Out and About with Variants in Taiwan

I’m always interested to see how variants of standard Chinese characters are still used in everyday life, whether it’s handwriting, signs or an author making a stylistic choice.

I spotted this beauty at a petrol station in Taitung. You can understand the reason for the simplification of the top of the character given the chunky font required by this kind of paint:

This character is 「嚴」(yán/strictly), but the top has been simplified along the same lines as the simplified version of the character 「严」. It retains the 「敢」 of the traditional character though:

You can look up these kinds of variants in the variant dictionary here.

Funnily enough there is a standard 「嚴」 on the sign to the left of the one circled.

Have you ever caught a p̶o̶k̶e̶m̶o̶n̶ Chinese character variant in the wild? Submissions welcome!

Year of the Ox: Door Dressing Guting

Walking around Guting, even though most buildings are apartment blocks, most were displaying couplets by their door. I’ve featured some of the more interesting ones below.

This doorway was funny because I imagined dueling households displaying couplets from President Tsai Ing-wen and Lai Ching-te vs. Ma Ying-jeou and his wife Chow Mei-ching respectively. President Tsai has gone with the classic idiom 「扭轉乾坤」(niǔzhuǎnqiánkūn) “to turn luck around” (literally, to upend heaven and earth). As 「扭」(niǔ to turn) and 「牛」(niú ox/cow) are near homonyms, the 「牛」 for the year of the ox stands in for it.

Former president Ma Ying-jeou and his wife, meanwhile, have called for equanimity and optimism in what was largely been interpreted as a dig at President Tsai‘s popularity with the words of the Hongwu Emperor 「心天之心平常心、樂天之樂金牛樂」. Ma’s explanation is that the son of heaven (read president) must respect the wishes of the people to rule properly, and that people need to be optimistic despite the pandemic and the ractopamine pork imports (video here).

I was (perhaps naively) surprised to see a Baptist church joining in on the fun:

「合體字」 compound characters featured heavily in a lot of the door dressings. The one on the right below is the same as the Presidential one above: 「牛轉乾坤」 with a stylized 「牛」.

There were even some compound characters from phrases in Taiwanese, like the one below: 「好孔來阮家」 hó-khang lâi góan ka (good things come to our family). Right beside it is 「黃金萬兩」 (10,000 taels of gold).

The banner below shows five different compound characters:
Looks like 「大利大吉」 (profit and fortune)
「日進斗金」 (a dou of gold enters every day)
「日日見財」 (every day meet with fortune)
「黃金萬兩」(10,000 taels of gold) (repeat of above)
「招財進寶」 (attract fortune and enter treasures)

The door below doesn’t seem to have been updated despite the fresh-looking colours, but the compound version of 「吉祥如意」 was cute enough:

There are a whole load more below!

The one above features 「犇」 bēn, made up of three 「牛」s.

It’s a sign! Softening Construction Work Announcements with English and Taiwanese (and a duck)

Sorry啦! Another post about signs.

I liked the code mixing between English, Mandarin and Taiwanese in this sign announcing construction work by the Hydraulic Engineering Office in the riverside park:

The Taiwanese reads: 「咱ㄟ卡緊呢」 lán ē kín ne which means “We will speed up” or character for character:

咱 (我們) we
ㄟ (會) will
卡 (加以) more
緊 (快) quickly/hurriedly
呢 (呀) exclamatory particle

The code mixing (as well as the PowerPoint style 3D characters at the bottom) are clearly aimed at softening the message of the sign which is an inconvenience to park users. The Taiwanese sounds much more down to earth and colloquial than the more formal 「造成您的不便,敬請見諒」 at the bottom.

Jokes Around the Office: KTV Bragging 「有紅花也要有綠葉」

I heard the phrase 「有紅花也要有綠葉」 in a conversation between two colleagues in the tea room about a prospective KTV session. The guy was singing as he made his coffee, and the other colleague asked why he was so happy. He replied that it’s not that he’s super happy but that given the arrival of a new colleague, he’s looking forward to a KTV sesh. The colleague replied modestly that she is silent as the grave in KTV sessions. The guy then said in jest 「有紅花也要有綠葉」 (lit. You can be the green leaves that set off the red flower). This is used as a metaphor for how a great musician/great actor needs supporting musicians/actors for their performance to be carried off, which made me think of the microaggression that is Bette Middler’s song “The Wind Beneath My Wings”. Of course, he followed it up with a 「沒有啦」 to ensure his modesty was in tact, before blasting another view verses of the song he’d been rehearsing.

Revisiting 「佛系」 with the GooAye and Commute for Me Podcast

It’s always fun to hear a piece of vocab you’ve learned previously in the wild.

When listening to the 「股癌」 (GooAye) podcast I heard the phrase 「佛系」 (Buddhist/noninterference approach) which is a variant of the 「佛系……法」 (Buddhist/noninterference approach to…) phrase I featured in a previous post here.

At the 8:56 (-33:19) point roughly, he says:

「你不要幫上漲跟下跌找理由,但是我發現有些人會去把我講的話有點極端化,就變成說完全不找理由。好像完全是佛系自由。」

“Don’t try and explain rises and falls, but I’ve found that some people have taken what I said to the extreme, and they don’t try and look for reasons at all. It’s like they’re dedicated to noninterference and freedom.”

Here he is cautioning people not to try and try and explain short term rises and falls in stock prices, but then qualifying this by saying that they can look for longer term reasons for price rises and falls.

From listening over the last few months, I found out that the guy behind the podcast was hopeful that Trump would win the election, although his reasons are largely to do with financial policy. The podcast is definitely worth listening to for insights on Taiwanese society and the business world as well as analysis of trends in stocks and shares.

In the same week, the phrase also came up in the 台通 (Commute For Me) podcast in an interview with the spokesperson of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (台灣基進) Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟), who led the recall petition movement against Han Kuo-yu (from 12:33 or -41:31):

Host: 那你有得到正面的回饋啊。
陳柏惟:對啊。所以那個不是自我說服唉,我覺得那個是有時間的過程。那個不是坐在家裡瞑想佛系態度。
Host: So you got positive feedback.
Chen Po-wei: Yes. So I don’t think it was me convincing myself, I think it happened over time. It wasn’t like I was sitting at home meditating hoping that things would just fall in my lap.

This is also a reference to the 佛系 memes, which play on the Buddhist concept of noninterference that I featured in the previous post.

Chen also used the Taiwanese word 「𨑨迌/企投 」 chhit-thô featured in a previous post as well at the 21:57 (-32:07) point. Although I only mentioned these two, there are lots of gems in this interview and it’s definitely worth a listen.

Using Characters to Detect Chinese Phishing Threats in Taiwan

Image by ShiiftyShift

OK, I swear I didn’t click anything… but had to sit through a cyber security lecture on phishing at work. The most interesting part of the largely common-sense lecture though was how you can spot social engineering emails through the accidental use of irregular hybrids of simplified and traditional characters and terms more commonly used in China and not in common use in Taiwan.

In the video they say some of these hybrids are “simplified characters” but many of them attempt to disguise themselves as traditional characters unsuccessfully.

I thought I’d point out some of the examples used below:

「大家可以登入健康信息統計系統提交……」

So in Taiwan you rarely here the term 「信息」 at all, and even less in the context of personal health data, whereas 「健康資料」or 「健康資訊」 are much more common. The term「健康訊息」 is also common but refers more to information about health, rather than one’ s own health data. One way to check this is to Google the terms in quote marks and check out the sources of the web pages and the context in which the terms are used.

“健康信息” returns mostly articles from Chinese media, like Xinhua and the People’s Daily in a context very similar to that used in the Phishing email:

Whereas with “健康資料” the first results you’ll see are from Taiwanese government’s health app and Taiwanese universities. The first one is also a 系統 like we saw in the Phishing email:

Continue reading

Penis Jokes Without Borders: Decoding Taiwanese

I heard this joke referenced on yesterday’s Commute for Me (臺通) podcast. The host didn’t actually tell the whole joke, but just the punchline:

「有兩個人一起生活 一個名叫詠蘭,另一個名叫貢九 詠蘭負責打獵,貢九則是負責在家煮飯做事 有一天,家裡發生大火,有人就趕快去通知在外打獵的詠蘭,要詠蘭快去叫貢九逃。 詠蘭叫貢九逃 用懶叫打石頭(台語)」 (I found the original joke on Dcard here).

(“There were once two people who lived together, one was called Yonglan (詠蘭) and the other was called Gongjiu (貢九). Yonglan took responsibility for hunting, while Gongjiu cooked at home and did the chores. One day there was a big fire in the house, so someone quickly went to find Yonglan, who was out hunting, to tell Gongjiu to flee. Yonglan told Gongjiu to flee.”)

Haha, right? (*smile, nod and no-one will notice you didn’t get it*). Yes, the joke doesn’t work in English because it plays on the differences between Mandarin and Taiwanese. So the phrase 「詠蘭叫貢九逃」(yǒnglán jiào gòngjiǔ táo / “Yonglan tells Gongjiu to flee”) in Mandarin, sounds like the Taiwanese 用 lān鳥 摃 石頭 iōng lān-chiáu  kòng chio̍h-thâu (“Using your penis to hit rocks”). Brings back the heady whiff of teenage angst and high school locker rooms, right?

You can listen to one of the hosts telling this joke on the podcast below from the 9:38 point:

「這故事我從頭到尾有點忘記了,然後呢,最後就是出現一句話。詠蘭,裡面有個角色,阿姨叫貢九,然後詠蘭叫貢九逃。是台語『用 lān鳥 摃 石頭』。」

(“I’ve forgotten the ins and outs of the story, but, there’s a sentence at the end. Yonglan is one of the characters, and her aunt is Gongjiu. And so, YongLan tells Gongjiu to flee. Which sounds like “Using your penis to hit rocks” in Taiwanese.

你有多菜? Huh!? How much food are you?

Reila Liu, Creative Commons 2.0

「菜鳥」cai4niao3 for “rookie” or “beginner” is quite a common term in the Chinese-speaking world although it reportedly has its roots in the Taiwanese term 「菜鳥仔」 chhài-chiáu-á (the pronunciation is slightly better here). It can also be used as an adjective, i.e. 「很菜鳥」, but this is often abbreviated to 「菜」. This is helpful when you want to crush the hopes and dreams of new and enthusiastic colleagues, by sucking your teeth and whispering 「他很菜ㄟ」 (**smirks** Such a noob, eh?) in the boss’ ear when one of them gives a constructive solution to a problem.

You can hear the guys at 台通 (Commute For Me) discussing how the job of ordering bento boxes for work always tends to fall on the shoulders of the noobs from 14:12 below:

-而且我覺得通常接到訂便當工作這個人
-都比較菜
-都很菜
(-And I feel like that the person who has to order the bento boxes
-Is always quite new to the office
-Yeah, very new to the office

Jokes Jokes Jokes: Translation compensation with ‘A Boy Name Flora A’

Another joke today from ‘A Boy Name Flora A‘ this one of the blue variety (or yellow as they say in Chinese).


The translator has tried to compensate for not being able to translate the joke fully by creating a different joke in English with the same material. It’s quite artfully done although the joke doesn’t make as much sense with reference to the character and is a tad less graphic.


-「安宮主委 鄭夾贈」
-夾你的屁股啦,爽啊!一個人,「叉」四個,叫做爽。一個人插四個,那真的很爽。

First the kid is reading the words written on the van “Donated by Rui An Temple Commisioner Zheng Shuang” out loud to the older guy, but he mistakenly reads 「爽」(Shuang) as 「夾」 (jiā), as part of the name Zheng Shuang. When not used in names “夾” (jiā) means “to pinch” and “爽” (shuǎng) means joy or pleasure, generally with a heavy sexual connotation.

The older guy then replies “夾你的屁股啦” / “‘Pinch’, my arse!”, which is also funny, because it can be read as “Pinch my arse!”. He then points out the differences between the character 「夾」 (jiā) and the character “爽” (shuǎng), by describing 「夾」 (jiā) as a person radical (大) with two 叉 (乂) parts, even though the actual form is 「人」. Then he describes the character “爽” (shuǎng) as a person radical (大) with four 叉 (乂) parts. As 「叉」(chā) which represents this shape 「乂」 in the character is a homonym for 「插」(chā) meaning to insert in Mandarin, the sentence can be interpreted another way: “If you insert (插) four (implication is penises) in one person, that’s real pleasure (「爽」shuǎng). Although the last 「爽」(shuǎng) he pronounces using its Taiwanese pronunciation sóng.

The translator has tried to compensate in the English with a joke about exes:

-“Donated by Chairman of Rui An Temple Jia Zheng”
-That’s not “Jia,” dumbass. It’s “Shuang.”
-It looks like a man in the middle
with four “Xs.”
This character is called “Shuang.”
One man with four exes.
That’d be fun.

I think that this is a decent attempt to try and conserve the humor of the situation, as it can be read as sarcasm, but the English audience don’t know the relation between fun and shuang unfortunately.

Lost in Translation: ‘A Boy Name Flora A’

Recently I’ve been getting into a Netflix adaptation of 《花甲男孩》, a book written by Yang Fu-min (楊富閔). The author was in the younger year of my graduate institute while I was studying at NTU and I previously interviewed him (awkwardness all round) here. The series is called ‘A Boy Name Flora A’ in English (not quite sure how that got past the editors). I’ve just started, but so far it’s quite funny. As a lot of the humor in the show involves wordplay, however, I have to wonder how much of it comes across in English.

One example is in the first episode, where you can see the difficulty in trying to translate a dad joke:

-欸,你懂易經嗎?
我只知道易經他媽是誰
-誰?
液*晶(yìjīng)螢幕 (易經in(他)母())

液 is normally pronounced yì in Mandarin in Taiwan, although elsewhere you’ll find it listed as yè

-Oi, do you understand the Book of Changes?
– I only know who the Book of Changes mother is
– Who?
– An LCD screen (homophone for “the mother of the Book of Changes” in Taiwanese)

So in, Taiwanese, “in ” means 「他媽」 or 「他母」. The in is sometimes written using the following character (a combination of 亻 and 因):

Alternatively 怹 can be used.

The translation on the Netflix series, understandably maybe, gives up on trying to show where the humour is:
– Hey, do you know what I-Ching is?
– I only know its mother.
– Who is it?
– It’s I-Ching as in an LCD screen.

It brought me back to my days hanging around with a crowd from Pingtung where all the punchlines of the jokes were in Taiwanese – and just didn’t sound funny when they “explained the joke” in Mandarin after the fact.

I imagine those translating it also struggled to make a distinction between the “feel” of the Taiwanese and the Chinese in the English translation.

Anyway – lunch-break is almost over, so I’ll leave you with another bit of slang the show taught me today:

「蛇」(snake) here is short for 「魯蛇」 which is a transliteration of “loser”:

「我一生下來也沒有這麼蛇啊」
(I didn’t start out a loser.)

I’d never heard 蛇 used independently of the 「魯」 in this way before.