The misery of existence

« previous post | next post »

Sign on the front of an audiovisual equipment supplier in Pudong, Shanghai:

(Source of photograph)

Lóngshèng xīng dìdài 隆盛星地带.  I think that their English name is Longshengxing Zone.

Since lóngshèng xīng 隆盛星 means something like "star of prosperity / grandeur / magnificence" and dìdài 地带 does indeed mean "zone", the Chinese name of the store has nothing to do with freeing oneself from the misery of existence.

The depressing maxim, "free yourself from the misery of existence" (with the English cleaned up a little bit) showed up seven years ago in an Arabic context, viz., supposedly حرّرتبنفسي من الشقاء الوجود

So I thought that I'd better check this out with some Arabists.  Here are some of the replies I received.

From Joe Lowry:

It looks like it is trying to say "Liberate myself from the misery of existence", but there are some stray letters in the word "myself" and the phrase "misery of existence" is syntactically awkward.

Transliterated, it is probably:  ḥarrir tabanafsī min al-shaqāʾ al-wujūd.

I think it may have been aiming for:  ḥarrir nafsī min shaqāʾ al-wujūd (حرر نفسي من شقاء الوجود).

The extra taba- in "nafsī" is mysterious to me–a typing mistake?  But the phrase "free myself" (though "free yourself" seems more usual in any language) is a normal way of saying this.

And you could make the last two nouns have the definite article, though it would be a very unusual turn of phrase, but probably only the second word should have it. It is not very common (shaqāʾ al-wujūd), but it is perfectly intelligible.

From Leopold Eisenlohr:

The second word is a colloquial form, and I'm looking at online examples of it now trying to figure it out. The last two words, الشقاء الوجود al-shaqāˀ al-wujūd, can't mean "the misery of existence" because in this kind of relational structure the thing possessed would not have a definite article, so it would be shaqāˀ al-wujūd. This structure, al-shaqāˀ al-wujūd, means "attendant/existing misery."

The right way to say it, anyway, is:

 حرر نفسك من شقاء الوجود

ḥarrar nafsak min shaqāˀ al-wujūd, "free yourself from the misery of existence."

From Devin Stewart:

It reads:

ḥarrartu bi-nafsī min al-shaqāʾ al-wujūd

There are a few problems with the Arabic text
[The first two words were written together in the text as you sent it]
al-Shaqāʾ al-wujūd is not grammatical; it should be shaqāʾ al-wujūd.
I would not use the preposition bi- here, but just the direct object.

So: I think the Arabic should be:
ḥarrartu nafsī min shaqāʾ al-wujūd

Which would mean:

"I have freed myself from the drudgery/misery of existence."

It is not a well known or proverbial expression as far as I know.

Since "free yourself from the misery of existence" does not seem to derive from an Arabic source, I decided to explore other avenues for the possible origin of the dismal motto.  The first thing I found out is that this injunction is not used only by an audiovisual supply store in Shanghai, it is also the slogan for an art-supplies store and a massage parlor elsewhere in China.

Schopenhauer would have approved.  He seemed to wallow in melancholy and pessimism.

Feeling rather miserable from all of these dreary ruminations, I suddenly thought that maybe the massage parlor, art-supplies store, and audiovisual store all had a completely different approach to the slogan.  Namely, they're not encouraging you to take psychotropic drugs, become a boozehound, or commit suicide.  Perhaps what they mean by their common maxim is this: if you use our services or buy our products, you will have more joy in life and less despair.

[Thanks to Shawkat Toorawa]


  1. Ken Miner said,

    October 25, 2015 @ 9:17 pm

    Schopenhauer… seemed to wallow in melancholy and pessimism.

    Pessimism yes (though "wallowing" is much too strong); and I find almost no melancholy in Schopenhauer. The third book (of The World as Will and Idea) is something of a treasure trove; his insights into the arts are stimulating to say the least. For example he attempts two explanations for meter and rhyme in poetry; one is that they bind the attention. The second is that "there arises from it within us, antecedent to all judgment, a blind accord with what has been delivered, whereby the latter acquires, independent of all grounds, a certain emphatic power to convince us." In other words, these devices, especially rhyme, makes it seem "right" – makes it seem that the language itself is doing the work. This is exactly what I have always thought – but "ne'er so well expressed".

  2. Leo said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 4:52 am

    The faulty Arabic phrase (or at least the strange form حرّرتبنفسي ḤRRTBNFSY) is found on some other websites selling products from China, for example on the site made-in-china dot com selling a drill that claims on the Arabic page: يجعل المنتوجات الناس حرّرتبنفسي من العمل ثقيل يدويّة, "the products *make the people 'liberate themselves' from hard manual labor" (with lots of errors). I also found the similarly mashed-together form يحرّربنفسي yuḥarrir/binafsī "it liberates / with myself" (in the context of freeing yourself from reliance on wireless remotes) on another Chinese product. The same wrong personal suffix is also used, -ī instead of -ih (or whatever they were trying to say). Even though there's a connection with China, most of the sites I saw with this form don't have Chinese as a language option. I was wondering what the original language might have been that it was auto-translated from, or if we're getting to the point where computerized translations are proliferating through commercial sites so freely that new virtual koines are developing as the software associated with these sites does its job.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 7:53 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    My guess would be that it's somehow related to the First Noble Truth of

  4. K. Chang said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    Not that I am an expert in Buddhism, but that sounds more like the FOURTH Noble Truth of Buddhism.

RSS feed for comments on this post