This week I try to tackle a Chinese word that’s hard to translate:
命运 mìngyùn - fate, or destiny
In English, fate is the pre-determined path of your life which is outside of your control. Destiny can be changed with your choices as it hasn’t yet been determined.
Does it mean the same in Chinese?
It’s not an easy question to answer….
命运 mìngyùn can mean destiny or fate. But which one it is depends on how fatalistic the speaker is, the context and emotion of the situation.
It can also be broken down into its two characters:
命 mìng is the predetermined course of your life. Some Chinese argue that while 命 is more certain, it’s often used in the negative (as in 要命 yàomìng). So this character is similar to the meaning of ‘fate’.
运 yùn is fortune or luck (as in 运势). It’s the external factors that shape the course of your life, and is also outside of your control; it’s the course that takes you from A to B. But it’s not just what you do, it's also about 势 shì - the overall environment, conditions and how they change. This is beyond our control, but affects everyone in the same way and can be adapted to based on our choices. So this part is more like ‘destiny’.
To help understand Chinese destiny and fate, this week we dig into the stories of two entrepreneurs who were in the news in the last couple of weeks:
Lǐ Zǐqī 李子柒 - 31 years-old and China’s biggest YouTuber
Niú Gēnshēng 牛根生 - 61 years-old and the founder of one of China’s (and the world’s) biggest dairy companies, Měng Niú 蒙牛.
Lǐ and Niú are of different generations, but there are some similarities in their stories. They both come from poverty, grew up with no parents, worked ridiculously hard, and had lots of luck - good and bad. Lǐ and Niú both put their success (and failures) down to mìngyùn - fate or destiny, depending on the context!
Finally, to finish off today, in the recommendations section I share a Chinese poem recital to add to your repertoire.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: there will be no change to the schedule of this newsletter over holiday period! I will continue to persevere (坚持不懈的努力 - jiānchí bùxiè de nǔlì) to bring you a nutritious serving of Chinese vocab every Saturday morning. So even over the holidays you have the option to learn some new words, slang, idioms, and colloquialisms to help distract from your over-eating-and-drinking-induced food comas.
1. CONVERSATIONS WORTH CONSUMING
Interview with Lǐ Zǐqī 李子柒 on how she changed her destiny
Lǐ Zǐqī’s real name is Lǐ Jiājiā 李佳佳. She has 16.3 million YouTube subscribers, and 27.6 million followers on Weibo.
In Chinese, Li is known as an ‘IP’:
她已成为一个IP，一个品牌，甚至于一种「文化输出」 - She has become a hugely valuable brand, even a cultural export.
Background: the Chinese word ‘IP’ unsurprisingly comes from the English ‘intellectual property’ but in Chinese it means ‘brand or content that is uniquely valuable.’
In recent months, Lǐ has gone quiet; her last video was uploaded to YouTube on 14 July this year.
She recently filed a lawsuit against her business partner, Hangzhou Weinian Brand Management (微念科技 wēiniàn kējì), and has said she will not publish content until that is resolved.
A recent interview with Lǐ in The People (人物) (in Chinese) is a challenging but fascinating read.
She had a tough upbringing. Her parents both died before she was 10 when she was taken in by her grandparents. Support from an anonymous donor in her village was the only way she was able to afford to go to school.
When her grandfather died, she dropped out of school and left home at age 14, slept rough for months and eventually found work in a nearby city, first as a waitress and eventually as a DJ. When her grandmother became ill, Lǐ moved back to her hometown, Miányáng 绵阳 in Sichuan, where she eventually became an Internet superstar. She still lives there today.
Lǐ’s take on changing her destiny:
I’m just a lucky and hard working content creator who managed to catch the prevailing winds of the next big thing. I’m nothing special, just an ordinary person. It’s like when a stone is thrown into water, which creates the ripples of your own destiny.
辣眼睛 làyǎnjīng - ‘spicing eyes’ - hard on the eyes, not nice to look at
因为自己的内容有时候会辣眼睛 - Because the content I created sometimes wasn’t that good.
铜臭味 tóngchòuwèi - ‘copper unpleasant odor’ - the foul stench of money, the corrupting effect of money
田园气息一下就没了，变成了一个很铜臭味的感觉 - She has turned from a fairy tale of living an idyllic rural life into a capitalist tainted with the stench of money.
自个儿 zìgě’er - ‘oneself’ (colloquial)
其实是自个儿揣着那400块钱，走出校门 - It was actually me holding onto RMB 400 in my hand walking out of the school gate.
精疲力竭 jīngpí lìjié - exhausted, working extremely hard
给予人心灵抚慰的视频背后，是她精疲力竭的日常 - Behind these videos that warm the soul, she is working extremely hard.
Related: 精疲力尽 jīngpí lìjìn - exhausted (basically the same meaning but used more in spoken Chinese)
面黄肌瘦 miànhuáng jīshòu - ‘yellow face emaciated muscle’ - looks terrible and overworked
熬夜熬得……我们都是面黄肌瘦的 - Pulling all-nighters to the point where she was absolutely exhausted.
草台班子 cǎotái bānzi - small group of travelling performers in rural China - here it means a ‘small unprofessional team’
与其说有个团队，不如说更像一个「草台班子」，她的员工就是她的朋友 - Rather than saying she had a team, it’s best to say she has a band of friends working with her.
Note: technically not an idiom but I’ve included it here anyway!
爱屋及乌 àiwū jíwū - “the love for the house extends even to the crows perching on its roof” - loving one thing on account of another
大家开始可能爱屋及乌去喜欢你，但你真的有那么了不起吗？- People may adore you on account of your success, but are you really that amazing?
风吹草动 fēngchuī cǎodòng - “wind blows grass moves” - at the slightest disturbance
任何风吹草动都会涌上热搜 - She hits the top of social media rankings with the slightest of moves.
占着茅坑不拉屎 zhàn zhe máo kēng bù lā shǐ - “neither shit nor get off the pot”; hold on to a post without doing any work and not let anyone else take over
她和刘同明说，想要开公司，不让别人占坑 - She said to Liu Tongming, we need to set up a company to prevent other people from registering a company [with the name Li Ziqi].
More: you could also say 我们先占个坑 - ‘we’ll squat on the pot first’ - which means let’s set up a company first, even though we’re not going to do anything with it yet. So they are sitting / shitting on the pot instead of someone else.
一分钱难倒英雄汉 yī fēn qián nán dǎo yīngxióng hàn - a man without money is no man at all
但我觉得我比以前过得真的好太多了，我过过什么叫做一分钱难倒英雄汉的日子 - I feel like my life is so much better than it was. Before I had nothing.
德不配位，必有灾殃 dé bù pèi wèi, bì yǒu zāiyāng - moral standards not fitting of social status will lead to disaster; not be as good as you should be
人最怕的就是德不配位，我真的有像他们说那么厉害？- One thing that scares me is not living up to the expectations on me - am I really as good as they say I am?
2. WORDS OF THE WEEK
China’s ‘Dairy King’ on fate
Niú Gēnshēng 牛根生, who by some reports is now worth around half a billion dollars, was born into a family so poor that his parents sold him when he was a toddler for RMB 50 to a family in a neighbouring village.
Nowadays, he is known as a:
草根神话 cǎogēn shénhuà - grassroots myth
Niú recently retired as chairman of the board at the company he founded in 1998, Meng Niu Dairy, to focus on his charitable foundation.
By 2007, after just nine years, he had built Meng Niu into China’s biggest dairy firm, becoming known as China’s Dairy King - 乳业大王 rǔyè dàwáng
A profile of him in 36Kr looks back on his career (in Chinese) from when he started herding cattle in 1983 in Inner Mongolia, to his peak in 2007, his fall in the milk scandal of 2008 (中国奶制品污染事件 zhōngguó nǎi zhìpǐn wūrǎn shìjiàn), his remarkable recovery to save his business selling a majority share to COSCO, and eventually becoming one of China’s best known philanthropists.
Niú on destiny and fate:
[As an entrepreneur] fate and destiny are two separate things. If your business does well, destiny is on your side (运); if your company does badly that’s fate telling you something (命). But whether it’s fate or destiny, in the end we have to let everything go.
摊子 tānzi - market stall which here means ‘business’
摊子铺得过大 - The business had grown too big.
Note: normally used in the negative (for example, 烂摊子 làntānzi - sh*t business).
打天下 dǎ tiānxià - conquering the world; building a big business
打天下的蒙牛，体现的正是当下消费品的爆品方法论 - As Meng Niu grew rapidly into a major business, which encapsulated the methodology of how to create a best-selling product at that time in China.
毛毛雨 máomáoyǔ - drizzle (‘calm before the storm’ in this context)
这只是风暴来临前的毛毛雨 - This was the quiet time before the ensuing storm hit.
There are tonnes of idioms in the 36Kr article. I’ve selected ones that punctuate the entrepreneurial highs and lows of Niu’s career:
功高盖主 gōnggāo gàizhǔ - out performing your boss
牛根生日益高隆的名声、影响力，大有功高盖主之嫌 - Niu Gensheng’s reputation and influence was rising, which put him at risk of showing up his seniors [at Yili].
生死存亡 shēngsǐ cúnwáng - life and death
三聚氰胺奶粉事件的爆发，让蒙牛陷入生死存亡的境地 - With the outbreak of the milk scandal, Meng Niu Dairy was in a life or death situation.
众矢之的 zhòngshǐ zhīdì - a target
蒙牛被大众架到中国乳业“坏公司”代表十字柱上，成为众矢之的 - Meng Niu became known by people as a ‘bad company’ nailed to the cross of public opinion. The company became a target.
口诛笔伐 kǒuzhū bǐfá - condemn
即使后来乳业摆脱阴影、走上复苏之路，对蒙牛口诛笔伐者依然众多 - Even though the business was back on the road to recovery, there were still many people who condemned Meng Niu.
出手相救 chūshǒu xiāngjiù - to give a helping hand
最终柳传志、俞敏洪及马云等长江商学院校友出手相救 - In the end Liu Chuanzhi, Yu Minghong and Ma Yun, all alumni of CKGSB, clubbed together to give a helping hand.
Related: 解囊相助 jiěnáng xiāngzhù - offer financial assistance
逃过一劫 táoguò yījié - to have narrowly escaped [yī becomes fourth tone here]
蒙牛逃过一劫。但市场的质疑与不信任，让牛根生举步维艰 - Meng Niu has narrowly escaped but the distrust of the markets made it very hard at every step for Niu Gensheng.
东山再起 dōngshān zàiqǐ - the Eastern Mountain rises again; making a comeback
这些人找到牛根生希望他能带领大家东山再起 - These people hoped that Niu Gensheng would lead them to make a comeback.
Related: 重新出山 chóngxīn chūshān - return from the mountains (out of hiding)
后起之秀 hòuqǐ zhīxiù - rising star
蒙牛不仅需要内部改革，还要外部与各类后起之秀进行竞争 - Meng Niu not only needs internal reform, it also needs to compete with the new rising stars of its industry.
Colloquialisms and phrases
挥一挥衣袖，不带走一片云彩 huī yi huī yīxiù, bù dàizǒu yīpiàn yúncǎi - Gently I flick my sleeves, Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away.
牛根生与其一手创办的蒙牛彻底告别，挥一挥衣袖，留下的是一个在中国乳业领域难以复制的企业样本 - As Niu Gensheng bids farewell to the company he has built with his own hands, he leaves behind nothing but a template for a business in China’s dairy industry that is hard to replicate.
Background: this is the final two lines from the poem by 20th century Chinese poet, Xú Zhìmó 徐志摩, Saying Good Bye to Cambridge Again (再别康桥 zài bié kāngqiáo). Xu wrote this poem in and about Cambridge in 1927. It’s his best-known work, with the final two lines (or just the second to last line) used colloquially to mean ‘leave without a trace’ in modern Chinese. Read the full poem in Chinese and English here.
财聚人散，财散人聚 cáijù rénsàn, cáisàn rénjù - hoarding wealth drives people apart, spreading the wealth draws people together.
牛根生个人魅力通过其创业故事一次次被放大，对郑俊怀的投桃报李，对员工秉承的“财聚人散、财散人聚”的原则 - Niu Gensheng’s personal charisma grew with his entrepreneurial story, along with how he repaid Zheng Junhuai’s generosity, and how he followed the principal of sharing the wealth with his team.
Related: 投桃报李 tóutáo bàolǐ - to give a plum in return for a peach, reciprocate. See 16 October newsletter for more on this, and how to discuss your side hustle!
A Chinese poem about Cambridge
I can’t resist recommending the Xú Zhìmó poem mentioned above - Saying Good Bye to Cambridge Again (再别康桥 zài bié kāngqiáo).
The value of having a Chinese poem or two up your sleeve (衣袖 yī xiù ;)), cannot be under-estimated. Especially poems about your family, missing home or drinking. Poems help connect at a much deeper level and they can be great to practice tones, rhythm and pronunciation.
Xú Zhìmó’s 徐志摩 poem about missing Cambridge is unusual because it’s not his home but he talks about it as if it is.
Here’s an excellent Youtube clip of its recital, called a 朗诵 lǎngsòng.
Click through and give it a go!
That’s it for this week - thanks for reading.
All of the ‘words of the week’ will soon be uploaded onto…
our Hack Chinese page to help you remember them
and Pleco downloads are here. (If you get an error message first time, try again and it should work).
Spotted any more mistakes?
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