Dead and alive: metaphors for (dis)obeying the law

« previous post | next post »

Many Language Log readers are probably aware of the food scandal at OSI in Shanghai, the implications of which have spread throughout much of East Asia, to parts of Southeast Asia, and even beyond, wherever shipments of Chinese meat products have reached.

In reporting this, CNBC made the following point:

"The rules are dead, and people are alive, that's simple," a worker said in the report. "Dead rules and alive people" is commonly used in China to indicate corners have been cut. OSI did not immediately respond to the news report.

The "dead" and the "alive" are obviously translations of sǐ 死 and huó 活, but in the context of the article (people being given bad meat to eat) the meaning didn't exactly leap off the page. A more idiomatic translation would be "rigid" and "flexible", although that still only captures only part of the meaning.  In order to understand the worker's mysterious utterance, we must travel deep into the heart of Chinese metaphorical language. We begin our journey by reconstructing in Chinese what the worker said.  It was undoubtedly something like this:

Guījǔ shì sǐ de, rén shì huó de, zhè hěn jiǎndān.

规矩是死的, 人是活的, 这很简单

"Rules are dead, people are living; this is very simple."

[N.B.: guīdìng 規定 ("provisions; stipulations") or zhìdù 制度 ("systems; institutions" might be substituted for guījǔ 规矩 ("rules; regulations"), but usually the latter term is used.]

I suppose that all Chinese who heard the worker say this would immediately apprehend what he was implying, but I suspect that few Westerners would comprehend what it has to do with unsafe meat.  How come the people are "living"?  Shouldn't they be "dead" because of the rotten meat?

To unpack the worker's opaque (as rendered in English) statement, we need to delve further into the mechanics of Chinese figurative speech and the subtleties of attitudes toward the law in the People's Republic of China.

First, let's take a look at a Chinese report of the incident.

In this report, we find the following revealing statement:

"Wǒ zǎo jiù hé nǐ shuō SOP méiyǒu yòng, dōu ànzhào SOP bùyào gàn huóle", gōngrén zhèyàng gàosù jìzhě

"我早就和你说SOP没有用,都按照SOP不要干活了",工人这样告诉记者。

"I already told you that the SOP [Standard Operating Procedures] are useless.  If we did everything according to the SOP, we might as well not work," the worker told the reporters.

As one of my Chinese graduate students put it:

规矩是死的,人是活的。。。What a typical Chinese attitude!

Rules are set in stone, but people deal with situations "flexibly"…

A British friend guessed that the meaning should be "the spirit of the law is not the letter of the law."  I said, "No, what the Chinese expression conveys is much more negative…"

A colleague from the PRC explained it this way:

This is an old and common expression. It's been in use for as long as I can remember.  It conveys a fairly typical Chinese attitude towards any rules/laws/regulations: they are made to break, bend and be compromised. View it positively, this indicates a way of problem solving. There is another expression "大活人还能让尿憋死," which is less known, more crude and more regional, but expresses a similar meaning.

It requires a bit of effort to figure out the cruder, more visceral variant, but here goes:

(Dà) huórén hái néng ràng niào biēsǐ.

(大)活人还能让尿憋死

A (fully) living person could never have to pee so bad that he / she would burst to death.

[Grammar note:  the ràng 让 / trad. ("let; allow") here is functioning like a passive signifier (viz., "by" the urine).]

[Lexical note: biē 憋 has a wide variety of mostly negative connotations:  "hold one's breath; suffocate; choke; hold back / in; restrain; stifle; suppress; force; feel oppressed; be destroyed; contemplate; ponder;

[Literal translations by a graduate student from the PRC:

1. How could a living person possibly die of holding back urine?

2. How could a living person possibly be exploded by urine?

It means people should deal with things with flexibility.]

[Exegesis by a Chinese colleague:  Literally, it means a live person will find a way to relieve himself regardless what the situation is. In a general reference, niào 尿 ("urine") is the problem (whatever that might be) one is having, and a live person will find a way to solve it. The implication is that do whatever you can to take care of the problem and not let it get you.]

The dà 大 ("big") at the beginning is optional and serves to emphasize that the person is really and truly alive.  Dà 大 refers to a condition that is at its peak. A dà huórén 大活人 is a person full of life.  Other similar expressions are:

dà rètiān 大热天 ("really hot day")

dà lěngtiān 大冷天 ("really cold day")

dà zhōngwǔ 大中午 ("high noon")

dà qíngtiān 大晴天 ("really bright day")

dà qīngzǎo 大清早 ("very early in the morning")

To further appreciate the nuances of "living" and "dead" in Chinese figurative speech, we may consider this saying:

shù nuó sǐ, rén nuó huó

树挪死, 人挪活

"If you move a tree it will die; when a person moves, they'll live".

[rigidity vs. flexibility]

Here are a few more common expressions, focusing only on the "dead" aspect of things:

shūběn shàng de sǐ zhīshì

书本上的死知识

"dead book learning" (in contrast to practical, "living" knowledge)

sǐjì yìngbèi

死记硬背

"dead remembering and hard / forced reciting" (i.e., rote memorization)

zhǐ huì sǐ dúshū

只会死读书

"only knows how to read books in a dead manner" (i.e., doesn't know how to apply knowledge)

As one Chinese friend summed up the dilemma, it all boils down to the division between fǎzhì 法治 ("the rule of law") and rénzhì 人治 ("the rule of man").  In China, the latter generally takes precedence over the former, hence the flagrant disregard for rules and regulations, of which the worker's statement concerning the SOP regarding bad meat with which we began this post is a typical instance.

[Thanks to Greg Pringle, Maiheng Dietrich, Liwei Jiao, Jiajia Wang, Rebecca Fu, Fangyi Cheng, Wicky Tse, Wei Shao, and Ziwei He]



38 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

    This shouldn't be too foreign for English speakers. Americans speak of our "living Constitution" or the "living Bible"– the rules they contain are re-interpreted in changing contexts. And we also have laws that have become "dead letter" because, even though they are technically still on the books, no one enforces them because they are now considered impractical, irrelevant, or illegitimate.

  2. Ed said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    I was thinking that "rules are made to be broken" – although that might not have quite the same implication.

    Wasn't there a story of an ~18th century courtier who died of a burst bladder after failing to get up from the banquet table before the king despite urgently needing to relieve himself?

  3. Jon said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

    @Ed: It was the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who was said to have died from urine retention through not leaving the table at a banquet. But doctors say that's impossible, and he probably died of mercury poisoning, which can cause urinary problems.

  4. Ted Powell said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    More recent opinion, following a re-exumation in 2010, is that Tycho Brahe did not have enough mercury in him to be fatal. http://www.livescience.com/24835-astronomer-tycho-brahe-death.html says: The results should put to bed rumors that Brahe was murdered when he most likely died of a burst bladder.. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tycho_Brahe

  5. Bathrobe said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

    @Alex

    While it is tempting and perhaps reassuring to interpret the Chinese words 死 and 活 with literal English equivalents, the semantics of the Chinese is rather different from 'living Bible' or 'dead letter'. The English is referring to something that is 'relevant' or 'vibrant', as against something that is virtually 'defunct'.

    The semantics of the Chinese is rather different. It refers to an opposition between that which is 'immovable' or 'inflexible' (dead) and that which is 'movable' or 'flexible' (alive). This is commonly used for inanimate objects and is not confined to human behaviour. A simple example is 活板门 'alive board door', which is a trapdoor. It's a trapdoor because it consists of a 'moving board', i.e., one that will open. This is just one example, but there are plenty of other cases in Chinese where something that is 'dead' (fixed or rigid) is opposed to something that is 'alive' (movable).

  6. MikeA said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    In the west, one of the most effective actions available to workers, short of a possibly illegal strike, is "work to rule". Even a white-collar worker can do _exactly_ what the company procedures specify, as a form of protest.

  7. cameron said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

    I think what these Chinese expressions are getting at is something that no colloquial English expression is going to capture. These Chinese expressions come from a world where the "rule of law" has never existed. From their perspective laws are whatever the local authorities say they are. The written laws have no weight. Whatever is enforced in practice is law. What's in the law-books is "dead" abstract knowledge. And what's enforced in practice is whatever the local officials choose to enforce, which may or may not have anything to do with the law as written. No English expression exists to capture such a world view.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 11:00 pm

    From a specialist on Chinese law: "…this is why anyone living near a nuclear power plant in China should be terrified."

  9. Bathrobe said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 1:02 am

    There is also the Chinese expression:

    上有政策下有对策。

    Meaning: 'The authorities have their policies, those below have their counter-policies'. There's a whole culture behind the lack of respect for the law in China.

  10. John Walden said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 2:05 am

    It reminds me of:

    "The English Model – All is permitted, except that which is forbidden.

    The German Model – All is forbidden, except that which is permitted.

    The Russian Model – All is forbidden, including that which is permitted.

    The French Model – All is permitted, including that which is forbidden"

    Trying to track down the origins of this leads to diverse sources like Orwell, Ayn Rand, TH White, Schiller, and Calvin.

    But indirectly to a Dutch sociologist. Hofstede. His description of countries as being more, or less, pragmatic or normative seems to echo the Chinese attitude to the law.

    http://geert-hofstede.com

    Though it all seems too easy.

  11. sig said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 3:56 am

    To me this attitude seems to go back to traditionally unreasonable and ad-hoc style of legislation (legislature as written commands and wishes from above) and indeed lack of Rule of Law; it is expected of a subject to work around the most objectionable rules. Hence the rules can be made draconian without hampering the system, and have indeed traditionally been so.

    The society is like a swimming pool full of slimy water balloons (or cellular organisms, or whatever); they slide past each other from higher pressure to lesser pressure. And no matter how much pressure you put somewhere with rigid rules and enforcement, the balloons are expected to stretch and squish and slide away as usual. As long as you don't poke them with a needle or shoot them with a harpoon or something inhumane like that.

  12. leoboiko said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 7:31 am

    Regarding 活 as "flexible, movable": 活 katsu in Japanese is a morpheme meaning (among other things) either "alive, survival" or "movement":

    快活 kaikatsu "lively, cheerful"
    活況 kakkyō "activity, prosperity"
    活動 katsudō "action, activity"
    活路 katsuro "means of survival, means of escape"
    自活 jikatsu "self-support"
    復活 fukkatsu "revival, resurrection"

    There's an interesting example in Japanese traditional martial arts. In certain styles (e.g. the Shinkage-ryū and the Kashima-shinryū), there's a theory that contrasts two opposite fencing strategies, named 活人剣 katsujinken (usually translated as "life-giving sword") versus 殺人刀 satsujintō, setsunintō ("killing blade"). The latter approach means to just overwhelm the opponent with speed and technique, allowing them no chance to react; in this way their blade is made "dead". The katsujinken strategy, by contrast, consist in baiting and trapping the opponent with feints and feigned openings, so as to incite him to move in a way under your control; so they're made "alive/moving", 活. This latter strategy is considered to be harder to execute but also superior, because it adapts to a wider range of situations (such as when the opponent is physically faster).

    The two terms were borrowed from Buddhism, and in current popular culture they're used literally; e.g. about a hero swordsman who refuses to kill vs. a villain or anti-hero who believes in the need to kill. But in martial arts they used to refer not to life and death as such, but to flexibility and movement vs. lack thereof.

    The Chinese attitude to law, rules and precautions seems strongly reminiscent of the Brazilian one.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    Given the use of the Chinese word for 'alive' and 'movable', I wonder whether the saying could be translated "People are quick and the law is dead."

  14. Ned Danison said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    Here's another angle: The notion of exigent circumstances is no doubt universal, but the Chinese seem to appeal to it more often. I suspect this has to do with a history of authoritarianism, rule from afar, and fiat laws that change with the moon.

    Yet another angle is, when a situation presents a choice between an abstract law and a seemingly clever on-the-spot innovation, Chinese people appear peer-pressured to choose the latter, thus avoiding the appearance of being a dumb rule-follower. While visiting China, I can't begin to count the number of times I have stood there looking like a foreign idiot obeying some rule while everyone else (probably wanting to present themselves as in-the-know) just stampedes by.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    @Ned Danison

    Indeed! That is one of the first and strongest impressions I had about China when I began going there in the 1980s, as, for example, when I tried to buy a train / bus ticket and then — if I was ever lucky enough to get one — to actually board the train / bus. If you haven't been through it yourself, you would scarcely believe what I had to endure to get to the head of any line.

    @leoboiko

    Thanks for the great information on the concepts of "life-giving" and "killing" in Japanese martial arts, and their probable Buddhist antecedents.

    In your third paragraph, did you mean "Buddhist" instead of "Brazilian"? Too much football / soccer for the past month!

  16. Alex said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 10:32 am

    @Bathrobe. I admit I don't know anything about Chinese semantics, so I am open to persuasion on this one. But I'm not sure English is as lacking in these categories (alive= flexible/moveable, dead=rigid, unchanging) as you represent it to be. On the dead side, we have deadbolts, dead weights, and dead limbs (paralyzed or numb), dead stops, and dead lifts (from a stationary point.) All of those connote immobility quite strongly. On the alive side, we have lively, looking alive, quick (alive or fast), livening up, and animated. Not all etymologically from the same root, but all semantically of the same metaphor that living is motion.

    Are you saying that these metaphors are so much more common in Chinese as to make it inappropriate to compare them?

  17. KevinM said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    I took it as "no harm, no foul." I.e., there's a rule, but I broke it and guess what: nobody died, so it can't have been that valid a rule. (The logic isn't exactly airtight.)

  18. Rodger C said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    No English expression exists to capture such a world view.

    "The Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules."

  19. leoboiko said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

    No no, I did actually mean "Brazilian"! I guess I changed the discourse topic suddenly and without warning, resulting in a nonsensical "conclusion".

    Brazilian culture has a notorious disregard for the letter of the law, strict rules, punctuality, and any sort of preventive measure or textbook procedure perceived as bothersome, unnecessary, or skippable (more details here). On the positive side this leads to a relaxed, easygoing attitude, and to a way out of bureaucracy hell; on the negative, it's clearly related to widespread corruption, nepotism, disregard for ethics, and a culture of opportunism (take whatever you can whenever you can get away with it). And yes, we also have the thing were people who obey the rules stand out as stupid (otário). And not just the obvious stuff like traffic laws and company rules; I recall being laughed at even for such little things as cutting the milk box according to the printed instructions.

    I don't have a lot of experience with Chinese everyday culture, but the descriptions above all feel very familiar.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    How could a living person possibly die of holding back urine?

    This struck me as a rather strange thing to say, since a case of exactly this was widely reported when the Nintendo Wii came out. So the answer would seem to be "offer them an object worth a couple of hundred dollars".

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KDND#.22Hold_Your_Wee_for_a_Wii.22_contest

    Though the woman died of water poisoning, not a burst bladder, the DJs did apparently joke before her death that she'd drunk so much she looked pregnant. Seems like a good match to the "hold in; restrain" sense of 憋 to me.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    Further to Alex's examples, in English, the opposite of the now-archaic sense of "quick" (i.e. in motion) to mean alive was the now-archaic sense of "still" (i.e. immobile) to mean dead (preserved in compounds like "stillbirth" and the genre of painting known as the "still life," which was I believe calqued from the Fr. "nature morte").

    I would be interested in knowing whether the same Chinese phrase is as obvious/resonant for natives of Hong Kong or Singapore, who would have had more practical historical exposure to Anglophone notions of how the rule of law ought to work (although there's obviously plenty of anti-nominianism in traditional Anglophone culture as well).

  22. Lon said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    I'm associating the phrase with Tip O'Neil, "All politics is local." At the business end of a policy, it's what people do, not what a law says they should do. It comes close, I think, but I prefer the Chinese phrase for its power and cynicism.

  23. Bathrobe said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    @Alex

    No, of course not. My point was that in this case the semantics of the Chinese is of the 'rigid' vs 'flexible' variety, unlike your examples which were of the 'vibrant' vs 'defunct' persuasion. But I do think that 活 and 死 form a clearer and more consistent opposition than the examples you provide for English.

    Another Chinese example (actually using 板 again) is 死板 sǐbǎn, literally 'dead board', which is used to describe the thinking of people who are rigid, inflexible, or unimaginative. The Germans would probably be described as 死板 by the Chinese because of their supposed extreme rigidity in conforming with rules, although the Germans are, of course, widely admired for their technological excellence. (The Japanese, on the other hand, tend to be thought of as 老实 'docile' because they do what they're told). The opposite of 死板 is 灵活 línghuó 'clever alive' (that is 'clever and flexible'), which is a quality the Chinese prize.

    I would agree that there is strong pressure in China not to be thought of as 死板 as it's regarded quite negatively. 灵活 is a very positive term, but it also often leads to the creative corner-cutting and what some might regard as 'cunning' or 'selfish' behaviour that is often seen in China. Even though people in China might condemn such behaviour, they are, I suspect, less outraged than we might be because they know where it's coming from. For foreign companies manufacturing in China, the Chinese genius for being 灵活 might be seen as 'falling off the learning curve' since the Chinese are constantly finding ways not to do things 'properly'. But it's not a result of stupidity at all; it's one of flexibility and creativeness.

    If you're interested, I once did a short personal reflection on the 'Chinese Mentality' where I looked at one particular expression of this phenomenon of finding 'creative' (but rule-breaking) solutions.

  24. Jason said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    "Rules are static, people are dynamic"?

    Unidiomatic but seems to me to convey the sense of what's being said.

  25. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 9:04 pm

    @J.B. "Quick" lives on in "quicksilver" and "quicksand."

  26. Keith said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 2:54 am

    "Bad rules make for clever workarounds"

  27. Mr Punch said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 10:14 am

    In American English, rigid = stiff = dead person; and a live fastball is a baseball pitch with some movement apart from its basic trajectory. These are examples of the same kind of usage – but not exactly the same – as the Chinese phrase.

  28. Alex said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

    @Bathrobe I agree; my initial examples (living Constitution, dead letter) were less concerned with physical motion, because I was thinking of examples that spoke most to rule-bending. The other English dead/alive examples related to motion are not about rules. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the Chinese dead/alive metaphors related to rules more directly connote physical motion, and that the dead=rigid and immobile/ alive=flexible and mobile metaphor in general is more prominent in Chinese linguistic practice. It is interesting that many of the English examples are somewhat archaic (e.g. quicksilver). Maybe it used to be more central in English-speaking cultures than it is now?

    It might be interesting to go all Levi-Strauss on this opposition. Alive is the favored category, while dead is marked as undesirable. Someone could look into how these categories are defined and policed in discourse– that "strong pressure" you were talking about. Why and how has the dead/alive metaphor become the primary one for discussing flexibility in China, and why has it apparently become less central for English speakers? I haven't got the Chinese skills to do it, so I hope someone else does so I can read it.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

    Dan Lufkin: "Quick" is also alive in "cut to the quick".

  30. Dave Cragin said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    As someone whose career is in the compliance area and has a deep interest in China, this discussion is fascinating.

    While there is a cultural difference on compliance with regulations, there is also a difference in how regulations are written. Even if someone wants to comply with regulations in China, how to comply can be less than clear.

    American law tends to be clear & direct about requirements and penalties. An American cultural value is "where does the buck stop?", i.e., who is responsible? The agency that regulates an activity is usually obvious.

    In contrast, Chinese regulations can be oblique in terms of roles & responsibilities and requirements.

    Recently, the China Daily had a good illustration of this in regards to employment bias: http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-05/15/content_17518228.htm The Daily noted that "key concepts" and "prohibited practices" are poorly defined and penalties aren't clear. To China's credit, they are bringing this issue forward because they want practices to improve.

    While the above is on employment bias, the example is representative across many fields of regulation.

    I wonder how much of the creative interpretation of compliance derives from the fact that meaning in Chinese tends to be more context based than in English. Does this influence how regulations are viewed?

    *Commentary: In addition to any cultural issues, China also faces the challenge that it modernized at almost light speed. China's rapid modernization means that it's often the case that relatively young individuals have considerable power in regulatory agencies. Whereas organizations such as the US FDA have had an almost 100 yrs to refine its regulatory approaches, China has had to do this on a very compressed scale.

  31. Francisco said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

    After reading the literal translations offered above, I am still in doubt regarding the precise meaning and flavour of the idiom. Is it apologetic ("life must go on, regretfully this means that sometimes the law cannot be followed to the letter") or contemptuous ("laws do not deserve allegiance, only people matter")?
    The latter interpretation would suggest a perception of the social contract biased towards the interpersonal level and stopping short of any state institutions. Hardly surprising if lawmakers have historically been remote, uncaring or worse.

  32. Frankie Fook-lun Leung said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    If you read Hu Shih's "Mr. More-or-less" in China, one saying of Hu: a dead person and a living person are more or less the same.

  33. Alex said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    @Jerry Friedman and Dan Lufkin. Don't forget "the quick and the dead," which is not only the best name for a gunfighter movie ever, but familiar to many Christians from its place in the Apostles' Creed. "[Jesus] sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." (Why does God shake hands with his left hand? Because Jesus is sitting on his right.)

    Not to mention "quickening," which describes the stage of pregnancy at which the woman can feel movement in her womb. The great 18th century jurist Blackstone wrote that under traditional British law, life began at quickening, and it was not considered homicide or manslaughter to cause an abortion before this time. Abortions after quickening were considered criminal.

    "Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother's womb." This, from the man who codified centuries of English common law, is as literal an equation of life with movement as one could hope to find.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    Here's another way to put it:

    =====

    shàng yǒu zhèngcè, xià yǒu duìcè

    上有政策,下有对策

    "Those above have their policies, but those below have their countermeasures".

    =====

    I've seen this translated very loosely as "beating the system".

  35. Bathrobe said,

    August 3, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    @Alex

    I checked a Chinese-English dictionary for examples of 死 and 活 used in the sense of 'inflexible' and 'flexible'. Of course these were not the only usages of 死 and 活, but they were the ones I found that most closely fitted the distinction we've been discussing:

    死工资 fixed salary
    死规矩 hard and fast rule
    死脑筋 one-track mind
    (把窗户)钉死 to nail (a window) fast
    期限现在不讲死 No deadline is set for the time being (We won't set a rigid time-limit now)
    死读书 study mechanically, read without thinking
    死话 remark made with a note of finality
    死记 learn by rote, memorise mechanically
    死理 rigid inflexible rules; dogma
    死面 unleavened dough
    死契 irrevocable title deed or contract
    死钱 (2) regular income of fixed amount
    死水 stagnant water
    死性 inflexible, obstinate
    死硬 stiff and inflexible, intransigent

    活水 flowing water
    活扳手 diagonal wrench, clyburn spanner
    活版 typography, letterpress
    活瓣 valve, flap
    活工资 unfixed wage, conditional wage
    活话 indefinite, vague, or open-ended remark, non-committal words
    活卖 sale of estate with the seller reserving the right to redeem it
    活门 valve
    活期 current account (i.e., not fixed term)
    活契 conditional sales contract, one that allows the seller to redeem the real estate within a given period of time
    活钱 (1) cash, ready money (2) non-salary income, extra income
    活塞 piston ('moving stopper')
    活页 loose leaf, detachable leaf
    活字 moveable type
    Also a number of expressions using 活动 ('to move about, be active') in the sense of 'flexible' (e.g., 活动床 adjustable bed).

    This was the result of a fairly quick and cursory run through the dictionary, and some of these are rather specialised terms, but I think you'll agree that the idea of 'rigidity' vs 'flexibility' is carried into situations where English would probably not use 'dead' and 'alive', for example those dealing with title deeds/contracts, or remarks made with flexible or inflexible intent.

    Leo Boiko gave a list of terms in Japanese which use the character 活. It's true that Japanese does use this kind of term. One example he doesn't mention is 活字 (katsuji), which means 'moveable type' in Japanese as in Chinese. But this kind of borrowing from Chinese is pretty much fossilised in Japanese, a fixed expression that you have to 'learn by heart'. In Chinese 活字 is 'alive' and immediately comprehensible in its basic meaning, that is, type that is 'flexible' or 'moveable', unlike earlier methods that required the entire page to be engraved.

    @ Victor Mair
    Yes, I realised that 'counterpolicy' wasn't exactly the right translation. I chose it because it showed up the parallelism in Chinese that 'countermeasures' doesn't quite capture. 'Countermeasures' is, of course, correct.

  36. D.O. said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 2:34 am

    Prof. Mair, I came across this news article based in part on a PRC President Xi's speech. In it President Xi uses this colorful expression.

    "[I] had left life and death, as well as my personal reputation, out of consideration in the combat against corruption," Xi said, according to Changbaishan city's party chief, Li Wei.

    Which probably means that he put his life and reputation on the line in his anti-corruption efforts. Is it a usual Chinese idiom or president Xi is being melodramatic?

  37. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 6:39 am

    @D.O.

    As stated, Xi Jinping's declaration, which did draw a lot of attention for its personal, melodramatic tone, is not a usual Chinese idiom. However, as seen in this post and in the comments hereto, it is very common to refer to life and death in Chinese to emphasize the extreme nature of a situation, so in that sense Xi was still operating well within an accustomed rhetorical framework.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    The expression "you die I live" (nǐsǐwǒhuó 你死我活), which refers to a life-and-death / mortal struggle, goes back at least to the Yuan (Mongol) period.

    http://www.zdic.net/c/0/b/18861.htm

    It is discussed here in the context of Xi Jinping's current campaign against his enemies in the Party:

    "China's Power Politics"

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/opinion/chinas-power-politics.html

RSS feed for comments on this post