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The wonderful world of Chinglish

  • Brandon Taylor/TIMES NEWS Examples of Chinglish are many on a typical Beijing restaurant menu. The chicken dish is really a stew made with free-range chinkens. "Explosive balls" are really just meat balls.
    Brandon Taylor/TIMES NEWS Examples of Chinglish are many on a typical Beijing restaurant menu. The chicken dish is really a stew made with free-range chinkens. "Explosive balls" are really just meat balls.
Published April 07. 2012 09:01AM

The life abroad is filled with its inconveniences. Language barriers, cultural differences and lack of proper sandwiches make day-to-day living a bit more arduous than it would be at home. But this lifestyle does have its little pleasures.

For me, it's that wonderful Chinese interpretation of the English language - what we expats call Chinglish. It's basically the result of literal translations of Chinese characters into English text.

From restaurant menus to city signs and an array of official documents, Chinglish has played an integral role in my life in China. Aside from having a heavy role in my job at Beijing Review - my official title is "editorial consultant" but I might as well be called a Chinglish poacher - it provides endless amusement to mundane tasks like ordering food at lunchtime or waiting in line at the bank. A walk down the street provides numerous opportunities to marvel at the mangling of the English language on street signs and storefronts.

While entertaining to foreigners, these grammatical and typographical faux pas are an embarrassment to government officials. In the run up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and prior to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China's top government officials deployed an army of youngsters to scour each city, rooting out all instances of Chinglish to clean up the two cities' images and present each as a modern metropolis entering the global arena. The results were largely successful, at least until the Olympics and Expo were over.

Today, when I go to McDonald's for a morning coffee, I get a chuckle walking down the stairs. A warning sign reads: Beware of the stairs. Watch out!

The real fun lies in Beijing's thousands of tiny restaurants. At lunch, my colleagues and I order one dish based on the ridiculousness of the translation. Our favorites include "bacteria chicken" (chicken coated in bread crumbs), "a pot farm" (a bowl of assorted vegetables with bread rolls), and "palace of explosive balls" (meatballs in a sweet sauce with peppers and ginger). It gets better: I've heard of dishes called "chicken without sex life" and other names inappropriate for print publications.

Many of the silly names stem from mistranslations. For example, "saliva chicken," called kou shui ji in Chinese, should actually be "mouthwatering chicken" - the characters kou and shui mean "mouth" and "water," or drool, but are used to describe the taste or sensation of the meal, not the act of salivating.

Still other dish names are more than just names or ingredients - they're meant to tell a story or hold some kind of cultural significance.

Beijing's decision-makers don't find the menus too amusing - and so they've launched yet another crusade again Chinglish. Sometime in March, I stumbled onto a Wall Street Journal article outlining the government's efforts to rid the city of embarrassing English translations, or mistranslations, in restaurant menus. The article says that the city has gone as far as publishing a book with the proper English names of some 2,158 Chinese dishes. Restaurants are suggested to use the book and make changes to existing or future menus.

Essentially, they're trying to snuff out one of the many intricacies of dining out in China.

But while focusing on cleaning up the city's image - which they could easily do by addressing other issues like pollution and food safety - these officials are missing the big picture: foreigners really don't care about the mistranslations; they may care if these translations disappear. If anything, these translations provide a quick chuckle and may elicit a photo, but they don't go as far as tainting China's image. True, when I see something like "west lake fish drunk" I'm not laughing with the great composer of this amusing and creative translation, I'm laughing at them, but it's all in good fun. I certainly don't scoff and think that this is a reflection on China's rise as a prominent member of the global community.

In all likelihood, the restaurant owners will do what Chinese do best when presented with an inconvenient law or campaign: they ignore it.

Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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