Western Culture from a Chinese Perspective

Harry Potter Book 6 Cover

One thing that struck me during my initial stay in Taiwan, was how everything imported from western culture had to be imported into Chinese first. If I asked someone on the street where the nearest McDonalds was, they wouldn’t know what I was referring to, even if there was one across the street, since I would need to use the Chinese equivalent 麥當勞 (Màidāngláo). The same is also true for famous Hollywood actors, books or movies. Ask any kid who Harry Potter is, and they couldn’t tell you. But refer to him as 哈利波特 (Hālì Bōtè) and of course they would rave about the latest book!

As you can see from the above examples, the Chinese equivalent is usually formed using a transliteration of the sound using the closest equivalent in Chinese characters. While it’s usually possible for Westerners to deduce the English equivalent by hearing the Chinese (especially if you have heard it before), local Chinese speakers usually have a harder time going the other way. I found this to be an interesting phenomenon, since characters that to us are homonyms (mài and mǎi for example) are completely distinct to native Mandarin speakers so it is harder for them to associate them together.

It is more complicated than this though, as some transliterations may end up producing meanings that don’t evoke the proper emotion. Some companies have a done a great job of combining the transliteration with a reasonable meaning. One of my favorites is KFC, which becomes 肯德基 (Kěndéjī). That sounds reasonable close to “Kentucky” while retaining the jī at the end meaning “chicken.” Another one I found particularly interesting was Coca Cola which is 可口可樂 (Kěkǒu kělè). From a transliteration point of view, it would have made much more sense for them to invert the characters to produce “Kǒu kě kǒu le” or something similar. However, the former name has a literal meaning of “tasty cola” which is obviously a good feeling for Coke to evoke and is why it was chosen.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? When in Rome, do like the Romans do. Learn what the Chinese equivalent of your name is. (In my case Adam becomes 亞當 (Yǎdāng)). Learn the name of your country and city is in Chinese if you expect to be able to tell where you’re from. If there are any other topics you wish to talk about, find out what their equivalent is in Chinese first to give yourself a head start.

11 Responses to “Western Culture from a Chinese Perspective”

  1. luobot

    Xīngbākè / 星巴克, i.e., Starbucks, is my favorite western import. In fact, it’s the only western food item that I’ll touch when I’m in China. First of all, discovering a Xīngbākè when you’re new in town means that now you have a geographical point of reference that you can relate to. It means (on the mainland) having a relatively clean, western-style, sit down (as opposed to squat) toilet, usually with toilet paper (as opposed to what you brought in with you). It means finding English speakers when needed (though this may be a double-edged crutch). And it means a taste of home. Well, actually, Starbucks tastes fresher for some reason back home, or in HK, or anywhere else in the world that I’ve been, but I digress … the name is also brilliant. It’s a combination of a literal translation (Xīng / 星) and transliteration (bākè / 巴克). Mention “Xīngbākè zài nǎr? / 星巴克在哪儿 ?” to anyone in a northern city or “Xīngbākè zài nǎli? / 星巴克在哪里 ?” to anyone in a southern city and they’ll immediately point it out. Xīng 星 is, of course “Star” and also means a point of light. Bā 巴 means to greatly desire, but the phonetic is also a homonym for eight, which is a lucky number to the Chinese. And kè 克 means overcome or gram. So when you put it all together you have a bright star full of luck and overcome with desire. Or at least, that’s my interpretation. They must be doing something right, because Xīngbākè is also the sound of the cash register ringing throughout the Middle Kingdom.

  2. “Everything imported from western culture had to be imported into Chinese first”. It’s the same with every culture importing things from a different language.
    If a Chinese go to USA and ask someone in the street, have you been to “Chang Cheng”, I guess noone will know what he is talking about.

    PS: Chang Cheng = Great Wall (in Chinese)

  3. Top Cat

    This is very interesting

    You would think that Harry Potter’s name would be pronounced as hārìpòtè as rì is closer to ‘rry’ sound in ‘Harry’ than lì and pò is closer to the ‘Po’ sound in ‘Potter’ than bò.

    I have some questions about names in Chinese.

    1. Do the Chinese often sacrifice the sounds that are closer to the English equivalent so they can give proper meaning to words?

    2. How do the Chinese know when characters represent a name of a person or a place and not a strange word that they may not have seen before?

    This may sound like a stupid question, but I have often looked at Chinese script and tried to work out what a word means only to find out later that it is actually a person’s name or a place name. In English it is obvious to us which words represent people and place names and which words don’t as we capitalise the first letter of each word in the name. Of course when we look at Chinese characters we don’t get this information.

    3. Do Chinese people have the same problem identifying names in English as we do with identifying names in Chinese?

  4. Jan Krouwer

    I saw in a magazine the Chinese word for the drink, martini as 马踢你. This translates as “horse kick you”, which I though was pretty funny. However, I found a different Chinese word elsewhere, so maybe the magazine article is not correct.

  5. Luobot: The Starbucks is a great example – I like it!

    Chinese: Interesting example. My point with the above examples is that the English is included in the signs describing the products. In the book cover above it says “Harry Potter” in English, and the signs for Coca-cola and McDonalds also describe the product. While I would expect that they would use their Chinese equivalents when talking about it, I didn’t think they wouldn’t recognize the English name at all, despite constantly being exposed to it.

    Top Cat: Here are my answers to your questions.

    1. I would think that as in the examples shown here, the meaning would have priority over the sounds since ultimately it’s the Chinese who will be using the names, so it would be more important for it to have a good sounding meaning than its relation to the English original.

    2. Chinese in general is a lot more context sensitive than English. There is a great more ambiguity with many words and sentences having multiple meanings depending on context. So while learners like ourselves struggle with recognizing which words are names and which aren’t, I’m sure it would come a lot more natural to native Chinese speakers (although I’m sure they have their share of jokes involving puns or mistaken translations).

    3. Like you said, place names are more readily identifiable in English due to the use of capitalization so I would expect this to be more of a problem for English speakers learning Chinese than the other way around. Having said that, there are other aspects of names that cause confusion on both sides, so I think I’ll expand upon this topic in my next post!

    Jan: The word I have for martini is 馬丁尼 (Mǎdīngní) (but I like your version better!). As there would be multiple ways to transliterate an English word, at some point one will be picked as the most used, but until then I’m sure different versions end up floating around.

  6. Top Cat: Regarding rì instead of lì for Harry, the reason they can’t use rì is because the sound is not like ‘rry’ in Harry but like ‘rror’ in Horror. Also, in general, when transliterating from English to Chinese, r’s are usually turned into l’s instead of Chinese r’s because ‘l’ has a lot more flexibility, as all the six Chinese vowels can be attached to ‘l’ (la, lo, le, li, lu, lü) while r can only be attached to three out of the six (re, ri, ru). So, if they chose ‘r’ in one place and ‘l’ in another, it would be inconsistent; so, it seems they’ve chosen ‘l’ as a standard.

    A second, unrelated problem in transliteration is that Chinese has a definite consonant-vowel order and does not support consonant clusters. There are only three consonants in which a Chinese syllable can end – n, ng or r (儿, that is). This means that English words like “scream” present a problem in transliteration, as, to retain all its consonants (which mark a word more distinctively than its vowels), it would need at least four syllables in Chinese, which bloats the Chinese transliteration four times as compared to the English word. So, in a lot of places, transliteration is forced by this constraint. This is why the ‘r’ in ‘martini’ is ignored to maintain brevity and the Chinese word for ‘golf’ “gāo’ěrfū” (高尔夫) has three syllables instead of one as a punishment for being more phonetically accurate in its depiction of the original word and not ignoring that ‘l’.

  7. I have a slightly different take on this… What you have mentioned largely related to brand name, trademark, or copyright material. Companies such as 麥當勞, 肯德基, or 可口可樂 needs to ensure the continue use of local language version of their name so their competitors can’t steal it. This impacts the local population’s relationship with the brand. Since McDonalds had been using 麥當勞 in Hong Kong for many years, it felt the need to use it in Taiwan as well to avoid confusion.

    I’ll give you a good example of the exact opposite: car names are almost universally marketed and referred to in Taiwan under the original English name. Ford Focus is called 福特 Focus in Taiwan. Why? Because Ford has decided to use the original English name as the trademark in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the same car is called 福特福克斯 because trademark protection laws are different in China and Ford didn’t want someone else using a Chinese name that sounds similar to Focus. The point I’m trying to make is that transliteration to Chinese has a lot more to do with commercial concern rather than actual language useage.

  8. Thanks for the insight, Irwin. I think it’s all related. Learning the language helps you learn the culture and vice versa. Commercial interests often shape a society’s culture so I find it useful to learn the background and naming conventions used by businesses entering the Chinese market (even if it originated elsewhere).

  9. Although very young at the time, I remember when the mini skirt first came out, and it was only one style, in a tartan fabric. The general idea took off, and everyone was producing mini skirts of all kinds, calling them mini skirts, but nobody wanted the tartan. Then whoever had come out with it originally started claiming that it was theirs and nobody else could make mini skirts. One response was that their original mini skirt was tartan, and nobody else was making tartan mini skirts anyway, who’d want to wear them when there’s so many nicer styles. Most women still knew how to take up a hem in those days, so they’d have to sue every female on the planet to prevent non-approved mini skirt manufacture.

    It was a big kerfuffle for a while, then it died down quickly. Ten years later we looked at those original mini skirts and laughed at how long they were, almost down to the knee! Forty years later we can’t remember who designed it though some of us might remember their futile claims of ownership. Anyway, it was originally intended to be something like a brand name, but that was defeated immediately while massive adoption made it unenforceable. I have no idea whether that’s related to its Chinese name.

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