God is concerned about air quality

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During the past week, this phrase kept popping up on the Chinese internet, on WeChat, on blogs and microblogs — it was just everywhere (1,850,000 ghits), and people were wondering exactly what it meant:

zhǔ yào kàn qì zhí 主要看气质 ("main / primary — want — see — gas / breath / spirit / vital energy — quality / substance / nature")

I have intentionally not aggregated the syllables into words.  The lack of a disambiguating context for this phrase — it tended to just show up by itself — permitted several different readings.

Devoid of context, the natural inclination for most people would be to interpret it more or less this way:

zhǔyào kàn qìzhí 主要看气质 ("[it] mainly depends on temperament")

Given the sudden ubiquity of the phrase, however, such a reading was not very satisfying.

Then this solution started to circulate:

zhǔ yào kàn qì zhí 主要看气质 ("God wants to see air quality"), where the last two characters are short for kōngqì zhíliàng 空气质量 ("air quality")

That made perfect sense in light of the horrendous smog that has been plaguing Beijing and other Chinese cities in recent weeks.

[Thanks to Zach Hershey]


  1. Zesheng Chen said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 12:04 am

    It originates from the singer Cyndi Wang, in her response to criticism of the bizarre cover photo of her new album. On top of the air quality joke, some people make fun of the ambiguity of "Zhu", which, when translated as "Lord," gives the reading "the Lord wants to check the air quality."

  2. leoboiko said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    空气 shortened as 气? so the Chinese also abbreviate on last syllable/ morpheme?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 7:21 am


    Not regularly, but exceptionally for special effect.

  4. JS said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    Making the rounds on the Chinese interwebs; corrections/quibbles welcome re: translation:


    "There are, in the end, differences between Shanghai’s smog and that of Beijing: Shanghai’s mouthfeel, though distinctly layered, yet lacks the blunt, in-your-face authority of Beijing, and is missing something of the full, round “old dust” bouquet. Shanghai’s PM2.5 may fall short in terms of dynamism, but does boast a slight petite-b aroma — while both are categorized as PM2.5, Beijing approaches the PM3, Shanghai the PM2. Forced to characterize, the first offers the gusto of copper-pot flash-boiled pork, the second the subtlety and diversion of cat-shit coffee. Guangzhou’s smog is moist and delicate, but in terms simply of generosity of portion and directness of flavor, is surely Beijing’s inferior. One hears also of Hebei haze, with the boldness of its coarse particulates, but must lament a relative lack of depth. My own view is that smog will always demand discernment as regards vintage, and the old haze of Beijing is indisputably heartier than the newer varieties of the south: silk-supple as drawn into the nostrils but carrying always its robust flavor, with thoughtful savor revealing a sweet-toned aftertaste. Truly, mist is thicker in one’s hometown, and smog is purer in Beijing.” — from The Haze of Bygone Capitals

  5. julie lee said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

    Beautiful satire. The Chinese is lovely, as is the English translation. Thank you, JS.
    (Note how an English translation of a Chinese passage is always twice as long.)

  6. liuyao said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    zhu to mean "The Lord", which is quite literal, may not come across as easily as shangdi, "the high god" (maybe that was just me). It may also refer to Allah, zhenzhu (the True Lord). I'm not claiming which one is higher or truer; this is just the way Chinese use these words for.

    Just like shangdi and zhenzhu, the word kongqi (kong=empty, qi=air, breath, and the 'qi') is a composite phrase/word, where the noun is the second character. You can't shorten it by the first character. This is the common way to form words in modern Chinese: though qi itself means air just fine, it is ambiguous, especially when spoken, so we add the word kong in front to form a two-character word, which only means the physical air, devoid of all the metaphysical connotations.

    The pronunciation zhí 质 is standard in Taiwan, but it's more often the fourth tone in mainland. Since zhiliang could also mean mass (as in physics), so to disambiguate, you may hear people say it in the third tone for emphasis when referring to quality.

    It just gets me confused, as I realize that zhi=quality, and liang=quantity (as in Marxist dialectics). But put together the composite word means quality. Maybe zhiliang is also to disambiguate as saying "zhi as opposed to liang", then the meaning mass is to say "liang as opposed to zhi." This is not so rare a phenomenon, traditionally called 偏義復指, but have it read in two opposite ways may be rare.

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