China loves Elon
How China's favourite entrepreneur is discussed by his fans
Elon Musk is like an entrepreneurial god in China, or at the very least a super hero one.
He’s known as Iron Man 钢铁侠 gāng tiě xiá in Chinese.
Popular in China in a way that a Chinese equivalent probably couldn't be, Musk is loved for being an on-message, mainstream, ‘big potato’ (大咖 dà kā), and an unpredictable, off-message, anti-establishment ‘hippie’ (嬉皮 xī pí).
His popularity with fans persists even as Tesla’s PR team in China regularly deals with high profile customer complaints and consumer rights protests. Barely a week goes by without a media story about Tesla’s faulty brakes (刹车失灵 shāchē shīlíng) or other technical problems with its cars in China.
Elon Musk’s bid to take over Twitter has elevated his status even higher in China - as someone with big ideas who can make them happen.
He has an innate spirit of the entertainer. His unorthodox style uniquely brings together hippie culture with conventional identities of tech madman and business leader in a ‘ridiculous’ way.
‘Hippie culture’ in Chinese means ‘anti-western establishment’, rather than its more general ‘counter-culture’ connotations in English.
This article is brimming with interesting colloquial language, idioms and insights. It flows well and is worth a read in full if you have time.
But before you do that, I’ve prepared some linguistic highlights for you to enjoy and learn. It’s an exotic mix of millennia-old Confucian teachings, modern Cantonese colloquialisms crossed over into Mandarin, American pop culture, Chinese slang, and a German philosophical phrase about fear and self-doubt.
We also get a better understanding of why Elon Musk is so popular in China.
And don’t forget, if you want to access the audio version of this newsletter, the full archive, pleco downloads and other resources available to members of the community, you can get access right now with this free trial:
The Favourite Five
1. 逗比 dòu bī
a funny guy, a joker
马斯克虽然逗比，但人家毕竟聪明 - Even though Musk is a joker, he is also clever.
Note: Internet slang which is a combination of the words ‘funny’ (挺逗的 tǐng dòu de), and stupid or idiot (二比 èr bī) which on its own is quite offensive, and can also have the character 逼 bī, hence the first tone pronunciation. In this phrase, though, it’s less offensive and has a positive twist of also being cute (可爱 kě'ài), or loveable.
2. 钢铁侠 gāng tiě xiá
Iron man; Elon Musk
钢铁侠更多地在表述他关于未来，关于太空，关于全人类的遐思 - Elon Musk is thinking more about the future, about space, about all mankind.
Note: a reference to Musk’s cameo appearance in Iron Man 2 in 2010; in Chinese he’s known as the Iron Man of Silicon Valley 硅谷钢铁侠 guī gǔ gāng tiě xiá.
3. 送秋波 sòng qiū bō
send autumn waves; batting eyelids or flirting with someone
向推特和可口可乐这类天然抗周期商业模式的公司递送秋波 - Flirting with companies like Twitter and Coca Cola whose business models are anti-cyclical.
4. 锱铢必较 zī zhū bì jiào
fight over the smallest trifles; argue about little details
关于推特用户数造假的消息发酵，印证了它潜在的未来所有者对于财富的锱铢必较 - News about Twitter’s fake accounts is growing, which shows that its future owner must take the numbers very seriously.
Note: traced back to a work by philosopher Xúnzi 荀子, one of China’s ‘big three’ Confucian scholars, who lived in the 3rd century BC.
Note: 锱铢 zī zhū means a very small amount of money or a very small matter.
Final note! Similar to 斤斤计较 jīn jīn jì jiào, which means focussed on the detail, or stingy. This has negative connotations, whereas 锱铢必较 is positive.
5. 这条街最靓的仔 zhè tiáo jiē zuì liàng de zǎi
best looking boy on the street; the big kid on the block
中国的经济规模可能会是美国的两到三倍，中国会长成这个街区最靓的仔 - China will become the big kid on the block, as its economy may grow to two or three times the size of America’s.
Note: from the Internet slang: 这条街最靓的仔 zhètiáojiē zuìliàng de zǎi (the prettiest looking boy on the street). It's originally Cantonese, becoming a viral meme in 2018 when Chinese actor Hú Yītiān 胡一天 shared it with an image of himself on a street in China. This is how the Chinese media translated Musk’s comments on China in an interview with him in the Wall Street Journal in November last year.
More: this is a fantastic example of how modern language with different cultural references evolves in parallel. When it comes to crossing over between English and Chinese, the meanings are actually not that different - big kid on the block, and best looking boy on the street.
Consuming the conversation
混子 hùn zi
someone who fools around
全世界的粉丝也热衷于看到一个奇谈怪论不按套路出牌的“大混子” - People all round the world love seeing a crazy guy who says strange things and doesn’t follow the usual norms.
Note: 不按常理出牌 bù àn cháng lǐ chū pái - means to not play cards according to the rules, which is to be unconventional, or able to think outside of the box.
暴君 bào jūn
他是粉丝们的意见领袖，也是数十万下属和工人们的严厉暴君 - He is an opinion leader to his fans, and a very strict boss to over 100,000 employees who work for him.
不羁 bù jī
对马斯克的不羁言论，粉丝们应声而上 - Fans love Musk’s uninhibited way with words.
Note: 羁 jī is a bridle for a horse, so it can also be translated as ‘unbridled’.
心慌 xīn huāng
钢铁侠估计有点心慌了，在推特发文说“如果我不明不白地死了，大家都知道是谁干的 - I reckon Musk must have been a bit concerned; on Twitter he posted saying that ‘If I die mysteriously, you will all know who did it’.
炫耀 xuàn yào
flaunt; show off
迫不及待要向自己的玩伴们炫耀一下 - Can’t wait to show off to his colleagues.
Three character phrases
馊主意 sōu zhǔ yi
大家在网络上互相吐槽，共同出馊主意 - Everyone is online complaining about each other, coming up with bad ideas together.
More: 馊 sōu means rancid or rotten; it’s also a metaphor for ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’.
无厘头 wú lí tóu
一起以无厘头、脑洞大开的方式实现戏谑的狂欢 - Cracking jokes and having a good time in nonsensical, open minded ways.
结梁子 jié liáng zi
resentment; to resent
马斯克跟俄罗斯航天局的“梁子”早就结下了 - The resentment between Musk and Roscosmos began a long time ago.
又双叒叕 yòu shuāng ruò zhuó
time and time again
“钢铁侠”又双叒叕上热搜了！- Elon Musk has hit the top of the social media rankings AGAIN!
More: made up of one single character (又 - again) repeated ten times within its four characters: 又 yòu - again; 双 shuāng - double, or twin; 叒 ruò - ancient character meaning something like being supportive of friends; 叕 zhuó - ancient character meaning connection or insufficient
The phrase has been around since 2012, first used by the Japanese media in the phrase ‘we have changed Prime Minister yet again’ (我们又双叒叕要换首相了). Since then it's become popular with Chinese netizens to talk about things that keep happening - such as celebrities hitting the top search rankings. It's often simply pronounced as yòu yòu yòu yòu - again and again and again and again.
更胜一筹 gèng shèng yī chóu
马云被称为中国商业未来想象力第一人，但是马斯克似乎要更胜一筹 - Jack Ma has been described as China’s most imaginative entrepreneur. But it would seem that Musk has one over on him.
板上钉钉 bǎn shàng dìng dīng
no two ways about it; that clinches it
收购推特这件事，到目前为止尚不足以说已经板上钉钉 - Currently the acquisition of Twitter is not at a point when one could say it is set in stone.
肆无忌惮 sì wú jì dàn
推特是他肆无忌惮的灵魂的高地 - Twitter is the home of his free spirit.
日思夜想 rì sī yè xiǎng
think about something all the time
马斯克可能将终于拥有这件日思夜想的好东西 - Musk may finally own the good thing that he thinks about all the time.
欣喜若狂 xīn xǐ ruò kuáng
马斯克以54.2美元的价格收购推特全部股份，远高于现价，让很多推特股东欣喜若狂 - Musk is buying all Twitter’s shares at $54.20 per share, much higher than the current market price. So many Twitter shareholders are over the moon.
盆满钵满 pén mǎn bō mǎn
make a lot of money
俄航天局是世界最大的卫星发射商，自然是赚得盆满钵满 - Roscosmos is the world's largest satellite launcher, and naturally it makes a lot of money.
Note: see SupChina’s phrase of the week for more background on this phrase. This is another example of a phrase which started life in Cantonese and crossed over into Mandarin.
不近人情 bù jìn rén qíng
马斯克显然是个勤奋的人，更是个严厉到不近人情的老板 - Musk obviously is a hard working person, and he is strict to a point where he can be an unreasonable boss.
无源之水，无本之木 wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù
water without a source, a tree without roots; no foundation
四百亿美金资本齐聚一堂，大家对这笔交易的信心自然不是无源之水 - With $40 billion dollars of capital in place, people’s confidence in this deal is not unfounded.
Note: 齐聚一堂 qí jù yī táng - ‘gathered together’ which is used metaphorically here.
凝视深渊过久，深渊将回以凝视 níngshì shēnyuān guò jiǔ shēnyuān jiāng huí yǐ níngshì
if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you
特斯拉工厂里“咀嚼着玻璃凝视深渊”的全球首富，正在试图保持“科技先知、未来战士”的人设不垮掉 - The wealthiest man in the world is in the Tesla factory ‘staring into the abyss and eating glass’, trying to maintain the public persona of ‘technological prophet and future hero’.
Note: ‘staring into the abyss’ is attributed to German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He is also credited with coming up with the phrase ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’. ‘Staring into the abyss’ is one of those non-Chinese phrases which has been absorbed into Chinese entrepreneurial vernacular. Together with the ‘eating glass’ part this phrase is a famous quote from Musk which he uses often.
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