"Let's" in Chinese

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Advertisement recently spotted by Guy Freeman in the Central, Hong Kong MTR (subway) station:

It's a mixture of Chinese and English, of simplified and traditional characters.  In this post, I will focus on the calligraphically written slogan on the right side of the poster:

Hǎinèi cún 'zhī'jǐ, let's zhīfùbǎo


This slogan is not easy to translate.  Consequently, before attempting to do so, I will explain some of the more elusive aspects of these two clauses / lines.

First of all, the zhī 支 inside single Chinese quotation marks in the first clause has more than two dozen different meanings, including "support, sustain, raise, bear, put up, prop up, draw money, pay, pay money, disburse, check / cheque, defray, protrude, put off, put somebody off, send away, branch, stick, offshoot, twelve earthly branches, a surname, division, subdivision, auxiliary verb, measure word for troops".  For the moment, I'll refrain from attempting to translate it in the present context.

In the second clause, zhī 支 is part of the disyllabic word zhīfù 支付 ("pay [money]; defray"), which, in turn, is part of the trademark Zhīfùbǎo 支付宝 ("Alipay", China's clone of PayPal).  Being the name of a company, Zhīfùbǎo 支付宝 ("Alipay") is a noun.  However, since it here follows "let's" to form a first person plural command, it is acting as a verb:  "let's Zhīfùbǎo 支付宝" ("let's Alipay").

When we realize that the first clause is a literary allusion, it gets even trickier.  The first clause is perfectly homophonous with and echoes the first line of this couplet by the Tang poet, Wang Bo 王勃 (650-676):

hǎinèi cún zhījǐ, tiānyá ruò bǐlín

海内存知己, 天涯若比邻

"When you have a close friend in the world, the far ends of heaven are like next door."

Thus 'zhī'jǐ「支」己 (lit., "pay self") is a pun for zhījǐ 知己 ("bosom / close / intimate friend; confidant[e]; soulmate", lit., "know-self").

I would translate the whole couplet this way:

"You have a bosom friend (pay pal) everywhere, let's Alipay"

Guy notes that the ad "is from Alipay, a subsidiary of Alibaba, a very large Internet company from China. This shows the occasional outbursts from Chinese officials about defeating English to be useless at best."

Last question:  why did they use the English word "let's" instead of the equivalent Mandarin, "ràng wǒmen 让我们" or "ràng wǒmen yīqǐ 让我们一起"?  But that's three or five syllables instead of one, so it sounds clumsy and clunky instead of neat and crisp the way an ad should be.

If they wanted to avoid the English "let's" and use only Chinese, they could have written something like this:

yīqǐ Zhīfùbǎo 一起支付宝 ("together Alipay")

To tell the truth, in terms of rhythm, idiomaticity, and catchiness, that actually sounds better than "let's Zhīfùbǎo 支付宝 ('let's Alipay')" when paired with "Hǎinèi cún 'zhī'jǐ 海内存「支」己" ("You have a bosom friend [pay pal] everywhere").

Bottom line:  they wanted to sound international, since Alipay has global aspirations.

There have been many earlier posts on multiscriptalism and multilingualism involving numerous languages and scripts.  Here are some that specifically feature Chinese:

This is not an exhaustive list.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, and Jinyi Cai]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

    You see "Let's" used that way in Japan too, e.g. NHK's "Let's! クライミング" (climbing). See http://www4.nhk.or.jp/lets-climbing/

  2. Laura Morland said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 2:46 am

    Fascinating post! I'm going to France for half the year, and I sincerely hope *not* to be able to report finding the same phenomenon happening there. (Although nearly every page of (French) ELLE Magazine has a word or two of English the ad copy.)

    I'm writing, though, because I'm amazed that the image shows a woman touching her fingers to her mouth while eating a sandwich. (Note: she's eating Western food along with the Western language.)

    Where I come from, making a movement that could be interpreted as licking one's fingers is considered to be bad table manners. It is not in China?

  3. Matt said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 3:40 am

    The Japanese "let's" Jim mentions is basically a calque of the hortative/volitional -(y)ō verb ending ("Kuraimingu shiyō!"). I wonder if this Chinese "Let's" was influenced by it? It's definitely very visible in Japan.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 7:19 am

    @Laura Morland

    I had the same reaction as you to the woman touching her fingers to her mouth, with the added dimension of the hygienic aspects of her doing so.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 8:09 am

    Two questions:
    How is "let's" meant to be pronounced?
    Can the ad be read in Cantonese as well?

  6. Dan Milton said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    Would someone explain why Alipay is Zhifubao in Chinese?

  7. Dan said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    So the "「支」己" is explicitly a pun on PayPal that locals are expected to pick up on? Or was that just your own translational flourish?

  8. Akito said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    KFC has abandoned the promotional phrase "finger licking good", but it was widely used and it didn't come from China.

  9. Kim said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 11:41 am

    Since「支」is bracketed, I, a Chinese, will know it has unusual meaning and 「支」己's pronunciation is as same as 知己(bosom friend) and the whole sentence looks like the common phrase from Wang Bo, thus I will interpret the words as "bosom friend for payment" or pay pal immediately(not PayPal though because we never thought PayPal's literal meaning).

    @Dan Milton
    Alipay probably comes from short of "payment method from(for?) Alibaba" like Apple Pay or Android Pay.
    Zhifubao consists of two terms: Zhifu(Payment) and Bao(treasure or good to something). Chinese recently like naming useful tools as XXbao, e.g. ChongDianBao(ChongDian = charging) which means portable charger.
    Therefore these 2 names are neither literally nor pronunciationally related.

    "Let's" still pronounces "Let's" in English.
    Yes, it can be read in Cantonese as well.

    @Victor and @Laura
    I think the girl licking her finger because left side of the ad says "I love eating but do not like suffering losses (literally eat losses).

    The -yo grammer basically means "let's". They are not translated word by word literally. Japanese just directly uses it (not even translate to katakana form). Could this classified as calque?

    They uses "let's" and a lot of western words recently because it sounds modern and young.(It is actually a problem that elderly in Japan complain about. One elderly even sued NHK because NHK uses too much foreign words(mostly western words).

    In this ad case, I think "sounds younger" is also a reason for using "let's" instead of Chinese words.(I agree rhythm is also a big reason as this article said.)

  10. Kim said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

    @Victor and @Laura
    Regarding table manner, licking fingers is considered to be bad table manners in China as well. It also helps to emphasize how the girl enjoying food.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 2:52 am

    To me (British, 70+), licking my fingers if I get (for example) egg yolk on them while eating an egg sandwich is the most natural thing in the world. I would hate to have been born in a society so repressive that such behaviour was regarded as bad manners (LM) or unhygienic (VHM).

    Coby: Almost certainly /lɛts/.

  12. phspaelti said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 3:52 am

    -yo does not "mean" let's.
    "-yo" is hortative and "let's" is inclusive. They have some overlap in use though.

  13. Kim said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 11:44 am

    Thanks for pointing out. That's why I said "basically". They are not identical of course. Anyway, my point is that using "let's" in Japan does not seems to be calque.

  14. Kim said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    Sorry for off-topic. I think -yo can be both inclusive or hortative. It can be used for speaker himself as well.(talking to himself) If I am wrong, please advice me. Thanks.

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

    Re: "lets" here as English-ish /lɛts/, not for the vast majority of native speakers of Chinese dialects, for whom this word is two syllables resembling Pinyin laici ~ leici — confirmed by the meter of the pseudo-poem :)

  16. Matt said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 11:10 pm

    Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of “calque,” but what I mean is that when a Japanese speaker writes “let’s X!” (in English), in the vast majority of cases they mean it to correspond to “X shiyō!” (or whatever verb) in Japanese. They are translating a hortative construction morpheme-for-morpheme, not realizing (and/or not caring) that the result is unusual in that context in English.

  17. ngage92 said,

    October 22, 2017 @ 12:00 am

    So much weird racism to unpack in Philip's comment, but in his defense, being subjected to British food for 70+ years would take its toll on anyone – to the point where you might consider a bit of egg yolk runoff a treat worth licking your fingers for.

  18. Kim said,

    October 22, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    Your observation is true but the ad is in Hong Kong where we pronounce "let's" normally.

    Got it. Thanks for your explanation.
    I agree. They use English words most of time just because it sounds "osyare".

  19. phspaelti said,

    October 22, 2017 @ 7:54 am

    Just wanted to add my support to Matt's point. What I meant to say is that "let's" *in English* is inclusive. But in Japanese this fact is completely disregarded, and they treat it like "-(shi)yo)". So calling the Japanese use of "let's" a calque seems the right call to me.

  20. krogerfoot said,

    October 22, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    "So much weird racism to unpack in Philip's comment, but in his defense, being subjected to British food for 70+ years would take its toll on anyone . . ."

    Suppose you start unpacking it for us, then? Bonus points if your explanation unpacks why the rest of your comment is somehow not crasser and more chauvinistic than whatever you think you're accusing Philip of.

  21. dainichi said,

    October 22, 2017 @ 9:48 pm

    I think some commenters might be conflating the imperative -yo and the cohortative -yō (I wont mention the modal particle yo). Modulo subtleties, "shiyō" corresponds to "let's do" whereas "seyo" is (a slightly archaic way to say) "do!".

    About the finger licking, I believe the concept of "finger lickin' good" exists in English too. But since this is an attractive woman performing an act which could be considered childish, I can see how cultures might differ in whether to consider that "cute" or "gross".

  22. Rodger C said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 7:49 am

    To call Philip Taylor's remark racist strikes me as a long stretch, but I have to smile when I see a Briton accusing other societies of being repressive.

  23. Nicki said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 2:47 am

    It's unhygienic to lick your fingers when there's generally no soap in bathrooms and many people wouldn't bother using it even if there was any. I had a Haikou friend tell me once that "soap is dirty" and while I was at first baffled, I had to agree when she described her usual experience of finding a lone, half used up, grubby bar of yellowing soap stuck to a countertop that hadn't been wiped down since installation sometime in the previous decade. Or two.


  24. Kim said,

    October 27, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    "let's" *in English* is inclusive. But in Japanese this fact is completely disregarded.."

    I think "-yō" could be inclusive as well though. Take Matt's example, "Kuraimingu shiyō!" is inclusive, isn't it?
    Of course, "let's" and "-yō" are not identical but they are basically the same as I said before.
    (Thanks for dainichi pointing out. I should write -yō instead of yo.)

  25. Akito said,

    October 27, 2017 @ 11:16 am

    -yō (-you in my romanization) is a variant of (-ou), used with verb stems ending in vowels.

    Both -you and let's are inclusive. The point is that Japanese signs prefer inclusive forms to imperative or hortative forms to avoid imposition. In English there is no problem in saying "Abide by traffic rules", whereas Japanese signs tend to say "Koutsuu houki wo mamorou" rather than "Koutsuu houki wo mamore". Japanese inclusive slogans are often imperatives in disguise.

  26. Kim said,

    October 28, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    Thanks Akito for explaining.
    So they are translating part of Japanese into English while they are using "let's" and it is not calque. Am I right?

  27. Akito said,

    October 28, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

    I'm not sure if saying "let's" for Japanese -you is a calque or not. To me, a calque is when a literal translation of a foreign compound word or phrase has taken root in the language you are working in. Saying "let's" where it doesn't belong in English is simply inadequate translation due to semantic/usage coverage difference.

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