"People mountain, people sea" and "let's play"

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Stephan Stiller says that my post on "Good good study; day day up" reminds him of "people mountain, people sea" (rénshānrénhǎi 人山人海), i.e., "crowded; packed; a sea of people".  This is another fairly complex Chinglishism that has entered the vocabulary of many English speakers who know no Chinese.  It was popularized by a Hong Kong music production company that took this expression as its name, and there was also a Hong Kong film that used this expression as its title.

In addition, Stephan raised the matter of the ubiquitous question "Want to play?" (in the sense of "Wanna [go out or hang out and] do something together and have fun?") as uttered by mainland-Chinese grad students in the US.  He suspects that this phrase must be pervasive in Chinese ESL materials.  There would seem to be no other sensible explanation for its high frequency, or perhaps it could be social propagation.  But -– when mainland-Chinese grad students use English in English emails among each other — in which contexts does this question occur?

"Want to play?" is undoubtedly related to Mandarin (chūqù / lái) wánr  (出去 / 来)玩儿 ("[go out {somewhere} / come {over}] to play").  Yet this is not to say that — when Chinese students talk in English –- all they say comes via word-for-word translation from Chinese.  Somehow this particular phrase has gained unusual currency among mainland-Chinese grad students in America, but there must be many other expressions and phrases of this sort.

Incidentally, I have always been astonished at how many Chinese people (not just grad students and undergraduates) write e-mails to each other in English, or in Chinese that is heavily laced with English.  When I ask them why they do this rather than use more Chinese, the usual answer is that "it's easier".

It is interesting that grad students from Taiwan have a noticeably different sort of English than those from the mainland, and, of course, the English of those from Hong Kong is of yet a another sort.  Taiwan grad student English tends to be more American and Hong Kong more British, but mainland grad student English is, as my elders used to say, neither fish nor fowl (neither American nor British).  Rather, it is sui generis, a thing unto itself.

A colleague of mine who grew up in China and was actually an English major identifies PRC standard English as having an RP (Received Pronunciation).  He describes this as "a nondescript version of pronunciation no ordinary native speaker uses in the UK except for some trained language professionals (at that time those working for a language educational material company called Linguaphone, something like Rosetta Stone in the US)."

As for the vocabulary of mainland-Chinese English, a significant portion of it is drawn from what may be called "Xinhua English" or "New China News (Agency) English".  I have touched upon this in a number of earlier posts, including "Protests, Complaints, and Representations" and "Xinhua English and Zhonglish".

Stephan is curious to know if anyone is aware of other unusual turns of phrase that are characteristic of English as it is spoken in China and by Chinese living abroad (of the actual-use variety, not the "funny mistranslation on a sign or menu" type).


  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    From a friend who was born in Hong Kong, went to college there, worked in England for many years, and subsequently has been working in America for many years:


    I have noticed that when I write to my brother (barrister trained in London), I write somewhat differently — use different words, expressions, turn of phrase — than when I write to my nephew/his son (graduate of Wharton & Yale). I don't think I do that deliberately; I guess subconsciously I put myself in a different environment. It also probably means that I don't have a "standard/norm" *of my own*, that I'm a chameleon or a mirror.

  2. Ned Danison said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    "Netizen" seems to be a mainland word. I had a hard time convincing my Chinese friend that, although it sounds cute and it's understandable, Americans almost never say this. (They don't, do they?)

  3. tetri_tolia said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 8:54 am

    That kind of "chameleon or mirror" adaptive use of English (or any other language, I'd warrant) seems to be fairly common in my experience — not only among non-native speakers of English, not even only among people with broad experience of English-speakers from other backgrounds.

  4. tsts said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    One word constantly used by students from the Mainland is "nowadays". Whenever a new grad student writes her first paper, you can find one or more sentences in the introduction that start with "nowadays". I then have to explain to them that this sounds really clumsy and is not used much in the US.

    Note sure where this comes from. Maybe they learn this as one of the translations for "xianzai"? Or is "nowadays" the "mamahuhu" of English learners in China? Anyway, you see an essay with "nowadays" and you know the writer is from Mainland China.

  5. Bruce Rusk said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    @Ned, Nope, netizen is not a mainland word, at least in origins–the OED attests it in English from 1984. Rather, it's a concept that is used much more frequently in PRC discourse than in standard American, and it equates pretty nicely with wangmin (perhaps a calque?). So the issue with your friend is really not a linguistic one but a conceptual one: Americans tend not to think of the world that way (or if they do, to frame their descriptions differently–for example, "The online chatter says…" ).

  6. Avinor said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    Starting sentences with "actually", even when there is no expression of surprise.

  7. JS said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

    It's interesting to think about these alongside the phrases sometimes claimed to originate in the English of 19th century Chinese immigrants like "long time no see," "no can do," "no go,", "look-see," etc. — though no idea if such claims are in any way evidence-based.

  8. Roger Lustig said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    @tsts: "nowadays" isn't academic-writing English, to be sure. But it's certainly part of the spoken and colloquial-writing (email, social media, blog reply) language–certainly mine, and nobody's ever commented. (Some of my correspondents certainly would, if it were sufficiently odd.) Nor would I avoid *saying* it in a seminar or any but the most formal/stuffy oral presentation.

    On the other hand, I don't use "anymore" (either as 1 or 2 words) to start a sentence (instead of "nowadays"); nor to modify something other than a negative, which many people do. Doesn't bother me–I've just never picked it up, and still notice it sometimes as it goes by. Wonder how that usage is faring…

  9. Kate Y. said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    @Avinor: If that misuse of "actually" was ever a marker for Chinglish, it isn't any more. It's ubiquitous in Portland.

    I often wonder what, if anything, the speaker thinks the word means.

    Can it be traced back to a particular Chinese construction, though? (I am slightly more tolerant of "substitute A for B" switching its directionality having heard it traced back to British sportscast shorthand.) (Very, very slightly.)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

    When I was living among Chinese speakers for years on end and speaking mostly or exclusively Chinese, I found myself using the following types of expressions much more often than I ever would have in English.


    shíjì shang 實際上 or shìshí shàng 事实上 ("actually; in fact; indeed")

    wǒ de yìsi shì shuō 我的意思是說 ("what I mean to say")

    nà jiùshì shuō 那就是說 ("that is to say")


    What was interesting is how the predilection to say such things later spilled over into my English, and after living in an English-speaking environment for an extended period of time, I would gradually start to feel that the constant use of such expressions as kǒutóuchán 口頭禪 ("pet phrases") was awkward and unnatural, and I would gradually wean myself away from them.

  11. tsts said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    @Roger Lustig: Of course, "nowadays" is a correct word that is suitable in many situations, but it is the frequent use in academic writing that usually points to a Mainland Chinese author. It does seem to me that this is a word that they are being trained to use quite often. And I have not seen it used in this context by other foreign students. (The examples I see are mostly academic writings about technology, where using "nowadays" to distinguish very recent developments from the status 2-3 years ago seems odd.)

  12. A H said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

    When I was speaking mostly Mandarin, the most carry over to my english was that I would say, "open a light", instead of "turn on". The funniest one I ever said was responding to someone asking me what day of the week something was going to happen and I said "three" instead of wednesday.

  13. Roger Lustig said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    @tsts: we agree. Now: what *should* one say? "Recently," "Lately', "of late," etc. *do* show up in academic writing, often where a time frame might be useful.
    @A H: Funny: "Close the light" is pretty common among native speakers in some regions, but "Open" not nearly as much. Good thing nobody says "open the light circuit…" colloquially.

  14. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    As for other phrases: I believe hearing "long time no see" mainly from speakers of Chinese heritage. (Supposedly the origin of this phrase is disputed, but the fact that one can easily align it with Mandarin 好久不見 (hǎojiǔbùjiàn) and Cantonese 好耐冇見 (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3) (both approximately "very – long [duration] – not (have) – see") will have an influence.) But someone else please give an opinion on how common this phrase is elsewhere. It wouldn't be surprising to see this expression mainly in certain communities: One will hear Yiddish words (in English) more from Jewish speakers. (Or will one hear most of them mostly from Jewish speakers?) And language variation can in general be demographics-based.

    I find that "to reply sb" as opposed to "to reply to sb" is typical of at least HK-English.

    The idiom "it's raining cats and dogs" seems to be common in ESL materials. People of which generation and in which place will actually use it?

    An influence from Chinese on my English is increased usage of "then" in "if …, (then) …" sentences. I also think I never confused "he" and "she" until after learning Chinese ☺. This is also common among Philippine speakers of English (though for a certain variety of English there, one might properly call it "free variation" instead of "confusion").

  15. David Morris said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    Koreans also say 'playing' in the sense of 'hanging out with'. In one lesson on past continuous, I asked the question "What were you doing at 8 o'clock yesterday evening". One student answered "I was playing with my girlfriend", which is perfectly good Korean English but which sounds very strange to my ears.

  16. Rodger C said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 6:53 pm

    @Stephan Stiller: "Long time no see" used to be quite common among Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, though I associate it mainly with my parents' generation (WWII).

  17. Dave Cragin said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

    I have noticed with some friends in Beijing a common use of "actually" when they speak English (i.e., like Victor's personal experience).

    In terms of "long time, no see", I had seen a debate on a word origin website as to whether it was Chinese or of native American origin (old Westerns have Indians saying it). It appeared there were no definite sources to trace its move into English. However, my sense is that of Stefan's, it aligns so perfectly with Mandarin and it is commonly used to greet someone you haven't seen for a while, so Chinese origin makes sense.

    Early on learning Chinese had a strange hidden impact on my English. One day, my wife noted "did you know you've started to say "you say what?". It happened when I was busy doing something, she asked a question, and I was barely listening. I was translating "ni shuo shenme?" 你说什么? word for word into English without even thinking about it. The CDs I was using from Pimsleur get you to think in Chinese and I was listening to them all-the-time. It showed to me that Pimsleur was re-wiring my thinking – something quite impressive for a CD-set to do.

  18. Joe Fineman said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

    @JS: I have always imagined "long time no see" etc. (including, especially, "stateside") to have originated not in Chinese as such, but in Pidgin. I don't remember where I got that idea, but I think I read it somewhere.

  19. John Rohsenow said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    When Tim Light brought the first linguistics delegation from the PRC in the
    mid 1970s, I remember one of the Chinese remarking that he had not heard "no can do" for many, many years, even tho' it was commonly used between US forces and Chinese during WWII.
    I have often observed Chinese learning English using "recently" to refer to both past AND future, which I took to come from jinlai in Chinese. They also tend to use "in the meantime" in English (at least in their wtg)
    the way they use tongshi in Chinese.
    Also, to state the obvious, there is nothing unusual about one child saying to another, wanna (go out and) play? The point is that in English, only children can "play" in that sense, not adults.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 7:21 am

    Referring to my previous comment above, I also found myself saying "lǎoshí shuō" 老實說 ("honestly") a lot, and even became annoyed with myself for doing so when this habit washed over into English.

    In Chinese, I had to be careful with my tones so that "lǎoshí shuō" 老實說 ("honestly") did not come out sounding like "lǎoshī shuō" 老師說 ("the teacher says"). This was especially the case in rapid speech, where the second syllable of both expressions tends to come out sounding like a neutral tone.

  21. Tom said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    Chinese speakers use "delicious" far more often than any American would. I find it much more natural to say (in reference to food) "It's good/great/excellent/spectacular/wonderful/incredible" than "it's (very) delicious." I've likewise suspected the influence of ESL textbooks, which invariably translate hǎochī 好吃 (and hǎohē 好喝) as "delicious."

  22. Brendan said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    …mainland grad student English is, as my elders used to say, neither fish nor fowl

    I believe the expression is "neither three nor four" (不三不四).
    I wonder how much of it can be put down to teaching materials. When I first arrived in China as an English teacher, the textbooks I taught from (branded as 'Cambridge English,' if I recall) had phonetic guides that were basically RP-lite, while a couple of the Chinese-produced Chinese-English dictionaries I used, which were aimed at more advanced Chinese students of English, had a mishmash of accents represented in the phonetic guides — rhotic and non-rhotic, American and Commonwealth, you name it.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 5:07 pm


    When I referred to PRC English as "neither fish nor fowl" (neither British nor American), I was using an expression that was favored by my parents and people of their generation and earlier. It is curious, though, that bùsānbùsì 不三不四 ("neither three nor four") does match it fairly closely in implication, and that the latter seems to have gained some currency in English, so it does perhaps qualify as another Chinese collocation that is being used in English of the sort being discussed in this post and its comments.

    From the online references cited below, it appears that bùsānbùsì 不三不四 ("neither three nor four"):

    1. is considered by many to be a "Mandarin" or northern Chinese expression

    2. was current already by the Ming period (1368-1644)

    3. is thought by some to be related to the line texts of the Yi jing hexagrams

    5. but is more likely ultimately to derive from the famous parable of the monkeys in the Zhuang Zi: zhāosānmùsì 朝三暮四 ("three in the morning and four at night"), if any derivation is needed for such a common saying





  24. Brendan said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    Oh, I was just kidding with the "neither three nor four" thing — the similarity to the English idiom always just sort of tickled me. And Chinglish-wise, I have heard it rendered as "no three no four" by speakers who were deliberately going for comic effect.

  25. kyrasantae said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 6:38 am

    I am a heritage Cantonese speaker (family from HK) and there's a couple of English turns of phrase I feel mark a writer as Chinese:

    * overuse of the construction "not only…, but also". The words "but also" have to be together, with no intervening words. I remember the equivalent Chinese construction (不但…外, 還…) being one of the first (because it's very frequently used) constructions I learned at Saturday Chinese school. So while a sentence like "the book was not only tedious, but it was also dreadfully long" feels to me native English, "the book was not only tedious, but also dreadfully long" fires up my "possible Chinese writer" senses.

    * I've only seen this once but it seemed really "Chinglishy" to me: "(Your work) wasn't as good compared *with* (the work of the others)" instead of "compared *to*". I know English learners all struggle with learning which preposition to use when, but this comment (which was written on my term paper!) struck me as interesting because 1) Chinese people seem to have this obsession with comparing people, but linguistically 2) Maybe it's a transfer effect from 同…比較, where 同 usually means "(along) with (somebody/thing)"

    * finally, "funny" when they mean "fun". This might be common among English learners from other backgrounds too, but I associate it with "Chinglish".

  26. kyrasantae said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 6:44 am

    "not three nor four" also appears in everyday Cantonese as 唔三唔四. (唔 being the Cantonese reflex of Mandarin/Standard Written 不.)

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    kyrasantae: I'd say "compared with" is standard English. COCA results:

    compared with: 13,391
    compared to: 16,358

    Some usage writers talk about a subtle distinction between them, as I recall.

    In your example, I'd say "Your work wasn't as good as the work of the others." However, it seems that lots of native speakers use forms with "compared", etc., where "as" or "than" is possible.

  28. Mr Punch said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    In my (American, 67) youth, the use of "actually" described in this thread was, I am sure, regarded as something of a Briticism.

  29. Silas S. Brown said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    I have noticed Chinese university students ending English emails with the salutation "Cheers" more often than I believe British people would (I don't know about Americans). The authors of such emails are usually unaware that the word "cheers" has connections with toasting (and pubs, beer etc) so you might want to be careful about when it is used. Perhaps this started out as an overzealously-copied example in some ESL textbook?

  30. Anonymouse said,

    February 21, 2014 @ 4:09 am

    Hong Kong students tend to use British pronunciation, Whereas those from the PRC use as you say, a more mixed one. In some ways closer to Australian english. Netizen was used here (Australia) back in the 90's, i'm not sure the origin is 'zhonglish'.

    Many of the constructions of english described here are quite common, just not as americanisms.

    "cheers" is an informal way to end an email, again common in Aust.
    'actually' used as described is British in origin.
    'compared with' is acceptable usage and more common (at least in Australia).

    'open a light' this actually made me think of English as spoken in Sri Lanka where 'open/close the light is common' interesting the Chinese is the same.

    "chameleon or mirror" usage of language – I have heard this described by Malaysian and singaporean students. Whether they will speak 'standard english', or throw in more chinese/malay 'singlish' words depends on who they are talking to.

  31. Craig S said,

    May 16, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

    I certainly remember hearing "netizen" in standard "native" English, albeit as a shortlived fad in the 1990s that never really crossed over into sustained general usage. It's amusing to hear that there are quarters where it survived.

    As a resident of Eastern Canada, I associate "open/close the light" less with Chinese people speaking English and more with Québécois. And I'm familiar with the "want to play?" construction among adults as well, although in my gay world it primarily connotes a particular *kind* of "hanging out" — specifically the kind that involves the removal of clothing — that probably isn't what Chinese grad students mean by it.

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