Instant divorce

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Board in front of a Hūnyīn dēngjì chù 婚姻登记处 ("marriage registration office") in Chongqing, China:


It is specially designed for new couples who come for marriage certificates during covid time.  The six pairs of trisyllabic injunctions give social distancing instructions.  For example, the first one says:

bù zhāduī yǒu jiānjù
不扎堆 有间距
"don't gather together; keep a space"

The fourth pair (inside the blue ellipse)  is intended to say:

bàn wán hòu jíkè lí
办完后 即刻离
"after you've finished, leave right away"

The problem is that, like me, everyone who sees this will burst out laughing because, given the context of marriage, they will naturally interpret "lí 离" ("depart; leave") as short for "líhūn 离婚" ("divorce").

Diana Shuheng Zhang asks:

Why is this? I think it is caused by the pursuit of equisyllabicity (齐言) of literary / formal Chinese language. Every sentence on this board is trisyllabic. In the tradition of Chinese language, the trisyllabic (sān yán 三言) meter is usually for folk songs, prophecy, or nursery rhymes, primarily to enhance mnemonic efficacy. One of the most famous sān yán 三言 ("trisyllabic") poems is 《Chūnrì xíng 春日行》 ("Ballad of a Spring Day") by Bào Zhào 鲍照 (c. 414-466). On different Chinese meters and their pragmatic functions, the best treatise so far is, I think, 《Xiān Qín Hàn Wèi liùcháo shīgē tǐshì yánjiū 先秦汉魏六朝诗歌体式研究》(A Study on the Poetic Style of Pre-Qin, Han, Wei and Six Dynasties) by Gé Xiǎoyīn 葛晓音, published by Peking University Press (Běijīng dàxué chūbǎn shè 北京大学出版社) in 2012.

In any case, since the sentences on this board are all metrically trisyllabic, the object of lí 离" ("depart; leave") has to be omitted. Since lí 离 could serve as the factor verb in líhūn 离婚 "to divorce", no wonder a native speaker would tend to read it as "immediately divorce" rather than "immediately leave the place" at a marriage office!!

Added note:

Pursuing equisyllabicity is not "bad". It is a part of Chinese literary tradition; moreover, within the trisyllabic (sān yán 三言) metric form, there are many more options for this sentence that one can think of after bàn wán hòu 办完后 ("after you've finished [filling out the forms; with your business]") — jíkè zǒu 即刻走 ("leave right away") / bù dòuliú 不逗留 ("don't linger") / kuài huí jiā 快回家 ("return home in a hurry"), etc….  The main cause of such a farce is still the carelessness and perfunctoriness of whoever made this board.


Selected readings

1 Comment

  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 8:25 am

    From Perry Link:

    That's truly funny!

    In addition to what Diana Zhang says about the shortening of 离婚 to 离 due to the mandatory three-syllable rhythm, the abbreviation happens a lot anyway — without any rhythm requirements. Consider a sentence like: 他们结婚不到两年就离了。 She is very right, moreover, to point out that there are a number of other three-syllable ways the message could have been delivered without the disastrous implication. Makes you think the error perhaps was not inadvertent but somebody slyly undermining the do-it-yourself 婚 shop. Who knows?

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