Korean language in Chinese film

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Until Chairman Xi started going after the entertainment world, and especially foreign entertainment, the Chinese people were deeply enamored of Korean soap operas, boy bands, K-Pop girl groups, and so forth.  They idolized the Korean stars, watched their performances, and would even go on pilgrimages to important places associated with them.  Moreover, as with J-pop, manga, and anime, which inspired many young Chinese to learn Japanese language, so were Chinese youth inspired by Korean pop culture to learn Korean language.  So it is not altogether surprising to hear a Chinese film star switch into Korean.

First listen, and see if you can distinguish between the Mandarin and the Korean.  Below I'll give a rough account of the background to this scene.

Alex Baumans comments:

This scene is in the opening episode of "Dating in the Kitchen". Gu Sheng Nan (played by Zhao Lusi) works in the kitchen of a hotel that Lu Jin (played by Lin Yushen) is planning on buying. Just as he is inspecting the hotel, she starts a fire, which gets her fired. Then by one of the typical misunderstandings of the genre, she ends up dumping flour all over his car, and is caught in the act (don't worry, they find true love in the end). At this point in the story the characters don't know each other yet.

Unexpectedly, she tries to get out of the situation by pretending to be Korean, but gets her bluff called. As I said, I am not familiar enough with Chinese popular culture to have a guess what this says about the character. Are Chinese manic pixie girls supposed to be fans of K-Pop? Or does Zhao Lusi want to show off her language skills?
Comments from fluent speakers of Korean:
I can understand all the Korean the characters speak, but they both have a very heavy accent!
I can only tell you that their Korean is with heavy Chinese accents, but they are actually speaking Korean, as opposed to just pretending to speak Korean. I don’t think her Korean is “good”; it sounds like she just learned the lines for the scene. It doesn’t sound like she speaks Korean on a regular basis or is proficient. 

Trending on Weibo, which means that it is a hot topic on social media in the PRC.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Erica Cho and Ashley Liu]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 5:04 am

    "[A]s with J-pop, manga, and anime, which inspired many young Chinese to learn Japanese language …". I can attest to this. The son of one of my three Chinese teachers taught himself Japanese by watching Japanese anime films, reading the (Kanji) subtitles, interpreting them as if they were Chinese, and matching them to the spoken dialogue. Within six months he was fluent, and went on to gain the highest qualification possible for a non-native speaker in the Japanese language.

  2. David Morris said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 5:36 am

    My Chinese of any variety is limited to greetings and my Korean is lower-intermediate at best, but I worked at a college of interpreting and translating mainly for Chinese students and many of the staff at my English language college were Chinese speakers, plus my wife speaks to her friends and her niece in Korean and my wife watches Korean tv for many hours a day. I certainly caught the main block of Korean (specifically '한국 사람), but there may have been isolated other instances.

    When I visited Ocean World Hong Kong, the announcements were in Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean. I certainly knew which was which, mainly because there was a break between them.

  3. Keith said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 7:21 am

    Hmm… I don't speak Mandarin, and only know a smattering of Korean from the time I lived in North New Jersey, but I think the actress begins speaking Korean about 50 seconds in, just after draping herself seductively (she hopes) across the car.

    When she says "wei, wei oh" that might be Mandarin for yes (I seem to remember reading that this is the word used when answering the phone) she follows on with a phrase that sounds to me like it ends in "ha se yo" which I remember from "Annyeonghaseyo" (안녕하세요).

  4. KWillets said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 11:28 am

    They both speak Korean, and she has to back off from claiming to be an actual Korean because he can understand her and insists that she explain herself in that language.

    I believe she's wearing Korean clothes or makeup and decides to go with the pretense of looking Korean. Korean beauty products and skin care clinics are very popular in China.

  5. John Rohsenow said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 2:46 pm

    btw: when you say that Korean shows are very popular in China, I assume that you mean SOUTH Korean shows. Also I seem to recall that years back, there was ONE N. Korean film which, if not popular, at least got some play in Chinese theaters.

  6. David Morris said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 3:24 pm

    I asked my wife to watch it. She was initially confused as to whether they were Chinese people speaking Korean or Koreans speaking Chinese. After she figured the former, she said that she understood what they were saying, but that they sounded like Korean comedians imitating foreigners speaking Korean.

  7. B.Ma said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 11:39 pm

    As the characters are intended to be Chinese who just happen to know some Korean, I'd say that having a heavy Chinese accent is just right.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 4:18 am

    I know enough Mandarin that distinguishing the Mandarin from the Korean is easy. I wouldn't be able to identify the Korean as Korean, though.

    The English subtitling has some oddities, such as where the Chinese dialogue and subtitles say 行 差不多够了 ("Fine – basically enough") and that gets translated as "Fine. Almost enough.", or when immediately following that 下车 is translated "Get off my car."

    That second example is one of the many, many ways in which the project of translating from one language to another can feel just plain unfair. 下 does mean "get off [of something]"! That's how it's being used here! Except that while English uses exactly the same expression for trains, boats, and airplanes, it uses a different one for cars.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 6:19 am

    When she says "wei, wei oh" that might be Mandarin for yes (I seem to remember reading that this is the word used when answering the phone)

    Wei is used to answer the phone, but it doesn't mean yes and that isn't what's happening here. The subtitles show 误会 ("wùhuì", misunderstanding) for that, and I think she is meant to be speaking Mandarin when she says it. She has already decided to pretend to be Korean at that point, but it's not especially implausible for a Korean caught doing something weird in China to blurt out the single Chinese word "misunderstanding".

    Of course, for all I know the Korean word descends from a Chinese loanword and is pronounced similarly, and she's supposed to be speaking Korean there too.

  10. KWillets said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 12:49 pm

    It's a loanword with almost the same pronunciation (오해..오해요). I'm not sure if it's meant to be recognizable in Chinese or as solely a Korean word, but she transitions to garbled Korean after that (사람을 잘 못 봤어요…우리…만났진요?). The reference to the car I can't make out, but that's also a loanword FWIW (차).

    Sino-Korean words aren't hard to understand, but they reflect pronunciation from hundreds of years ago.

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