The Base, Al Qaeda, and gays in China

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Through a curious concatenation of sociolinguistic forces, the word jīdì 基地 ("base") has brought such disparate entities as militant Islamic fundamentalism, homosexuality, and Sinology together.

Brendan O'Kane sent in the following photograph from Beijing, "snapped on the smaller, slightly more raucous bar street that runs parallel to the main Sanlitun drag. (I've always called it 'Skid Row,' but I assume it has a proper name.)"

The following explanation is adapted from Brendan:

There are a few interesting things here.

The first, I guess, is that Beijing has places that operate openly as gay bars — though this isn't at all new; even when I first visited in 2001, the Láitèmàn 莱特曼/Nightman disco, or anyway one corner of it, was so widely known to be a gay-friendly venue that even my copy of the Rough Guide mentioned it as such.

Far more interesting is the name of the bar, which reflects a new bit of slang — the use of jī 基 ("base; foundation") for "gay," presumably via Cantonese. (I first encountered this in the word jīlǎo 基佬 ["gay guy / fellow"] about two or three years ago; it has been a common slang word in Hong Kong since no later than the early 1990s — for example, there was a 1990s HK movie titled 基佬四十.)

Tóngzhì 同 志 (formerly "comrade" < Russian товарищ), of course, is also pretty widely known among the straight public as slang for "gay person," but my sense is that this isn't the first meaning to come to mind when most straight people hear the word. There are also derived terms, like tóngqī 同妻 (women married to gay men), tóng 女 ("lesbians", though the English-derived "les" seems to be more common), and tóngrénnǚ 同人女 (which I would translate as "fag-hag," though Chinese Wikipedia disagrees); the prevailing term for lesbian would seem to be 拉拉.

I have listed these terms in no particular order, but now that I think of it, they are probably in descending order of general popularity: other than tóngzhì 同志 ("comrade"), I don't think any of them is widely known in mainstream culture.

Words playing off of jī 基 ("base; foundation" > "gay"), on the other hand, are popping up all over the place — and not even necessarily in gay contexts. My wife described the (straight, married) friend who taught me basic seal-carving as my "hǎo jīyou 好基友 (lit., 'good gay friend')," and said that we "yǒu jīqíng 有基情 ('have gay feelings / emotions')". Baidupedia glosses the latter term as "a subtle emotional state existing between two persons of the same sex, falling somewhere beyond ordinary friendship but short of homosexual love." This strikes me as a bit much in my case — I was just studying seal-carving! — and in the case of most other usages I've heard, the relationship under discussion was really just a good friendship.

The more Cantonese-looking words (jīlǎo 基佬 ["gay guy / fellow"], gǎojī 搞基 ["do / make / act / carry on gay{ness}] — the latter of which definitely refers to actual homosexuality) seem to me to be more explicitly about actual gay relationships and identities, whereas the newer terms seem to be slangier and more jocular. Not sure whether or not that's actually the case, or whether words like jīqíng 基情 ("gay feeling / emotions") and jīyou 基友 ("gay friend") are used in Cantonese. Kind of an interesting thing, in any event.

Bonus note: the Chinese name of the bar, jīdì 基地 ("base; gay place"), is also the commonly used Chinese translation for "Al Qaeda" ( Jīdì zǔzhī 基地组织; Arabic القاعدة‎ al-qāʿidah). Not sure whether or not it was intentional — I suspect not — but it certainly is delightful.

As to how this adoption of jī 基 ("base; foundation") for "gay" came about, I first suspected that it might have been derived from the Taiwanese pronunciation of the character, which is "ke" in POJ (Taiwanese pe̍h-ōe-jī 白話字 ["vernacular writing; Church Romanization"]), since "ke" in POJ sounds like "gay", though some informants tell me that it sounds more like "key".

Moreover, in Taiwan, people tend to directly use the English word "gay" instead of the Chinese word jī 基, since this Chinese term is often thought to carry a negative tone.

Inasmuch as the evidence for an origin in Taiwan was a bit iffy, I looked at Cantonese, and here we are on much more solid ground. The pronunciation of jī 基 ("base; foundation") in Cantonese is gei1, so we have a virtually perfect match with "gay". Moreover, as Brendan has already pointed out, 基 in the sense of "gay" is highly productive in Cantonese, forming numerous Cantonesey compounds, many of which have subsequently — like gei1 基 itself — been taken up in Mandarin.

My correspondents in Hong Kong all declared that the use of 基 for English "gay" arose in Hong Kong, perhaps as long ago as twenty years or more, and most of my Taiwan correspondents did likewise.

The Cantonese pronunciation of 基佬 is gei1lou2 and the Cantonese pronunciation of 搞基 is gaau2gei1. According to my Hong Kong informants, jīqíng 基情 ("gay feeling / emotions") and jīyou 基友 ("gay friend") are not used in Hong Kong Cantonese, so it would appear that they have been devised by Mandarin speakers using the Cantonese gei1 基 ("gay") morpheme.

I have a personal note to add to all this. During the Spring semester of the academic year 2012, when I taught at Peking University, I was attached to an institute called Guójì hànxuéjiā yánxiū jīdì 国际汉学家研修基地. The official English name of this organization is "International Academy for China Studies", but a more precise translation would be "International Base for Research and Advanced Studies by Sinologists." As soon as I saw the name, I thought that it was odd, first of all because I had never heard of an academic institute being referred to as a "base", which made it sound very military.

I also was bemused by the expression yánxiū 研修, which is a shortened form of yánjiū jìnxiū 研究进修 ("research and advanced study"), where jìnxiū 进修 can also mean "advanced training" and "refresher course". Since this "base" existed mainly for the purpose of inviting the world's top Sinologists to come to Peking University to teach graduate courses and give seminars for faculty members, paying them handsome salaries to do so, I asked my hosts just what was meant by yánxiū 研修. The best characterization I can give for their response is that they hemmed and hawed.

When I asked them about why our academy / institute was called jī 基 ("base"), they were truly discomfited. My main host, who is usually very serious and staid, made a pronounced motion of ducking down and covering his head with his hands, saying, "Yes, we're uncomfortable with this name jīdì 基地 ('base; Al Qaeda'). The Americans have the coordinates for our building in their computers, missiles, and jet fighters, so if they ever want to take out 'The Base', we'll be dead ducks." (For "we'll be dead ducks", he said "Wǒmen wándànle 我們完蛋了" (lit., "our egg is finished"; "we're finished; our goose is cooked"].)

At the time, I had no idea that jīdì 基地 not only meant "base" and "Al Qaeda", but could also signify a "gay place". I suspect that part of the discomfiture of my hosts was also due to the fact that they were aware of this additional meaning.

Incidentally, my hosts made it clear to me that it was not they who had chosen jīdì 基地 ("base; Al Qaeda; gay place") as the unit name for their academy / institute. It was given to them — with great enthusiasm — by a powerful official high up in the Peking University administration with ties to the central Chinese Communist Party propaganda apparatus who thought it would be good to put our "research and training" on a military-like footing.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Abraham Chan, Genevieve Leung, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, Wicky Tse, Mandy Chan, Silvano Zheng, and Sophie Wei]

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25 Comments »

  1. David Morris said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    There is also a possible connection to Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation' series – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/24/alqaida.sciencefictionfantasyandhorror (very long article)

  2. John D said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 12:52 am

    Awesome, I just learned that "yǒu jīqíng 有基情" = "bromance". I love Language Log.

  3. jfruh said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 6:43 am

    Is there any truth to the story that al-Qaeda's name ultimately derives from the database (another meaning of the word, according to the Guardian article linked to by David Morris above) of jihadis that the CIA compiled and gave to their local allies in the '80s?

  4. Mr Punch said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    With regard to the Peking University usage – "base" does seem odd as an equivalent to "institute," but it's a plausible equivalent to "center," which is a common academic term for such programs.

  5. Ted McClure said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    Or "foundation"? Confusing the English word meanings from construction and organization. I'm sure Mandarin has a term for a eleemosynary academic institution, but if they were trying to sound "English-y" they might pick up the wrong synonym.

  6. Mandy said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    Remember the CIA bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the NATO operation? It proves that "wrong" coordinates (or right coordinates but being mistaken as wrong target) can really get people into a lot of trouble. With a cold-war sounding name like the "International Base for Research and Advanced Studies by Sinologists" — I'd say the institute's concern is legit…

    @jfruh
    That is one of the theories. A database is قاعدة البيانات qā'ada al-bayānāt ("foundation of enumerations/evidence/statements, etc"). In Arabic context, القاعدة‎ al-qā'ada now specifically refers to 1) the terrorist organization, 2) an actual military base, and 3) a place that has something to do with legislature, law or religious affairs. قاعدة qā'ada in its plural form قواعد‎ qawā'id, generally means "grammar" or methods of doing something. The root is قعد qa'ada (from Hans Wehr: to sit down, to take a seat, to remain seated, to lie in wait, etc). Any of the above meanings would fit the "philosophy" of the al-Qaeda organization (so only they can tell us what the name refers to specifically). But database قاعدة البيانات qā'ada al-bayānāt may have been quite a recent invention because Hans Wehr did not mention this in his dictionary.

    There are many more appropriate Arabic words, such as مركز markaz (a center), معهد ma'ahad (an institute), مؤسسة /تأسيس ta'sis/mu'assasa (a foundation), etc, to refer to a physical, non-military establishment. Outside of this military context, قاعدة qā'ada may describe something intangible, like an ideal, a principle. So its meaning of "foundation" is rather like a concept than an actual headquarter for doing non-military things.

    I've always wondered why القاعدة al-Qaeda is translated as 基地 jīdì in Chinese, and I'm puzzled as to why they would name an academic institute/establishment as such. If I were translating القاعدة‎ al-qā'ada to Chinese, based on the context and the actual meaning of the word, I would have translated it as 地基 dìjī (an actual ground/construction base) or 基础 jīchǔ (as in a theoretical foundation).

  7. Jeff W said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    I had never heard of an academic institute being referred to as a "base", which made it sound very military

    The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding [Chéngdū Dàxióngmāo Fányù Yánjiū Jīdì 成都大熊猫繁育研究基地 (according to Wikipedia)] also has the English word “base” and the Chinese word jīdì 基地 in its name but it didn’t strike me as a particularly military place when I was there—and it probably isn’t. (It styles itself as “a world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination.”)

    I don’t speak or read Chinese but the English word “base” made me think of, if anything, (maybe weirdly) moon base, kind of like a lone outpost for panda research.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 8:35 pm

    From a colleague:

    gei-lou has been around hongkong much longer than 20 years. my hongkong schoolmates at college used it, and it was an obvious reference to "gay" (combined with lou as in gwai-lou), and they did not act like it was the latest thing, so it has been around hongkong since, say, the mid-70s at the latest. i would guess it hit hongkong around the time it became a current in US slang. gei-lou have good world-wide connections.

  9. Matt Pearson said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 12:33 am

    John D beat me to it. I was about to propose "bromance" as a rough English equivalent for "yǒu jīqíng 有基情", based on the description given (though I don't imagine Chinese culture has a precise counterpart to the American "bro").

  10. Patrick said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 3:43 am

    In regard to the discussion by jfruh and Mandy above, Osama bin Laden gave an explanation of the origin of the name al-Qāʿida in this interview (part 4 of 6), beginning around 00:03:30. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that his explanation is true…

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    I much enjoyed reading the Language Log that links up usages and meanings of 基 gei1 in Mandarin and Cantonese.

    For your information the ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary includes entries on the following lexical items:

    攪基 gaau2 gei1
    基 gei1
    基吧 gei1 baa1
    基場 gei1 coeng4
    基基哋 gei1 gei1 dei2
    基佬 gei1 lou2
    基民 gei1 man4
    基仔 gei1 zai2

    After Google searches of 基情 gei1 cing4 and 基友 gei1 jau5/2, I had to conclude that these are Mandarin items and are not used in Cantonese since they don't collocate with any expected Cantonese words with any significant frequency.

    Although a number of Cantonese lexical items have found their way into Mandarin, I still find it curious that Mandarin speakers have adopted 基 gei1 given its quite different pronunciations in the two Chinese varieties.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 7:33 am

    The ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary to which Bob Bauer refers will be sent to the typesetter this fall, so I'm hoping we'll see it in print sometime in 2014. It will be a fabulous resource for all who are interested in Cantonese.

    Bob finds it "curious that Mandarin speakers have adopted 基 gei1 given its quite different pronunciations in the two Chinese varieties." But this sort of thing happens all the time in borrowings from Cantonese into Mandarin, e.g., T xù T恤 ("tee shirt"), from Cantonese "T seot1T恤", where seot1恤 sounds a lot more like English shirt than does Mandarin xù 恤.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    What Jeff W says about the panda "base" in Sichuan is very interesting; I remember thinking how curious that was when I first heard it years ago.

    For jīdì 基地, Hanyu da cidian, 2.111b defines it as:

    1. méndì 門第 ("ancestry"), dìwèi 地位 ("position [in society]")

    2.
    a. area used as the foundation for a certain enterprise, e.g., agricultural base

    b. place for collective training

    The latter would account for its use in the Chinese name of the Sinological institute to which I was attached at Peking University, although the question remains about who was being trained and who was doing the training. But it is telling that the people who established the institute chose to refer to it as an "academy" in English, but as a jīdì 基地 ("base") in Chinese. Clearly, they were sending different messages to their international and domestic audiences.

    ZDIC (http://www.zdic.net/c/a/145/318394.htm), for its second and third definitions, gives:

    2. place for maintaining military preparations or launching military operations

    3. area used as the foundation for a certain enterprise, e.g., industrial base

    What is most noteworthy about the ZDIC entry for jīdì 基地 is that the first definition is the English word "base"!

    The early citations of jīdì 基地 given by ZDIC are copied from Hanyu da cidian, for which see above.

    Taking all of this into consideration, together with the information in the original post and in all of the comments, it would seem that jīdì 基地 over a thousand years ago meant something rather different ("status; rank; position") from what it does now. During the early years of Communism in China, it came to signify a place / area for carrying out specific operations in a mobilized fashion (e.g., agriculture, industry, training). I think what has skewed the general contemporary usage of the word quite a distance from either its earliest meaning or its signification during the Communist period is that it came to be very closely associated with the English word "base" in the sense of an area for military preparations / operations. The fact that ZDIC gives the English word "base" as the first definition for jīdì 基地 attests to the impact of the English word upon modern Chinese, so much so that the most common meaning of jīdì 基地 among the general populace today is whatever is meant by the English word "base", in the sense of a place or area for certain operations or activities, esp. military.

  14. Brendan said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    "Bromance" for 基情 is fantastic. Wish I'd thought of it. For what it's worth, Mandarin does have multiple rough equivalents to "bro," from the Northern "哥们儿" (gēmenr, "buddy, homeboy;" literally "[older] brother") to longer-standing terms like 兄弟 (xiōngdi) and 弟兄 (dìxiong), both literally "brothers [in arms or something like that]."

    Mandarin certainly has lots of loanwords that rely on Cantonese readings — "T-shirt," which Victor mentioned above, is one; so is "milkshake" (奶昔 nǎixī, where the character 昔 is read as "sik" in Cantonese). I think the "Mandarin ji equals Cantonese gei" correspondence is pretty well known via other loanwords.

  15. Matt said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    Re 国际汉学家研修基地 — in Japanese 研修 just means "(job-specific) training," and I don't believe it has any connection to 研究 as such. "Training" seems to make a bit more sense if the "base" is envisaged as a place where world-renowned Sinologists train up-and-comers. (Also seems closer to "academy".)

    The 日本国語大辞典 doesn't have any etymology notes or citations earlier than 1914, but if 研修 was originally borrowed from Chinese, maybe the person who named the 国际汉学家研修基地 was drawing from the same classical source?

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

    @Matt

    But I can't even find 研修 in Hanyu da cidian or ZDIC at all, which is quite astonishing. On the contrary, you have found it in Japanese already back in 1914. So, rather than 研修 coming from Chinese into Japanese, it appears that — with so many other words we've been seeing in contemporary life — it may have come from Japanese into Chinese. After all, large numbers of Chinese overseas students have been going to Japan for training, and they would certainly have been exposed to this word there.

  17. Lillian said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    i was hoping "bromance" would appear in the comments.

    I wonder if "les" isn't via influence from Japanese adult videos, which are huge in China. レズ is a common designation for "lesbian" titles.

  18. Simon P said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 12:30 am

    Vaguely related, the character 機, with the exact same Cantonese pronunciation "gei1" is sometimes used as a phonetic loan for "game", as in the classic movie "機Boy小子之真假威龍". I cringed a bit when I read the "機Boy" part for the first time.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    @Simon P

    I agree with you about the sound of "機Boy". They could have tried characters pronounced "gam" or "gim" in one of the various tones available. Unfortunately, "gem" doesn't seem to exist, even though the -em final does combine with other initials.

    http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/lexi-can/

    But whoever came up "機Boy" may have thought that it was "close enough" phonetically, and was seduced by the meanings of 機, rather than its sound. I'm thinking especially of these senses (taken from Bing Translator):

    =====

    (事情變化的關鍵; 有重要關係的環節) crucial point; pivot; key link: 轉機 a turning point; a turn for the better

    (機會) chance; occasion; opportunity: 趁機 take advantage of the occasion; seize the opportunity [chance]; 見機行事 do as one sees fit; use one's discretion; 隨機應變 adapt oneself to changing conditions; act according to circumstances

    =====

    See my translation of The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods (Columbia University Press, 2007), p. XLIV, at the top of the page.

    BTW, does the movie have anything to do with this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_Boy

    It doesn't seem particularly relevant, though I'm wondering if the name of the phenomenally popular device (introduced in 1989) may have inspired the title of the film (1992)

    In English, the movie was called "Gameboy Kids":

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hant/%E6%A9%9FBoy%E5%B0%8F%E5%AD%90%E4%B9%8B%E7%9C%9F%E5%81%87%E5%A8%81%E9%BE%8D

    It's remarkable that the English Wikipedia on the film is much better than the Chinese one:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gameboy_Kids

  20. Akito said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    In Japanese we would use the word 拠点 kyoten ("stronghold") for a center of activity. It can combine with a word denoting the activity–for example, 研究拠点 (research center), 販売拠点 (sales outlet), 開発拠点 (development unit), 戦略拠点 (strategic outpost), 広報拠点 (PR unit), 流通拠点 (distribution center). Not sure if the Mandarin cognate 据点 jùdiǎn has meanings other than military.

  21. Akito said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

    Except 拠点 is usually not used as part of a proper name. It seems to be used only as a common noun.

  22. Bob said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    naming JIDI for the sinologists research center signifies it is founded, administrated, and funded by central Chinese Communist Party; not really part of Peking University ordinary units.

  23. Bob said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    I had heard of 基佬 in my senior high school days in Hongkong, so, it was the late 60', or earlier, that the term was corned.

  24. Bob said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    機 just short for 機器; the 機 in 機boy means machine-boy, the boy playing with a machine all the time… in this case, the machine is a Gameboy. –nothing to do with the sound of GAME–

  25. William said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 4:53 am

    Another interpretation: when I saw the picture (and read the first few lines of the post), I read it as "seedy pub" with "ji di" pronounced as "seedy".

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