Sam Duncan

Sam Duncan teaches English in Daqing, Heilongjiang, and writes a langauge blog

Posts by Sam Duncan

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Ayi and I

Striking friendship in the Daqing oil fields – by Sam Duncan

 

I arrived in Daqing, a city in far northeast China famous for its oil fields, at the beginning of September, and the nights were already approaching freezing point. Employed by an “educational consultancy” firm to work as a foreign teacher (basically a money-making scam) in a local combined primary and middle school, I was met by Mike, a Chinese guy who had lived in Ireland for almost a decade and now spoke English as fluently as a leprechaun.

On the cab ride from the bus station to the school, oil pumps sped past, while the sun set behind them in a sky full of billowing clouds. After three years in China I was excited to start a new job in a new city. “It’s absolutely fabulous,” Mike told me about my apartment in his thick accent. “Massive, two bedrooms, the TV is a little old but it’s a Sony and must have cost the owners more than 10,000 yuan. Grand it is.”

When we arrived at the aging six-storey walk-up, I discovered it was the worst place I would ever spend a night in, let alone live in for a year.

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Chinese Tuesdays: Calligrapher and son

 

Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (Wáng Xīzhī) was a famous calligrapher of the Eastern Jin dynasty, who lived from 303-361 in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, and is known now as the Sage of Calligraphy (书圣, shūshèng). There's a supposedly true story about him, which is also a classic example of a joke that's lost in translation.

The story goes that when Wang Xizhi's son, Wang Xianzhi 王献之 (Wáng Xiànzhī), who later went on to be a well-known calligrapher in his own right, was young, his father would have him practice for hours on end. One day, Wang Xianzhi brought the results to his father, hoping for praise and encouragement. Wang Xizhi wasn't impressed, however.

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Chinese Tuesdays: Laoban (老板)

 

The first time I learnt that the word for boss, 老板 (lǎobǎn), was made up of the characters for "old" (老) and "board" (板), I found it a little confusing. But lately, when studying traditional characters, I noticed that the 板 (bǎn) in 老板 does not mean board or plank, but is actually the simplified version of 闆, a character which can also be pronunced pàn and which means "To catch sight of in a doorway" (as you do with a laoban?).

I'm not sure why they decided to simplify 闆 to 板, but I suspect that as 闆 is an uncommon character that is rather fiddly to write (17 strokes versus 8), the powers that be decided to replace it with a more common one with the same pronunciation.

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Chinese Tuesdays: Hongmen Yan (鸿门宴)

 

鸿门宴 (Hóngményàn) was a banquet that took place in 206 BC. It's a long story, and one that everyone in China knows, but the short version is a rebel leader called Xiang Yu (项羽 Xiàng Yǔ) tried to have his rival Liu Bang (刘邦 Liú Bāng) killed at a feast. Liu Bang escaped, however, and eventually defeated Xiang Yu in battle to become the first emperor of the Han Dynasty.

Now the phrase has come to mean a ruse intended to trap a guest. If a rival or someone you don’t like or trust invites you out to dinner, for example, you could joke, “Is this a 鸿门宴?”

There a couple of other handy idioms that also originate from this event:

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Chinese Tuesdays: Laobaixing

 

老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng) – literally "old hundred names", in reference to the most common Chinese surnames – is a common term for "ordinary folk" or "the man on the street". It even works as an adjective, as in "he's really 老百姓".

How did the term come about? Apparently, due to naming taboo ("a cultural taboo against speaking or writing the given names of exalted persons in China"). During the Tang Dynasty it became necessary to avoid the word 民 (mín), as that character was in the given name of the Emperor Taizong, so instead of saying 人民 (rénmín) to refer to the "common folk”, people started using 百姓 (bǎixìng) instead.

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