The Assimilation of English in Chinese

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The varieties of Chinese English are so numerous as to defy complete listing.  To name only the better known, we have pidgin, Chinglish, Singlish, Zhonglish, China English, Chinese-English, and sinographically transcribed English.  Martian Language, Internet Language, and much scientific, technological, and academic prose also are more or less saturated with English words.  Advertising language is particularly fond of using English words and phrases, often in very clever and unusual ways that are particularly well suited to the Chinese linguistic and cultural environment.

There have even been attempts to write English words in the shape of Chinese characters, the most famous being the "Square-Word Calligraphy" of the artist Xu Bing:  whole passage; character for "excellence"; character for "respect"; character for "elegance"; character for "design".

One type of Chinese writing that frequently displays a conspicuous amount of English vocabulary is poetry.  Indeed, some Chinese poems use English words in quite ingenious ways and are of excellent quality.  I remember one in particular from Taiwan that I read around twenty years ago.  It very effectively played with the idea that the word "love" was inside the word "glove" like a hand inside an actual glove.

A couple of weeks ago, I received the following anonymous poem in which each line ends with an English gerund or occasionally another -ing construction.  I honestly don't think that the poem is very well written, but it certainly is a curious specimen.  The fact that such a poem could be composed and circulated on the Internet with the expectation that people would have no difficulty understanding it shows the degree to which hybrid Chinese-English styles of writing are accepted — outside of narrow, purist circles.

The title of the poem implies that "human life is full of laughing," and the first stanza may be translated thus:


Close your eyes and think hard,
Human life is like a painting,
With dots and drops, how to color it?
It all depends on how you're planning.


Forgive me for leaving the rest untranslated.

人生何處不 laughing?

閉上眼好好 thinking,
人生就像一幅 painting,
點點滴滴如何 coloring,
還看你今怎樣 planning?

有人怨天尤人經常 crying,
有人餐搵餐食掛住 shopping,
有人遊戲人間鍾情 playing,
有人空談理想齋 talking;
也有人永不停步不斷 struggling,
像薛家燕雖然百病纏身令她 suffering,
但為了子女將來的美好 living,
依然不理手術後傷口仍在 paining,
繼續拍劇繼續 working,
令聞者 worrying,
聽者 touching,
都說母愛永遠最是 shinning。 [sic]

當時光列車在身旁高速 passing,

頭上白髮告訴你青春不會 waiting,
你不期然開始 wondering,
為何幸運之神總是未有 coming;
前路數之不盡的蕉皮令你 slipping,
成功的燈塔卻遠在天邊未能 climbing,

莫非永遠龍游淺水,就像那條座頭鯨困在本港水域 swimming?

當初百多元買入匯豐當作 saving,

誰知股票一再 falling,
怎不教人 shocking?
既然捉不到高位沽貨的 timing,
又經歷身家大縮水的 losing,
開始看透富貴只如天際 clouding,
這分鐘享受 winning,
下一秒卻只有 nothing。

何不找一個陽光普照的 morning,
走到郊外試試 hiking,

聽小鳥無愁地 singing,
看地上蟻群悠閒地 walking,
還有風聲蟬鳴蛙叫讓你 listening;
再放眼 looking,
天上飛鳥自在地 flying,
是不是很好 feeling?

誰說人生 boring?
看大自然的 amazing,
感受活著的 pleasing!
來吧!do something!
不要沉迷於 drinking 或 sleeping,
總有人令你 missing,
總有目標讓你朝著 running,
哪怕 dying,
哪怕 raining,
信自己是最 charming,
替自己在生命冊上預留一個 booking,
寫下無悔今生的 happy ending!

最後讓我們 ask for God's blessing!

[A tip of the hat to Apollo Wu and to Yao Ziyuan]


  1. John Cowan said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    Macaronic verse has a long tradition.

  2. PZ said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    Wow! It's a great moment when the seemingly Chinese charcter resolves into Latin letters, Kudos to the artist.

  3. Brian said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    I love the "whole passage" image by Xu Bing, but I found it exceedingly difficult to actually read what it said. I had to google the fragments I could read to find a transcription. For anyone else who's equally confused, it says:

    Quotation from Mao-Tse Tung, talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art: "What then is the crux of the matter? In my opinion, it consists fundamentally of the problems of working for the masses and how to work for the masses. Unless these two problems are solved, or solved properly, our writers and artists will be ill adapted to their environment and their tasks and will come up against a series of difficulties from without and within." Calligraphy by Xu Bing, April two thousand.

  4. michael farris said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    "There have even been attempts to write English words in the shape of Chinese characters"

    Vietnamese people have been writing words with the Latin alphabet made to look Chinese for a long time.

    Here are two youtube videos, one with Vietnamese words

    and one with English words

    And they manage to do so without scrambling the letter order.

  5. foolishmortal said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    The letters aren't scrambled, they're just written in Chinese stroke order.

  6. Haidong said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    Talking about Chinese poetry with English words, we should never forget pop songs. Even I am not a pop music fun, I always heard Chinese songs with some English in the lyrics. For example, the one below is from pop star Huang Lixing (黄立行), even the title is English:)
    If you have a chance to listen to some Chinese hiphop, which is very popular among young people, I am sure you will get a lot more.


    baby help baby help
    help help help
    baby help baby help
    help help help
    Empty that's how you
    make me feel
    pain Yeah
    That's what you put me through
    Why don't you just tell me
    What I got to do

  7. fs said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    … "Martian Language"?

  8. J.H. said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    fs: Let me Google that for you.

  9. miram said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    From the content of the poetry, it is from the hand of a Hongkong Cantonese speaker who writes with the mixture of standard Chinese, literary Chinese, Cantonese, and English. Cantonese speakers have the long history of putting English into Cantonese and Standard Chinese sentences.

    "shopping", "saving", "thinking", "timing", "feeling", "booking" are assimilated into spoken Cantonese very well that my mother, who doesn't speak English, can use them without thinking.

    here's some of my rubbish translation,

    當初百多元買入匯豐當作 saving,(At the beginning bought HSBC stock at hundred dollars for saving)

    誰知股票一再 falling,(who knows the stock once again falling)
    怎不教人 shocking? (how not to teach me shocking)
    既然捉不到高位沽貨的 timing, (anyway, can't grab the highest price's timing )
    又經歷身家大縮水的 losing, (and experience wealth shrinking's losing)
    開始看透富貴只如天際 clouding,(begin to see wealth as a horizon clouding)
    這分鐘享受 winning, (this minute enjoy winninig)
    下一秒卻只有 nothing。(but next minute only have nothing)

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