Funerarily lost

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BIYI has written a very clever article titled "The Culture of sàng: a Generation Lying-down?" in China Buzz Report (Elephant Room, 5/7/17).  It begins with a little Mandarin lesson:

The character 丧 is a polyphone in mandarin Chinese. When it is pronounced sāng, it loosely translates to funeral or mourning. When as sàng, it could be referring to either losing certain things or people ("丧失"), or a conglomeration of negative emotions such as feeling depressed, angry, disappointed and vexed.

And the sàng culture we are talking about here really takes both meanings: it is, very vaguely, the idea that you've lost something and are feeling horrible about it.

First of all, for those who might find the concept of "polyphone" unfamiliar, we actually encountered this phenomenon recently in "White dude challenges Chinese speakers in Shanghai" (5/5/17).  In Sinitic languages, it refers to one character having two or more pronunciations.  Often the different pronunciations signify cognates of the same root; e.g., for 說 we have shuō ("speak, say, discuss, explain") and shuì ("persuade"), but not always, since 說 can also be pronounced yuè ("happy; pleased").  In such cases, the cognacy — if any (frequently there is none) — may be so deep and the phonological and semantic change so great that it is impossible for modern speakers to recognize (unless they are historical linguists).  Those who are curious and wish to learn more about such characters may consult:

Duōyīn duōyì zì Hàn-Yīng cídiǎn 多音多义字汉英词典 (Chinese-English Dictionary of Polyphonic Characters), by Roderick S. Bucknell

BIYI's article entertainingly takes us through diverse aspects of sàng culture, climaxing in its adoption for capitalistic, marketing purposes.

This current internet craze for sàng reminds me of ORZ mentality, which refers to someone in a kneeling or bowing posture _| ̄|○, signifying failure and despair (though also sometimes abject admiration toward another).  With sàng culture, this defeatist attitude becomes almost a virtue, something to which one may aspire.

The West had its own Lost Generation, or perhaps rather two of them, both dating to around the time of World War I:  1. writers, 2. young people more generally.

Come to think of it, all of this devotion to lostness may — whether directly or indirectly — have been inspired by Beck's great anthem, "Loser" (1993).


  1. Guy A said,

    May 10, 2017 @ 1:43 am


    _| ̄|○ = 囧rz

  2. Eoin said,

    May 10, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    When a charcater has two very distinct meanings with distinct pronunciations I find it easy to learn and distinguish between them, what I really find impossible to learn are these characters with varaiants that have slightly different pronunciations and related meanings. Just like in the original post. I often make mistakes for the tones of 喪禮 and 沮喪. Even harder are the three varaint pronunciations of 強, seem closely related to each other in meaning as well so I assume they are cognate.

    I always wondered if the different meanings of 悶 are cognate or if they just happen to mean use the same character. Intuitively stuffiness and boredom or melancholy seem to be related… but I'm not sure why. I really like the effect of the character having those two readings and to me the charcter is very visually appealing. There is also a great song by 王菲 called 悶 .

  3. Eoin said,

    May 10, 2017 @ 7:48 am

    Whenever i see the word 悶熱 I can't help thinking "depressingly hot", even though I know it means "hot and stuffy"

  4. Guy A said,

    May 10, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    @Eoin, I feel your 悶…

    One similar rascal in my opinion is 当.
    For instance,当日 can be either dāngrì (on that day) or dàngrì (the same day)… same as 当天… 当时 can be either dāngshí (then) or dàngshí (at once).
    Same goes to 当年, 当月, 当头, 当事 etc.

    为 is another troublemaker… (e.g., 为人民服务 vs为人师表).

  5. Neil Kubler said,

    May 10, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

    Though we're all used to describing this situation as "one character with two or more pronunciations" (or even worse, "one character with two or more readings"), actually it's a question of two words (or morphemes) that are written with one character. (God knows there are enough Chinese characters as is, so if a character can represent two or more different words and the context generally makes clear which is which, that is a savings.) This is much like the situation in English where we have two different words that are written with the same letters: tear (a sheet of paper) vs. tear (shed a tear) and so forth.

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    May 10, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

    I think I have always thought of these as (a subset of) 破音字 ("broken sound characters"), although I think of that term as more usually referring to cases like the character 會, usually pronounced HUI4 as a verb or noun,
    but also pronounced KUAI4 in 會計 ("accounting").

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