English Takes On a Life of Its Own on the Chinese Internet, Confounding Native Speakers

Charles Liu February 5, 2015 7:43pm (updated)

chinglishA generation of Chinese people have devoted a large part of their academic lives to studying English, but that doesn’t mean the country is conversant in the language. For those who just couldn’t grasp English or gave up trying, certain English words have taken on a life of their own.

Some may call it “Chinglish”; it’s the use of English using a direct or literal translation from Chinese. Because of the large differences in Chinese idioms and grammar, the results are often unintelligible to people who, you know, actually speak English. But this is how languages evolve, right?

Last year’s big hit was “no zuo, no die”, which you can read all about on The Nanfang. But it’s far from the only example. Here is a Weibo post sent out by one user:

chinglishDid you get that? Any idea what “heart flower angry open” is supposed to mean? If not, read on. Here’s a brief rundown on some of the Chinglish phrases Chinese internet users are saying to each other:

1. Give you some color to see see (给你点颜色看看)
One of the oldest Chinglish phrases to hit the mainstream, this phrase is what you’d say if you wanted to teach your opponent a lesson. The “color” mentioned is to threaten somebody with revealing one’s hidden or restrained talent .

2. No zuo, no die (不作死就不会死)
This phase is basically the opposite of YOLO, and is used to deride others for taking bad risks or making stupid decisions.

3. You can, you up (你行你上)
This phrase means, “If you can do it, then do it yourself.” It’s a way to rebuff others for making wanton criticisms.

4. Heart flower angry open (心花怒放)
This is a Chinese idiom that would literally mean “the flowers of one’s heart will violently bloom”. It’s a way of expressing elation, or being really happy.

5. You have two down son (你有两下子)
The original phrase is a way of saying, “You really know your stuff,” or “You possess real skill” with the latter part referring to “tricks of the trade”.

6. Hello everybody! if you have something to say, then say it! If you have nothing to say, then go home (有事启奏,没事退朝)
Unlike the other examples on this list, this is not a literal Chinglish phrase as seen by its length and (mostly) proper grammar. Instead, this is a colloquial translation of something a king would say in old Chinese, akin to “State your business to the throne, otherwise withdraw.” The humor comes in making something so formal and stately into modern English.

It’s unclear where “Hello everybody!” comes from, but it fits the Chinglish all the same.

7. Watch sister (表姐)
The Chinglish way to describe your elder female cousin.

8. American Chinese not enough (美中不足)
This is a Chinese idiom that means “Everything is fine except for one small defect,” or to use the English saying, “a fly in the ointment”.

Another way to say this in Chinglish is “American Chinese no foot”, but that’s not as funny.

9. At the beginning of life, sex is good! (人之初,性本善)
The original old Chinese saying means “Man’s nature at birth is fundamentally good.” The mix-up comes as the Chinese character for “nature” is the same as “sex”.

10. One car come, one car go, two car pengpeng, one car died. (一个汽车来,一个汽车去,两个汽车“砰乓”,一个汽车死亡。)
Famous for being an early example of Chinglish, this is how Jackie Chan tried to explain to a foreign police officer what happened at a traffic accident in one of his movies.

11. Why is it you? Why is it always you? (怎么是你,怎么老是你?)
One of the problems with learning a new language is the tendency to use the vocabulary of the new language, but the grammar of the old one. This example is what happens when you translate “How are you? How old are you?” using the English grammar instead of Chinese, thereby changing the meaning to something else altogether.

12. You share rose get fun (鱼香肉丝盖浇饭)
This is another special case that isn’t a literal translation from Chinese into English. Instead, the Chinese pinyin of “Rice served with shredded pork in garlic sauce, Chongqing-style” is taken to mean its English-sounding equivalent.

Sound it out, and you can get in on the joke as well: Yú xiāng ròusī gàijiāo fàn.

This joke is like the mnemonic-type tricks Chinese students of English use to help them learn. For example, the Chinese pinyin equivalent of the English word “ambulance” (ān bù néng sǐ) gets the literal meaning of “I can’t die”, and the pinyin equivalent of “ambition” (ānbìshēng) literally becomes “I must win”.

Photos: baozoumanhua

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor