Riding the wind, playing your cards right and finding the Ox's nose

Slow Chinese Weekly Newsletter 每周漫闻

Idiom of the week:

乘风破浪,扬帆起航 (Chéng fēng pò làng, yáng fān qǐ háng)

Ride the wind and crest the waves, set off with wind in the sales

Monday was China’s first day back (or 开工的第一天) after the extended CNY hols.

Idioms such as these ones, about setting sail and overcoming the elements, are a must. They are used on their own, starting with something like: ‘We should… (我们需要….)

Another one I’ve heard a lot is:

凝心聚力(Níng xīn jù lì)  - uniting people’s hearts and combing their strength; pulling the team together. 

Word of the week:

务虚会 (Wù xū huì) ‘discuss theory meeting’ - a strategy meeting

The first meeting back after the hols is normally a Wù xū huì.

It’s a very Chinese type of meeting. means ‘fake’ (虚假) but here it’s supposed to mean ‘theory’ or ‘strategy’.

I would translate as a ‘strategy meeting with Chinese Characteristics’.

Without much structure they can go on for AGES. The purpose is to set the tone and direction, agree principles, talk about challenges and share feelings. It will normally lead to a punchy action-based meeting called a 务实会 (Wù shí huì) - a ‘doing meeting’ - which is the opposite of a Wù xū huì.

Wù xū huì can get a bit much if you’re not used to them. But they are part of business life in China. Having some good idioms at the ready is always helpful.

Apart from endless meetings, this week I’ve been reading into the following Slow Stories that have some excellent words and idioms to share.

  • Chinese media reports on what Boris Johnson’s position on China actually is

  • Some new words buried in the New Development Concept

I’ve included a new section at the end reviewing language from previous newsletters in the context of the stories below.

Thanks for reading, and a belated Happy Lantern Festival (元宵节 - Yuán xiāo jié).

Finally - please keep the comments and feedback coming!

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Boris Johnson shows his cards on China

My Wechat feed was alive with Chinese media articles about British PM declaring he is ‘fervently Sinophile’ (狂热的亲华派 - Kuáng rè de qīn huá pài) earlier this week. The story was originally covered by the Guardian.

According to the Chinese media’s interpretation, Boris has laid his cards in the table (摊牌 - Tān pái).

The tentative conclusion is that Boris is actually a genuine Sinophile (真心亲华) after all.

Media coverage is surprisingly restrained, almost positive (overly hopeful?) in tone. Social media users, however, were not so impressed. One comment:

约相大嘴,不亚川统,一个官式会议说两句主宾受用的官场话,如此而已

‘Big Mouth Boris’ is no better than Trump. This is nothing more than him saying some empty political words at a political meeting that his guests want to hear.

The use of Sinophile at this time cleverly - perhaps unintentionally - strikes a tone with the current political narrative in China.

(The opposite of Sinophile is 反华 (Fǎn huá), anti-China. The China Media Project briefing on China’s political discourse in 2020 has a great analysis of the use and trends of ‘anti-China’ (反华 - Fǎn huá) and other top political terms over the last year. It’s a fantastic read for obsessive Chinese language learners.)

There’s some very usable vocab in the coverage of the Sinophile story in the Chinese media this week, and also related stories from last year.

I’ve tried to keep it to only the best ones below - focussing on language to do with conflict and balancing a difficult situation. All very useful in discussions about international affairs or in business settings.

Useful words

  • 摊牌 (Tān pái) - to put one’s cards on the table, to have a showdown

    约翰逊当着中国企业摊牌:我是狂热亲华派 - Prime Minister Johnson has put his cards on the table: he’s a fervent Sinophile

  • 和事佬 (Hé shì lǎo) - ‘peacemaker’

    作为首相的鲍里斯在对华议题上一直非常谨慎,主要充当缓和者与和事佬的角色。 As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is always very measured on China. He’s mainly playing the role of moderator and peacemaker [within his Party]

  • 骑墙 (Qí qiáng) - riding the fence, sitting on the fence (this is a really useful one!)

    英国当然是希望在中美两个大国之间骑墙,好通过两头占便宜,使自己利益最大化 The UK obviously hopes tread a fine line between the US and China, enabling it to take from both sides and maximise its own returns

  • 跟风 (Gēn fēng) - go with the prevailing winds, follow suit (normally negative connotations - very useful!)

    有网民跟风指责称,“一切都是因中国而起。” Some Netizens followed suit, blaming everything on China

  • 泡汤了 - ‘to make soup’ - slang: gone wrong, ruined, (UK - buggered) (of plans)

    原先的圣诞计划泡汤了 - the original Christmas plans are ruined

Some good idioms

  • 水火不容 (Shuǐ huǒ bù róng) - can’t mix like fire and water, incompatible

    我们就会知道中英完全不至于闹到水火不容的地步 - So we can see that the UK and China really don’t have to escalate into a situation when they become completely unable to talk

  • 水深火热 (Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè) deep water and hot fire - very serious (of a situation)

    疫情仍然水深火热 - the pandemic is still raging

Further reading

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The Ox’s Nose of the New Development Concept

There’s some great language hidden in the readout of President Xi’s chairing of the 18th meeting of the Central Committee for Deepening Overall Reform (中央全面深化改革委员会第十八次会议) which took place last Friday.

A big theme is The New Development Concept

新发展理念 - Xīn fā zhǎn lǐ niàn

This is one of those political phrases that is easy to miss but is actually really important. It’s been around since October 2015.

The key words of it are: 创新 (innovation), 协调 (coordination), 绿色 (green), 开放 (openness) and 共享 (sharing).

No big surprises. But there are some hidden gems too.

Useful three-character words

I’ve picked out three, three-character words that can come up regularly in life.

  1. 牛鼻子 (niú bí zi) - the Ox’s nose, strategic challenge

‘Innovation’ is the top priority of the New Development Concept. It’s described as the 牛鼻子 (niú bí zi), the ‘Ox’s Nose’, of making the next phase of reform happen.

This is a brilliant way to describe it!

In English you could call it the crux of a matter, or a nub of an issue. It’s the core strategic issue, challenge or contradiction that impacts the whole.

  1. 卡脖子 (Qiǎ bó zǐ) - ‘strangling’ - strategic weak points

Another good one, used to describe the technology challenges that China needs to address:

卡脖子技术 (Qiǎ bó zǐ jì shù) - technological strangle holds

  1. 弹钢琴 (Tán gāng qín) - playing the piano, elegantly balance many different priorities

‘Playing the piano’ used as figurative speech is credited to Chairman Mao, from a speech called the Ten Major Relationships (论十大关系) from 1956.

Nowadays it’s used to describe a great leader dealing with difficult multiple issues:

一个优秀的领导,必须学会弹钢琴 - a great leader must be able to play the piano

Finally, if I had to pick out one more phrase from the New Development Concept, it would be this tongue-twister:

由跟跑并跑向并跑领跑转变 (Yóu gēn pǎo bìng pǎo xiàng bìng pǎo lǐngpǎo zhuǎn biàn) Transitioning from catching-up and being neck-and-neck, to being neck-and-neck and then over-taking.

There you go. In that single confusing sentence is captured what China aims to achieve in the next 15 years!

Must-have Idioms

The New Development Concept is also a great resource for idioms. I’ve focussed on the ones about over-doing it, or going too far - a common problem in China. The first three are widely used in general life and business. The last one is much less common but a good one to impress people if you know it.

  • 因小失大 (Yīn xiǎo shī dà) - losing out on bigger opportunities becuase of focussing on small stuff

    因小失大,为了多赚一点钱,而耽误了孩子的前程

  • 顾此失彼 (Gù cǐ shī bǐ) - attend to one thing and lose out on another (more important thing)

    我们看问题要全面,不要顾此失彼

  • 急功近利 (Jí gōng jìn lì) - be anxious for quick wins

    我们在学习上要有耐心,不能有急功近利的想法

  • 寅吃卯粮 (Yín chī mǎo liáng) - eating next year’s harvest this year, over stretching yourself (financially or of resources)

    我一赚到一笔钱就乱花,所以经常陷入寅吃卯粮的困境

Further reading

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Consolidating the foundations and setting sail

This is a new bit.

I’ve called it 学习小组 - Study Group. Because if you’re still with me this far down, it means you’ve got too much time on your hands, and you’re thirsty for more.

But rather than trying to do too much, I’ve followed the advice of a reader who had a fantastic suggestion: try to recap on some of the previous newsletters to help consolidate what we’ve learned so far.

So here goes. I’ve picked three words from previous issues that all came up this week.

See how much you can remember…

  • 甩锅 (shuǎi guō) - not taking responsibility, blaming someone else

    欢庆圣诞的原本计划泡汤了,英国有些人果然甩锅中国 - The or original Christmas holidays have been cancelled. Some people in the UK have unsurprisingly laid the blame on China

    对某些英国政客来说,中国是最佳“背锅侠” - for some politicians China is best scapegoat for them to use

  • 刷屏 (Shuā píng) - ‘flooding the screen’, or going viral

    ​今天《卫报》一则报道刷屏朋友圈,引得大家纷纷把目光投向中英关系 - An article from the Guardian has gone viral in my network, bringing lots of attention on UK-China relations.

  • 双标 (Shuāng biāo) - double standard(ed)

    一发推就甩锅,一开口就“双标” (He) blame’s (China) will a single Tweet, and is full of double standards as soon as he opens his mouth

    面对这种经典“西式双标” - In the face of this kind of ‘western double standards’

Finally, I thought I’d recap on something from two weeks ago - Three Ox Spirit. Which I keep hearing….

I suppose it never hurts to be able to quote the president, especially if you can remember what the Three Ox are:

三牛精神 (Sān niú jīngshén) - three ox spirit - first mentioned in Xi’s New Year’s speech in Jan. The three Ox’s are:

孺子牛 (Rú zǐ niú) - willing Ox (serves the people)

拓荒牛 (Tuò huāng niú) - pioneering Ox (innovative, brave)

老黄牛 (Lǎo huáng niú) - hard working Ox (diligent, dedicated)

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend and see you next week!

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