A not so ambiguous sign

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James Fallows has posted this subway ad, at the Dongsishitiao station of Beijing's Line 2, on the Atlantic website and raises a lot of interesting questions about it:

An advertisement at the Dongsishitiao subway station

Fallows comments:

English speakers could, I think, read these English words in two ways:

1) More freedom, /and also/ more happiness (no causal relationship, "bigger and better"); or

2) /The/ greater the freedom, /the/ greater the happiness (cause-effect, "the more, the merrier").

I've gotten different views from my native Chinese-speaking friends about the connotations of the Chinese version:更多自由,更多欢乐. Some say that it could be read both ways, like English; others, that it mainly means #1. So there are various possibilities here, all interesting: that this is a slyly subversive message in both languages; that it is an unintentional transmission of a subversive message though inexact translation; or that it is a fully intentional and brilliantly conceived transmission in English only, letting foreign-language readers conclude that an increase-freedom campaign is underway.

I can't say, but I'm tantalized by the possibilities.

What it has to do in either language with panda-themed tourism is a different question.

In reply, I may note several things about the wording of the ad and the picture beneath it:

  • GENG4DUO1 ZI4YOU2, GENG4DUO1 HUAN1LE4. This kind of construction in Chinese is not really ambiguous. Syntactically it normally indicates, "The more freedom (you have), the more happiness (you will have)," i.e., "the happier you will be." It would not make sense to reverse the order of the clauses: *GENG4DUO1 HUAN1LE4, GENG4DUO1 ZI4YOU2, because being happier does not necessarily and logically lead to having greater freedom. In other words, through the wording at the top of the ad, the statement is being made that greater freedom leads to greater happiness. In the context of contemporary China, this is a rather subversive assertion, and not very subtle at that.
  • In my estimation, the English translation is — whether intentionally or not — suitably ambiguous in an ad-speak kind of way. It is concise and snappy, and offers various possible interpretations, including the one intended by the Chinese version.
  • Why the panda? There are several reasons. The first is that pandas are cute and lovable (KE3AI4 可爱), so the adorable creature serves to soften, if not defuse entirely, the subversive verbal claim hovering above its head. Secondly, having just finished a book on the world history of tea, I immediately noticed that the panda is holding a cup of tea in his left hand (paw). That is appropriate, since Sichuan is one of the earliest and most developed areas in China for tea cultivation.
  • Note that this is an advertisement for panda tourism in Sichuan. The tie-in with "freedom" is that pandas supposedly roam freely in their (protected) reserves, and that you — the prospective tourist — can get a taste of freedom by travelling (a kind of roaming) to Sichuan and observing the pandas in their natural habitat.

Ah, the joys of reading between the lines and the images in China!

I thank Bill Poser for calling this ad to my attention. Bill in turn thanks his cousin David Strip for the pointer.


  1. Karen said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

    So, could it possibly mean the more freedom the pandas have, the happier they – or possibly you, the tourist watching them – will have?

  2. Karen said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

    Errrrr. Either "the happier they – or possibly you, the tourist watching them – will be" or "the more happiness they – or possibly you, the tourist watching them – will have?"

  3. Brandon said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

    More posters, more pandas!

  4. David said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 6:35 am

    For me, the Chinese is unambiguously non-causal, i.e.: more happiness and more freedom.

    This is because Chinese has a specific construction for "the more X the more Y": 越X越Y (YUE4 X YUE4 Y), or more formally: 愈X愈Y (YU4 X YU4 Y).

    Not using this construction indicates that no casual relationship is intended (though Chinese is merely a second language for me).

  5. Jesse Tseng said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 9:43 am

    The English and Chinese versions are equivalent for me (ambiguous in exactly the same ways). In both cases it's two syntactically unconnected NPs. As David says above, both languages have special correlative constructions that are not used here. But as usual we supply extra links to make sense of the text, and we choose from the usual set of coherence relations, starting with but not limited to the most accessible ones (temporal sequence, cause-to-effect, effect-to-cause, …) But the text itself doesn't give any guidance.

    So I find Victor's "*" on the inverted order too strong (it's just as natural/unnatural in English). I suspect he is a subversive.

  6. Cephi said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    This is subtle pro-Party propaganda. The message is ironic. The panda clearly has been given greater freedom; it has been allowed to have steaming hot tea. But if you look at the panda's eyes, you see quite clearly that it is pissed off. Furthermore, it is rushing at you the viewer, brandishing the scalding tea in a decidedly aggressive fashion. The poster is helping citizens to understand that increased freedom is really just a code for broader access to consumer goods like cute little teacups, and that these freedoms will only result in anti-social hostility, discord and alienation. Well played, China.

  7. Keely Rew said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    Mo' money, mo' problems.

  8. rpsms said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    I agree with Cephi: that panda looks a little put out. And he's coming for YOU.

  9. GAC said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    @Jesse Tseng

    I agree that the asterisk there is a bit strong. Marking something as ungrammatical because its premise doesn't "necessarily and logically" work isn't good analysis — we know that grammatical sentences can be false or even make no sense at all ("Colorless green ideas" anyone?).

    I respect Mr. Mair's knowledge, but every once in a while he seems to throw little screwballs like this in that make no sense and kinda distract from the point.

  10. j said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    What David said. I don't think the Chinese words imply any kind of causal relationship. I would expect "the more freedom, the more happiness" to be worded as "yue4duo1 zi4you2, yue4duo1 huan1le4." Also, the asterisked phrase ("geng4duo1 huan1le4, geng4duo1 zi4you2") makes perfect sense to me: "more happiness and more freedom." The English words are more ambiguous.

    (My info: bilingual Mandarin-English, with English dominating.)

  11. misterfricative said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

    Contra several of the commenters, I have to agree with Victor's reading. For me, the Chinese geng4duo1 zi4you2 geng4duo1 huan1le4 very strongly implies a causal relationship. The yue4…yue4… construction could also be used to express the same idea (although for me it has a slightly more dynamic flavor, something along the lines of, 'the more freedom [the pandas have] the happier [they are]').

    But I wonder if this might be something to do with the fact that I'm living in Taiwan as opposed to the PRC? As I recall, Victor is also more at home with the Taiwanese flavor of Mandarin?

    Two other points: I agree with Jesse and GAC that the asterisk marking goes too far. The reversed sentence may not make much sense, but it's certainly grammatical.

    @ David and J: This is just my take as a low intermediate speaker of Chinese as a second language, but if I'd wanted to produce the explicitly non-causal 'more freedom and happiness', I would have avoided the geng4duo1…geng4duo1… construction and rendered the 'and' by inserting a 'Chinese list comma' between the two items: 更多自由 、歡樂. But perhaps this punctuation mark isn't used on the mainland?

  12. j said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    Oops, I should have specified: I'm Taiwanese-American. "更多自由 更多歡樂" means exactly the same thing to me as "更多自由 、歡樂," except that I can't see hear myself using the latter while speaking. Basically, geng4duo1…geng4duo1 is always non-causal for me, and yue4duo1…yue4duo1 is always causal.

  13. LwPhD said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

    For what it's worth, my girlfriend, a native Mandarin speaker (of the 國語 from Taiwan rather than 普通话 of the Mainland) who works in marketing suggests that a causal relationship is possible to understand from the phrase, but it isn't the most likely. She thinks that a simple reading equivalent to "More freedom and happiness"/"更多自由,欢乐" is more likely than "The more freedom the more happiness"/"越自由,越欢乐", though you can't really rule out either meaning just based on the poster. She suggests asking the author of the slogan. :-P Otherwise, she says, "It is just a slogan trying to get you to go have fun there."

  14. misterfricative said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    You guys are right. I stand corrected. I checked around since posting and I've failed to find anyone else who understands geng4duo1…geng4duo1… as causal, so I don't know where I picked up that idea, but it looks like I was just flat wrong.

  15. wangcai said,

    October 29, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

    The message is not subersive, because anything with such a positive tone fits right in with a distinctly pro-party 'you never had it so good' theme in Chinese public discourse. More freedom, more happiness, and a goose in every pot, that's the post-market-reforms china under the benevolence of the ccp. hooray.

    And yet despite this the panda still looks pissed off…

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