Suddenly turn hostile

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Xiang Li took a photo of this sign while she was in Chengdu, Sichuan recently:

"Suddenly turn hostile" looks as though it could be one of those very loose, fanciful translations of a drama or film title that one frequently encounters in China. In fact, it is an attempt to render the two large characters that dominate the center of the panel, just to the right of the vertical English:

biànliǎn 变脸 (lit., "turn / change face")

This is rendered as follows:

Google Translate: "suddenly turn hostile" (the probable source of the wording on the panel)

Baidu Fanyi: "suddenly turn hostile; about-face; Face Off (title of a film directed by John Woo and starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta)"

Bing Translator: "changing faces"

ZDIC: " change one's countenance; turn hostile suddenly"

There are actually two main meanings of biànliǎn 变脸, the second of which is not covered at all by these online translation tools:

1. change countenance > suddenly get angry / turn hostile

2. a technique employed by performers in Sichuan opera

The second definition refers to the quick changing of masks by an actor. This sub-genre of Sichuan opera is described in these two articles.

Here it is in action, done by Michael Stroud, aka Majinga the Magician from the Magique Bazaar at the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 2012.

[Hat tip to Xiang Li; thanks to Cheng Fangyi]


  1. fs said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    Should've used Bing!

  2. maidhc said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 1:24 am

    The title of the John Woo movie is actually "Face/Off". "Face Off" is a TV series on SyFy about prosthetic makeup. And "Face-Off" was a movie about hockey.

    If "biànliǎn" was the Chinese title for the movie "Face/Off", after watching that video it seems like a good choice for a title.

    Since we don't have such an artform in the West, it would make sense to just call it "biànliǎn", but it would inevitably be mispronounced.

  3. Janet Williams said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    Using Google Translate could harm international relationship.

    See example of what damage Google had caused in this welcome banner of Wen Jiabao's official visit to Malaysia in 2011, from Malay into Chinese.

  4. Faldone said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    For the benefit of those of us who read neither Malay nor Chinese could you offer an explanation of why this is so damaging?

  5. Janet Williams said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    @ Faldone,

    The welcome banner was translated into Chinese as
    与他一起温家宝阁下的正式访问马来西亚 (In Pinyin: yǔ tā yīqǐ wēnjiābǎo géxià de zhèngshì fǎngwèn mǎláixīyà)

    Literal translation: With him together Wen Jiaobao His Excellency’s official visit Malaysia.

    The sentence is totally ungrammatical and the banner did not make sense, though all the keywords were used.

    A properly formatted sentence would be: 温家宝阁下访问马来西亚正式欢迎仪式 (The Official Welcome Ceremony of His Excellency Wen Jiabao to Malaysia).

    This English report Banner boo-boo during Wen Jiabao's visit to Malaysia has a better explanation.

    Another reference: Lost in Translation: The Star Online.

  6. JS said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    The translation of the ungrammatical Chinese given here is pretty faithful; damage to the relationship seems minimal.

  7. Faldone said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    Hey, at least it didn't say anything about what the shrimp was doing to the cabbage.

  8. George said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    Funny that John Woo came up because there actually is a superb 1996 film called Bian Lian (English title: 'The KIng of Masks') directed by Wu Tianming. It's precisely about a Sichuan opera performer.

  9. Janet Williams said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

    In Hokkien, we would say 变面(biàn 'mi’ )to mean 'to turn hostile'.

  10. Brooklynite said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

    I wonder if the "Suddenly Turns Hostile" is some sort of mangled quote from the recent Brooklyn Academy of Music (brooklyn's big opera, film, and theater house) ad campaign. Their slogan was "Suddenly It Hits You" and the ads were everywhere in New York, and I presume online.

    Maybe farfetched, but was the first thing I thought of.

  11. Steven Gross said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    The excellent film Bian Lian (King of Masks), mentioned above, is available in its entirety (w/English subtitles) on You Tube, in 10 parts.

  12. Kevin McCready said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

    For all its flaws, got it OK. Their defn:
    变脸 變臉 biàn liǎn to turn hostile suddenly, face changing, a device of Sichuan Opera, a dramatic change of attitude expressing fright, anger etc

  13. j2h said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    This "suddenly turn hostile" translation seems quite common:

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