The meaning of meaning: kaput

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The poor fellow in the following short video is taking a Mandarin listening comprehension exam:

The operative word is "yìsi 意思" ("meaning").  It's highlighted in red, so even if you don't know Mandarin, you can see when it pops up in the supertitles and hear the emotions that get attached to it.

At the very end, there's a little snippet of music signifying that he totally blew that question.  It comes from a super famous song called "Liángliáng 凉凉".  The song is so bad — I would call it "ròumá 肉麻" ("corny; sappy; maudlin; overly romantic; cheesy; creepy; cringe-worthy" — the usual translations are "nauseating; sickening; disgusting", but these are too strong in most cases and don't capture the essence of ròumá 肉麻ness).  The song is full of expressions like these, "huā de chún 花的纯" ("the purity of the flower") and "qiānchén 牵尘" ("the dust that pulls / clings [?]), some of which are quite baffling.

The basic meaning of liáng 凉 is "cool" and it can also mean "cold".  By extension it can convey the sense of "disheartened; discouraged".  When people fail, they would say, "my heart gets cold" (Wǒ de xīn dōu liáng le 我的心都凉了).  So, in the song title, you have the reduplication of these feelings.

In recent times, the connotation of "liáng 凉" was extended even further, so that when someone felt  doomed or ruined, people might say this person "liáng le 凉了" ("became chilled / disheartened").  After this song came out, instead of saying "liáng le 凉了", people sometimes exclaim "liángliáng 凉凉" or sing "liángliáng 凉凉" for the person who bombed.  Chinese think it's really funny to hear a short excerpt of "Liángliáng 凉凉" being played when somebody flops or fails.

"Liáng le 凉了" ("doomed; ruined; screwed") is a new term popular with young people.  There are many other current colloquialisms that have roughly the same meaning — here with the literal translation of the main component given:

huángle 黄了 ("yellow")

guàle 挂了 ("hung")

méixìle 没戏了 ("no more play / show / drama")

zále 砸了 ("crushed; smashed")

xiē càile 歇菜了 ("out of things to cook") — i.e., "game over"

In each of these terms, the particle "le 了" at the end indicates a change of state into the feeling or condition indicated by the adjective or verb at the beginning.

When I was much younger and had just begun learning Mandarin, the equivalent term was "wánle 完了") ("finished") or, more emphatically, "wándànle 完蛋了" (lit., "egg is finished", i.e., "ruined; goose is cooked; dead duck"), which I enjoyed saying with flamboyant flourish.

Is so much emphasis on debacle, failure, and fiasco a sign of the zeitgeist?

Returning to the brief video with which this post begins, it was originally sent to me as a separate mp4 by a friend in China.  Ben Zimmer tracked it down and found it in this Twitter feed, though, as he says, it likely originated elsewhere.  Ben remarks:

The same fellow makes numerous appearances, and in each video he's stumped by some bit of Mandarin. I don't think he's actually taking a listening exam, though the videos are shot to look that way.

I watched about thirty of the countless items in the feed (never reached the bottom because it just goes on and on and on, with film clips, segments of songs, scholars pontificating, and all sorts of random experiences in China.  Most of them are just goofy and silly, and many are utterly innocuous — bus stop signs, flowers, etc. — but every single one comes with this warning:  "This media may contain sensitive material."

In the ones where our hero crashes on some fine point of Mandarin grammar or semantics, they always conclude with a tiny bit of "liángliáng 凉凉" or other suitable mini-finale.

[Thanks to Tong Wang and Lin Zhang]


  1. SamC said,

    July 31, 2019 @ 3:11 pm

    Reminds me of the running gag in Arrested Development when a character was having a downtrodden moment and they'd play the "Charlie Brown song" while they walked slowly with their head down.
    Collection of every "Charlie Brown" moment from Arrested Development:

  2. David Morris said,

    August 1, 2019 @ 4:03 am

    I've got to remind myself that some of my students feel approximately equivalent to that in English classes!

    I lasted one online lesson of Mandarin, between tones and the palatal consonants.

  3. 中書侍郎 said,

    August 1, 2019 @ 10:46 am

    It's worth noting that the impossible Mandarin listening exam is something of a meme in and of itself on the Chinese internet. The joke tends to center on homophony (as with Y.R. Chao's "Lion-Eating Poet") or the literal and figurative meanings of a particular idiom, as here. I remember a funny one in which the key phrase was 你妹 nǐ mèi, which means either literally "your younger sister," or in colloquial usage can be equivalent to the French "et ta sœur!" and the incredulous English "____, my eye!"

    TikTok (抖音) used to be full of silly videos like these, but the novelty seems to have worn off somewhat, and now all I see are clips from interminably ròumá 肉麻 period dramas and people showing off their clothes, hair, makeup, etc.

  4. Zhou Fang said,

    August 3, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

    My rough? translation:

    Woman: You totally don't understand me
    Man: You don't say, so how can I understand you
    Woman: Actually I shouldn't have to say
    Man: If you said it I would understand
    Woman: What's the *meaning* of saying it out loud?
    Woman: If I don't speak you should understand!
    Man: I'm not a fortune teller
    Man: as if I'd know what you *mean*
    Woman: I'm not trying to make a *point*
    Man: Indeed what's the *point*
    Woman: Right, when I'm speaking you feel no *interest*, yes?
    Man: Did I say there's no *interest*?
    Woman: If I say there's no *point* is that not *interesting*? [Not sure about this line]
    Man: Then just tell me, what are your *opinions*?
    Woman: Then I'll tell you right now, the *meaning* of what I'm saying.

    Please answer: what is the meaning of the word *meaning* here?

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