Secret love that sticks like glue

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For the last week, the whole Chinese world was transfixed by the trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen star of the Chinese Communist Party.  Among the lurid details of crime and corruption that emerged, perhaps none has elicited greater excitement than Bo's revelation that his wife, Gu Kailai (already convicted of the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood), and his "top cop", Wang Lijun (already convicted of treachery and treason), carried out an illicit love affair.

The expressions Bo used to describe the romance between his wife and his chief of police have challenged the translation skills of China's journalists.

Bo told the court that they had an ànliàn 暗恋 and that they were rújiāosìqī 如胶似漆.  The external department of Xīnhuá shè 新华社 ("New China News Agency") translated those two expressions into "was infatuated with" and "were stuck together like white on rice".  The first translation is too tame and the second one is incredibly lame

After netizens criticized both of the translations, the editors conceded that "had a crush on" might be better for the first item, but then went back to sticking with "was infatuated with".  As for the second item, the British English specialists at the agency stated that it could also be rendered as "They were together like honey and bee", while the American English experts stuck by "They were together like white on rice."  Since nobody outside of Xīnhuá shè knew what was meant by this, the editors gamely explained that "white" here refers to "egg white" (!!), because when egg whites are poured on top of white rice, the whites will envelop each grain of rice and they will be difficult to separate.  They added that "when used in a short phrase, 'egg' is generally elided."

Here's a link to a screen shot showing this explanation.

Honestly, I don't think that "was infatuated with", much less "together like white on rice", was what Bo Xilai had in mind.

The expression ànliàn 暗恋 may be rendered as "unrequited love; secret love; clandestine love", where 暗 signifies "concealed; secret; hidden; covert; dark; gloomy".

It is much more difficult to convey the essence of rújiāosìqī 如胶似漆.  Literally, it may be translated word for word as "like glue like paint / lacquer / varnish".  Together that would mean that Bo thought Gu and Wang were "gluey; tacky; sticky; gummy; adhesive; viscid; treacly" with each other.

You get the picture.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng]

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27 Comments »

  1. Tom said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

    "White on rice" is a phrase in American English too. I remembered hearing it in a blues lyric and confirmed the phrase is more general w/ google ngrams.

    The blues lyric in question was from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Close to me." I can't find the complete lyrics, but here's the moment in the song when the phrase comes up (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=eaLasQ4Fr5Q#t=41) and here's a blog discussing the expression as used in the song: http://firke.com/?p=187

    Google ngrams shows the phrase used relatively widely: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=white+on+rice&year_start=1880&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    Headline on front page of yesterday's SCMP: "Police Chief Loved My Wife, Says Bo"

    From the main article under the headline: "While Bo stopped short of accusing Wang, his former police chief, of having an affair with Gu Kailai (谷開來), he said they shared 'an extremely special relationship'. He said the two key prosecution witnesses were 'as inseparable as paint and glue', a Chinese phrase suggesting a sexucal relationship."

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

    "Like white on rice" is a well-known expression (dating to the 1930s, according to Cassell's Dictionary of Slang), but I don't recall hearing it to describe lovers.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/like_white_on_rice

    http://idiomation.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/like-white-on-rice/

  5. julie lee said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 12:12 am

    I've understood the expression Bo Xilai used, "ru-jiao-si-qi (如膠似漆)" — literally "like glue like lacquer"— as describing the closeness of two lovers who can't bear to be away from each other. Bo used the phrase a bit tongue-in-cheek. Yes, it's hard to translate into English. I read some of the court transcripts in Chinese and Bo's own defense is much more interesting than the snippets one reads in the English-language news. For example, the expressions Bo used for "I gave him (the police chief) a slap on the face" (after the police chief tried to tell Bo that Bo's wife had murdered the Englishman)– "給了他一巴掌" (geile ta yibazhang) and "給了他一個耳光" (geile ta yige erguang) are lively colloquialisms with a touch of humor, and not conveyed by the English words "gave him a slap on the face", or "I slapped his face".

  6. Sima said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 1:01 am

    I thought 'infatuation' was pretty much spot on.

    Certainly "were stuck together like white on rice" is unfamiliar. Might either "as thick as thieves," "joined at the hip," or maybe even "inseparable" have been any better?

    @julie lee More like "gave him a clip round the ear," or "boxed his ears"?

  7. William Lipinski said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    The Golden Girls had an episode ("The Housekeeper") in which Blanche claimed that Norman had been on her "like white on rice," so it's been standard American usage for some time to refer to lovers by the phrase.

  8. Max said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:25 am

    I've never heard "like white on rice" but it's completely transparent to me. You can't get the white *off* the rice: they're completely stuck together.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 5:30 am

    My first reaction when I saw rújiāosìqī 如胶似漆 in context as used by Bo was "tight" — he was saying, to put it in a certain kind of idiomatic English — that Gu and Wang were "tight".

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 6:23 am

    From a Japanese colleague:

    Thank you for the interesting discussion on how Bo Xilai described the relationship between his wife and the police chief. It's really fascinating that the whole discussion surrounded how 暗恋 and 如胶似漆 should be translated into English, rather than what the relationship meant or how that relationship influenced or developed Bo Xilai's own actions –
    in other words what that relationship had to do with his own crimes.

    But these words are fascinating to me because I have never heard such expressions. I can understand 暗恋 very well although I have never heard of it. Some Japanese writer might have used this expression borrowing it from the Chinese. It's a wonderful expression describing a clandestine, secret and guilty love affair. But this is the first time I heard of 如胶似漆. My supposition from just looking at the characters is, as you say, "like glue, resembling lacquer (that is the juice from the lacquer tree, before it's used for a lacquer ware)," but I wouldn't have known what situation called for such an expression. Also, the Japanese don't use the character 胶 now – it will be in the Morohashi, but not in my dictionary. If anything, I think of 膠(にかわ)。At any rate, I would think of the word "inseparable" from this expression; but I suspect that it has a more sarcastic overtone.

    I have never heard of the expression "white on rice." Your explanation about egg white clarifies it, but egg white isn't the only thing that will stick to white rice. So I wonder who in China invented this expression under what circumstances.

    I found julie lee's comments very interesting about Bo's other expressions that were not reported in the English-language news. They do sound like lively colloquialisms with a touch of humor!

  11. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    Surely the egg white explanation is manufactured. Rice is white, at least in the refined form we usually eat, so "white on rice" is like saying "red on tomato" or "green on lime." There's no need to invoke marinara sauce for the tomato nor guacamole for the lime.

  12. Brett said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 8:57 am

    @Ralph Hickok: While I agree with you, I've always thought there was something odd about saying A would stick to B like "white on rice." Unlike flies on shit or stink on a monkey, it doesn't really seem to me that white is "on" the rice. This oddity was enough to make me briefly entertain the possibility that the "egg white" explanation had some truth to it.

  13. Lane said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    There are a few "I'm going to be on you like ______" expressions, which mean "I'm going to keep a close watch on you, I'm not going to let you get away with anything." I've always understood "white on rice" and "a cheap suit" to fit into this expression as synonyms. My dad also used the — unique, as far as I can tell — variant "I'll be on you like a turkey on a potato bug." (This comment will be, as far as Google knows, the first time that phrase has ever appeared on the internet.)

  14. KathrynM said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    I've always understood "white on rice" the way Max and Ralph Hickok describe it: the white is inseparable from rice (setting aside brown, black, red, and suchlike rices). Unlike flies on shit, or even stink on a monkey, there is absolutely nothing you can do to get the white off the rice; so, when someone threatens to stick with you "like white on rice," you know you're not going to be able to shake them off.

  15. languageandhumor said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    Not for a romantic relationship I suppose, but in Japanese the idiom 金魚の糞 kingyo no fun (lit. "goldfish feces") refers to a hanger-on or clingy person (from the way that goldfish swim around for long periods of time with their excrement trailing behind).

  16. Mark F. said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    I agree with Ralph, Brett, Lane, and KathrynM's analysis, which makes it "like white on rice" definitely a poor translation since the connotations are all wrong. Lovers are never on each other like white on rice; the expression is always part of a threat.

    I thought it was a southern expression but I have no evidence for that. I've only come across it in fiction. Maybe in the real world it isn't really always part of a threat, but at least several others have that association.

    "Like paint like lacquer" is an expression I'm not even sure how to parse. Is it two parallel similes, or is it "like paint that is like lacquer"?

  17. julie lee said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

    @Sima, Thanks.
    @Victor Mair
    Yes, I think "tight" translates "like glue like lacquer" well in this context— that Gu and Wang were tight (i.e., very close). (Though "tight" in English-English also means "tipsy" I believe.)

    @Victor Mair (a Japanese colleague):
    "It's really fascinating that the whole discussion surrounded how 暗恋 and 如胶似漆 should be translated into English, rather than what the relationship meant or how that relationship influenced or developed Bo Xilai's own actions."

    Of course, Bo's own defense in court hasn't been analyzed in detail, certainly not in English. Even an analysis of one word or one phrase could take up a whole page or more. For lack of time, all I can say is that I found it extremely impressive, masterful. His language is a skilful, practised, charming, sometimes humorous, blend of the literary (e.g., "荊軻刺秦王"jingke ci qinwang [ "Jing Ke assassinating the First Emperor of Qin" , i.e. his wife Gu comparing her murdering the Englishman to this heroic deed, which shows she was bonkers]) and the colloquial (saying his wife Gu"搞了個房子"gaole ge fangzi ["somehow got herself a house"---a folksy reference to the villa in Nice]). However, I did not like or believe his allegations that Gu and the police chief Wang (who helped Gu cover up the murder) were tight and that Wang fled to the American Consulate because Bo had found out Wang's infatuation with Gu and had even intercepted a love letter from Wang. I thought these allegations weakened his hitherto strong defense. I thought the trial, if choreographed, had certainly thrown the bulk of the blame on lower-level people—the police chief and a woman (always of a lower order than the male). It did not really blacken Bo, because he belonged to the topmost echelon by birth and by accomplishment, and blackening him would reflect badly on the top leadership. Bo came out as all too human and likable.

  18. Brett said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    I just thought of another thing that's odd about "like white on rice." I think it's true that these idiomatic expressions always describe a stickiness that is undesirable (by the person being stuck to). In fact, most of the fixed expressions of this type involve things that are clearly not desirable: stink, cheap suits, etc. Moreover, there is generally an implication that the person being stuck to deserves it, by virtue of who they are or what they've done. (Don't buy a cheap suit unless you're willing to wear it.) Yet there is nothing fundamentally negative about being white. While it is the nature of (processed) rice to be white, there's no reason for rice to resent the whiteness.

  19. Brendan said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

    Adding to the pile-on: I think the first time I ever heard "like white on rice" was in the context of a sixth-grade teacher telling our class that if any of us started falling behind on our homework, she would be "on [us] like white on rice." I've never heard the expression used to mean "inseparable" before. 如膠似漆, on the other hand, only works in the context of lovers — as far as I know, at least. "Joined at the hip" is probably in the right neighborhood, whereas I don't think "tight" can be applied to lovers. (It doesn't work in my idiolect, at least.)

    暗恋 is kind of interesting, since free of context it can mean anything from "having a crush on someone" to "having a secret affair with someone." I think the former is more common these days, but couldn't swear to it.

    I'm not really sure that "給了他一巴掌/一個耳光" stands out all that much in Chinese. Both are just fairly standard ways of saying "slapped," as I hear them. (Non-native speaker; your mileage may vary; etc.) If I were doing a literary translation, I would probably render them as "I slapped him" or "I gave him a clip on the ear" or something like that, rather than "I went upside his head" or anything else with a stronger regional flavor.

  20. Lao-seng said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

    如膠似漆: joined at the hip? May be too churlish, but somehow that's what Bo meant since he tried to disparage Wang. 如膠似漆 normally is used to describe a devoted couple.

  21. RobertL said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 12:21 am

    I agree with Brendan about the usage of "white on rice". Also things like:

    Q. "Are you on top of that bit of work I gave you?"

    A. "Yes – I'm all over it like white on rice".

    Although I prefer, "all over it like a fat kid on a doughnut salad".

  22. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    Perhaps not in your idiolect, Brendan, but among many of my acquaintances, to say that two people are "tight" means that they are very close to each other, sometimes with a slight touch of inappropriateness or even surreptitiousness, as with aspersions of illicit love.

  23. julie lee said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    @Brendan

    Yes, "給了他一巴掌/一個耳光" (geile ta yibazhang/yige erguang) is a standard way of saying "slapped him (on the face)", but I think it is flavorful, like "gave him a clip on the ear", "a whack on the head", "a kick in the butt". Though the Chinese phrases for "slapped him" are standard, and I've heard them since childhood, I've always thought them rather humorous. There is a gentle humor (such as the inflated phrase "like glue like lacquer") in quite a bit of Bo's testimony, as if he's conscious that this high drama—or high tragedy— could easily be high comedy. He is relaxed, equable, affable, dignified, and in his final statement, statesmanly and gracious, besides being cogent and to the point throughout the trial. No wonder people have described him as charismatic.

  24. Janet Williams said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 3:55 am

    I would have preferred 如胶似漆 to be literally translated in the media: "like glue like paint / lacquer / varnish". Readers could make intelligent guesses themselves what the image signified — the imagery is vivid and interpretation is not needed.

    In writing, the phrases 如胶似漆,形影不离 often go together: like glue like paint / lacquer / varnish; like inseparable shape and shadow. I would trust my readers' ability to sense the intended meaning through beautiful imageries.

  25. Felix said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    I grew up in the U.S. in various towns along the Gulf Coast and for a number of years in the Atlanta suburbs, and I rarely heard "like white on rice" used as any part of a threat. I remember it mostly being to describe best friends or new lovers or even how a pet would attach to a certain person. I'm 32 so that would've been in the 80s and 90s.

  26. Colin Fine said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 3:36 am

    This Brit has never in his life encountered "like white on rice" before, could draw neither literal nor idiomatic meaning from it, and assumed that the article was going to be about the failure to translate this Chinese idiom into comprehensible English (though I was baffled that I couldn't see characters I recognised for "white" or "rice").

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

    Now on Slate's "Lexicon Valley":

    "China’s Press Fails to Capture the Sexual Energy of the Bo Xilai Trial"

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/09/05/bo_xilai_trial_translating_from_chinese_into_english_the_language_of_a_secret.html

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