January 25, 2020 marks the start of the Year of the Rat. According to on Chinese myth, the rat’s cleverness allowed him to be the first zodiac sign. The Jade Emperor said the order would be decided by the order in which they arrived to his party. Rat tricked Ox into giving him a ride. Just as they arrived at the door, Rat jumped down and landed ahead of Ox, becoming first. Chinese homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings), are also tricky things in Chinese language and culture.
It is not uncommon in any language for one word to carry multiple meanings. But because the range of Chinese phonemes (sounds) is relatively small, there are many instances where words with very different meanings will have similar or even identical pronunciations. This peculiar characteristic of the Chinese language informs a Chinese texting trend: a series of numbers can be used to stand in for popular expressions. For example, 70345 typed in a message sounds like “qing ni xiang xin wo” 请你相信我 meaning “please believe me.”
The number eight is particularly auspicious, because its pronunciation in Chinese, “ba,” is very close to the sound of “fa” 发, which means wealth and prosperity. In honor of the upcoming 25th of January, we consider eight examples of Chinese homophones that can impact your Chinese New Year, in ways both good and bad: three ideas or objects to avoid during the Chinese New Year and five things to embrace. In a moment, you will see why we didn’t list four examples of each!
Three Bad Homophones to Avoid
Four. The number 4 is the most dangerous homophone. Pronounced “si,” it sounds like “si” 死, meaning death. This is why it is quite common for hotels to skip from the third floor to the fifth floor and avoid numbering any subsequent floor with a 4. Many consumer items in the US are packaged in sets of four, but you should never give a set of four items to a Chinese person as a gift.
Sometimes two digits combine to get even scarier. 14, with the pronunciation “yao si,” sounds like “going to die.” Case in point: the martial-arts action movie “14 Blades.”
Shoes. The word for shoe (“xie” 鞋) sounds exactly the same as the Chinese word for evil 邪. A gift of shoes is the last thing you would want to give to a Chinese person for the New Year, or really any time.
Clocks. The phrase “giving a clock” (“song zhong” 送钟) sounds exactly like the Chinese words for “attending a funeral”’ (送终). Avoid giving clocks and watches as gifts, especially during New Year’s.
Five Good Homophones to Embrace
Fish. The Chinese word for fish “yu” 鱼 has the same pronunciation as “extra” or “surplus” 餘. The phrase “nian nian you yu” 年年有余, “there will be an abundance every year,” sounds the same as 年年有鱼, “there will be fish every year.” Fish are served at meals and used as decorations during Chinese New Year because they symbolize wealth and prosperity.
Seeds. “Zi” 籽 (watermelon seeds, sunflower seeds, lotus seeds) are a popular snack for New Year, in part because they share the same sound as the word for children 子. Eating and sharing snack seeds is auspicious for bringing children into the family.
Black Moss. The sea algae known as black moss is called “fa cai”发菜 in Chinese. It’s a popular dish to serve during New Year because it sounds just like 发财 “fa cai,” meaning to strike it rich. Serving this dish to your guests evokes the common New Year greeting “Gong xi fa cai” (恭禧发财): wishing you prosperity in the coming year.
Tang Yuan. The popular sweet ball dessert dish “tang yuan” 汤圆 , commonly eaten on the final day of the New Year celebrations, symbolizes unity and wholeness and sounds similar to “tuan yuan” 团圆, meaning reunion. A major part of the holiday involves family members coming across great distances to get together.
The Number Eight. The Chinese are enamored of the number 8. The pronunciation of 8 in Chinese, “ba” sounds like “fa” 发 the word for prosperity. In business, the more 8s in a number the better. In 2003, China’s Sichuan Airlines paid more than U.S. $280,000 for the telephone number 8888 8888. In 2017 a Chinese investor paid a “lucky” AU$8,888,888 for an office block in Melbourne. And the 2008 Chinese Olympics opened on August 8th, at 8 minutes after 8 PM.
There are many other Chinese homophones that carry both positive and negative associations. If your marketing content includes dates, prices, weights or other numerical values, simply translating them into their literal Chinese equivalents may taint your message. This is why machine translation can be particularly dangerous for Chinese languages. Only a human translator can recognize whether a translated message sounds strange, funny, or frightening when spoken out loud. In addition, because the same characters are used for writing different Chinese languages, something that reads well in Beijing might sound awful in Hong Kong. To reach Chinese customers with the most auspicious-sounding messages, be sure to request transcreation by native, in-country translators who are aware of the language trends and pitfalls specific to the Chinese market you want to reach.
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