Friday 08 August 2003

True person table performance

Though I haven’t been to a strip club in a long time, I’ve been watching movies about stripping lately: Dancing at the Blue Iguana, shot by Michael Radford from a script “improvised” by the actors, with a stunning performance by Sandra Oh; Strip Notes, Daryl Hannah’s shapeless “video journal,” based on her research for the character she played in Blue Iguana; and Live Nude Girls Unite, a sharp, funny documentary by Julia Query and Vicky Funari about Ms Query’s campaign to unionize the dancers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco.

Strip club neon sign, saying Live Show in English and Live  Performance in Chinese Late last week, on my way to visit a friend at St Luke’s hospital near Kings Cross, I noticed this neon sign at the entrance of a Darlinghurst Road strip club and was immediately curious about the Chinese characters (the sign on the other side of the entrance was in Korean and Japanese, the latter in katakana saying raibu shoh).

zhenren biaoyan, live performanceI’m not good at recognizing stylized characters but the second character is easy—hito (person)—and I was sure I’d quickly figure out the rest from one or other of my kanji dictionaries. After an hour or so of frustration I gave up and emailed Trevor Hill (, sending him the photo on the left.

Trevor’s reply arrived promptly. “It’s zhenren biaoyan,” he told me, “or ‘live performance/show,’ just like the English to the left.”

I’d guessed that there were two compounds but I’d never have got them in a million years because although the Japanese equivalent is shinjin hyouen, there are no such words in Japanese. The four characters are (in Japanese):

  •  makoto (true)
  •  hito (person)
  •  omote (table, surface)
  •  enjiru (to perform)

I got stuck on makoto because in the neon sign it has nine strokes but in Japanese it has ten. The bottom two characters had me totally baffled, though they were immediately obvious once Trevor had given me the answer. I guess the moral of the story is that I should take a break from my Japanese texts and spend more time walking around Chinatown.

[If the characters in the bulleted list above don’t appear correctly, you might want to enable Japanese support in your OS. Here’s how to do it.]

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This is one of the reasons why I find the Japanese writing system to be more difficult than the Chinese. Sure, Chinese has a greater number of characters, but the Japanese have a combinatorial explosion of possible readings, both on and kun.

Posted by jim on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Actually, that shin/makoto looks like ten strokes to me: the little rightwards dip between the cross and the left side of the me/moku bit? One of my teachers has handwritting the exact same way; other characters she also wrote similarly (even if I can't remember the specifics...).

Amusingly, I guess, shinjin written with those characters, according to the Kojien, means something like "religious adept", best that I can tell.

Posted by kristina on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The first two words, zhen-ren "real person" traditionally mean a fully-realized holy man or mystic, but colloquially mean simply "live" (as opposed to filmed or otherwise depicted). The second two words biao-yan mean "reveal-performance". So it's actually quite literal.

A friend of mine who makes his living translating says that two educated Japanese will seldom read the same passage aloud the same way. The same graph might be used for "Big" and "Great" in "Big Ten" and "Great Lakes", for example. If you know the thing, you know the word, but the written form doesn't tell you. So you might end up calling a hamburger a "Great Mac", for example, until you hear it said right.

Posted by zizka on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"A friend of mine who makes his living translating says that two educated Japanese will seldom read the same passage aloud the same way."

Really? At what frequency? (I.e., will a translator have to deal with this a few dozen times in the course of translating, say, a novel, or once every sentence?)

Posted by Chris on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Chris: I don't see how this would affect a translator. The different readings are purely a matter of phonetic realization of the same characters and don't change the meaning; cf. reading &c. as "etcetera" or "and so on" in an English text. I think zizka's examples are misleading, unless I'm misunderstanding something. An example of different readings would be the name Nakamura (which happened to be Sun Yat-sen's nom de guerre); the "Chinese" reading would be Chosan (and the Chinese in fact call him Chongshan). The versions sound totally different, but they both mean "in the middle of the mountain(s)," and you'd translate it the same way no matter which reading was used.

Posted by language hat on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

My friend was referring to writing which used a high proportion of kanji. A well-educated Japanese have told me that his father rebuked him for using too much of the syllabic writing, because it wasn't educated-looking. The higher the proportion of kanji, the higher the status. I don't know what writing my friend was referring to, but I suspect it was the highbrow journalism level, NYRB or Harper's. What I remember him also saying (about 1980, BTW), was that there wasn't just the choice between the Japanese word and the Chinese-derived synonym, but often between one or more Japanese synonyms.

I believe that the difficulty of Chinese is deliberate, for several reasons. (Japanese might be comparable). It allows you to show off your education and class. It also allows you to put down people who make mistakes. It's actually not that hard to spell English perfectly, but everyone makes mistakes in Chinese.

Second, it's sort of fun. When I was in Taiwan quite a bit of the English alphabet had been appropriated into Chinese with calqued meanings. The P.O. used "5F" to mean fifth floor, but you'd read it "wu lou". "W-3" meant the third day of the week (Tue.), but you'd read it "xing-qi san". This was not in an international environment (except for me personally). It's like they only had a few thousand characters so they'd add some more just for fun. People would also make up little characters as jokes, eg ru (enter) on top of rou (meat) meant "f*ck", pronounced "gan" I think.

Posted by zizka on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

P.S. Arthur Smith's "Proverbs and Common Sayings of the Chinese" has examples of Chinese wordplay, which can be quite elaborate. A fun book, and cheap if Dover still has it.

One of Smith's books, I just found out, was widely read in Chinese translation and even recommended by Lu Hsun. Smith was a missionary ca, 1880.

Posted by zizka on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Kristina, according to Trevor Hill, "the little rightwards dip between the cross and the left side of the me/moku bit" is a stylistic flourish that's common to handwriting. The difference in stroke count is because the Chinese connect the me/moku part to the bottom horizontal stroke. (If I'm understanding him correctly.)

Chris, I think language hat's explanation is a good one. Another example might be the Japanese compound for small person or dwarf, comprising the characters for small and person. This can either be pronounced "shoujin" (using the Chinese "on" readings) or "kobito" (using the native "kun" readings).

zizka, your friend was absolutely correct about "the higher the proportion of kanji, the higher the status" -- I heard the same thing from Japanese friends in the late eighties. I wonder whether that might be a generational thing though, that's gradually disappearing as young people grow up unaware of the Japanese synonyms. And yet, perhaps not, because Japanese names have a great variety of synonyms.

For example, the woman's name comprising the characters that means "truth/faith/sincerity" with the one for "child" can be pronounced Shinko, Michiko, or Nobuko whereas the name Nobuko can be written with the character for "child" combined with one of dozens of characters (sincerity, rejoice, respect, obey, increase, and many others including various synonyms for "fidelity").

The Chinese wordplay sounds like fun. Smith's "Proverbs and Common Sayings of the Chinese" is out of print now but I'll keep an eye out for it.

Posted by Jonathon on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've never seen 'zhen' written that way, connected to the bottom portion but without three horizontal strokes inside the box. I always learned the character as 10 strokes, so perhaps the character on the sign is a variant of some sort, and that's what is confusing everyone?

Posted by John on 8 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hey, zizka, when were you in Taiwan? I was teaching there in '77-'78; the political situation was awful but the food was great -- I couldn't eat Chinese food in the States for about a year, till the memory of the real thing had faded. And being able to buy pirated editions was wonderful -- I got the Encyclopedia of World History for a few bucks. I just wish I still had my chop; at least I have its imprint on some of the books I bought there.

As for the kanji issue, there's a book by an American who lived in Japan that starts with a hilarious reminiscence of starting to study the characters and deciding to learn the one for ringo 'apple.' It was huge and complicated, but he mastered it, and for weeks he'd take every opportunity to show off his accomplishment: "Say, speaking of apples, isn't it a beautiful character?" And he'd dash it off on a napkin, proud of his flawless execution. Eventually he learned that none of his interlocutors actually knew the kanji for ringo (they always wrote it in kana), and he was acquiring the reputation of some sort of sexual deviant with an apple fetish. When he walked into a bar and the band struck up a then-popular tune about apples, he knew it was time to rethink his approach.

Posted by language hat on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I was in Taiwan in 1982-3. I loved the food -- I especially went to the international Chinese restaurants around Taida. Likewise pirate editions -- a couple volumes of Needham's Science and Civilization for ~$10-15 each. The political situation was just at the turning point -- there had been a couple very high-profile political killings in the last year or two (by "unknown assailants") but very few afterwards.

When I'm searching by stroke-count I always have "plus-or-minus-one, plus-or-minus-two" in the back of my mind. There are variations between handwritten and printed forms, and some things that look like two strokes turn out to be one. If I ever edit a dectionary there will be redundant listings in all indexes -- likewise for characters which can be classified under more than one radical. The Chinese (ethnic stereotype) have this exasperating belief that every textual question only has one right anwer, even though their writing system is as if designed to produce the maximum number of doubtful answers.

People say that the Finnish and Turkish writing systems are close to 100% phonetic. One sound, one written form. One written form, one sound. True?
crawling with doubtful

Posted by zizka on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Incidentally, as far as biao/omote "show / display" are concerned, there's an amazing Japanese book explaining how the "display / conceal" polarity is a key to Japanese psychology. (The Anatomy of Self, Takeo Doi, Kodansha.) It goes beyond "intercultural", because his interpretation of Freud is better than any other I've seen.

Posted by zizka on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Ah yes, those restaurants around Taida. I lived near there myself (because I went there on the promise of a job from Taida, which... well, that's a long story), and we used to eat in what we called "Ptomaine Alley." I favored the "Little Omei," a Szechwanese place where no bacteria could possibly survive the quantity of hot peppers in the mapo tofu (I barely did myself). I got addicted to the steamed dumplings at Tong Men Chiao Tzu. And when I just had to have a hamburger, I went to a shack on the east side of town run by an ex-GI who made classic burgers. Good times, good times.

And that's quite true about Finnish and Turkish (although in the latter accent is not written and is unpredictable). The same is basically true with the Slavic languages written in Roman script (a broad generalization based on about two seconds' thought, so I fully expect to be corrected).

I don't know what to say about "crawling with doubtful" except that you might want to visit a doctor. Very discreetly.

Posted by language hat on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Editing probllem. I was overstating the proportion of troublesome readings in Chinese, though not by much.

Don't remember the names you mentioned. Restaurants tend to be short-lived. I have never seen "chaur bing", a Chinese hamburger-like dumpling, in the US, but I loved them.

One thing I noticed in Taiwan (probably true in France too) is that very ordinary people are "foodies" if they can afford it. Not a yuppie class thing like here. "My hobby is eating!", one of my students declared. He meant he was a gourmet (but without the pretentiousness).

Posted by zizka on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Zizka, thanks for recommending Doi's The Anatomy of Self. I've been meaning to write something about his other book, The Anatomy of Dependence for quite a while. I'll see if Kinokuniya has a copy of The Anatomy of Self; if not, Amazon does.

Posted by Jonathon on 9 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting post and discussion. :)

A couple of things I wanted to mention: First, I think the extra stroke in the 'makoto' character is probably a dead neon tube, so you can't see it. ;) It could just be laziness or sloppiness on the part of the sign makers though. As you may know, Chinese are far less dogmatic about characters than Japanese are. They frequently use various forms and abbreviations...

Second, neon signs frequently munge up the characters in order to make it easier to create them out of neon tubes... The 'omote' character there is a good example of that, since the bottom part should be made of separate strokes, but it actually zig-zags upward in an attempt to create something resembling the actual character...

Studying the Japanese, Traditional, and Simplified character forms really helps you to recognize variant forms more easily. I'm still bad at the so-called 'grass style' (caoshu, sousho) though. ;)

Posted by Trevor Hill on 14 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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