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.

No, I’m not blowing bull

Jade cow from China First Capital blog post

As far as linguistics experts are concerned, there is no direct relationship between English and Chinese. The world’s two most-commonly spoken languages emerged independently, not from some common root in the way, say, Sanskrit is a basis for many of the world’s other European and Asian languages. 

Any examples of common syntax in English and Chinese are rare, and a source of fascination for me.  I always liked, for example, the fact that both English and Chinese have at least one metaphorical saying that is nearly identical, word-for-word, in both languages. In English, we say “speak of the devil” when a person we are talking about unexpectedly arrives. In Chinese, the phrase is “说鬼子鬼子来” and while less common than the English counterpart, it’s meaning and word choice is basically the same. 

As far as anyone knows, neither language borrowed this phrase from the other one. It likely arose independently in both English and Chinese. 

I’ve now found another, even more pleasing example of this parallelism in English and Chinese.  In English, we use the verb “to bullshit” in two different senses. It can mean to chat amiably with a friend, and can also be used to describe someone exaggerating, lying or intentionally deceiving, as in “you are bullshitting me”. 

In China, a similar phrase is used to capture both meanings. It is 吹牛,chuiniu (CH-WAY NEE-YO), or, literally, “blow the bull”. It also has both meanings, of having a friendly chat, and also as an accusation when someone is talking nonsense, or deliberately trying to deceive. So you can say, “let’s get together and qiuniu”, and also say to someone who you believe is trying to con or mislead you, “you are chuiniu-ing me”. 

While I was excited to discover this similarity in syntax, my CFC colleague Ryan arrived at the even more pertinent point. As he put it, “what is about bulls? Why does anyone use this animal to describe these kinds of behaviors.” 

Of course, as anyone who knows even a little Chinese can attest, there is another, more commonly used phrase using “niu”. Note, though, this same Chinese word, “niu”, is used for both bulls and cows. 

This other phrase is 牛逼 “niubi”, which is the word for cow genitalia. In Chinese, “niubi” is commonly used to describe something as being truly outstanding, of the highest quality, as in “that movie we saw is niubi.”

I can’t hear that phase “niubi” without laughing, and without wondering how this particular body part of this particular animal has become a form of high praise and approbation. 

And no, I’m not “chuiniu-ing” you.