English in Chinese — direct and indirect

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Zach Hershey saw the following announcement on WeChat from a Chinese student association at UC Irvine:

Yào lǜkǎ?  Lái jiǎngzuò ~

Tiānqì lěngle, hái bù gǎnkuài dòng dòng shǒuzhǐ sign up, bùrán jiù
yào jiāngle!

Xiànzài sign up hái tígōng mǎi yī sòng yī ó, hái bù dài shàng nánnǚ péngyǒu jīyǒu yīqǐlái!

要绿卡?  来讲座~

天气冷了, 还不赶快动动手指sign up, 不然就

现在sign up 还提供买一送一哦,    还不带上男女朋友基友一起来!

Want a green card? Come to our lecture ~

It is getting cold. Why don't you hurry up and move your fingers to sign up, otherwise they will be numb with cold.

If you sign up now, the ticket for the lecture is buy one get one free. Why don't you bring your boy friend, girl friend, or gay friend with you?!


Getting a "green card" is one of the most coveted goals of many Chinese graduate students in the United States.  Obtaining this United States Permanent Resident Card (USCIS Form I-551) permits a person from another country to stay in America indefinitely and gives them the right to obtain employment.

Before I read this announcement and looked it up, I had never heard of the expression jīyǒu 基友 ("gay friend"), where jī 基 (pronounced gei1 in Cantonese) is a transcription of the English word.  At first I even thought it might mean "Christian friend" (from Jīdūjiào 基督教 ["Christian{ity}]).  Apparently jīyǒu 基友 ("gay friend") is used quite widely and loosely among Chinese students nowadays, such that sometimes it just refers to same-sex (but not homosexual) friend.  One of my graduate students from the PRC tells me that he has heard female students use this word — jīyǒu 基友 ("gay friend") — instead of guīmì 闺蜜 (literally, "boudoir honey") to refer to their best female friend.


The entire advertisement is in Chinese except for "sign up", which they use twice, so it's not just a one-off.  They chose to convey one of the most important parts of their message in English.  Since there's an equivalent term in Mandarin, bàomíng 报名 ("sign up; register"), which does not appear in the announcement, one wonders why the students chose "sign up" over it.

As to why Obama is holding up a wǔjiǎo 五角 (50 cent) bill (wǔjiǎo 五角 is also called wǔmáo 五毛 [they both mean 50¢]) in the photograph below the announcement, that's an in-joke based on the notorious 50 Cent Party in China.  Here's the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the 50 Cent Party:

The 50 Cent Party (Also known as 50 Cent Army) (Chinese: 五毛党 wǔmáo dǎng) are Internet commentators (Chinese: 网络评论员 wǎngluò pínglùn yuán) hired by the government of the People's Republic of China (both local and central) or the Communist Party to create favorable articles, internet sites, bogus information and post comments on forums, social media networks and all kinds of news, exchange and journals online platforms favorable towards party policies in an attempt to shape and sway public opinion on various Internet message boards.[1][2] The name derives from the fact that commentators are said to be paid fifty cents of Renminbi for every post that either steers a discussion away from anti-party or sensitive content on websites, bulletin board systems, and chatrooms,[3] or that advances the Communist party line.[4][5]Further they are deployed to make disparaging comments, spread falsehoods and misinformation about political opponents, critics of the Chinese communist party regime, and about any targeted national or international topic or entity, such as politicians, countries, organizations, etc.[6]

The writing at the bottom of the screen tells the time and place of the lecture:

Zhōusān wǎn 8:00-10:00

xiāngyuē CCC (Cross-Culture Center) Ring Room

Bù jiàn bù sàn


相约CCC(Cross-Culture Center) Ring Room


Wednesday 8:00-10:00 p.m.

Meet at CCC (Cross-Culture Center) Ring Room

Be there or be square / we'll be waiting for you / we won't leave until we see you

Recent related posts:

"New Mandarin words: "pā" (part) and "lūsě" ("loser")" (11/17/15)

"An orgy of code-switching" (11/6/15)

[Thanks to Jing Wen and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. cameron said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    How literal is your "be there or be square" translation? Does the Chinese refer to a square in the mathematical sense? Would that sentence in Chinese be understood by someone unfamiliar with the English idiom?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 2:29 pm


    I gave three alternative translations for bù jiàn bù sàn 不见不散 (lit., "not see not disperse"). The third is the most literal.

  3. William Locke said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    What interested me most about the message is the use of 还不 (hai bu) in two sentences:

    还不赶快动动手指sign up,不然就要僵了!


    In each case you translate it as a rhetorical question, "Why don't you…?" I just haven't encountered the phrase before and wondered how you arrived at this translation of it.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    @William Locke

    Thanks for the good question.

    Hái bù 还不 is a highly idiomatic expression, one that is difficult to translate. It must be considered anew for each of the varied contexts in which it is found.

    Lit., "still not"

    "still doesn't / don't"


    "why not"

  5. liuyao said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    It's not hard to find more English words on a site targeted at Chinese students in the US. If I may take a stab, sign up is to register on a paper or a website, with or without witnesses, whereas 报名 may convey the act of telling (or reciting) your name to someone, who then records it down.

    The Obama picture is just odd. Does it mean Obama is luring the Chinese students to make favorable remarks about the US so they could get a green card? At any rate, the 50 cents has become a common accusation without proof (in fact this practice itself is more of a myth, and no one cares to fact-check it, or whether they get any raise over the years), and it's not uncommon to see both sides accusing each other as 50 cents. It's similar to accusing someone (politicians or not) of being bought by large corporate in the US, and is eerily reminiscent of accusing someone of being anti-revolutionary 反革命, or spy/espionage 间谍 in the Cultural Revolution.

    Anyways, more of a language question: Why doesn't the wikipedia article simply say wumao?

  6. liuyao said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

    I am taking back the parenthetical remark above, lest I myself be accused of being 50 cents.

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