Chinglish in English?

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Beginning around the end of April, there was a flurry of activity surrounding this Chinglish expression: "no zuo no die".

The big news was that this Chinglishism had supposedly entered the American vocabulary, witness this article:  "Chinese buzzword 'no zuo no die' enters Urban Dictionary", and there were scores of others, most of them giving essentially the same story, namely, that "no zuo no die" had won a place in the Urban Dictionary, a rather dubious distinction.

Here's the entry:

This phrase is of Chinglish origin. Means if you don't do stupid things, they won't come back and bite you in the ass. (But if you do, they most certainly will.) Zuo /zwo/ is a Chinese character meaning 'act silly or daring (for attention)'

I won't quibble over the definition of "no zuo no die" (at least not right now), but I don't think it is correct to say that "Zuo /zwo/ is a Chinese character meaning 'act silly or daring (for attention)'".  In fact, zuò 作 is a Chinese character that in Mandarin means lots and lots of things ("make; do; become; pretend; act; perform; write; compose; affect; feel; rise; grow; labor; work"), but it doesn't by itself mean "act silly or daring (for attention)" (though I wouldn't be surprised if it has some such meaning in one or another topolect, e.g., Wu).

The person who wrote this part of the entry was perhaps thinking of the expression zuòxiù 作秀 ("for show; make a show; put on a publicity stunt"), where the xiù 秀 syllable, which normally would literally mean "elegant; excellent", is being borrowed to transcribe the English word "show".

For the alleged "daring" part of the definition of zuò 作, they were probably influenced by zuòsǐ (colloquially often read as zuōsǐ) 作死, which is actually the ultimate source of "no zuo no die".  The Chinglish expression "no zuo no die" is a clumsy, bastardized translation of the Chinese phrase bùzuò bùsǐ 不作不死 ("if you don't do it you won't die", but which, as slang, implies "if you don't court death you won't die"), a doubly negated form of zuòsǐ 作死.  The expanded, more explicit form of bùzuò bùsǐ 不作不死 would be bù zuòsǐ jiù bù huì sǐ 不作死就不会死 (same meaning as bùzuò bùsǐ 不作不死).

To recapitulate, zuòsǐ 作死 is a colloquial term meaning "seek / court / risk death; take the road to ruin; look for trouble; have a death wish").

Ex.:  nǐ shì yào zuōsǐ a? 你是要作死啊?! ("Do you have a death wish or what?!")

In Modern Standard Mandarin, the usual way to express the sense of "seek / court death" would be to say zhǎosǐ 找死.

In recent years, there have been energetic attempts on the part of Chinglish enthusiasts to inject specimens of this aberrant form of English into standard English (we have dealt with some of them here and in many other Language Log posts), but it is hard to point to any that have really stuck and become part of the lexicon.  Not even the venerable "long time no see" can securely be traced back to Chinese.

Be that as it may, I have never heard any native speaker of English use the expression "no zuo no die", though I have no doubt whatsoever that it is widely used among Chinese who are fond of sprinkling their speech with bits and pieces of English.

[Thanks to Wei Shao]


  1. Kieran Maynard said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:19 am

    Funny expression!

    It is indeed incorrect to say "'zuo4' is a Chinese character" because "zuo4" is a spoken word, not a graph.

  2. leoboiko said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:38 am

    I wonder how non-Mandarin-speaking Anglophones read “zuo” in the proposed idiom. [zuə] as opposed to [tsuɔ]?

    I don't think English is about to borrow lots of Mandarin words en masse, but if it was, I wonder if we'd get a new system of naturalized "readings" of Chinese words (like Korean, Japanese etc.)—except this time the spelling-pronunciations would be caused by the different uses of Latin letters in pinyin and English.

  3. z7 said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    Oh, I read zuo as zuo2. Or maybe it's zhuo2. Northern slang; I never know.

  4. Wentao said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    I wonder why 作 is pronounced zuo1 rather than zuo4?

  5. X said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    I dunno. It seems like there's a fair degree of evidence that "long time no see" is influenced by the Chinese idiom. In the very earliest days of the expression, it seems to be about 50-50 between putting it in the mouths of Native Americans and East Asians. Consider this 1934 reference from the Train Dispatcher Association:

    Comments from California: "Long time, no see," as the Chinese say.

    During the period of popularization in the 1930s, the usage seems to have spread from the American West and the US Navy, so between visits to the East and Chinese rail workers, there are easy ways for it to be transmitted.

  6. Mark F. said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    Leoboiko – I think neither. My inclination is something like ['zu: oʊ]. In college I had a friend with the last name Kuo everybody pronounced her name in the corresponding way.

  7. Vasha said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    There's an English saying, "If you don't stick your neck out you won't get it chopped off" (more common is "sticking your neck out" being used to refer to taking a risk in a social situation)

  8. GeorgeW said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    Maybe there is a Chinglish pattern, 'no X, no Y' (like or based on 'no ticky, no laundry') into which invented expressions are fitted.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    You're right, GeorgeW, and sometimes it means "neither X nor Y", while at other times it means "if not X, then not Y".

    Cf. English "no pain no gain", but is that a legitimate construction according to the standard rules of grammar?

  10. Rubrick said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    "Aberrant form of English" sounds rather derogatory, though I'm sure you didn't intend it that way.

    Regarding "no pain no gain", the one other example that springs to mind is "no woman no cry".

  11. Anders said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

    Concerning "no woman no cry", I think this is actually for "no woman, don't cry", although everybody these days understands it as you do.

  12. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    @ Victor Mair
    I agree (about both paragraphs). I am reminded of the extremely annoying pattern "X does not a Y make", for which I propose the label "idiom adaptation". Idiom adaptation doesn't have to be irritating, but it can be if the idiom, and consequently its adaptations, go against the rules of grammar.

  13. maidhc said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

    I think, as Anders said, the punctuated version is "No, woman, no cry", i.e., don't cry.

    Look at more of the song:

    Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost
    Along the way, yeah!
    In this great future, you can't forget your past;
    So dry your tears, I seh. Yeah!

    No, woman, no cry;
    No, woman, no cry. Eh, yeah!
    A little darlin', don't shed no tears:
    No, woman, no cry. Eh!

    The alternative "no pain no gain" interpretation would be "a bachelor existence provides more emotional equilibrium", but it doesn't fit with the verse of the song.

  14. Matt said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

    It is indeed incorrect to say "'zuo4' is a Chinese character" because "zuo4" is a spoken word, not a graph.

    Magritte disagrees!

  15. leoboiko said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

    > is that a legitimate construction according to the standard rules of grammar?

    "no X no Y" feels like one of those self-contained "constructions" that Construction Grammar people like; a mini-grammar that maps form to meaning in its own way.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 9:38 am

    Stephan Stiller: Your "idiom adaptations" are usually called "snowclones" at Language Log. This post was the first of many.

    To others: The "no X, no Y" construction and "Long time no see" have also been discussed here.

    I had a friend in college whose last name is Kuo, and she was pretty successful at getting people to pronounce it "Kwaw".

  17. Jessica said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    I think the dictionary has explain "no zuo no die" correctly. Zuo1 is from north easr of China, no all Chinese say that way. But it do means act stupid or silly, and lead to bad results.

  18. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    I agree, and I like construction grammar. It's often unclear what the phrasal category of those odd idioms is; they often stand on their own.

    @ Jerry Friedman
    Thanks a lot for reminding me of the "snowclone" concept. I would say that a snowclone to me is something clichéd, and the cultural element is in the foreground. I think the expression "phrasal template" (linked from the Wikipedia article for "snowclone") fits well what I had in mind, or I was thinking of something in between. That said, "X does not a Y make" is a snowclone, and it's the most annoying of all :-)

  19. Bob said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    my understanding of this phrase is: no zuo no die = no act no die; immaterial of your act is good or bad. Because you might get "your head chopped off" whatsoever, for no reason at all. so, do nothing. 作 = 做.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 8:46 pm

    Relevant posts elsewhere:

    "Language Lessons: Why English Doesn’t Borrow Much From Chinese"

    "Readers Reply: Which Chinese Words Should English Speakers Adopt"

  21. RobB said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 12:30 am

    Reminds me of the telegram at the beginning of Swallows and Amazons (from their father):
    “Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won't drown. ”

  22. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    Let's look at the following Google n-gram comparisons:
    Kung Fu,kung fu,Wushu,wushu
    kung fu,wushu  (case-insensitive)
    Qi,qi,Qigong,qigong,Yin and Yang,yin and yang
    qi,qigong,yin and yang  (case-insensitive)

    The word "Wushu" seems to be a moderately recent import from Chinese. My impression has always been that people here called Chinese martial arts "kung fu" long before they called it "Wushu"; this is consistent with an earlier post by Victor Mair. (Note that many of the search results for "kung fu" from the earlier part of the 20th century do not refer to the martial art but are a by-product of the search procedure.) I won't paraphrase what Wikipedia says but just give two relevant links for the years 1958 and 1990, to be read in the context of Prof. Mair's earlier blog post.

    The rise in popularity of "Qi" and "Qigong" seems to be even more recent. "Qigong" is truly new, newer than "Qi"*. As I suspected, "yin and yang" have/has been around for a bit, experiencing only a mild rise in popularity over time.

    (* Superficially, "Qi" appears to have been around for a long time, but clicking on the Google Books search links below the graph, it's clear that this 2-letter sequence is often from elsewhere for earlier years. Also, the Pinyin transcription system isn't that old. In addition, Qi is also spelled "chi" (the Wade-Giles spelling is "Ch'i"), and the existence of the Greek letter χ makes counting difficult. I encourage people to experiment around with more complicated queries.)

    In an article from last year ("Why so little Chinese in English?", 2013-06-06), the Economist mentioned "kung fu"

    Kung fu, tai chi, feng shui and the like are Chinese concepts and practices westerners are aware of.

    but didn't name "Qi" and "Qigong". (The "chi" in "tai chi" is not the same as "Qi"; see below. But "tai chi" and "qigong" seem to have similar recent popularity curves; this will be because they're practically related.)

    Now a bit about meaning differentiation: Both kung fu (功夫) and Wushu (武術) are understood to refer to Chinese martial arts in English. Because the latter is now standardized, the former appellation will be vaguer, with people associating it with "what's in the movies". In Chinese, the term wǔshù/武術 clearly means "martial arts", while gōngfu/功夫 is understood also as "cultivation of a skill". The LL post about kung fu suggests that 功夫 in the meaning of Chinese martial arts may be a "Southern Chinese" thing, so perhaps that's why it spread via Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (both are from HK), through the HK movie industry?

    Note that "tai chi" – a specific style of "internal" Chinese martial arts (says Wikipedia) – is normally M tàijíquán (太極拳; C taai3gik6kyun4), with an additional syllable in Chinese. Qigong (氣功; M qìgōng, C hei3gung1) is a system of air/breathing-based exercises.

    Now what's the best way of referring to Chinese martial arts in Chinese? An HK friend practicing martial arts tells me to simply use (中國)武術 (C (Zung1gwok3) mou5seot6, M (Zhōngguó) wǔshù) and (中國)功夫 (C (Zung1gwok3) gung1fu1, M (Zhōngguó) gōngfu). It will be interesting to know whether "Northern Chinese" are more favorably disposed towards the former term.

  23. John Rohsenow said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

    So, is there yet hope for "Jingxi" instead of "Beijing opera"
    in English, (a' la "Kabuki, Noh"?), as Professor Elizabeth Wichman,
    Chair of the Drama Dept. at the Univ of Hawaii and leading US
    authority on Jingxi performance would like to insist.

  24. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

    @ John Rohsenow
    It has to be "in" with the young-uns. So maybe popularize Cantonese opera (粵劇, C jyut6kek6, M Yuèjù) via HK's movie industry first? How should we orthographically render it in English? ☺

  25. John Rohsenow said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    Sorry, I meant to type "Jingju" for "Beijing opera".

  26. phillo said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    " put on a publicity stunt"

    this well explains the "zuo" in “ no zuo no die", which means "no stunt no die"

    this is my view as a chinese native speaker

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