), which is probably the more frequent form given that zhā in isolation could also mean "investigate" (its most common meaning), "pierce", and "dregs". At this length, it's no more impressive an example of compression than say, German Fahne ("the smell of alcohol on one's breath") or English punt.

But that's a quibble. There are the usual quotes about the ineffable cultural patrimony that is lost when someone writes jiǔzhā instead of 酒皻, but the author of the piece remains agnostic. It's a refreshing change from that piece of NYT garbage recently trashed by Language Log.
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One of the overwhelming number of things I've wondered idly about in the past but never really researched is the source of the "extra" vowel in 俄羅斯 Èluósī, the Chinese name for Russia. It's not normal for Chinese transcriptions to have prothetic vowels like this (compare, for instance, 羅斯冰架 Luósī Bīngjià "Ross Ice Shelf" or 羅斯托克 Luósītuōkè "Rostock"). Furthermore, it's a completely different transcription from what you find in earlier Japanese and Korean[*], i.e. 魯西亞 Lǔxīyà. (Read Roshia in Japanese--basically, as close as one can come to Russian Россия within the sound system of the language--this was later changed to 露西亞, exchanging 魯 "stupid, vulgar" for the less pejorative 露 "dew".)

Prothetic vowels before intial /r/ are, however, common in other languages such as Basque (Errusia), Hungarian (Oroszország), and Mongolian (Орос Oros). The last is of particular interest, since the Mongols were responsible for establishing the first stable communication between China and Russia. So it's extremely plausible that the Mongol name was taken directly into Yuan Dynasty Chinese, becoming the basis for the modern name. This still leaves me with some unanswered questions (foremost among them: If the name is that old, why wasn't it loaned to Chinese and Japanese?), but short of hunting down a Chinese etymological dictionary, it's the most definitive answer I'm likely to get.

Incidentally, the character 俄 é historically meant "sudden" or "soon" (e.g. 俄然 "suddenly", 俄爾 "very soon") but this sense is obsolete in modern standard Chinese, which has made it very convenient to abbreviate 俄羅斯 down to 俄國 Èguó or even--in compounds--just 俄 (e.g. 俄語 Èyǔ "Russian language", 日俄戰爭 Rì-È Zhànzhēng "Russo-Japanese War", etc.). Perversely, the one element that thus remains is the one which was never a part of the original name!

[*] Nowadays, these languages prefer the phonetic transcriptions ロシア Roshia and 러시아 /Lesia/, respectively.)
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Chinese

  • 壁爐 "fireplace"
  • 爐床 "hearth"
  • 火箱 "firebox"
  • 煙囪 "chimney"
  • 煙道 "flue"
  • 氣閥 "damper"
  • 壁爐罩 "firehood"
  • 壁爐架 "mantlepiece"
  • 壁爐防火屏 "fire screen"
  • 壁爐欄 "fireguard"
  • 壁爐底石 "hearthstone"
  • 爐柵 "fire grate"
  • 壁爐柴架 "andiron"
  • 壁爐工具 "fire irons"
  • 火棒 "poker"
  • 風箱 "bellows"
  • 火鉗 "fire tongs"
  • 木柴 "firewood"
  • 原木 "logs"
  • 引火柴 "kindling"
  • 煙炱 "soot"
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After all this time spent focusing on ourselves and our dwellings, it was refreshing to get out into the world and see a few people I haven't for a while. One of them is a librarian at DePaul who is preparing for an upcoming trip to China. [livejournal.com profile] monshu and I promised to share our tips on what to see in Beijing (such as they are) and I volunteered to help design name cards suitable for handing out to strangers. I figured nothing fancy--just a transcription of his name accompanied by identification of his institution. Easy-peasy, right? I mean, DePaul University's not the biggest and most famous college in Chicago, but you'd still figure that it would have a standardised Chinese version of its name.

"Ha!" I say. Here's what I've collected so far:
  1. 德堡大學 (152,000 Ghits)
  2. 德保爾大學 (5,180)
  3. 德保羅大學 (4,580 Ghits)
  4. Depaul大學 (4,030)
  5. 帝博大學 (2,940 Ghits)
  6. 帝寶大學 (237 Ghits)
So in this horse race, it's "Virtue Castle" ahead by a mile, followed by "Virtue Defends You" neck-and-neck with "Virtue Defends Gauze" and "Depaul", then "Emperor Is Learned" with "Imperial Treasure" bringing up the rear. 德堡大學 seems like the obvious choice, but I was hoping to find some indication that it has the imprimatur of the institution itself. How parochial is it that a school with hundreds of Chinese students, a respected Chinese programme, and a campus in Hong Kong only offers an English-language version of its website?
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I was perusing the Reader at lunchtime and came across this curious line in a review of the Chinese film 盲山 (Blind Mountain): "In Mandarin and Shaanxi with subtitles." Curious, because "Shaanxi" is the name of a province, not a language. More curious still because 陝西話 or "Shaanxi talk" is another name for Guanzhong dialect (關中), whose prestige standard is the speech of Xi'an, and Guanzhong dialect is Mandarin. True, some versions of Mandarin are greatly divergent from the Beijing-based standard (Sichuan speakers in particular get singled out for incomprehensibility), but Guanzhonghua isn't one of them. So altogether, it's rather like saying "In English and Ohio with subtitles."

Of course, not everyone in Ohio speaks the same dialect and the same is true of Shaanxi. In the northernmost areas, the local speech varieties are reckoned to the Lüliang (呂梁) dialect of the Jin sublanguage (which, such distinctions being subjective in any case, some linguists consider just another kind of Mandarin). In the mountainous south begins the Southwest Mandarin speech area which stretches thousands of kilometres through Sichuan to the edges of Yunnan and even into northernmost Thailand. This, it turns out, is probably the dialect group intended, as Chinese-language summaries of the film describe it as taking place in the Qinling (秦嶺) range of southern Shaanxi.

But how did the reviewer know this? No mention of "Shaanxi" as a language appears in any other English-language reviews and summaries I've found online, so presumably it's not part of the press packet materials, and it beggars belief to imagine that a reviewer named "Andrea Gronvall" has the technical background to distinguish Chinese speech varieties. My guess is that there must be some reference to dialect differences in the film, which concerns the kidnapping of an "urban university graduate" who is forcibly married to a mountain villager. There may even be something in the subtitles about the coarse, unintelligible "Shaanxi dialect" of the natives.
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Last night I dreamt I was in a cocktail lounge singing along sotto voce to a Fine Young Cannibals cover of a cheesy 70s lovesong (if I could remember the name of it, I'd tell you--honest I would!) when my eyes fell upon a map someone had left open on a table. It was an Oriental-themed fantasy world that I knew and someone with a basic knowledge of Hànzì (as evidenced by the fact that their guesses were obvious but often wrong) had tried to gloss the transliterations.

One of the features was an island group called the Huahuang on the map but they had an alternative name based on the legend of their formation and it seems our anonymous scribbler had tried to provide a gloss based on that. In the distant past, some powerful being had borrowed a valuable pair of shears from the heavenly deities. When some celestial nymphs came to retrieve them, the being spitefully threw them in the ocean. The nymphs raced to the spot, but the shears had already disappeared under the water. Terrified of returning to the Palace of Heaven empty-handed, they remained there and eventually became three towering islands. For that reason, they are called the "Hurled Shears Islands".

This other name had been glossed "suan" and "?ie" or "le", which doesn't make any sense. When I awoke, I had a look at my dictionaries to determine what would be more reasonable and settled on 投剪島 Tóuziǎn Dǎo. (Ziǎn is the Early Mandarin form of modern jiǎn "scissors; shears". I try to use EM for fantasy Chinese toponyms in order to give them a more archaic feel.) I still haven't decided what Huahuang stands for, but I'm willing to bet the first character is 華"flowery". Maybe it's the name of the chief nymph/island?
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A couple of you asked if I brought back any egregious examples of Engrish from my travels. As we say in the vernacular: BOY HOWDY! English was ubiquitous in China--we saw it on street signs, menus, monuments, advertisements, museum displays, tickets, t-shirts, and even the asphalt. And where there is English in Asia, there is inevitably Engrish.

In general, we found more of it the farther we strayed from Beijing. Some of this (such as the elimination of the celebrated "Racist Park" sign) is no doubt due to Olympics preparation, but I'm sure it has as much to do with the drop off in foreign language skills as you leave the metropolis behind. Our worst tourist guide in terms of intelligibility was in the little (in Chinese terms, this means a population of less than 1,000,000) river town of Fengdu. It was also there that I netted this pearl of incompletely digested translation:
It was said if you can put u-
pstone to downstone in made of togethe-
r. It can recover heart sick.

(Punctuation as in the original; Chinese equivalent: 又传将上下两半衲合,可医治心病.)
Actually, the entire description of the 星辰礅 (sorry, can't remember the "English" name) in the "Ghost City" of Fengdu was like that, but this was all I could scrawl down in the time I had. (It was more than just his bad English that made him the worst guide we dealt with.)

Even venerable Xi'an was far enough from Beijing's Foreign Studies University to present us with some real gems, chief among them "No Lion-Pressing Drive". This was on the road to Xi'an Xianying International Airport; unfortunately, we went by too fast for me to grab the characters, but our surmise is that it has something to do with staying in your own lion, er, lane. At the airport itself, we were presented with a choice of "Recycling" (可回收) or "Unrecycling" (不可回收) on all the trashbins. And if we were hungry, we had in addition to the usual options that of "Restemdessert". (Still haven't figured out this one; the equivalent Chinese was 西点, which looks to me like an abbreviation of 西式点心 "Western style snacks", 点心 diǎnxīn being the etymological equivalent of our own "dim sum". How you get from that to "Restemdessert" is an exercise best left for the student.)

Of course, the real treasure troves were the menus, so I'll think I'll save those beauties for another entry.
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I'm trying to be really good about looking up Chinese words I don't know as they occur to me. Hopefully, if I throw enough at this sieve-like brain of mine, some stuff will clog. Yesterday, I realised I didn't know any word for "arm". This morning, I couldn't remember why I wanted to talk about arms, but I did remember to look the word up. The translation my dictionary gave was 臂 .

Uh-oh.

I trust you all remember my story of the student who wanted to borrow a writing implement (筆 ) and ended up asking for the use of a cunt (屄 )? Then it occurred to me that there's yet another body part pronounced "bee", the nose (鼻 ). A trip to the doctor was looking like a hairy prospect. "你被打擊了在哪裏?"

But then I was reading my short story on the train and the narrator was talking about being pulled along by her 胳膊 gēbo. Hurrah! Another word for "arm" that doesn't sound like any other word I know, let along something obscene. It also occurred to me later that nose usually appears in the form 鼻子 bízi, so that should be hard to confuse with something else. (Let's hope that the Pekinese don't do something horrible to it like replace the 子 with 兒 ér.)
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I was obsessing a bit this morning about not being ready to speak to people in China. I meant to find someone for one-on-one conversational practice sessions, but then my fundamentally lazy nature got the upper hand.

Later, on the way to work, I found myself caught behind a group of six Chinese speakers on the sidewalk. I steered past the first pair, but the next two were completely oblivious. So I said, "Qǐng ràng yi ràng!" ("Please give way!") and they scooted to one side. I followed up with "Xièxiè!" as I rushed past and they responded in unison "Méi guānxì!" ("No problem!") Then, presumably upon realising I was lǎowài, they burst into giggles.

Maybe I'll be fine after all.
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So I'm working on my gift list for China--so many people, so little time, so little space! One of the things I want to pick up is a name chop for my father. He wanted my help selecting the characters before he went over himself, but it was a typical miscommunication: I sent him three or four suggestions and tried to clarify the differences between each option. Only after he got back did he complain that this was confusing and I just should've given him one choice. Belatedly, that's what I plan to do, by choosing one and getting a seal made for him.

The surname is no problem: He can use the same one I do. His given name is William, but everyone calls him Bill. The standard Chinese transcription of "William" is 威廉 Wēilián. On the plus side:
  1. It's a good-sounding Chinese name. (The two elements mean respectively "power" and "honest".)
  2. It's familiar. Anyone seeing those characters would immediately know that the bearer's Western name is "William".
But the disadvantages are:
  1. It's common.
  2. The meanings of the characters don't really fit him.
  3. Nobody has over called him "William".
  4. The shortened form would be 阿廉 Ā-Lián, which bears no resemblance to anything familiar.
There are also seems to be a consecrated transcription of "Bill", which is 比爾 Bǐ'ěr. The problems with this are:
  1. It's meaningless. Well, you could read it as "compared to you", but 爾 ěr is really an archaic character that only turns up nowadays in transcribed foreign names. Whereas 威廉 could be a real Chinese name, 比爾 wears its foreignness like a screaming banner. (Then again, so does my dad, so perhaps there's some appropriateness in that.)
  2. In sounds closer to "beer" than "Bill".
  3. I dislike the look of the characters.
In every way, I prefer the Cantonese transcription of "Bill", 彪 bīu. It sounds closer, looks better, has a great meaning ("tiger cub"), and is a real given name (remember Lin Biao?). The only drawback is that, as you can see, the Mandarin pronunciation is totally different and most of the people who I think would read the seal are Mandarin-speakers. Trying to find a better fit for the Mandarin, I settled on Biyou and then played around with various characters, finally selecting 庇友 Bìyǒu which can be read as "sheltering friend" or "[he] shelters [his] friends".

Of course, part of me has a problem with all sound transcriptions. That's why when it came to selecting a Chinese surname for myself I rejected all attempts to try to find a phonetic match for a very un-Chinese sequence of sounds and went with a "translation". If I wanted to do that with "William", I could break it down into its etymological components--"will" and "helm"--and find corresponding characters for each. For instance, 志 zhī and 盔 kuī. Now no one is going to get the connexion to the original name without having it explained to them at length, but is that a bug or a feature?
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Finally, some dream Chinese! The setting was odd: I was sitting on a bench-like structure (possibly a low shed?) attached to the back of a garage. The beach/park began on the other side of the alley and extended to the Lake. The odd part was that the seat I was on was moving northwards through the alley. Somehow, it was the same seat attached to the same building, yet every time I looked up from my book, I had moved further along. It did halt occasionally, much as if I were on the el, and I remember at one point wondering how I was going to get past a mob of noisy revellers.

In any case, a woman noticed my little red dictionary and said something that sounded like "Wo wei gu?" I didn't really register it at first, since she was with some other folks who I found vaguely annoying. But then I looked at her and asked, "Was that Chinese?" When she said yes, I tried to ask "Where did you learn that?" but for some reason it came out as 我學那個的在哪裏的? I don't know what the 的s are doing there, since they add nothing and are totally incorrect. Perhaps I was thinking of 了 and got confused? The 我 "I" for 你 "you" substitution is, curiously enough, one that we sometimes had trouble with in class. Hopefully, if I were actually in this situation, I would have the presence of mind to say 那個你學了哪裏?
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My latest toy: An Etymological Dictionary of Common Chinese Characters. I haven't really examined it in detail yet, so I'm not sure how his reconstruction differs from Pulleyblank's (or how he justifies it), but it seems sound enough--at least for my online purposes, which don't require a great level of detail. I'm just glad he doesn't use some crazy ugly transcription system like Karlgren's.

I was doing some comparisons of various Chinese dialects the other night (kids, don't try this at home!) and it got me thinking about the interchanges between /hw/ and /f/. For instances, Mandarin /f/ generally corresponds to Minnan (including Taiwanese) /hw/, e.g. 發 SC , TW hoat. Since /f/ isn't found in reconstructed Middle Chinese (Baxter has *pjot), I'm not certain of the exact development, but *pj > *f > hw looks more likely to me than *pj > hw with no intermediate stage.

In Cantonese and Hakka, however, you see precisely the converse. That is, earlier /hw/ becomes /f/. For instance, 花 *xwæ > SC huā, CT/HK . Actually, this overstates the case for Cantonese. As you can see from the Middle Chinese form, the initial consonant was /x/. This is important because, although both Mandarin and Hakka treat *x and *h the same (which in the case of the latter means changing /hw/ to /f/, e.g. 華 *hwæH > SC huà, HK fàh[*]), Cantonese doesn't (華 *hwæH > CT wàh).

Another wrinkle is that Cantonese has merged earlier *kh with *x, which then follows the same development before /w/. So, for instance, 快 *khwæjH > faai (cf. SC kuài, HK k(w)ài). What I find especially interesting about this is that the first part of the change--*kh > *x--is shared by Vietnamese, i.e. 快 khoái [xwɑ́j]. Coincidental convergence or something else? Ah, always so much more research to be done!

Edit: Aha, the difference between *x and *h is voicing: Karlgren and Pulleyblank reconstruct *x and *ɣ for the pre-MC values.


[*] Final <h> here is a diacritic indicating low tone and is not to be pronounced as a consonant.
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