we pour, and we are poured

PutongWords

Hello friends, it has been many many months since I last wrote this thing.

For a while, I contemplated how I felt about Substack itself, what with its generous packages for questionable opinion bros, but here I am still, in the meantime.

Today I examine a few 撒X words, which refer to an impressive range of things you can issue forth into the world:

撒 (release) 尿 (urine) - to pee

撒 (release) 娇 (girlish charm) - to act spoiled

撒 (release) 野 (wild) - to behave in an unrestrained, unbecoming, or destructive manner

撒 (release) 欢 (joy) - to excitedly frolic

撒 (release) 谎 (falsehood) - to lie

With these words we are made containers that hold many things, urine, joy, charm, lies, destructive forces, and in 撒 (to cast, to let go, to spread, to spray etc.) we have the agency to either hold back, or to release.

Or perhaps we are but vessels for the multitudes that we contain, waiting for our lids to be unscrewed by some larger force, so that what’s within may be brought forth?

That’s not a real question, by the way.

The characters themselves cannot answer these questions, because ultimately it’s context that informs whether we pour, or be poured, and 撒 accommodates both those interpretations just fine, whatever you mean to say.

— Frankie

The birth that went away

PutongWords: 流产

The common Chinese word for miscarriage is 流 (flow of liquid) 产 (birth). I've always felt it contains less negativity and blame than "miscarriage".

Now, I have never been pregnant, but I do understand this languid term belies all sorts of pain and sadness, but what the text does not suggest is culpability of the one who was pregnant.

What it describes is actually a kind of birth, perhaps in the context of certain people it’s what they wanted, and for some it is heartache. But the occurrence itself is often natural, through no fault of anyone involved, and I appreciate 流产 as a word that is neutral on its own.

My grandmother was my great-grandmother's 7th birth and her oldest child. I learned about this when I was perhaps five or six from my great-grandmother. She was in her late seventies by then, and though the years had smoothed the sharp edges of those memories, she was still sad when she spoke of the stillborns she buried, she was not ashamed though, as it couldn’t be helped.

I know each family is different, but in my family conversations about miscarriages carried no stigma, I grew up with the understanding that it’s something that can happen. I think that’s a pretty healthy perspective to have.

— Frankie

His Highness, the Pig Monkey

PutongAnimals

We all know Chinese has tons of homonyms, and this makes it very easy to make up alternative versions of existing words, they’re often nonsensical, but sometimes take on a life of their own as a made up animal, some well known ones include: 教授/叫兽,和谐/河蟹,操你妈/草泥马

When I come across a really good one of these, sometimes I can’t resist doing a drawing.

The other day this tweet inspired me to draw a pig monkey.

Even though we are no longer ruled by royalty, it’s still fun to juxtapose a goofy animal against the sovereign ruler of a nation state. That’s what these homonym-inspired animals are really for, you pick something that sends a message, not just something random.

— Frankie

Order of the good and right

正 or 歪?

正 is a character we see a lot, and it’s one whose form mimics its uses and meanings, particularly when its rendered in a blocky san serif font such as the one I am using now, with straight lines and sharp right angles, parallel and perpendicular to the sides of the screen, the page, or wherever you are viewing it on, a neat block of a character that fits in a box.

正 can be used to refer to straightness, correctness, righteousness, properness, pureness, centralness, and getting to define which concrete qualities qualify to be considered “straight” “righteous” “proper” etc. is imperative to rule.

正红 refers to the shade of red by which all other shades are defined as cooler or warmer

正门 refers to the gate by which all other gates are defined as to the side

正版 refers to the official version, rendering all other versions unsanctioned

正常 refers to the correct and regular, imbuing normalcy with rightness, and deviations from it with wrongness

正经 originally referred to core courses for students, today it refers to all that is core, essential, serious and important, relegating that which falls beyond as trivial and frivolous

正事 refers to important, worthy endeavors, an arbitrary hierarchy that names some things more important and others less so

正确 refers to what is correct and true, and here correctness seems to have an additional sheen of positiveness, as though there are objective truths without meaning assigned by people

The thing about 正 is that it instantly creates a rigid dichotomy of what is and is not 正, essentially there is one kind of 正 and infinite kinds of 不正. When a powerful entity, be it a person or an organization or a whole demographic of people, puts forth their definition of what is “right” “just” “proper” into the world, sometimes this is mistaken for “the way things are and ought to be”.

The other day I responded to a positive Tweet asking people to brag about their accomplishments by mentioning how I feel guilty whenever I spend too much time not doing 正事, or doing what’s important.

It made me think long and hard about how when we use this word to refer to what we ought to be doing, and how it’s almost always things defined by others, by societal expectation, by those who would view us only as a set of attributes and a corresponding place in the world.

Of course all of this creates order, and when I was young I sponged up the notion that order is good, is necessary, is what we all want. But a thinking person can’t really live in this world without eventually wondering who is really benefitting from enticing everyone to arrange themselves in efficiently stackable boxes to be put in their place. Who suffers when people stop killing themselves to try to do “the right thing” and start doing what they want?

I kept looking at the rigid lines and corners of 正, and imagined trying to twist those straight strokes in different directions, I imagined taking an ax to the whole structure and hacking it up into pieces.

Something something dismantle the damn patriarchy.

— Frankie

Alive and uncooked

unhelpful translations on life, death, and food

Every time someone tries to translate a Chinese word by uh, defining each character separately, just know that the odds of this “translation” being completely useless is not insignificant.

An example of this is the character 生, which features in many words and has specific multiple uses that it would be quite ridiculous to say “it is the Chinese character for ‘life’”, it is that, but it’s a lot more than that as well.

Today I want to talk about 生/死 vs. 生/熟

生/死 refers to “life/death”, and 生/熟 can either refer to “raw/cooked”, “unripened/ripe” or “unknown/well-known”.

While 生’s usage doesn’t tend present any ambiguity as to which of its meanings is in play, I can’t help but think about all of the unhelpful “translations” that can come out of purposely mixing up the intended meanings.

生人 (which refers to stranger) could be unhelpfully translated as raw person, which would mean 熟人 (which refers to someone you know) could be, in this case, unhelpfully translated to cooked person

生词 (which refers to unknown vocabulary) could be unhelpfully translated to raw word, which, within this unhelpful space, would suggest the existence of 熟词 (not a real word), which might mean cooked word. Please understand that after you have memorized a new vocab word, a 生词 does not become a 熟词

断生 (which refers to cook til no longer raw) could be unhelpfully translated to sever life, and let’s be clear, you should never use 断生 to refer to actual killing

生吃 (which refers to eating uncooked) could be unhelpfully translated to eat alive, which, within this unhelpful space, would suggest the existence of  死吃 (not a real word), which might mean eat dead. 熟吃 (which refers to eating cooked) is the actual opposite to 生吃, though, as most tradition Chinese food is cooked, 熟吃 is really just 吃

When it comes to fruit, most of time we wait for them to get 熟 (which refers to ripen), within this unhelpful space, perhaps some people like to eat they have become better acquainted with, because unfamiliar fruit is just not as sweet

Beyond the amusement I hope this offered, I think this is a good demonstration for why you should tread carefully when taking apart Chinese words, and how easy it can be for a novice student of Chinese to misread a simple word (and why “business goose” is not a thing).

— Frankie

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