Say Goodbye to “Zaijian”. Sorry about “duibuqi”



I’m sorry, but there is only one proper way to say “I’m sorry” and “goodbye” in China. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Chinese seem to agree with me.

The Chinese terms “zaijian (再见)” literally “see you again”, and “duebuqi (对不起”), meaning “I’m sorry”, have been among the most commonly-spoken phrases in China for hundreds of years. But, every day now, they grow less common, like forms of endangered speech.

Why? Because their English equivalents are taking over, everywhere.  Day by day, China is becoming a country where everyone says  “bye-bye” and “sorry”, rather than using the Chinese equivalents.

“Bye-bye” first started to gain popularity a decade ago. Today, it is rampant. Most probably, “bye-bye” entered the vernacular in China via Hong Kong, where it’s long been a main way Cantonese-speaking people say farewell to one another. I’ve never quite gotten used to hearing it in China, and still resolutely refuse to use anything other than “zaijian”.

I have never once knowingly used “bye-bye” anywhere outside China, so I’m certainly not going to use it inside. My own preference, in English, is for either “see you later”, or a simple “bye”.

I always liked the fact that Chinese traditionally bid farewell in the same way as many Italians and French do, by saying “see you again”. By contrast, “bye-bye” has no particularly clear underlying meaning, and sounds rather childish.

In Chinese internet slang, a common way to end an online chat is by writing “886”, in China pronounced “ba-ba-leo”, meant to approximate the sound of “bye-bye” with the addition of the modal particle 了,which indicates an action has been completed.

Cute slang, as some suggest, or a degradation of the beautiful Chinese language?  I know where I stand.

“Sorry” is not nearly as widely used as “bye-bye”, but it’s becoming more commonplace all the time. The first few dozen times I heard it, I assumed the person was shifting to English to be sure I understood the apology. Then I started overhearing it said between Chinese, as they bumped into one another on the subway, entered a crowded elevator or tried parting a throng of people.

This change aggravates me to my core. Along with its other merits, 对不起 is one of the more euphonious common phrases in Chinese. For non-Chinese speakers, it’s pronounced “dway boo chee” . It was among the first ten phrases I learned in my first Chinese class 31 years ago, and certainly among the most useful.  It is also precise in its meaning. The phrase literally acknowledges one’s act of rudeness.

“Sorry” is a kind of bastardized shorthand, far more commonly used in the UK than in US. Like “bye-bye” it seems to have smuggled itself into China via the ex-British colony of Hong Kong. When I lived in London, I heard “sorry” often and generally thought it hollow and insincere. Americans prefer to take personal culpability and say “I’m sorry”, or “Excuse me”.

Hearing Chinese say “sorry” , I feel it’s an alien presence, diminishing the level of common courtesy in China.

Mine is probably a minority view in China. New phrases gain currency in China very quickly. I’ve seen it not only with “bye-bye”, but another import from Hong Kong, the two-word phrase “mai dan”, meaning “give me the bill”. It’s a Cantonese term. Over the last ten years, it has all but exterminated across much of China the traditional Mandarin “ 算账”.  Again, it’s an example of a perfectly good, age-old Chinese phrase being pushed out by an inferior foreign import.

In France, the Academie Francaise has the specified role of preventing English terms from seeping into the French language. A lot of this can seem silly and pedantic,  like urging French to drop the use of English technology terms like “software”, “email”, in favor of clumsy, made-up French terms.

China has no such body, nor will it likely ever have, since Mandarin is spoken with so many different regional dialects and accents.  Still, I’d like to see more effort made to halt the spread of English terms.

The Mandarin spoken today is in many core ways similar to the Chinese language spoken seven hundred years ago.  Chinese language is the connecting rod linking China’s ancient past and present. It survived intact through upheavals, invasions and colonization. “Sorry” and “bye-bye” should be deported back to Hong Kong.

5 thoughts on “Say Goodbye to “Zaijian”. Sorry about “duibuqi””

  1. Truly enjoyed the narrative Peter. My company is working on helping Chinese companies market their products into the U.S. (they could use some help). Working on Mandarin for the past 7 months but a long way to go – your commentary on the language usage resonates and answered some questions I had.

  2. Alex Gochenour

    Meh I only find this tendency in coastal areas like Shanghai and Qingdao, and even then, mostly among hipsters.

    The imported words could evolve into usages that are wholly different from the way they are used in English. This is the case with Japanese, which has been borrowing English words ravenously for more than a century. Their word saboru, from English “sabotage” has since evolved to mean “to cut class.” Perhaps the Chinese will say 他大sorry不了 or something in 10 years. Another one is kanningu, from English “cunning.” It now means “cheating.”

    So maybe you have something to look forward to!

  3. Peter, totally support your views. There is no reason to replace “对不起”and “再见” with “sorry” and “bye bye”, especially when you are in mainland China where the population predominently speaks Mandarin. I think the reason is to “show off”. It is a subtle yet effective way to demonstrate your English capabiilty to the public, a convenient opportunity to create a person own elitist status among the many uneducated migrant workers and a constant reminder that you are cosmopolitan person.

    However, I like to clarify the concept of “mai dan”. The meaing of “mai dan” (买单) literally means “buying the bills”. It originated from southern China, in Guangzhou. “付账” or “结账” would be the correct Manadain equivalents. The exact meaning of “mai dan” in its original setting means “I am paying for the bills” – a common way of doing business in China (you pay for your guests’ meals) in the olden days. Of course if you say”我来付账” , it will have the same meaning. But “mai dan” is sweeter and sharper! As the economy progress, it get used by people from all walks of life, the word “mai dan” got diluted and simply means you are “asking for the bills”

  4. The Chinese character is the linking rod of China’s history, culture, geography society and politics. Without the character, you would have many countries like Europe, not China. So learn to read Chinese, it will open many new worlds.

    Actually, Cantonese is the current spoken language most similar to Han or earlier spoken Chinese. Reading ancient poetry in Mandarin does not ryhyme, it comes close in Cantonese. Mandarin is a relatively new spoken language in the long history of Chinese linguistics.

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