Academic rubbish

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Echo Huang from Quartz (7/5/19) has written a fun and interesting article on Shanghai’s new waste sorting rules:

"'What kind of rubbish are you?': China’s first serious trash-sorting rule is driving Shanghai crazy"

Echo also has a related Chinese version.

"Starting Monday (July 1), individuals and businesses in China’s financial capital who fail to separate trash correctly face fines and even a lower social credit rating (link in Chinese) that could make it hard to get a bank loan."

The following "sticker" / image macro showing the "Shanghai aunties" (Shànghǎi āyí 上海阿姨) who help people sort their trash is a favorite of Weibo microbloggers:

The caption says:

Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?
("What [kind of] garbage / rubbish are you?")

[Pronunciation note:  垃圾 ("garbage; rubbish; waste") is pronounced "lājī" in the PRC and "lèsè" in Taiwan.  I personally always think / say "lèsè" when I see 垃圾, since that's the first and only way I knew how to pronounce it for more than a decade.]

If you think that question is ambiguous, aggressive, or contentious, by the time I'm finished with the following lengthy analysis, your head will be spinning from all the variations, subtleties, and implications of such a seemingly simple query.

Cf. "Nǐ shì shénme yìsi 你是什么意思?" (or, more peremptorily, just "shénme yìsi 什么意思?"), either of which might mean simply "What do you mean?"  Depending on how it is uttered, however, this question might amount almost to fighting words.

Purely from a grammatical standpoint, "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" means "What rubbish are you?", i.e., "What [kind of] garbage / rubbish are you?"  The actual intent of the question, though, is "What kind / type of rubbish do you have?" or "What kind / type of rubbish are you bringing [to the collection center]?"  That is to say, following the original wording more closely, "You[r rubbish] is what [type of] rubbish?"

One of my correspondents thinks that "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" should actually be interpreted as a shortened form of “Nǐ zhè shì shénme lājī 你这是什么垃圾?”, i.e., "This [rubbish that] you [have / are bringing] is what [type / kind of] rubbish?", but that people customarily omit “zhè 这” ("this"), because — in context — the sentence can readily be understood without it.

The problem of the meaning of "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" ("What [kind of] garbage / rubbish are you?") becomes much more complicated when we take into account that it exists in and is widely circulating in a variant form:  “Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?”  What to do with that simple, innocent looking, high frequency "gè / ge 个 (3 strokes) / 個 (10 strokes)"?  Basically it means "piece; item".  It can also signify an "individual" or "oneself", and it has numerous colloquial and topolectal usages.  Grammatically, it is usually considered to be a universal measure word or general classifier.  But it is not quite "universal", since we cannot use it with reference to "lājī 垃圾", i.e., we cannot say “*yī ge lājī 一个垃圾”.  So, in the question “Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?”, it is being used to refer to a person, as in this demeaning question:  "Nǐ shì ge shénme dōngxī 你是个什么东西?" ("What sort of thing are you?").

Without prejudice, both "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" and “Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?” could be interpreted to mean "What [sort of] rubbish do you have?"  Jokingly or offensively, however, both could also be interpreted as meaning "What [sort of] rubbish are you?"  Of course, when the Shanghai aunties ask "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?", they mean "What's YOUR rubbish?" ("What kind of rubbish are you bringing?"), but people are having fun twisting their question to mean "What rubbish are YOU?"  Still, the variant with a "ge 个" is more likely to be interpreted as "What kind of rubbish are you?", since formulations like "nǐ shìge 你是个…" ("you are a…") or "nǐ suàn ge 你算个…" ("you count as a…") are more common in aggressive or offensive assertions, especially in intentional provocations (e.g., "Nǐ shì ge wángbā dàn 你是个王八蛋" ["You're a bastard"]).  The general classifier "ge 个" makes "nǐ 你" ("you") and "lājī 垃圾" ("rubbish") in this sentence more  closely related by personalizing the latter — as when we say in English that "you're a piece of sh*t / pile of 💩".

Another correspondent says:

To me, these two questions do not sound really different in this context since we all know that people are making fun of this sorting business. The grammatically correct sentence should be "Nǐ de shì shénme lājī 你的是什么垃圾?" ("Yours is what [type / kind] of rubbish?"), and there would be no ambiguity in this sentence.

Without this context, of the two variants “Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?” is more ironic to me. I think it may be because of the character gè 个, since there are so many sentences which use this structure to express an ironic meaning. For example, "Nǐ shì ge shénme dōngxī 你是个什么东西?" ("What kind of thing are you?") and "Zhè shì ge shénme huò 这是个什么货?" ("What piece of goods is this?").

A third correspondent holds:

Normally, in Chinese, "person / people" is countable and "lājī 垃圾" ("rubbish") is uncountable, so the classifier "gè 个" here can only refer to people, and the bare noun “lājī 垃圾” (without any classifier or numeral word to modify it) is used as a generic reference.  Hence the sentence "Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是个什么垃圾?" is talking about people, and the second sentence "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" is talking about things — meaning "what is this lājī 垃圾 (in your hand)?"

However, I was reminded later that when we are talking about people, the classifier "gè 个" sometimes can also be omitted. In other words, the sentence "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?", depending on which word is omitted — “zhè 这” ("this") or "gè 个" ("piece; item; individual; classifier") — can either mean "what kind of rubbish is in your hand / do you have?" or "what kind of rubbish are you?"

Yet another correspondent offers this sustained analysis of the different nuances between the two variants:

The two sentences "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾“ and "Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是个什么垃圾" don't differ from each other semantically, but there is a subtle difference in emphasis, as with "gé 个" the whole sentence is made more aggressive by stressing the direct link between the subject and the often derogatory object. For example, the sentence "Nǐ shì ge shénme dōngxī 你是个什么东西" ("What [kind of] thing are you?" suggests an angrier issuance than that of "Nǐ shì shénme dōngxī 你是什么东西", as the person “nǐ 你” ("you") is exactly a bloody bastard rather than simply a despicable thing.  Another example is the popular catchphrase recently, "nǐ ge zāo lǎotóuzi huài dé hěn 你个糟老头子坏得狠", that is virally disseminated online and means "you dirty codger are a bloody devil". It first appeared in the Dǒuyīn 抖音 ("TikTok") APP, a short video platform which is extremely popular among the lower income groups, as well as younger people, when, in a video, a delivery man of Měituán 美团 is complaining about his absurd and ridiculous life in a hilarious southern China topolect / dialect.  The link to the video is here.

What the delivery man basically says is that a fortune-teller once when he was an eight-year old little boy told him that when he turned twenty-four he would be clad in yellow robes (yellow refers to the color of the emperor's clothing) and be surrounded by fish and meat (rich life). However, as a delivery man of, he finds himself in a yellow uniform and carrying fish and meat that don't belong to him at all. In the end, he says, "Wǒ xìn nǐ gè guǐ, nǐ zhè ge zāo lǎotóuzi huài de hěn 我信你个鬼,你这个糟老头子坏得狠" ("I [won't] believe you, bloody ghost. You dirty codger are a bloody devil)!"  With two 个s, the man accentuates his angry and contemptuous tone that directly points to the  fortune-teller who haunts his life with the absurd curse. If the "个" is dropped from the sentence, "Wǒ xìn nǐ guǐ, nǐ zāo lǎotóu huài de hěn 我信你鬼,你糟老头坏得狠,“ then the direct attribution of the man's unlucky destiny to the fortune teller would be weakened.

I think "gè 个" in "Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是个什么垃圾" shares the same indexing tone of that in "Nǐ ge zāo lǎotóuzi huài de hěn 你个糟老头子坏得狠" ("You dirty codger are a bloody devil") where the person on the receiving end of the denunciation finds no way to escape the depreciation of lājī 垃圾 ("rubbish") in the sentence.

Most people I wrote to in Shanghai about how to say "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" ("What [kind of] garbage / rubbish are you?) in Shanghainese told me they only hear the slogan being spoken and written in Mandarin, but a few volunteered the following:

nóng zi sā lǎ xī 侬zi撒喇希? (using the Mandarin pronunciations of Sinographs to approximate the Shanghainese)

nong2 si3 sa2 la3 xi1? (using Hanyu Pinyin to approximate the Shanghainese)

Nong si shage laji? (nonce Romanization)

[Romanization note:  Since there's no standard, fixed Romanization for Shanghainese, speakers of the language don't really know how to write it down.  The situation is similar for nearly all of the hundreds of Sinitic topolects in China.  Only for Cantonese, where there are Jyutping and Yale Romanizations, and for Taiwanese, where there is Church Romanization, is it more likely that someone might be able to transcribe their speech in written form, though even in these two cases, few people (mostly language specialists and churchgoers respectively) know how to use these transcriptions.

In Shanghai, it is hilarious to see how people are complaining about the situation concerning the sorting of waste.  There are so many rules and regulations; moreover, the rules and regulations are so complicated and confusing.  For example, when you want to throw away a cup of bubble tea, the bubbles are "wet waste", the cup is "dry waste" and the cover is for recycling.  So, before you throw something away, you have to do a bit of online searching to see what category of waste it falls into:

Ràng wǒ kànkàn nǐ shì ge shème lājī 让我看看你是个社么垃圾
("Let me see what [kind of] rubbish you are")

If things are like this in Shanghai, generally regarded as China's most savvy and progressive city, one can well imagine what it will be like when the new rules for sorting waste are rolled out in the 39 other cities scheduled for implementation.
Interestingly, since the meaning of "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" ("What [kind of] rubbish are you?") is ambiguous and can be understood in two quite different ways, people who were annoyed by the new sorting rules started to make fun of the situation through puns that targeted themselves.  Graduate students in China made posts like the following in their social network sites:

"Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?"
("What [kind of] rubbish / garbage / waste are you?")

"Wǒ shì xuéshù lājī 我是学术垃圾"
("I am academic rubbish / garbage / waste".)


"Pernicious garbage" (11/8/15)

"Sort of rubblish" (6/20/15)

"Anti-PRC sign in Syria" (7/16/13)

"The kitchen sink" (5/31/15) — especially this comment

"Emoticons as writing" (7/7/19) — see the "Readings" section for earlier posts on image macros and related topics

[Thanks to David Cragin, Wenkan Xu, Yinchi Chen, Rostislav Berezkin, Chenfeng Wang, Yijie Zhang, Zeyao Wu, Qing Liao, and Xinchang Li]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 6:44 am

    From dako-xiaweiyi:

    Besides figuring out which Uighurs need "vocational training" in prison camps, here's another good use of algorithmically determined social credit scores: "If you know how to sort the trash, then you are a good person."

    This is complicated. For instance, Shanghai residents need to know that chicken bones are categorized into the "wet trash" bin while pig bones go into the "dry trash" bin, and both of them go into the "hazmat" bin if you spray the roaches on them with bug spray. Do it wrong and you may not be allowed to buy airline or train tickets.

    I wonder if Xi Jinping sorts his trash.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 6:50 am

    From Tong Wang:

    It seems to me that “Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是个什么垃圾“ (the variant with ge 个)sounds more like "what kind of rubbish are you" rather than the variant without ge 个, as ge 个 is not a measure word used before rubbish in Chinese, but can be used before a person. Actually to someone who doesn't know the context of the two sentences, both sound insulting. The normal ways of saying should be “Nǐ de shì shénme lājī 你的是什么垃圾“ ("Yours is what [kind of] rubbish") or "Zhè shì shénme lājī 这是什么垃圾“ ("This is what [kind of] rubbish") if one is asking another person instead of addressing to the garbage he/she holds.

    To compare with “Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是个什么垃圾“ or “Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾“ (both roughly mean "What [kind of] garbage are you?"), there are two insulting sayings “Nǐ shì ge shénme dōngxī 你是个什么东西” or “Nǐ shì shénme dōngxī 你是什么东西“, which basically have the same meaning ("What [kind of] thing are you?"), but the variant with "ge 个" has a stronger tone.

  3. Non-linguist reader from PRC said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 7:34 am

    「Without prejudice, both "Nǐ shì shénme lājī 你是什么垃圾?" and "Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī 你是个什么垃圾?" could be interpreted to mean "What [sort of] rubbish do you have?"」

    As a native speaker of mandarin, I don't think "你是什么垃圾?“ can be interpreted this way. To me it only means "what type of rubbish are you?" and is a shortened version of "你是一(个)什么(样的)垃圾?"

    To me,"Nǐ shì ge shénme lājī" is easier to utter angrily than "Nǐ shì shénme lājī" in standard mandarin. It's difficult to utter "shì" and "shénme" consecutively forcefully because they share "sh" as their initials . With "ge" in the middle, the task is much easier!

    By the way, on China's social media, many young people casually (and humorously) use "辣鸡" (spicy chicken) instead of "垃圾".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 7:51 am

    @Non-linguist reader from PRC:

    "As a native speaker of mandarin"…

    All the correspondents quoted in this post, and all the millions of people who are talking about these two variants on social media in China are "native speakers of Mandarin".

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 10:03 am

    你是什么垃圾 is normal metonymy, not "a shortened form" of "proper" 你这是什么垃圾, 你的是什么垃圾 or similar… responders/commenters need to refer to Prof. Mair's reference on an earlier post to the fact that "[s]poken language is not nearly so neat and tidy as scientific minds might wish it to be".

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    Leaving the "insult" readings with or without the GE measure aside, and
    addressing the original poster's Ni she shenme laji, and to get a little
    more technical for a minute:
    To go back to Y R Chao, Chinese is a "topic-comment" language, where
    the predicated part of the sentence is a comment on the topic rather than the tighter (?) grammatical relation between subject and verb usually found in Western languages. Oft cited examples are: 'Wo shi Zhongguo taitai '(Lit: I am a Chinese wife, said by a man, which really means "As for me, it's (a case of having a) Chinese wife", or 'Ta si le (yige) fuqin' (lit: he died (one) father', mng: As for him, (it was a case of) (suffering) the death of a father. In most cases the relation between the topic and what is predicated of it in the comment is effectively akin to that of and predicate, so it doesn't matter, but when these slightly
    odd (from a Western language perspective) cases , one has to remember
    this. —Another example, e.g., "wo you qian', Lit: ' have money' more accurately "(as for) me, (it's a case of) there being money."

  7. John Rohsenow said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    "…In most cases the relation between the topic and what is predicated of it in the comment is effectively akin to that of SUBJECT and predicate, so it doesn't matter…"
    I should have proof-read more carefully before hitting SUBMIT. Sorry!

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 12:39 pm

    Yes, John, or as my father-in-law used to say, "Wo shi kongjun" ("I'm the air force"), and my sisters-in-law used to say, "Wo baba shi kongjun" ("My father is the air force"), which always used to blow my mind away.

    I couldn't reason with him or the rest of the family about the grammar of those sentences.

  9. Chris Button said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 2:10 pm

    I think the issue comes down to English grammar making 是 into a verb. In reality it is simply a copula linking two parts of a sentence together. I'm sure there are some interesting studies out there of its evolution from its earlier pronominal sense to its current one.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 2:30 pm

    Oft cited examples are: 'Wo shi Zhongguo taitai '(Lit: I am a Chinese wife, said by a man, which really means "As for me, it's (a case of having a) Chinese wife"

    or as my father-in-law used to say, "Wo shi kongjun" ("I'm the air force"), and my sisters-in-law used to say, "Wo baba shi kongjun" ("My father is the air force")

    I've always interpreted this type of sentence as ending with an omitted 的 — it's also possible to have similar sentences that omit the 是 and realize the 的 at the end, or to realize both.

    I would be interested in other people's opinions of that view.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

    (Oh, for those interested: 我是中国太太 [ 的 ] would be a sentence in normal word order (involving no topic fronting), translating as basically "I am [characterized by] a Chinese wife".)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

    From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

    It is interesting to see this grammatical issue pointed out. Regarding this usage of the copular 是 in "你是什麼垃圾" (within the context of sorting trash), I recall that such a usage is called "Illogical Copula" in 朱德熙's 語法講義 (1982, chapter 7) and Chao Yuen-ren 趙元任's A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (1965), Ch. trans. by Ting Pang-hsin 丁邦新, 中國話的文法 (1980). In "illogical" copular sentences, 是 serves as a pure connector, or “pro-verb” in the structure NP1+是+NP2 that does not logically demonstrate any equivalent, classificatory, or proprietary relationship between NP1 and NP2. Other examples of such a structure are:

    我是文學,他是歷史。(Lit. I am literature; he is history. Meaning "I am [one who studies] literature; he is [one who studies] history." Context: answering "what do you guys study?")

    我是炸雞。(Lit. I am fried chicken. Meaning "[̇What] I [ordered] is fried chicken." Context: What did you order?)

    他家是豐年。(Lit. His family is a harvesting year. Meaning "[The condition of where] his family [locates at] is a harvesting year." Context: How is that place?)

    她是個男孩。(Lit. She is a boy. Meaning "[Whom] she [gave birth to] is a boy." Context: What is her baby's gender?)

    Just would like to say that this "illogical" copular structure is regular and studied in Chinese grammar, though it does not apply in English (or does it?).

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 3:25 pm

    From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

    And by the way, there are even some non-translatable cases for the Chinese "illogical copular structure". For example, what if a mom gave birth to twin brothers? The Chinese would be:


    This is a fine Chinese expression. However, since subjects and verbs must agree in English, neither "she is two boys" nor "she are two boys" is grammatical. We could thus, in translation, only paraphrase the sentence as "she gave birth to two boys" or "whom she gave birth to are twin boys", while no literal translation could be found.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 4:03 pm

    this "illogical" copular structure is regular and studied in Chinese grammar, though it does not apply in English (or does it?)

    I would reject most of the examples given, but I think "I'm literature, he's history" as a response to a question like "what do you study?" is fully idiomatic English.

  15. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

    Thinking a little further, while "I am fried chicken" is not valid English in the context of a restaurant order, "I'm the fried chicken" certainly is. As is "that's me" in response to the waiter announcing "fried chicken".

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 4:18 pm

    "I'm Air Force" sounds fine to me too.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 6:10 pm

    An English "illogical copula" with obligatory definiteness marking will work in any context where you're assigning a set of known options (like a waiter distributing orders). If you're telling someone which parents go to which children, a sentence like "She's the teenager, she's the two little girls, and she's the two boys" is fine.

    It really doesn't seem that illogical to me — the waiter knows a set of orders and needs to equate them to a set of people; the teacher knows a set of children and needs to equate them to a set of parents.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 6:16 pm

    (On the other hand, if the context is not "given the children, who are their parents?" or "given the parents, who are their children?" but rather "Chloe gave birth, what came out?" [1], then I can't make any variation of "she's two boys" work. "It's two boys" will work in that context, so I do challenge the idea that "she is two boys" is ungrammatical as a matter of verb agreement.)

    [1] Apologies for the phrasing.

  19. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 8:27 pm

    The discussion just above ("I'm the fried chicken", "illogical copula", etc.) is about metonymy, which is the issue in the example IMO.. I don't think such 是 sentences relate to topic/comment structure.

  20. Non-linguist reader from PRC said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 9:11 pm

    BTW, I state "As a native speaker" not to brag or indicate I'm any authority on mandarin grammer (of course I am not!), only to give a background of myself so other people can evaluate my opinions better. Because PRC is vast and linguistically plural, my personal view may not be representitive of people who are 吴语/粤语 speakers, or ethnic minorities who study Chinese as their second language.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 9:16 pm

    All the respondents have Mandarin as their first language.

  22. B.Ma said,

    July 13, 2019 @ 11:15 pm

    On initially skimming the post, I thought people were asking the rubbish what kind of rubbish it is.

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