Greetings of the times

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The following are new forms of greetings that are circulating in Beijing on the heels of a major child molestation scandal at an elite school, the forced eviction of migrant workers, the convictions and suicides of ranking politicians, and perpetual fears of social instability.

Jùshuō Běijīng xīn de wènhòu yǔ

Dīduān rénkǒu jiànmiàn wèn: Zhǎodào dìfāng zhùle ma?

Zhōng duān rénkǒu jiànmiàn wèn: Háizi méishìr ba?

Gāoduān rénkǒu jiànmiàn wèn: Jìwěi méi zhǎo nǐ ba?

Dǐngduān rénkǒu lǎo juédé tiānxià yào luàn, kàn shéi dōu shì fǎn zéi. Shíkè zì yǔ: Zìxìn! Zìxìn! Zìxìn!

据说北京新的问候语

低端人口见面问:找到地方住了吗?

中端人口见面问:孩子没事儿吧?

高端人口见面问:纪委没找你吧?

顶端人口老觉得天下要乱,看谁都是反贼。时刻自语:自信!自信!自信!

New forms of greetings from Beijing

Urban poor: "Have you found a place to live?"

Middle-class: "Are your children okay?"

Upper-class (Communist business elite, red aristocracy, princelings, etc…): "The Communist Party Discipline Inspection Committee hasn't come for you yet?"

Communist Party leaders are in permanent fear of chaos and rebellion, so they keep repeating to themselves: "Self-esteem! Self-esteem! Self-esteem!"

(translation by Dimon Liu)

So different from the old days when people just used to ask those whom they met whether they had eaten (rice):

chīle ma 吃了吗

nǐ chīle ma 你吃了吗

chīle méi 吃了没

chīfànle ma 吃饭了吗

nǐ chīfànle ma 你吃饭了吗

chīfànle méi 吃饭了没

chīle fàn ma 吃了饭吗

nǐ chīle fàn ma 你吃了饭吗

chīle fàn méi 吃了饭没

(nǐ) chī (fàn) le ma (你)吃(饭)了吗

That's what I was taught when I started learning Mandarin half a century ago, but few people say that nowadays.  I asked the dozen students in my Classical Chinese course — all native speakers except one student from Russia who has near native fluency — what they say when they meet somebody and want to greet them.  These students come from across the length and breadth of China, and they gave me about thirty different possibilities — only one said "chīle 吃了" ("[have you] eaten[?]"), but he also said that he greets people with "Ēmítuófó 阿弥陀佛" ("Amitābha Buddha")!

If anybody wants to hear what other suggestions were made, I'll add some of them in a comment below.  Meanwhile, I'll just quote these remarks from a correspondent:

We never greet people by asking if they had eaten rice. At least people in the north never do this. People may say "chīle ma 吃了吗" ("have [you] eaten") when they meet their neighbors after work (usually 5 pm to 7 pm), or at lunchtime. The conversation is usually like this:

(Two neighbors meet at the bus station near their community. )

"Yōu, lǎo Zhāng, chīle ma?"
"Gāng chīguò, nín nà?"
"Hái méi ne, zhèng yào huí jiā zuò fàn ne."

"呦,老张,吃了吗?"
"刚吃过,您呐?"
"还没呢,正要回家做饭呢。"

"Yo, Zhang, have you eaten?"
"Just ate.  And you?"
"Not yet, going home to cook now."

This only happens between neighbors, friends, co-workers, or people who are familiar with each other. It is odd to ask a stranger "吃了吗" at any time. People may simply greet each other by nodding the head or holding the fist in front of the chest as a salute (usually used by men). However, young people may just say "hi".

Many of the students in my class also said that they and their friends greet people with "hi", which may be written either in Roman letters as "Hi" or as "Hāi 嗨" (mouth radical plus hǎi 海 ["sea"]).

[h.t. Scott Savitt; thanks to Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, and Jinyi Cai]



12 Comments

  1. Chau said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 10:22 pm

    About the old fashion greeting: Nĭ chīle ma? 你吃了嗎?
    In 1977 NASA launched two spacecraft, Voyager 1 & 2. Each carries a golden record in which are recorded greetings in 55 languages. The first one is in Akkadian, spoken in Sumer about 6,000 years ago. The second one is in Amoy, closely related to Taiwanese, which goes like, "Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time." It's a young lady's voice, distinctly Taiwanese. Probably by a graduate student from Taiwan studying at Cornell (the recording project was directed by Carl Sagan's wife). Interested in listening? Go to:
    https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/whats-on-the-record/greetings/

    On the right-hand side is a list of Greetings Audio Clips. Just click on Amoy.
    Listen carefully to the second sentence "Have you eaten yet?" (Lí chiáh pá beh? 你吃飽未?)

    By the way, pá 飽 'fed' can be related to L. pastus 'fed' (ppt of pāscere 'to feed'), and that chiáh 吃 'eat' can be derived from Old High German ezzan (aphetic *-zan > chiáh, derived according to a pattern of sound correspondence), which is in turn remotely related to Hittite ezzatteni.

  2. Chau said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

    Sorry, the second sentence actually refers to plural 'you', "Lín chiáh pá beh? 恁吃飽未?" (Singular 'you' is lí 你 whereas plural 'you' lín 恁.)

  3. Jon Haslam said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 3:56 am

    This reminds me of the Hamish and Dougal characters from BBC Radio 4's comedy panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. They routinely greet each other with:
    "Hamish"
    "Dougal"
    "You'll have had your tea?"
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamish_and_Dougal

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 8:36 am

    @Jon Haslam

    As a tea lover, I love the way Hamish and Dougal greet each other. Thanks!

  5. julie lee said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 9:06 am

    Years ago when I was a graduate student in New York rooming with a Chinese family, the head of the family, a Chinese man from Jiangxi province, would always say "Have you eaten?" to me in Mandarin whenever he saw me. I thought it very odd. Later my mother told me that that's was the way some Chinese people said "Hello."

  6. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 9:30 am

    'You'll have had your tea' is an old Edinburgh joke, or stereotype. In Edinburgh it's said about Morningside! :)

    'As they waited for the tram car Miss Brodie said, "I had lodgings in this street when first I came to Edinburgh as a student. I must tell you a story about the landlady, who was very frugal. It was her habit to come to me every morning to ask what I would have for breakfast, and she spoke like this: 'Wud ye have a red herrin? — no ye wouldn't. Could ye eat a boilt egg? — no ye couldn't.' The result was, I never had but bread and butter to my breakfast all the time I was in those lodgings, and very little of that."'

  7. Ponder Stibbons said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    I grew up in Singapore in the 90s and my relatives (those of my parents' generation) would still often greet me and others with variations of "have you eaten?" (in Mandarin or in Hokkien). The appending of "rice" at the end sometimes happened in the Mandarin phrase. So that greeting is not so old-fashioned among some speakers of Chinese languages.

  8. Chris C. said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

    Is that tea the drink, or tea the meal?

  9. Fluxor said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

    "据说北京新的问候语" is better translated as "Supposed new forms of greetings in Beijing"

  10. postageincluded said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

    @Chris C

    The joke is that the polite but frugal Scot jumps in with this phrase on receiving a guest for fear of having to provide him with a meal. Usefully, if the guest is boorish enough to answer "No" the host can provide a cup of tea instead.

  11. B.Ma said,

    December 2, 2017 @ 12:29 am

    My dad greets people with "食左饭未?" in Cantonese, but this is only used for short encounters such as chance meetings at a bus stop or saying hello to the "guard" that he knows when entering a building.

    It would be silly to say that when you are going for a meal with someone.

  12. Nicki said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    I am quite regularly greeted with the phrase 吃饭了吗?around my Haikou, Hainan neighborhood by various casual acquaintances such as the security guard or my elderly Dongbei neighbors. For those with a heavy Hainan accent, this often comes out sounding more like qi pan le mei? which left me rather befuddled, until I got the hang of it!

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