Love to Die / Death

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The photograph below, taken earlier this month in Beijing, shows some of the best English-language bloggers now writing about language and culture in China and Taiwan.

From left to right:

1. syz (Beijing Sounds)
2. Sima (Echoes of Manchu)
3. David Moser (CET; Danwei)
4. Randy Alexander (Echoes of Manchu)
5. Lisa Fredsti (The Peking Duck)
6. Mark Swofford (Pinyin.info)
7. Richard Burger (The Peking Duck)
8. Brendan O'Kane (bokane.org)
9. Joel Martinsen (Danwei)

After admiring their smiling faces (I previously only knew most of them by their blogs and their names or cognomina), my eye lit on the t-shirt worn by Brendan.

So I asked, "Brendan, is this the correct reading of the sentence on your t-shirt: 'I hate Beijing'? Or is it 'I detest BJ'? Or maybe, 'I'm loved to death by BJ'…?"

To which Brendan replied, "I've been asked that question a number of times, sometimes pointedly, by Chinese friends. The answer I gave on August 8 of last year was that it actually says '我愛死北京'."

Brendan's answer is thus WO3 AI4SI3 BEI3JING1 ("I love Beijing to death"). The English translation may not be immediately apprehensible to someone who doesn't speak Mandarin, but vb.-SI3 ("vb. to death; vb. so much that I could die") is a fairly common construction in that language. Some examples:

RE4SI3 "so hot [I] could die"
LENG3SI3 "so cold [I] could die"
LEI4SI3 "so tired [I] could die"
E4SI3 "so hungry [I] could die"
QI4SI3 "so angry [I] could die"

and so forth, where the final syllable in each case is a verbal complement of degree (vb. to the degree / point of death).

However, AI4SI3 愛死 also occurs in another very widely used expression where it has a different grammatical construction, namely, AI4SI3BING4 愛死病 ("the love-to-die-disease" or "love-death-disease"), an early translation of the English word AIDS (actually an acronym). In this case, AI4SI3 is parsed as a vb.-obj. phrase modifying the head noun BING4. There are other possible interpretations of the grammatical relationship between AI4 and SI3, but I shall refrain from discussing them because all are offensive to individuals suffering from this disease. It is not surprising that a more neutral transcription has since largely displaced AI4SI3BING4, namely, AI4ZI1BING4 艾滋病, which also has the advantage of reflecting the sound of the English acronym more closely. Unfortunately, also circulating is an exact homophone, 愛滋病, which might be construed as having an unsavory meaning, and there are other graphic variations as well: 艾茲病, 愛茲病. All four of these graphic variants sound exactly alike, AI4ZI1BING4, though the first form (艾滋病) is vastly more frequent than the other three, and the second is also far more frequently encountered than the last two forms.

The meanings (listing only the more common definitions) of the constituent graphs are as follows:

AI4 愛 ("love")
AI4 艾 ("mugwort")
ZI1 茲 ("this [one]")
ZI1 滋 ("grow; nourish; multiply; moist; split; burst")
BING4 病 ("sickness; illness; disease")

But the story does not end there. Wits in post-socialist PRC have coined yet another exactly homophonous term: 愛資病 ("love-capital[ism]-disease").

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8 Comments »

  1. dr pepper said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    Hmm, i would have interpreted the jolly roger as poison, not death: "I love the dangerously polluted city of Beijing".

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    From a correspondent in Beijing:

    "I {heart} TIBBT"
    "But I hate the Dalai Lama"

    T-shirt of a young woman I saw crossing the street today. VERY big letters, typo and all.

    How does one read this?

    1. Free t-shirt she got somewhere — has no idea
    2. She wants all English-speaking visitors to China to know her stance, perhaps to make them feel welcome but not too welcome

    Personally, I'm not sure I'd say I hate anyone, but maybe I did when I was younger

  3. Li Mei said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 1:29 am

    This reminds me of a shirt my friend has that says (in characters) "Beijing huar" and has a skull and crossbones… because Beijing accents make people sound like pirates, saying "arrrrr" all the time.

  4. Brendan said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    There were a few shirts along those lines after the events of last March. Some of them said things like "Tibet in China, [Olympic[ Torch in Our Hearts;" others took an angrier stance against Western media outlets – especially CNN. (One particularly memorable t-shirt said "FUCK CNN" on the front, and then below it, in smaller letters, "FUCK CCTV TOO, WE DON'T NEED ANY MORE BULLSHIT." All of these shirts were in English — make of that what you will.

  5. mollymooly said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 6:20 am

    I've seen "I love X to death" in demotic British speech quoted in tabloid newspapers; though "I love X to bits" is a good deal more common. Typically, X is the person's partner and the next word in the quote is "but".

  6. Alice said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    Although Mandarin has a more examples, English has a fair few "to deaths" of its own, eg. "love to death", "sick to death", "bored to death", "played to death", "done to death", "starving to death", "boiling to death", "freezing to death", "pleased to death" etc.

  7. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    > Personally, I'm not sure I'd say I hate anyone, but maybe I did when I was younger

    Michael Bay? Britney Spears? George W. Bush? Hitler?

  8. Terry Crossman said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 2:04 am

    I love Brendan's shirt precisely because it is so mao tun!! It can be both positive and negative at the same time and can be seen in so many contexts depending on the viewer's frame of reference and I think Brendan's response as to what it means is contextually sensitive depending on who is doing the asking. I have to get one!!

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