It is cool to f*** the empress

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Superb piece of Chinglish that popped up in Alex Baumans' Facebook feed:

Often with Chinglish, we have only the fractured English without the Chinese source text.  In such cases, one has to work extra hard to figure out how the translator arrived at the hilarious results with which we are presented.  In other words, we have to reconstruct the original on the basis of the mistranslated English.  In the present situation, it is much easier because we also have the original Chinese text.  Still, though, it is not a pushover, because the Chinese itself has some peculiarities that make it refractory in places, even for native speakers of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.  I will explain some of these odd usages after giving the text as is, with the customary Language Log Romanized transcription in Hanyu Pinyin and English translation.

Piǎoxǐ: Yòng lěngshuǐ jiā xǐfǎsù jìnpào shù fēnzhōng
Wù niǔzhà.
Liáng gān: Qīng pāi diào shuǐzhū, zìrán liáng gān,
Wù yòng fēngtǒng chuī.
Dìngxíng: Liáng gān hòu, yòng gāngzhēn shūzi shū dào yuánlái de fǎxíng.
Zhēnqíng fāshì róngyù chūpǐn

定型: 凉干后,用钢针梳子梳到原来的发型。

Washing / Cleaning
Rinsing:  Soak in cold water with shampoo for a few minutes
Don't wring.
Air-drying:  Pat off the drops of water, let it dry naturally, do not use a blower.
Styling:  After drying, use a comb with metal teeth to comb back to the original hairstyle.
Genuine Hair Accessories Glorious Product


xǐdí 洗滌 is the traditional form of simplified 洗涤 ("washing; cleaning")

zhà 搾 is a variant form of 榨 ("squeeze / press [to express liquid / juices])"

xǐfǎsù 洗发素 ("shampoo") — nowadays on the mainland this is usually referred to as xǐfǎshuǐ 洗发水 or xǐfǎlù 洗发露

niǔzhà 扭搾 ("wring") — usually referred to as níngjiǎo 拧绞 or róucuō 揉搓

fēngtǒng 风筒 ("hair dryer", lit., "wind tube") — chuīfēngjī 吹风机 (lit., "blow wind machine")

liáng gān 凉干 ("cool dry") should be the near homophone liàng gān 晾干 ("air dry")

The flagrant mistranslations "cool fuck" and "cool to fuck the empress" are the result of the notorious simplifications of 干 and 后 to stand for more than one completely different and unrelated characters, an unfortunate phenomenon that we have addressed numerous times on Language Log (see under "Selected readings"), from the first of which I quote:

The problem arises from the fact that, in the simplified character system, three characters from the traditional set are collapsed into one, namely, 干. This one little character of three strokes, which originally was pronounced gān, had the following meanings: "to oppose, offend against; a shield; the bank of a river; a stem (including a cyclical / calendrical symbol); attend to, concern; involve; consequences, results; seek; arrange". With simplification, it took on most, but not all, of the meanings and pronunciations of the following two characters as well:

gān 乾 ("dry, dried; clean, exhausted; to possess the name without the true relationship; to hold a position in name only")

qián 乾 — the same character as the preceding one, but with a different pronunciation ("heaven; male, father; sovereign; first of the eight trigrams in the Yi jing / I ching [Book of Changes]") — this pronunciation and set of meanings was not assigned to 干 in the simplified system, but were retained by the original character in its traditional form, which for these specific meanings was taken over as is into the simplified system

gàn 幹 ("the trunk of a tree or the body; business, to attend to business; manage; skillful, capable; do; fuck")

[Update:  According to Wiktionary, after simplification 干 now stands for at least five completely different etymologically derived morphosyllables / characters.]

After simplification, hòu 后, which originally meant "empress", has been borrowed to stand for hòu  ("after; rear; later; behind, back"), without losing the meaning "empress"

The perils of translating into English without really knowing English.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Yijie Zhang and Chenfeng Wang]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 2:29 pm

    A gem. Thank you.

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 4:03 pm

    "Minuteses"? Gollum works as a Mandarin-to-English translator?

  3. Mark P said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 4:53 pm

    I gave a link to LL to someone at another site ( with the suggestion that he might enjoy it. This was the first thing he saw when he followed the link. You will be pleased to hear that you almost certainly have a new reader.

  4. JB said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 7:40 pm

    Shades of Edmund Backhouse and René Leys?

  5. David Moser said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 10:53 pm

    Amazing new example of this 干 = fuck phenomenon. Years ago some people conjectured that there was some commonly used Chinese-English dictionary that had "fuck" listed in the top options as a translation for 干, and most or many of Chinese restaurants and businesses were routinely using this resource, resulting in a large number of such mistranslations. Is that still a possible explanation? Has anyone been able to find a digital or paper dictionary that would seem to facilitate this sort of blunder? It's my impression that none of the readily available and commonly used translation tools (such as Baidu Translate or 金山词霸) would possibly output this gross error. Has anyone been able to identify a dictionary culprit for this?

  6. John Swindle said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 4:39 am

    Do the peculiarities in the Chinese tell us anything interesting, or are they kind of random?

  7. Jayarava Attwood said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 6:25 am

    In this case Google translate would have been considerably better:

    Rinse: Soak in cold water and shampoo for a few minutes
    Don't twist
    Drying: Pat off the drops of water, let it dry naturally, and do not use a blower.
    Setting: After drying, use a steel needle comb to get the original hairstyle.
    Honest Hair Accessories

  8. David L said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 3:52 pm

    How did the vegetable get into the English translation?

  9. SJ said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 1:58 am

    I tried a few top results generated with the keywords "online translation" on Baidu (THE search engine most people use in China), and apart from the major ones, there are still lots of sites with a 00s design that might have been the source of such errors.

    Just as an example, one of the sites (汉程翻译) translated the bit "soak in cold water with shampoo for a few minutes" as "makes additional copies of films with cold water sends the element to soak several minutes", clearing failing to identify "word boundaries" semantically. Here 素 from the word for "shampoo" 洗发素 is translated as an isolated character as "element", which is pretty much what happened with "vegetable", since 素 has another meaning "vegetarian food". Now I'm just confused about where "copies of films" came from!

  10. John Swindle said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 3:57 am

    @David L: The problem is 素 sù 'pure, simple, element'. It means 'substance' in 洗发素 xǐfǎsù 'shampoo', but it can also mean vegetable as opposed to meat.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 6:54 am

    @John Swindle

    Perfect answer to David L.

  12. Terpomo said,

    November 30, 2020 @ 9:45 am

    It may be cool to fuck the empress, but everyone knows it's hip to fuck bees.

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