Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!
The following post contains explicit language, salty talk, and curse words that begin with the letter “f”, in an attempt to describe a facet of Chinese language and culture we have learned about. The general theme of this post is one where we, the foreigners have learned something that we didn’t know was available to learn. If you would like to see pretty pictures, there’s one of Maria’s lovely face in this posting. That said, the picture also contains explicit language, salty talk, and curse words that contain the letter “f”. Consider yourself warned and feel free to skip over this post if you so choose.
In Nanjing, touring the former office of Chang Kai Shek, the air was a temperature hinting at a warmth that hadn’t arrived. Willing the weather forward to a time when I might worry more about sunscreen than where I put my jacket, I wore shorts and sandals ahead of season. Leaving the leader of the Kuomintang’s office by descending a marble staircase and rounding the outskirts of a well-maintained garden, I saw a young man sporting a hat which echoed my innermost sentiments perfectly.
“Fuckin’ Summer,” emblazoned a black baseball cap resting gently atop a young man of roughly 20 dutifully walking the grounds with a man I suspected to be his father. I can only assume that neither were aware of what the hat said.
English is the language of the world’s most successful pop stars and thereby carries a certain level of fashion appeal. We have seen dozens of young women with a popular hat that says “BOY.” I saw an old woman in Qinhuangdao with a sweater proclaiming, “Math Sucks.” Silly/bad English fashion is ubiquitous in China.
Those of you in the West need only to take a trip to the beach in order to see a cultural parallel. Tattoos of Asian calligraphy adorn the bodies of numerous bronzed Americans who likely cannot count to five in Chinese.
Sure that means “strength”? Might want to check on that before you head to Panama City.
Because of the above phenomena, traveling in China with English as a first language, can cause a Westerner to misinterpret, underestimate, and improperly judge surroundings. A constant influx of t-shirts and signs with improper English can ease one into viewing anything written in English with serious condescension.
This brings me to a photo that I took while in Beijing:
When I took this photo, I was under the incorrect assumption that the shop owner was blissfully unaware of the curse words on display in the marquis of the shop. “This man, in the capital of the largest country in the world, with a booming tourism industry, does not understand the signage of his own business,” I thought. I didn’t figure into the equation that this was hinting at a form of humor and subversion way above my head. (That said, still an insane thing to put in the front of a clothing store.)
On to the crazy zombie-lama thing:
Weeks after we left Beijing, Maria and I were eating in Shanghai with some friends. A Canadian living in the area asked if we had heard of a phenomena in Chinese social media known as, “The Grass Mud Horse.” I immediately thought back to the photo and almost choked on my dinner. What ensued was a well-needed lightbulb into a darkened corner of my understanding of the Chinese language.
Put the kids to bed, the language is going to get intense.
Written Chinese is comprised of thousands of characters for which there are numerous homonyms. (“red” and “read”…got it?) Additionally, the spoken language has 4 distinct tones (five, depending upon how specific you’re going to be), which means that pronunciation is extremely important and an improper inflection on a vowel when speaking can change the meaning of “ma” for “mother”, to “ma” meaning “horse.” Additionally, “cao,” when pronounced with the third (falling and then rising) tone means, “grass,” whereas, “cao,” pronounced with the fourth (falling) tone means, “fuck.” Incidentally, the same character for grass can also be used for the word, “fuck.”
This brings us to the number one vulgar insult that is used in the Chinese language: Fuck your mother. A mean-spirited, awful thing to say to another, which is also used in China for times when you hit your thumb with a hammer or stub your toe. (i.e. The entire sentence is used, even when there isn’t an intended subject to inflict this aggression on.)
“Grass Mud Horse”: 草泥马 or “Cǎo ní mǎ”
“Fuck Your Mother”: 肏你妈 or “cào nǐ mā”
Why is this important or even interesting?
Great question! Two reasons! Firstly, a lot of Chinese humor involves clever wordplay by leaning heavily on the many homonyms that the language provides. Essentially, any Chinese standup comedian worth his salt likely has several jokes that end in, “Nah, I wasn’t talking about your mother, I was talking about my horse.” Secondly, many readers in the West are likely aware of the “Great Firewall of China,” which serves to monitor and curtail internet content. This impediment to internet searches and discourse in China has created a sort of code-talk that, to your average Chinese internet user, is second hand. So, when someone wants to say something vulgar on a forum in Chinese, without upsetting the monitors of traffic, there’s no need to insult anyone’s mother. Simply call them a grass mud horse. They’ll get it.
More to come, from the future!