Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuantuan & Yuanyuan - Communist Youth League Operatives

They're incredibly cute and fluffy and everybody loves them. That's why they make --- the perfect spies.

Recently China sent a pair of adorable pandas named Tuantuan and Yuanyuan over to Taiwan as a goodwill gift between the two countries (or one country and one rogue province, depending on how you look at it).

All the news reports are saying how the pandas names together mean "reunion." And this is true. In Chinese, their names are 团团 (tuan2 tuan2) and 圆圆 (yuan2 yuan2), and the word 团圆 (tuan2 yuan2) means "reunion," therefore suggesting that the pandas could be a catalyst for China and Taiwan to reunite into one China (which even a whole platoon of pandas would have difficulty achieving).

HOWEVER, a homonym for 团圆 is 团员 (tuan2 yuan2), which is short for "member of the Chinese Communist Youth League!" (中国共产主义青年团 zhong1 guo2 gong1 chan3 zhu3 yi4 qing1 nian2 tuan2). The CCYL is for people ages 14-28, and is a kind of precursor to joining the actual Communist Party. Although many high school graduates are members, most of them do not actually go on to join the Party. Most pandas are not Party members either.

But this panda duo could be moles, sent to Taiwan in order to recruit and cultivate a new CCP Youth League presence within the borders of the renegade territory! Ingenious, really.

Another important question is "why do they always give pandas names with one character repeated twice?" Actually, Chinese tend to do this with all of their animal friends. In fact, I once met and played with a real panda! Her name was Didi, and she lives at Wolong Panda Preserve in Sichuan.

When I lived in Beijing in the late '90s, pets were just starting to become popular. I remember one guy in an outdoor kungfu class I was taking had a dog named "Ben Ben." Oh, it was the source of endless fun for the other classmates.

People get double-character nicknames too, especially young people. It is a sign of affection and sounds cute. If they just called the pandas Tuan and Yuan, it would be far less amusing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Character revival: Jiong

Chinese is an old language, but it is still evolving robustly. Or perhaps devolving is a better word.
Recently I was looking on ChinaSMACK and I saw that the site's motto character is (jiong3). I did some research and found out that this character's original meaning is "bright," as in light coming through a window. The first Chinese characters were pictograms engraved on turtle bones and shells and used in oracles. Jiong's oracle-bone character (see image at right) meant simply "window," says Richard Sears. Weird looking window.

But, according to the website shenmeshi.com ("shenmeshi" is pinyin for 什么是 meaning "what is," dot com), "jiong" has now become an emoticon, like the ubiqitous ":)". The character 囧 is made up of three parts: 囗, 八, and 口. This from shenmeshi:

"In Web speak, 囗 = the face, 八= two drooping eyes, and 口 (under the eyes)= the mouth. 囧 represents surprise, or something to make your expression change, for example:

"Person A: Yesterday I woke up and discovered my body was covered with 100 cockroaches.
Person B: 囧."

It goes on to say that is related to the online phrase "orz," which I had also never heard of. Turns out orz is an emoticon that originated in Japan. It is an ASCII representation of a stick person on his knees, hands on the floor, with head down also touching the floor. The name of this emoticon is "失意体前屈" (shi1 yi4 ti3 qian2 qu1), or "disappointed body bent forward." You can kind of see that the "o" is the head, and the "rz" is the body, arms hanging down and knees bent on the floor." Originally it was used to express dispair or disappointment, but then changed to also mean "bowing down to you," or submission.

Now sometimes the "o" is replaced with 囧, or other similarly head-like-looking characters.

崮 = King of Jiong (actually gu4, steep-sided mountain)

莔 = Queen of Jiong (meng2, some kind of herb)

商 = Jiong wearing a Chinese hat (shang1, commerce)

The cyclical nature of things is astounding. In 5,000 years, you go from representing pictures of things on shells to tell the future to a complex character-based language system. Then computers are invented, and the characters which took so long to evolve and perfect lose their meaning and become simple emoticons. In conclusion, ;^)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Max Planck: Pimpin Ain't Easy

My brother Andy called this one to my attention. Thanks, Andy! Melbourne-based newspaper The Age reported that the scientific journal Max Planck Research used what it thought was a representative selection of Chinese calligraphy on the cover of its special China issue. However, it turned out to be a sordid advertisement for strippers! Yay science!

Supposedly the editors called on a "German sinologist" to approve the cover, but apparently this did not work out. The magazine eventually replaced the offending cover with a less-sexy one, which featured the cover page of a 1627 book, "Illustrations and Explanations of Strange Machines."
I looked at the original magazine cover, and even without reading it I could immediately tell that it was not a good choice. The calligraphy is bad, for one thing, and there are English letters in there, too! It was not easy for me to decipher on my own, but it is all over the Chinese webosphere so the characters were in electronic form, which helps me. Here is what it says in Chinese:


Here is the best I can do:

Hired for long-term daytime performances for lots of money,
Directors KK and Jiamei personally instructed these young jade girls,
Northern beauties with every kind of attitude.
Their bodies will inflame your desires, these young housewives,
Flirtatious and enchanting, they will be on stage soon!

That's good stuff. This is indicative of two things. 1) German sinologists are funny people and not to be trusted. 2) Many Westerners think of Chinese as a decoration (explored more intelligently on this great site, Language Log, from UPenn), and vice-versa. The fact that it was a bunch of Chinese characters was enough for it to qualify as a representation of China.

But Asians do the same thing with English. Just go to China or Japan and look at the t-shirts people wear. I remember shirts that looked like they were from a college, but the collegiate lettering just said "GSKNEB." I also remember another really popular brand of track outfit when I first went to China sported the logo: "Advanced For Better Concentration." My Thai friend from badminton's name is "Note." His brother is "Knot." I asked him why and he didn't really know, he just said that many people took English names for nicknames -- because it is cool!
I think the choice of the 17th-century book cover was a good choice for the magazine's revised cover, considering the scientific nature of the journal. The book it refers to was dictated by missionary Johann Terrenz Schreck, and is a description of Renaissance-era machines and technology. Planck, the founder of quantum theory, would probably approve. Although who knows, maybe the guy was into strippers!