Twinkling with Inheritance and Development Achievement

One of the big projects I’ve been working on the past few months is doing the English editing of some academic papers. Fortunately, most of them have been good translations, but every so often I find myself working on one that just hurts my brain. That was the case this past week, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years back on the perils of Chinese-English translations. I thought it was about time to share it again:

On Thursday night my landlady called and asked if she could come to my apartment because she had some translation questions for me. Now anyone who has been in China for awhile knows the fear and dread that well up inside when someone calls asking for help with translation work. “Just read it over.”  “It won’t take long.” Those words always precede hours of painful and laborious mental gymnastics trying to translate phrases like the one in the title of this post from what we call “Chinglish” to English.

My landlady and her husband have their own business producing publicity and promotional materials for schools in China. Since English is so popular, these materials (from DVD’s to brochures) must all be in English as well as Chinese–never mind the fact that very few English speakers will actually see or read them. In the China of 2005, one simply cannot produce something like this without any English in it. My landlady out-sources the translations to professionals; however, there are times when, for some reason, she doubts the accuracy of the translations, so asks me to look at them to see if the English makes sense and if it indeed accurately reflects the Chinese meaning.

Yesterday she had one such project for me, and that noise you heard emanating from the western side of Beijing on Friday was the sound of two cultures and languages clashing!

An interesting feature of Chinese discourse is the use of poetic and flowery language in nearly every conceivable context, formal and informal. A language that has been around for 3000 years has quite the collection of poetry, expressions, and idioms, and they are all to be used as much as possible.

The phrase “twinkling with inheriting and development achievement” is merely an extreme example.  The document we worked on had line after line after line of such phrases, and I was supposed to see if the translations were OK. After hours spent trying to decipher these, one of two things happens. Either I read a sentence and decide it makes perfect sense (a sure sign that I have been in China way too long) or I must attempt to convince her that it is impossible to translate such a sentence. In fact, after yesterday, I am convinced that there should be a law against translating such sentences.

When I read it in Chinese, it makes perfect sense, but there’s no way to get it into a formal English sentence that both maintains the poetry and has meaning. Take your pick, Mrs. Li. You can’t have it both ways!  Ah, but you see, in Chinese, they do have it both ways, because poetic language is not only permissible in formal writing, it is expected, for it is one of the main ways to demonstrate that one is a literate and cultured person.

After my brain was fried to a crisp trying to disentangle that mess of a sentence, we sat back and discussed the cultural differences. I explained to her that it was so difficult because in English we have different sets of rules for business writing than for essay writing. Poetic and creative language can be used in essays, but not in business writing. Therefore, when translating such phrases, I may be able to come up with some suitable English words that approximate the meaning, but their presence in such a formal setting is completely unacceptable.

Translating such a sentence is nearly impossible because it will never come out in a manner that suits both sides. If the Chinese person wins the argument that the emotional language remain, then it will be gibberish in English. If the English speaker wins, then the Chinese person will feel like the translation isn’t close enough to the original, in either meaning of feeling (and they’d be correct, of course).

In the course of the conversation (argument, really) with Mrs. Li, I learned the distinction between two Chinese words for written text: wenzhang and wenjianWenzhang is the word for essays or articles of a literary nature. Wenjian is the word for formal documents, like something a boss or leader might hand down to his/her underlings. Wenzhang demands emotional and flowery language. Wenjian is cold and impersonal, and implies authority, command, and distance. Poetic language is not used in wenjian, but it must be used in wenzhang.

Aha!  I said to her. That’s the problem. In the mind of a Chinese speaker, a brochure like this is considered a wenzhang. An English speaker would consider it to be a wenjian. Finally a breakthrough in understanding (for both of us) as to why our languages were clashing. In her mind what we were translating was a wenzhang and in my mind it was clearly a wenjian. Finally she understood. Finally, I understood!

Wenzhang, Wenjian, …..let’s call the whole thing off!

National Museum of China

This afternoon a colleague and I slipped away to check out the newly-renovated National Museum of China, formerly known as the National Museum of Chinese History and the National Museum of the Chinese Revolution.


It was originally built in 1959 as one of the “Ten Great Architectural Projects” that were  constructed around Beijing to commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It sits on the east side of Tiananmen Square, opposite it’s sister building The Great Hall of the People.


In 2007, the museum was closed for renovations– ‘renovations’ being a mild term, since the entire building, except for the outside walls facing Tiananmen Square and Chang An Avenues were completely torn down and a brand new structure was put up. In other words, from the outside, it looks exactly the same, but in fact it’s an entirely new building.  Pretty clever, if you ask me.


We were mainly interested in the permanant exhibit on China’s recent history (1800’s to the present), so spent all of our time in that section. It was OK — not enough English descriptions of the items and photos on display, and a little too heavy on the revolutionary jargon (much more than is used in the Beijing Capital Museum). And as is usually the case in historical presentations here, things move along swimmingly until 1966 and then — POOF! — it’s 1979 when China embarks on it’s Opening and Reform (they never say what they are reforming from…..).


To celebrate the achievements of the past30 years, there are displays which highlight China’s economic and technical developments.We thought it was interesting that out of all the various exhibits and displays we saw, the one that had the most people huddled around talking excitedly was the display of cell phones — old clunky ones from the early days (1990’s) to the iPhone 4!  That really got people’s attention!


What got my attention the most was the amazing view out the window of the museum, looking west, toward Tiananmen. It was a completly new perspective on the square and gate, and made even more spectacular by the fact that it was clear enough to see all the way to the Western Hills. I don’t think I have EVER seen the gate with the mountains in the background!

Mooncake Traffic

(image source: China Media Project)


Anyone who tried to go anywhere in Beijing (or any other Chinese city for that matter) on Thursday night will appreciate this cartoon. The city turned into the world’s largest parking lot as 20 million people tried to deliver mooncakes to their friends, relatives, employees, coworkers, and clients.  In the rain!


What I still haven’t been able to work out, though, is why it was deemed that these deliveries had to be made by Thursday night, given that the official holiday weekend didn’t start until Saturday and Mid-Autumn Moon Festival wasn’t actually until Monday.

The Great Mooncake Exchange

The Great Mooncake Exchange

It’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival today in China.  Below is an essay I wrote about the holiday a few years back.  Time for it’s annual re-publication.

(photo source:

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In colloquial terms, it’s called the Moon Festival, because it’s celebration coincides with the full moon.  Much like Thanksgiving in American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather with their family members.  If that isn’t possible, then people gather with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and think of their distant family members who are also gazing at the same moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems about the moon, so there’s always a poem to be recited at a gathering.


Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of mooncakes.  It’s hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling. Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks.


Making and eating and giving mooncakes has always been part of the celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in the past number of years, like many other things here, mooncakes have sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceding Moon Festival, all the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully gift-wrapped mooncakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8 mooncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The more expensive the mooncakes you give, the more face both the giver and receiver get.


Mooncakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Mooncakes are exchanged among colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers. Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It’s one giant mooncake exchange.


And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of mooncakes. I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it’s not polite to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for them to leave, I gave them a box of mooncakes.  We all  laughed at the fact that we were just exchanging boxes of mooncakes.  I always enjoy my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own society.  He joked that at the end of the day, mooncakes don’t really get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).


Like many other things in a society like this that places a high value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the mooncake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving the mooncake is performed.


Mooncakes, anyone?


The Los Angeles Times has a great article today titled “Mooncake Becomes the Fruitcake of China” that confirms my thesis:


“According to custom, one is supposed to eat the cakes under the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which this year falls on Monday. Often extravagantly expensive, they are about the size of a hockey puck and just as dense. Fillings range from red bean with salted egg yolks to cheesecake to Peking duck. Back in the era of scarcity, they were a rare calorie-rich treat to fill the chronically hungry belly. Nowadays, the mooncake has become the Christmas fruitcake of China, passed around and regifted ad infinitum.”


As they say, read the whole thing….

Qishui Seller, 1984

Yesterday I was having lunch with some of my collegues, one of whom is a Chinese man in his 40’s. Somehow we got to reminiscing about things in the 198o’s (when I came), and the topic of drinks came up.  Western brands of soft drinks were very rare, but local soft drinks were common. Soft drinks were called qishui (gas water), and came in only three flavors: orange, pineapple, and banana. Even though they were syrupy sweet, on a hot day they could quench a thirst. We never drank all the contents of the bottle, however, because of the mysterious little things that settled at the bottom.

Here’s a photo I took of a qishui seller  in Zhengzhou in 1984.

Below the Legal Driving Age, Perhaps?

The blog Shanghaiist today posted a video that is making the rounds on Youku, one of China's video-sharing sites, of a little girl driving a car. Although unbelievable, it does look to be real.

Unfortunately, I haven't been ableto figure out how to embed the video itself into the blog, so go here to watch it.

I was in a taxi coming home from dinner with a friend earlier this evening and found myself thinking "I wish that 5 year old kid were behind the wheel instead of this maniac!"