High-speed railroaded

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About a year ago I wrote a post entitled "Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance."

This construction is still flourishing in China.  Indeed, it is so ubiquitous nowadays as to have lost some of its edge.  While not entirely banal, the frequent usage of the adversative passive has caused much of the raw, critical force that it once possessed to be dissipated through overfamiliarity.  However, when the object of derision or dissatisfaction is one that people are really upset about, the adversative passive can still pack a potent punch.

Ben Zimmer called to my attention a striking instance of the adversative passive that has risen to popularity in recent weeks, namely, bèi gāotiě le 被高鐵了 ("to be high-speed railroaded").  The expression is described in "Schott's Vocab" (NYT, Feb. 11, 2011):

Bei Gaotie

Chinese phrase for being forced to take expensive high-speed trains.
(Bei is a Chinese character indicating a passive voice; Gaotie means high-speed train.)

Writing for Agence France-Presse, Marianne Barriaux wrote:

Getting home for Chinese New Year used to mean squeezing into rundown trains that creak their way through the countryside.

But this year, many are opting for the comfort and ever-expanding network of China’s high-speed trains, even if it means paying on average more than three times more – sparking concern the not-so-wealthy are losing out.

According to Barriaux, China’s high-speed rail network is growing fast:

But some passengers, experts and even state media have expressed fears that the fast trains have left people with no option but to pay more out of their small salaries for tickets.

Liu Weidong, a migrant worker in the eastern city of Hangzhou, said he had had to pay an extra 400 yuan ($60) for his family to go home this year – one third of his monthly pay.

“To us, 400 yuan is a lot of money. With that money, we could have bought many things for the festival,” he told the Xinhua news agency after failing to secure ordinary tickets home to the neighbouring province of Jiangxi.

Resentment has spread online, creating a popular buzz word – “bei gaotie” – meaning having to buy more expensive tickets because normal trains are no longer available.

In a July 2009 article in The China Daily, Raymond Zhou explained:

The Chinese word “bei” is the usual equivalent to translate an English verb of passive voice. But when a normal act has the possibility of being forced or coerced, bei is added before the verb, against grammatic convention, to convey this added layer of meaning. This has caught on and become a meme.

Incidentally, gāotiě 高鐵 is an abbreviation of gāosù tiělù 高速鐵路 ("high-speed railroad").

One of the things that makes this adversative passive construction so striking and powerful is that the passive marker bèi 被 is not only applied to verbs where one would not expect it (e.g., zìshā 自殺 ["commit suicide"] –> bèi zìshā 被自殺了 ["be suicided"]), it is even applied to modifiers and nouns, where under normal grammatical rules one might think it would be ruled out.  A famous example of the former is héxié 和諧 ("harmonious"), as in héxié shèhuì 和諧社會 ("harmonious society"), President Hu Jintao's lofty ideal of Communism with Confucian characteristics (or perhaps I should say Confucianism with Communist / Capitalist / Chinese characteristics).  Anything that doesn't fit into such a society must be "harmonized".  Thus, "Facebook bèi héxié le" 被和諧了 ("Facebook has been 'harmonized', i.e., liquidated or closed down and replaced by its Chinese knockoff Rénrén 人人 ["Everybody"]).  Not only has héxié 和諧 been ridiculed by being bèi 被-ized, it has also been mercilessly pummeled by punning with the homophonous héxiè 河蟹 ("river crab", about which all sorts of nasty things have been said).  One can even combine the two forms of satire by writing bèi héxiè le 被河蟹了 ("has been river crabbed").

As an example of a noun (this one with preceding modifier) to which bèi 被 has been prefixed, we may take Chūnjié wǎnhuì 春節晚會.  This is the super-extravagant television spectacular that is broadcast each year on the lunar New Year's Eve and that people seem obliged to watch by the hundreds of millions, even if they don't enjoy it.  I am not sure if there's an official translation, but "CCTV Gala" or "CCTV Spring Festival Gala" seem to be what most people have settled upon, with "Craptacular" also common in the expat community.  CCTV's old English site used "CCTV Spring Festival Gala", while Wikipedia seems to prefer "CCTV New Year's Gala".  In any event, when one has been dragooned into watching this CCTV craptacular, one may complain that one "bèi Chūnjié wǎnhuì le" 被春節晚會了 ("has been Spring Festival Galaized").

For a final note, I'd like to point out that the transformation of the English noun "railroad" into the adversative passive "be railroaded" parallels the transformation of the Chinese noun "gāotiě 高鐵 ("high-speed railroad") into the adversative passive "bèi gāotiě le" 被高鐵了 ("to be high-speed railroaded"), although the implication is entirely different.

[A tip of the hat to Brendan O'Kane, Gloria Bien, Gianni Wan, Jing Wen, Joel Martinsen, and Zhao Lu]


  1. Chad Nilep said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    One awaits the coining of 被上海了, probably with a meaning completely unrelated to the English expression "be shanghaied".

  2. neminem said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    While that is certainly interesting, I would like to point out that the English construction, "to be railroaded", does in fact exist, albeit with a highly different meaning. See, for instance, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Railroading (the term wasn't coined by tvtropes, it's just a convenient explanation). While I wouldn't likely ever say that I was "high-speed railroaded" (I'd probably say that I was "railroaded with high speed", or just "railroaded quickly"), I *could* say that.

    {{{VHM: I discussed this in the last paragraph of my post.}}}

    And apparently I just glossed over the previous article on this subject when it was written, or I would've mentioned my agreement that "to be volunteered" is a perfectly common construction around here (California). "To be suicided", on the other hand, is truly unique – though useful, given the frequency with which that trope seems to occur (as, for instance, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NeverSuicide).

  3. iching said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    The phrase "to be disappeared" comes to mind, particularly in reference to the "dirty war" under Argentina's military dictatorship. And the phrase "to be Jeffed", in reference to Jeff Kennett (Premier of Victoria, Australia in the 1990s). It means to be done over, screwed, a victim of the then Government's mania for small government and privatisation (either because of losing your job or because of reduced public services).

  4. iching said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 6:23 am

    Oops. Just read the "Suicided" post which has comments about the verb "disappear" used transitively. But at least there was no mention of "to be jeffed".

  5. Lareina said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    This is the super-extravagant television spectacular that is broadcast each year on the lunar New Year's Eve and that people seem obliged to watch by the hundreds of millions, even if they don't enjoy it.
    I LOVE this comment!

  6. Peter said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    I been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored.
    I been John O’Hara’d, McNamara’d.
    I been Rolling Stoned and Beatled till I'm blind.
    I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
    A communist, ’cause I'm left-handed,
    Y’know, that's the hand they use, well, never mind!
      —A Simple Desultory Philippic (or, how I was Robert McNamara’d into submission), Paul Simon

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