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Buy local, buy Ningbo goods

Posted by diynovice on November 18, 2013

While working in Yuyao, I ate at many local restaurants. One particular seafood restaurant, 天府鱼庄, had a wood sign on the wall. I noticed the 1,2,3,4,5, & 7 characters (from all the Mahjong) but I had no clue what the sign said. I asked my boss what it meant. He chuckled and said, “American goods are crap.”

一双皮鞋美国货 两块洋钿买来呵
三日穿过贼贼破 四穿凉棚洞眼多
五看罪过勿罪过 落起还要重买过
七世勿买美国货 百样东西拆烂呕
究竟要买什么货 要买宁波老牌货

Elaborating, the sign is a Ningbo-dialect parody (or limerick, 宁波话打油诗) from the 1946-1950 period called 宁波老牌货. This parody was created to help encourage purchasing local goods over new or second-hand U.S. goods. Confused? U.S. goods in China? Don’t forget, China was an American ally in WWII. Sparing much historical background, in short, the Japanese occupied many areas of China, especially the Zhejiang region (where germ warfare occurred) during, and before, WWII. They decimated the local economies. After the war, relief suppliers were badly needed. U.S. and International humanitarian aid had been flowing to the region since the start of WWII, through programs such as the U.S. Lend-Lease act, UNRRA/CNRRA, U.S. China Relief Mission (CRM)/BOTRA, and the ECA/JCRR. Unfortunately, most of the aid was traded on the black market instead of being distributed to those in need. Most goods would be re-sold second-hand multiple times as they were still highly valued. This hampered local economic growth of the region. Hence, this parody was created.

This is a typical 7-character Chinese parody with a rhyme-scheme at every seventh character. These characters have an ‘ou’ sound. Each line is loosely set-up as a couplet, however, this is not a typical use of Chinese couplets. To make it more fun, each verse starts with a number, 1 to 9, except the tenth. My father-in-law spoke the parody for your listening enjoyment.

Since the poem is spoken in Ningbo-dialect, the characters don’t completely make sense, but the rough translation is:

双皮鞋美国货 – One pair of U.S. made leather shoes
块洋钿买来呵 – Two dollars can buy you the pair
日穿过贼贼破 – Three days later they’ll nearly be unwearable
穿凉棚洞眼多 – Four days later, holes will be all over
看罪过勿罪过 – You must notice such a horrible product
起还要重买过 – Very soon you will need to replace
世勿买美国货 – Never again buy U.S. products
样东西拆烂呕 – Everything is bad about them and nothing is good
竟要买什么货 – After-all, what kind of goods do you want?
买宁波老牌货 – You want Ningbo local name brand goods

The numbers one (一), two (两), three (三), four (四), five (五), and seven (七) correspond to the correct Chinese number character. The character five (五) is used as a substitute for ‘you’, as they sound similar in Ningbo-dialect. The characters used to represent 6 (落 ‘replace’), 8 (百 ‘one hundred’), and 9 (究 ‘actually’) sound like the respective number in Ningbo-dialect. So, the overall effect is that the speaker is saying 1 through 9 at the start of each verse.

Just like in English, there is a lot you can do linguistically with the Chinese language. For more about Chinese poetry, check out Wikipedia. If you are interested in photos of relief aid given by the UNRRA/CNRRA, take a look at the links below.
Photo Links:
UNRRA Posters


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Western Solfège and the Chinese Ningbo Dialect

Posted by diynovice on October 13, 2013

In Shanghai, there is an entertainment center called “The Great World” (大世界). Built in the 1930’s, it was an influential center for the performing arts including Peking Opera, Shanghai Opera, acrobatics, and the Shanghai-style of story telling (similar to “stand-up comedy). Many of the stories told were forbidden after the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Sometime in the 1960’s, a classic, on par with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” (Youtube) was told called the Ningbo Musician (宁波音乐家). It is a joke about how the Ningbo dialect sounds like the Western Solfège and tells a story of a Shanghainese man listening to a tailor’s bossing around his apprentice ( 学徒). I recorded a short version sung by my father-in-law, and translated on the spot by my mother-in-law.

The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) halted almost all forms of entertainment, and the Ningbo Musician was almost lost. But in the early 1980’s it reemerged, likely because the government liked the “学徒” theme as it partially demonstrated how hard life ‘used’ to be.

In order to better understand the joke, more historical background needs to be discussed. In China, there are many spoken dialects (versions) of Mandarin. In the north, most dialects are similar and understandable by the people that live in the region. In the south, dialects tend to be extremely local, where people from neighboring villages may not be able to communicate verbally. However, written characters are the same, so text is understood. There is an old Chinese saying, 十里不同音,百里不同俗, meaning the spoken language is not the same 10 miles apart and the living style is not the same 100 miles apart. This is the result of the character system, where thousands of years ago, as the Chinese language spread, every town would gradually pronounce characters different ways. This could be compared to the divergence of English between the United Kingdom and the United States, except on a much grander scale. Ningbo is a port city south, just across Hangzhou bay, from Shanghai. Ningbo has a history dating back to 4000 BC and has been a major city for over 2000 years. Shanghai is   a very new city. It was settled sometime in the 5th to 7th century and only became a municipality in 1927. Both Ningbo and Shanghai have their own dialect, however, Shanghai’s dialect is largely based on the Ningbo dialect. In this instance, people can understand each others dialect. After being established as a municipality, Shanghai rapidly became the financial and trade center of the region, surpassing Ningbo. The people of Shanghai become more educated and wealthy. When it came to singing, most Chinese learned to sing by either the ancient Gongche (工尺谱) character notation [上 (shàng) 尺 (chě) 工 (gōng) 凡 (fán) 六 (liù) 五 (wǔ) 乙 (yǐ)] or the Jianpu (简谱) number notation [1 (Yī’) 2 (èr) 3 (sān) 4 (sì) 5 (wǔ) 6 (liù) 7 (qī)]. Shanghai quickly became an international hub, and with that came western teachings, including the Western Solfège [Do re mi fa sol la te] for singing. After the cultural revolution, Mao made learning to sing using Jianpu notation mandatory.

The most famous version of the joke was recorded, and can be found at the link below. Even if you don’t understand a lick of Chinese, I think you can get the gist of the joke.

Something to note, the Chinese characters used in my recording/translation are not necessarily the most correct in the modern sense. The Ningbo dialect has some verbal words that have no written character, or the character was eliminated in the many simplifications of Chinese characters. However, thanks to Google Books, I found a 1901 book, ‘The Ningbo Syllabary’, that describes in very good detail the Ningbo dialect and correlates sounds with characters. One key difference is the ‘fa do, fa do’ translation. Fa (嫑) is not an official character anymore, but in Ningbo dialect, it is part of a proverb meaning to decline something. Interestingly, (嫑) is still used in many other dialects with a similar ‘do not’ meaning but it is pronounced ‘báo’ (more information here).

This is just another example of the complexity of Chinese culture. For a simple joke, there is a long and detailed history that needs to be known to fully understand it.

For reference, here is the text from my Youtube video. The characters are not necessarily today’s correct characters. They are the characters (to the nest of my research) that would be used in the verbal Ningbo dialect.

Le fa, mi sol si do la [来发, 棉纱线驮来]
Le-fa, give me some cotton thread

Sol mi sol si do la [啥棉纱线驮来]
What cotton thread do you want?

Le mi sol si do la [蓝棉纱线驮来]
Blue cotton thread is what I want

Fa do, Fa do [嫑驮,嫑驮]
No, no, I’m not going to get it for you

Le do, Le do [懒惰, 懒惰]
Lazy bones, lazy bones

Special thanks to my in-laws for all of their help in gathering this information. I don’t think they realized the work I was going to make them do by telling me a simple joke.

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