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Contextual Analysis (3)

     Just when you thought I'd exhausted this subject, along comes another installment: More habits and customs of native Chinese speakers that we Westerners find disconcerting.
     Last time I talked about the four-character expressions called cheng-yu, which are derived from folk stories or ancient poems. Phrases with four characters (or multiples thereof) are in fact so popular that modern writers often make up their own. Since the writers are quite willing to sacrifice clarity to make their message fit into the four-character format, the modern phrases are sometimes even more mystifying to us foreigners than the ancient ones.
     A huge banner draped on a building under construction here in Liuzhou reads (in literal translation): "Cloud up 7 stories, ten year again without" (云上7层,十年再无). The first four characters pretty obviously mean "7 stories above the clouds", typical hype for a high-rise. From the context (it's an ad, after all) the next four words are probably supposed to be interpreted as "It'll be ten years before you get another opportunity like this", or something to that effect. However, if one has doubts about Chinese building standards, another possible interpretation suggests itself: "Within ten years, this building will no longer exist".
     A bar in downtown Liuzhou calls itself the "No See No Disperse" (不见不散). I had to ask Laopo the significance of the name. "Obviously," she said somewhat smugly, "it means that your friends at the bar are waiting for you to join them, and they won't leave before you get there." Influenced by the English rule that double negatives cancel out, I'd thought it might mean: "When we see you coming, we're outta here!"
     Actually, "no see no disperse" is a common expression that the locals have no difficulty understanding. Only we context-challenged foreigners have a problem.
     A local moving agency uses the slogan "Not fight over one second, rather stop three minute" (不抢一秒,宁停三分). This is supposed to mean that the movers will take the time to do a good job, i.e., they'd rather wait three minutes than rush to save one second. Would they rush to save two seconds? And will their patience run out after three minutes? Who but a foreigner would ask such silly questions?
     Clarity is often a secondary consideration for advertisers in the West as well. Attracting attention and creating an image are usually much more important. In the U.S., ads often include pseudo-scientific words and jargon to create an air of modernity and progress, like toothpaste with "tetracycline" or computer dating "based on the science of neuroplasticity". It doesn't seem to matter whether potential customers actually understand what's being said, as long as they're left with a favorable impression of the product.
     The four-character format obviously makes a favorable impression on the Chinese, but I'm not sure why. Perhaps it reminds them of ancient poetry, from a time when China was felt to be the center of the civilized world. Indeed, some ads are written like classical-style poems.
     One local manufacturer of a product called "Bama Made-in-Heaven" (巴马天成, after Bama County near Liuzhou, whose residents are said to live especially long lives) eulogizes the product with sixteen four-character lines such as "Natural oxygen bar" (天然氧吧) and "Sunlight of Life" (生命阳光). Nowhere in the entire ad is the product expressly described. Turns out it's a brand of low-tar cigarettes, something I wouldn't have thought to associate with an oxygen bar. ("Chutzpah" can also be expressed in Chinese by a four-character phrase, 肆无忌惮.)
     The cigarette company's signature brand, True Dragon, also uses a poetic slogan, "How High is the Sky", which it writes in ancient Chinese (天高何许). That's almost like the American brand Pall Mall cigarettes, whose slogans "Per Aspera ad Astra" (Through Thorns to the Stars) and "In Hoc Signo Vinces" (By This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer) are written in Latin.
     Political sloganeers like the four-character format as well – Sun Yat-sen's maxim "Three People's Principals" (三民主义) is four characters in Chinese. Following this tradition, the Liuzhou Government has been urging the populace to build a "Five Beautiful Five Good" city (五美五好). Once again, clarity is a secondary consideration. I asked 20 or so locals what exactly the five beautifuls and the five goods are, and none of them could tell me – although a few were able to name three or four before shrugging their shoulders and laughing. Finally I asked a girl with a smart phone and she looked the expression up on the City's web site. She even wrote the ten items down for me. I threw the list away as soon as she was out of sight.

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     UPDATE About two weeks after this post was published, and over a year after the banner was hung on the building, the words "ten year again without" (十年再无) were cut away from the above-mentioned sign. I am aware that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy.

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     You may have noticed that this blog is once again blocked in China. Although the Party has been known to block criticism of government transportation policies (see here) in order to protect the Chinese people from spiritual pollution, I don't think that's the issue this time. More likely they didn't like my last post, the one about sacrosanct Chinese characters in the bureaucracy. Or maybe it was my implied criticism of the U.S. Congress. Hmmm....


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