Bull Fart

« previous post | next post »

One of the most powerful pieces in the one-man exhibition of Chen Wen Ling now showing at Joy Gallery in Beijing 798 Art Zone is blandly entitled "What You See Might Not Be Real" in English, but the Chinese title is the raw and raunchy "FANG4PI4" 放屁 ("emit gas, break wind, flatulate, crepitate, i.e., fart [v.]"). Perhaps the artist didn't want to offend the linguistic sensitivities of potential foreign customers, but I must say that I much prefer to translate the title of the piece directly as "Fart," or, with a bit of license, as "Bull Fart" because the atomic cloud depicted by the artist is coming out of the anus of an enormous bovine.

[This view comes from a story at Business Insider (Joe Weisenthal,  "Finally! Madoff Gets What He Deserves", 9/29/2009); other perspectives are available at ML Art Source and TPM.]

What we see in this impressive sculpture is a horned Bernie Madoff pinned against the wall by the rocket-propelled bull. Just from looking at the whole ensemble, it's pretty obvious what Chen is trying to tell us, but by entitling the piece "FANG4PI4," he invokes additional levels of scorn that are inherent in that term when applied to the words of others. Several of the blogs that have shown this piece claim that as slang FANG4PI4 implies "bluff" or "lie." Actually, it is more accurate to say that it means "talk nonsense," the idea being that one is comparing the words coming out of the mouth of one's opponent to a stream of farts.

Now, if one wishes to increase one's contempt for what one's opponent is saying, one may style his / her words as GOU3PI4 狗屁 ("dog fart"), as in this ringing denunciation: NI3 FANG4 GOU3PI4! (lit. "You are emitting dog farts!" = "What you say is nonsense / bullshit!"), although GOU3PI4 ("dog fart[s]!") shouted loudly by itself gets the message across clearly enough. This is an old expression that may be found as early as 1750 in the Qing Dynasty novel Rulin waishi (The Scholars). If you want to emphasize that what your opponent is saying is not only bullshit but is also completely incoherent, you may declare that it is GOU3PI4 BU4TONG1 ("dog fart not pass through").

If your adversary still does not give in to your withering denunciations, you may embellish them as follows (I shall only give a few of the possible varieties):

FANG4 GOU3CHOU4PI4 ("emit stinking dog fart[s]")

FANG4 NI3 MA1 DE 4PI4 ("emit 'your mother's' fart[s]")

FANG4 NI3 MA1 DE GOU3CHOU4PI4 ("emit your mother's stinking dog fart[s]")

However, one must be careful when one gets into the territory of "your mother's" whatever, since such characterizations are considered to be extremely vulgar and, as often as not, fighting words. We all remember the "Grass Mud Horse" phenomenon from earlier this year, and a lot more could be said about this most offensive of imprecations.

As for "bull," that is NIU2 牛, although I did mention in an early January post that "Happy NIU2 Year" was the most popular STM New Year's greeting in China this year, I have not yet found the time to explore the full range of nuances of NIU2 in current usage ("balls, guts, spunk, awesome, formidable," and so forth). Particularly when combined with "B," viz., 牛B (often written as NB), then we begin to combine all of the androgenic qualities of NIU2 with the estrogenous implications of what "mother's" refers to, resulting in an explosive combination. To do full justice to this aspect of NIU2 would require a modest (or perhaps I should say "immodest") treatise, one that I have not yet found the opportunity to compose. Someday.

[Hat tip to Benjamin Zimmer.]


  1. Lazar said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    I wonder if the horns were intended as an antisemitic reference.

  2. mollymooly said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:56 am

    This is in contrast to the names of hardboiled Hong Kong Movies, where the Chinese names' literal English renderings seem blander than the punchy titles used for the English release.

  3. DM-G said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 2:15 am

    I find it fascinating that the artist would choose to translate the title to something culturally nondescript, and not to something of equal value. If he was making such a bold statement with his art, why not translate the title just as boldly?!

  4. Adam said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    Is it certain that the artist made up the English non-translation of the title? Maybe someone else came up with it while labelling the exhibits.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 6:07 am

    Is NIU2 used for whatever the equivalent of "bull market" is?

  6. Graeme said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 7:37 am

    Wasn't Madoff stiffed by a bear market?

  7. mand said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    Our very ladylike, elegant hound will stand up from a snooze and lean with her paws out in front to give her shoulders a nice stretch, with her bottom up. She has such good manners all the time that it's an occasional delight when she puffs a delicate, genteel fart at the same time. Especially because it doesn't embarrass her at all. ;0)

    To go with 'What You See Might Not Be Real in English', perhaps the title would translate better as bullshit?

    Btw how do you get the comment preview to update in real time like this? – it's the best system i've come across on any blog.

  8. Roger Lustig said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    What horns? If you mean the two black lines rising from the sides of Madoff's head, I think those are what's left of his hair. In fact, my first reaction to seeing that was, "Pointy-haired boss!" Then I remembered that this blog isn't *entirely* about Dilbert…


  9. dwmacg said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 8:37 am

    @Roger Lustig:

    Those are definitely horns–click on the link to the ML Art Source for some clearer views. But I don't think there's necessarily anything anti-semitic in suggesting that Bernie Madoff is the devil.

  10. sab said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Fascinating discussion! Following Mand's comment, which I agree with, I would like to offer another translation for the title of this explosive piece. How about "No-Bullshit Fart"?

  11. Lazar said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    @dwmacg: But the horned Jew was a specific image in European culture, starting with horned depictions of Moses. (In fact, Sacha Baron Cohen has referenced it more than once in his Borat character.) I'm sure it's possible that the artist merely appropriated the devilish imagery for its own sake, but it was the first thing that came to my mind when I read "horned Bernie Madoff".

  12. Adrian said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    I dare say the similarity is superficial, but is Chinese fang pi related to Hungarian fing?

  13. mand said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    Adrian, there would be no connection between Chinese and Hungarian terms, just coincidence. (Many languages' words for yes or I agree are distractingly like the English no – just to be difficult!)

    Oh, i've just followed your WordPress link – you're into language yourself. :0)

  14. mand said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    Oops, this IS Language Log. Sorry, forgot where i was for a moment. *facedesk*

  15. Chris said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    Why would a Chinese artist be familiar with European traditions of anti-Semitism? Or care that Madoff was Jewish?

    As for the translation, if farts are part of several Chinese idioms about lying and nonsense, it seems like a shame not to invoke the parallel English idioms about bullshit, especially with an actual bull in the sculpture. (Indeed, if the artist was proficient enough in English, he could have *intended* to combine the two to create the bilingually-deception-connoting bullfart.)

  16. Adrian said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    Mand, My question isn't entirely ridiculous. Hungarian is a cousin of central Asian languages; it shares the word for apple (alma) with Kazakh, for example. Another possible connection: the Bator in Ulan Bator means "hero", while the Hungarian word bátor means "brave". Whether Chinese shares any vocabulary with its neighbours is another matter, of course.

  17. mand said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    Adrian, your thinking was good – noticing a similarity between words and reasoning from there. I didn't mean to imply it was ridiculous, was simply answering your question.

    By the way, thank you for teaching me the Hungarian for 'fart'. ;0)

    Once you know that Hungarian is a Uralic language and Chinese a branch (rather than a single language (even though it's commonly spoken of as a language)) of the Sino-Tibetan family, you can see they're not related in any way – unless there are some borrowings, which i don't know about. (In the way that 'hot dog' has found its way into so many languages.)

    (Borrowings don't make linguistic relatedness. For example, Japanese has borrowed heavily from Chinese but they're still not related.)

    Hungarian is related to, for example, Finnish and Chinese probably to Burmese.

    Mongolian (Ulan Bator) is in the Altaic family, and Kazakh may also be, so in your example it makes sense to expect some connection even though they belong to different branches. I'm no expert in any of these language families so i can't tell you if, or how closely, these are related. And clearly you know more Hungarian than i do.

    As for Chinese vocabulary influencing other languages, Wikipedia is the easiest source of course, especially sections 4 Influences on other languages and 9.1 Modern borrowings and loanwords.

    Geek? Who, me?

  18. Enlaces diarios said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    […] Compartidos Google Reader: Thursday, October 01, 2009, Why (individual) Blogging Is Dead – Objective Measurement, Bull Fart […]

  19. marie-lucie said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

    The artist must know the English idiom, but the rather bland translation could come from a scenario that one often encounters in learning another language: after hearing someone say "XYZ" you might ask "What did he say?" or "What does XYZ mean?" but instead of giving you a literal translation of words that may sound objectionable, your consultant gives you an explanation in very neutral language of what the speaker must have thought or felt. Similarly, if someone learning English asked you about the exclamation "Bullshit!" that someone just said in a forceful tone of voice, you might say something like 'he means that he thinks the other guy is telling him lies' rather than try to explain the literal meaning, which might be embarrassing, and might not help the learner at all.

  20. Lareina said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

    Seriously, why does every bad word in every language includes 'mother' instead of other relatives?…love that sculpture though

  21. rpsms said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    It could stand to reason that the artist knows the difference in implication bewteen the two titles, but intends to imply that madoff is a patsy.

    On a sarcastic note: I am quite interested in Beck's deeply insightful and scholarly opinion of this communist work of art.

  22. Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Open Thread and Link Farm (bull fart edition) said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    […] LL, Eugene on My Modern Met writes: The sculpture “What You see Might Not Be Real,” by Chen […]

  23. Ben Williams said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Good post. And awsome sculpture. I offered my admittedly non-academic interpretation of the niu bi phenomenon on my [shameless plug] blog, just in case you wanted to pursue this topic.

RSS feed for comments on this post