Chinese Stories in English
It's time for our annual "Chinese Lesson for the Day". This one's a two-fer.
The Birds and the Flowers
Several years ago I found myself with some time to kill in Shanghai, so I decided to visit a nursery – the kind that sells plants, I mean. I looked up "nursery" in my handy-dandy pocket dictionary (this really was a long time ago – before smart phones) and learned that it's literally "flower-bird marketplace" (花鸟市场). I asked the hotel bellboy to point me in the right direction and headed out.
When I got to the neighborhood, I started asking around for more specific directions. The first guy I asked gave me a blank stare, and the second one said "Huh?" I was reaching for my dictionary to show him what I meant when I remembered I'd decided not to bring it along.
So I did the next best thing. I looked for someone wearing a white shirt with a pocket protector – a sure sign in those days of an "intellectual" who might have some experience deciphering the strange things that foreigners say. I soon found one and, after some thought, he was indeed able to figure out what I wanted. Apparently the others hadn't understood me because I'd switched the words around and asked for a "bird-flower" market.
I was quite disappointed when I finally found the nursery. I'd expected all kinds of unusual Chinese flora that I'd never seen before, but the place was full of the same stuff you'd see in any American nursery – imports from Africa, South-East Asia, "exotic" North America, etc.!
The birds, too, were pretty commonplace – canaries, finches, parrots – although they did have three or four kinds of corvidae, birds that are available only sporadically in U.S. pet stores.
They also had a selection of fresh water aquarium fish. Again, all pretty common stuff on the world market. These days they sometimes have salt water fish, too, but not very many. Hmm.… I wonder why they don't call it a "flower-bird-fish market."
Anyway, it is possible to see all kinds of interesting flora and fauna in China. You just have to go to the local farmers market.
One of the more thought-provoking Chinese concepts is yi-wu (义务). A Chinese-English dictionary will tell you it has two meanings: "mandatory duty" and "volunteer work". Say what?
The literal meaning of the term is "righteous task". It's something you do out of a legal or moral obligation, for the benefit of society as a whole, and without any necessary expectation of personal gain. Since it refers to the goal of the work rather than the personal motivation of the worker, the meaning is broad enough to include both mandatory (legal duty) and voluntary (moral inclination) jobs. The Chinese soldiers who fought in the Korean War were yi-wu combatants, without regard to whether they actually wanted to be there, but the term was misleadingly translated into English as "volunteers" for lack of a better word.
More recently the term zhi-yuan (志愿) has been used to translate the English word "volunteer". It literally means something like "aspirations willing", so you'd think it must incorporate the idea of personal choice that's inherent in the English word. The locals, however, seem to use it the same way they've traditionally used yi-wu, as, for example, the zhi-yuan college students who have "been volunteered" to work in the Liuzhou library over their summer vacations to fulfill one of their graduation requirements.
In any language, cultural habits trump logical definitions more often than not.
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