Changing language

Language is always in flux, over the dead bodies of fusty conservatives. English isn’t alone in changing under the stimulus of social media and popular culture.

Since my Chinese vocabulary incongruously lurched from the Tang dynasty to the clichés of Maoism (see also here), where it remained impaled, I’m happy to make some modest updates, partly courtesy of websites like Sixth Tone (e.g. herehere, and here), and Magpie digest—as well as this article, including a recap on the viral caonima “grass-mud-horse” trope. As elsewhere, much of the linguistic innovation is driven by online usage. I’m very keen on the term

To zhuāng bì 装 B is to put on airs — worldly, moneyed, educated, eccentric, or any other combination thereof. In other words: to be a fucking poser.* B is shorthand for níubì ( lit. “cow’s cunt”: see here, with instructive links), meaning “awesome” or “badass”—the English letter “B” being easier to find than the character for cunt (for shabi “fuckwit” and the somewhat less shocking nature of bi in Chinese, see here).

The article describes zhuang B as “a light, often self-deprecating insult”, “sign of healthy subcultural growth”—“by-product of all the new possibilities for young, middle-class Chinese people, a way for millennials to practise defining their way of life.” So it’s a pretentious wanker or tosser—cf. Poseur, moi?”.

I also like galiao 尬聊 “awkward chat”, inevitable chats with boring people—when the person you are talking with lacks communication skills, or when your mind wanders off and the talk reaches a dead end.

Even for those seeking to limit their studies to a bygone age, a basic grasp of how living people communicate (even village ritual specialists) is valuable…


* Private Eye‘s Pseuds’ corner polices English excesses with regular entries—like this, from an old programme note of a London Pro Musica concert, penned with tongue in cheek by the splendid Bernard Thomas:

The title of this concert means “a piece of cake”; it comes from the popular song Damene un poco di quella mazacrocha, “give me a piece of that cake (crumpet?)”. The process of baking a cake might be taken a central metaphor for Renaissance musical culture, for the special synthesis of northern polyphony and rhythmic subtlety with the poetry and expressive melody of indigenous Italian music. Florence, together with Siena and Bologna, were, and still are, traditional centres of cake baking. One can only guess at the repeated and prolonged biting into cakes on the creative processes of Heinrich Isaacs during his long stay in Florence.

Jeux d’esprit

Here’s a little popery, I mean potpourri—a resumé of some of my more wacky linguistic fantasies:

Among many fine Chinese jokes, my piques du jour* are


* Rather than piqes-niques.

Regional cultures

An ethnologist rarely noted is Ken Dodd, who commented profoundly on variations in regional cultures—as in the Chinese “customs differ ever 10 li” (shili butong su 十里不同俗):

You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t laugh in London… they can’t hear it.

Michael Billington reflects:

It strikes me I’ve been lucky enough in my lifetime to see two performers kissed with genius. One was Laurence Olivier, who could enthral an audience with his animalistic power and interpretative originality. The other is Ken Dodd, who has the capacity to take a roomful of strangers and, through a fusillade of verbal and visual gags that never lets up, induce in them a spirit of collective ecstasy.

Ken is renowned for the length of his shows. Lord Grade has suggested that Xi Jinping’s recent interminable address to the Chinese party faithful was secretly scripted by Ken. If only…

You don’t have to be mad to work here but…


Amidst all the current razzmatazz over the Joyous Tidings of the 19th Party Congress and the mighty Uncle Xi, a tweet from a fine Chinese scholar notes the dazzling series of media eulogies from babies, kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools, universities, the elderly, the religious, the sick, and criminals [sic], asking “Whatever next? Series of eulogies from animals, toys, and coffee?” Good old social media…

So, in the spirit of the Anthology of folk tales of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo minjian gushi jicheng), this is as good a time as any to tell another classic story (somewhat in the vein of the old Brezhnev joke) about the hapless former leader whom I shall call “Lee Beng”:

Lee Beng is paying an official courtesy visit to a hospital for the criminally insane. All the inmates are gathered together in the hall and Lee climbs onto the platform, announcing grandiosely:

“Comrades! On behalf of the Politburo of the Central Chinese Communist Party and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, I would like to sincerely extend my warmest greetings!”

One loony leans over to the guy sitting next to him and goes,

“So we’ve got a new arrival then…”

No less prescient is this Marx brothers scene.

The joys of indexing

I’ve just added a handy tag for Chinese jokes, that transpires to comprise a majority of my posts—hours of harmless fun for all the family.

I’m not going to try and work out how to introduce sub-headings into such tags, but here’s a simple list of how they might look for this one:

  • puns
  • Daoist
  • grammar
  • pinyin
  • poetry
  • Maoist
  • heritage
  • names
  • visual
  • Tang
  • urban–rural

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but I’ve always loved indexing. After graduating—just as orchestras were mysteriously beginning to consider paying me to play the violin—I indexed books for Cambridge UP (notably for the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China), relishing the task of compiling hand-written index-cards (imagine that). Since I began writing my own books, I’ve always enjoyed indexing them too—it’s so good if authors can compile their own indexes, as detailed knowledge of your text can produce a much more instructive result, highlighting themes that may not always reveal themselves through a simple search for particular words. And they can give a real flavour of the subject. Again we return to taxonomy.

Pedantry and frivolity can go hand in hand. With sub-editors either indulgent or distracted, I’ve generally managed to sneak in a few entertaining entries. Alphabetical order can further create random and stimulating associations. I made an early foray in my index for Folk music of China:

  • temples (Fujian, Hebei, Shanxi; see also temple music)
  • Temple, Shirley

A couple of nice sequences in Plucking the winds:

  • Beatles
  • Beethoven: author despairingly sings gongche mnemonics to
  • bicycles
  • birth-control policy
  • blind musicians


  • vagrancy
  • Valerio, Father
  • Verona, missionary base
  • video-CDs
  • viola jokes
  • Vivaldi, disparaged

Ritual and music of north China:

  • clothing
  • coal mining
  • commune system
  • concert performances
  • conch
  • contests, official
  • cremation
  • crime
  • Cui Jian
  • cultural authorities
  • Cultural Revolution
  • cymbals

In Daoist priests of the Li family I like the sequences



  • Venice
  • violence
  • vocal liturgy
  • walking

Slonimsky’s brilliant A Lexicon of musical invective (a genuinely instructive caveat to our contingent aesthetic judgments) has a hilarious index (“Invecticon”)—here’s a sample:

invecticonWhile we’re on the subject of research (um) tools, the glossaries of the Barry Mackenzie cartoon books are masterpieces of indiscreet linguistic erudition:
I keep trying to encourage Chinese publishers to include indexes—they would make a really valuable resource.

While I’m here, it’s great to be able to cross-reference and give links online (as you can see in this very post)—which in a work published on paper would have to be a tedious footnote or a laborious URL. Not to mention publishing colour photos and maps. AND what’s more, unlike traditional publishing, we can continue editing them. Hooray for modern life!

Anyway, enjoy all the Chinese jokes.

Interpreting pinyin

Shabi Dingxing 1995

Another irreverent exploration of the wonders of the Chinese language:

At least until it caught on as an input method for texting, the pinyin system of transliteration was slow to catch on in China, at least in the countryside. I took this mystifying picture of a shopfront in Dingxing county (Hebei) in 1995, as a little interlude between hanging out with ritual specialists, filming rituals, and photographing—aww, you guessed it—ritual manuals.

It’s actually an electrical and lighting store—the relevance of this only transpires gradually, since such tenuous relations as the notional pinyin may bear to the Chinese characters above it are only intermittent and haphazard. On closer inspection, some of the letters (indeed, a couple of characters too) have dropped off (as in the classic “His R’s fell off”).

Interpreting ancient literature can be like that—I think, for instance, of the labours of Sir Harold Bailey in deciphering fragmentary medieval texts excavated from Khotan. So perhaps this is where a certain sinological training comes in handy.

The cryptic motto begins to make more sense when we add speculative punctuation—evoking two aspiring young Cali actors (let’s dispense with “actresses“) embarking on a Bollywood-themed club night (a text alerting the paparazzi, perhaps):

Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”

Or is it even an invitation to anagrams?

Dahlia nabbed ninja
A banal jihad binned
Albania Hadj bin-end

I should’ve gone to Specsavers, but as I pondered the sign in a desperate search for meaning, the reason I took the photo was that I misread the final word as SHABI, “fuckwit”—actually a very popular expression that is considerably less shocking in Chinese than its literal meaning of “stupid cunt”. Anyway, I still like to think that SHABI is what it says.*


* Upon mature [sic] reflection, I strongly suspect that was indeed closer to the effect they were aiming for. If we posit a missing final character dian 店, then the last two words would be SHANG DIAN (“shop”), but either they couldn’t tell the difference between their stock of S, B, and D letters, or they just didn’t have enough of them—you know, the old fridge-magnet dilemma. Anyway, with superfluous letters suitably discarded, it really could emerge triumphantly as SHABI.

More Hammer and Tickle

À propos humour under state socialism, and further to my irreverent Chinese lesson, I dare say this joke is in Hammer and Tickle, but I found it in Anne Applebaum’s (also excellent) discussion of various types of subversive manoeuvres in Eastern Europe (Iron curtain, pp.446–51).

I’m going to adapt it for China:

Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other, “What do you think of Li Peng?” “I can’t tell you here,” he replies. “Follow me”.
They disappear down a narrow hutong. “Now tell me what you think of Li Peng,” says the friend. “No, not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block.
“OK, here then.” “No, not here. It’s not safe.” They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement.
“OK, now you can tell me what you think of Li Peng.”

“Well,” he says, looking around nervously, “actually I rather like him.”