Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hot Peppers for Thanksgiving

Monday night Bob and I had dinner with Jonathan Tel, author of The Beijing of Possibilities, in a Chinese restaurant named Chili Garden (川王府). This is one of the few truly authentic sources of Sichuan cuisine in the Boston area. (Numerous Chinese restaurants here advertise themselves as Sichuan, but provide only dishes catered to American eaters who don't know what they are getting.)  Another authentic Sichuan cuisine is Red Pepper (重庆食府) on Rt. 9, which we go to most frequently, because it has a great Chongqing chef and is closer to us.  Chili Garden and Red Pepper have different specialties and varieties; the dishes in both restaurants are mouth-watering. Not surprisingly, many of their dishes are cooked with hot peppers as the dominant spice. Try them for Thanksgiving if you want to go for something non-traditional.

  A Chengdu restaurant prepares hot peppers for lunch (photo by Xujun)

I had thought I was pretty knowledgeable about Sichuan's, especially Chongqing's, history. So much for my conceit.  One thing Jonathan mentioned during dinner surprised me: he said all chili peppers came from South America, and the Chinese history of eating chili peppers is only about three to four hundred years old.

I was suspicious; in my mind we Sichuanese had been eating hot peppers since time immemorial. Digging further after returning home, however, I had to admit Jonathan was right. Apparently, chili peppers migrated into China at the end of the 16th century, and the first written record of them was found in Ming Dynasty's '草花谱' ("grass and flower album"). They were called 番椒 ("fan jiao," meaning "foreign pepper") at the time. In Sichuan we call hot peppers 海椒 ("hai jiao"), which makes perfect sense to me now because 'hai' in this context means "overseas."

It seems only appropriate to have a post about food today. Tomorrow, for our vegetarian daughter's sake we are going to have a turkey-free Thanksgiving dinner. While Bob is going to cook all those traditional veggy dishes such as cranberries, sweet potatoes and beans, I will cook a Tofu dish spiced with chili pepper. Not your traditional Thanksgiving dish, but neither the turkey nor the chili pepper tradition has been going that long after all. The White House's hypocritical tradition of pardoning one turkey (and eating another) is even shorter. Anyhow, Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The Beefiest" (最牛) and "It Sucks"

Yesterday, Damjan of the Asia Healthcare Blog had an interesting comment on my post "The Beefiest Translation." He asked, "[H]ave you explored the possibility that this vulgar expression has been coopted into a more socially acceptable form due to its popularity with Chinese youth?"

The Beefiest Tug-of-War, with100,000 Participants 
(最牛的拔河 from

It made me wonder. Are there similar examples in English, of expressions that were once considered vulgar but have come into mainstream use in the same or a slightly modified form and divorced from their past vulgarity? I asked Bob the question, which seemed to fascinate him. He was pretty sure that accepted vulgarisms existed in English, but couldn't come up an example right away.

Bob then asked a good friend whose college major was English. The friend passed the question to his librarian wife. The knowledgeable librarian mentioned the word "sucks", which used to be prohibited in polite company but is a common word today (as in "This book sucks").

The friend inspired me to dig around the internet a bit further and I found a Slate article titled "Suck It Up – A defense of the much-maligned word" by Seth Stevenson. It is so curious that all the reasons the author listed in defending the word "sucks" can be applied to the case of '最牛'.  Stevenson's defense begins with the following:

Sucks is here to stay. And what's more, it deserves its place in our lexicon, for a couple of reasons. First, it's impossible to intelligently maintain that sucks is still offensive. The word is now completely divorced from any past reference it may have made to a certain sex act. When I tell you that the new M. Night Shyamalan movie sucks (and man, does it suck), my mind in no way conjures up an image of a film reel somehow fellating an unnamed beneficiary.

The similarity between the two cases in two different languages is striking. Even the way each expression's past reference to vulgarity is alike, as well as the ways in which their current usages are divorced from that past. The most notable disparity might be that "sucks" is used only with negative connotations, while '最牛' can be used either negatively or positively, with a slant toward the latter.

The librarian friend also mentioned a big change in young adult literature over the past five years: it has gone from being very straight laced to being much more explicit in language and in situations. This is equally interesting. Does this mean a cultural trend toward more tolerance for vulgarity, or more indulgence of our youngsters, than ever?

Whatever it means, how an expression becomes socially acceptable is independent of one's will. In the case of '最牛', because it has already been broadly used in China, I'm more interested in finding a better translation for it. So far, based on the discussion stemmed from my previous post, we have a few good candidates:

"the niuest" (h/t Matthew)
"the ballsy-est" (h/t Mouseneb and Anonymous)
"the beefiest"

But again, which translation will be most accepted is beyond our will. We can only propose and see. For now, I'll probably continue to use "the beefiest."

By the way, I asked my sister Maple, who lives in Shanghai, to help me find the origin of '牛逼' (niu bi), and she sent me this link  For those of you who know Chinese, have fun reading.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The "Beefiest" Translation

The Chinese internet is a melting pot of popular creations, where new expressions (even new words/characters) constantly emerge like an endless stream. This presents a continuous challenge to a translator like me.

One popular adjective created and becoming fashionable in the new millennium is '最牛'. It is a mocking term that can mean, in humorless translation, "boldest" or "hottest" or "most awesome" or "formidable," depending on the object it modifies. The following image, borrowed from a Chinese blog called 西交虫, might help illustrate the meaning of '最牛':

最牛的司机  "The most [ ] driver"

I've left the English translation for '最牛' blank in the caption above, because none of the English adjectives I mentioned earlier can convey the mocking tone of this Chinese term. Furthermore, "awesome" is a commending word while '最牛' could be used with either positive or negative connotation. The other modifiers might be neutral enough, but they do not bring laughter.

When in doubt, I find that often the best solution to such a challenge is go for the literal, or verbatim (直译), as opposed to free translation by meaning (意译). In this case, because '' means "cow," and an associated adjective is "beefy," I'm inclined to translate '最牛' as "the beefiest." The (invisible) driver in the above image thus becomes "the beefiest driver."

The origin of '最牛' seems no longer traceable. In fact, I noticed on the Chinese internet that several such origin-seeking questions had met with mocking answers like "you've posed the beefiest question!". I remember one of the first times the term caught my eye was when bloggers named the Chongqing nail house "the beefiest nail house" and brought it to the attention of the public and the media (even NYT) in early 2007.

More recently, this seemly harmless mocking expression has been frequently applied to bad behaviors of government officials. For example, when a judge tried to force Zhang Hui, a victim of Shanghai hooks, to drop his lawsuit and Zhang did not agree, the judge angrily yelled at Zhang as if to a child, "Be obedient!" ("你要听话!") Immediately that judge surnamed Huang was termed "the beefiest judge" on the internet.

"The beefiest official line" occurred in Guangzhou two weeks ago on Oct. 30th. In a public hearing on traffic jams, attended by several departments of the city government, a reporter asked whether the traffic police should first notify the public before closing a road. A middle-aged man replied, "Do I have to tell you whether I'm going to shit or not? Do I have to tell you whether my shit stinks or not?" These words quickly became a catch phrase on the internet, which in turn led to the man's public apology and job suspension.

The term has become so trendy that even main stream media can't afford to not use it. On Nov. 11th, reported "The Beefiest Developer Sentenced to Death," about a Chongqing developer who tried to get rid of a nail house owned by an old couple, by hiring thugs to kill their only son.

"Beefiest" is only one of many new slang words coming into being with the internet. I don't view this as simple folk language evolution; rather internet slang symbolizes a new popular culture, providing for the first time a viable means for Chinese people to publicly make fun of officials. I would be curious to know how those officials who are named "the beefiest" something feel when they see their new title. Perhaps they will step a bit more gingerly next time.

Related post: "The Beefiest" (最牛) and "It Sucks"

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Legal Crime of Shanghai Hooks

If you are searching the Chinese internet, a new high-frequency keyword is 钩子 – "hook." It was an innocent young man's blood that brought this word to the media's attention.

(image from

In the evening of October 14th, a tearful 18-year-old man named Sun Zhongjie (孙中界) chopped off his little finger with a kitchen knife, while grieving after being framed by a government "hook."

Sun Zhongjie was a new driver employed by a construction company in Shanghai, and October 14th was his second day at work. That night, on a work-related trip, his car was stopped by a man standing in the middle of the street. The stranger, shivering in the cold weather, climbed into Sun's car uninvited and told Sun that he had something urgent to deal with but couldn't find a taxi or bus. Sun was sympathetic. Considering that the man's stated destination wasn't too far ahead along, he gave him the requested short ride of 1.5 kilometers. The man threw Sun a 10-yuan (=US$1.47) bill, which Sun hadn't asked for. But instead of getting off, the man grabbed Sun's car keys and stepped on the brake pedal. Dumbstruck, Sun's first thought was that he was being robbed.

Only it was not a robbery, but a government scheme, and the hitchhiker was a "hook." A hook's task is to entice a non-taxi driver to provide a ride, so that he'll be able to accuse the driver of operating a "black taxi" without a license. In each successful hook case, the hook gets paid several hundred Yuan, while the driver is fined 10,000 or more, by the local government's Traffic Management Bureau.

While Sun was struggling with the "hook," trying to grab back his car keys, the conspiring traffic police arrived. They dragged Sun out of his car and held him in their van for a couple of hours without showing any ID. Sun was released only after being forced to sign three receipts, which he did not even get to read. He learned that he had been accused of "black taxi" operation afterward, from several others who were also being "hooked" and brought to the police van.

The injustice and agony Sun felt was unbearable. Though newly employed and poor, his first concern wasn't the big fine or the seized car, but that he was unjustly wronged. He was innocent. He gave the stranger a ride for kindness, not money. Now his clean name was tainted by the hook. But where could he go to prove his innocence? When he was being held in the unknown van, he had shouted that he wanted to call the police, but his captors laughed and told him "We are."

After returning home, Sun picked up a kitchen knife (the big, heavy kind we Chinese use) and chopped off his left pinkie. The 18-year-old was in so much emotional distress that he did not even feel the pain. He then threw himself in bed and cried, while his severed finger bled unattended. If it were not for his older brother living upstairs, who heard the unusual sound and took him to the hospital immediately, Sun might have bled to death that night.

The next day, on October 15th, young migrant worker Sun Zhongjie appealed to the media for help getting back his good name, and reporters interviewed him in the hospital where he went through an operation to reconnect the severed finger. (A question remains: had Sun not chopped off his finger, would the reporters pay as much attention to his case as they do now?)

Under public and media pressure, five days later, on October 20th, the Traffic Management Bureau of Pudong New District issued an official report of their "investigation results," claming that everything the traffic police did in Sun's case was legal and Sun was truly an illegal taxi driver. The Bureau said their witness was not a hook but a "society member with a sense of righteousness."

The public was unsatisfied. Sun told a reporter that what the government bureau did was "having the father investigating the son," as the traffic police team belonged to the Traffic Management Bureau, and of course it wouldn't be truthful. Sun requested a face-to-face confrontation with the "witness," which did not happen. Even CCTV and People's Daily declared their suspicions with the "investigation."

The case caught the Shanghai City government's attention and a new investigation involving independent lawyers was ordered. The investigators discovered that the name of the "society member with a sense of righteousness" had appeared as a witness in other similar cases before. Eventually the man's identity as a paid "hook" was verified.

On October 26th, twelve days after Sun Zhongjie was "hooked," the government of Pudong New District issued a public apology to Sun, returned his car, and revoked the fine. The government also announced the cessation of the "hooking" practice in crashing-down "black taxis."

This quick reversal brought out tears from Sun Zhongjie's eyes. He has since left Shanghai and returned to his home village in Zhejiang Province. Before his departure, he told the media that he probably would go out again as a migrant worker, but not likely to Shanghai. When asked if he'd pick up a stranger who needs help in the future, he evaded the question.

According to reports, 99% of the so-called "black taxi" drivers have been "hooked" before, and among the hook victims also are many innocent people. On September 8th, Zhang Hui, a white collar driving his private car on the way to work at a high-paying foreign-invested company, "in a moment of soft heart" picked up a man who complained of a stomach ache and persistently begged for a ride. The man was a hook. Despite the fact that Zhang had refused the man's offer of taxi-price payment, Zhang was arrested and fined 10,000 Yuan on the grounds of illegal-taxi operation. Zhang has been blogging about the case and received broad support on the internet. Meanwhile, media coverage on his case was sparse, and the local government that wronged him kept ignoring his request for justice.

A month after he was framed and two days before Sun Zhongjie's encounter with a hook, on October 12th, Zhang Hui brought his case to the court. Probably helped by Sun's case, on the same day Sun's name was cleared, Zhang's fine was also refunded. However, the next day a judge from the court that accepted Zhang's lawsuit came to his office and shouted at him, because Zhang did not accept the judge's request for withdrawal of the lawsuit. This story is still unfolding.

Hundreds more hook victims who received big fines are requesting their money back now.

In light of Chongqing's "crashing-down on organized crime" storm, Chinese netizens are inquiring whether the government scheme of hiring hooks, now termed as an "illegal form of law enforcement" by the media, should be considered organized crime.

Chang Ping, a well-known journalist and social commentator, says in a blog post titled "上海钩子" that not only should the hooks bear legal responsibility but they should also sue their government bosses who brought them into a criminal career.

(Update: I just saw that the quick and thorough ESWN has posted and translated a bunch of earlier Chinese reports on this case, providing good references.)