Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting

I keep hearing non-native Chinese speakers greet a native Chinese with a friendly "Ni Hao Ma?" (你好吗?). It's time to set this straight: "Ni Hao Ma" is not native Chinese. It sounds so artificial that a native speaker immediately envisions a foreigner speaking with a big smile but drifting tones. I'm not sure why this 3-character greeting is not used by the Chinese but mostly used by foreigners. I think it has to do with a direct translation of "How are you?" What else could be a better translation of this 3-word English phrase?

So what's the native Chinese greeting? It's a simple "Ni Hao!" (你好!). Why do the Chinese people not like to append a "Ma" (吗)? I don't know. Whoever invented "Ni Hao", perhaps during the Vernacular Chinese Movement a hundred years ago, probably didn't like to make this frequent greeting phrase any longer than necessary.

If you do need to ask the question as if saying How's your situation?, "Ni Hao Ma?" certainly makes sense. That is, this 3-character question is used in an inquiry, not greeting. But in that case, "Ni Hai Hao Ma?" (你还好吗?) or "Ni Zuijin Zenme Yang?" (你最近怎么样?) may be just as or even more common. Similarly, you ask the plural "you" with "Ni Men Hai Hao Ma?" (你们还好吗?) or "Ni Men Dou Hai Hao Ma?" (你们都还好吗?).

[2012-06 Update] A Taiwanese pointed out to me that "Ni Hao Ma?" is said among Taiwanese. I don't recall hearing them say that in a greeting; I can't imagine two native Chinese/Taiwanese walking toward each other and both saying "Ni Hao Ma?" to each other, shaking hands. But it may be because I haven't had enough greetings with them. If "Ni Hao Ma?" is more common among Taiwanese and "Ni Hao" more common among the mainlanders, again, in greeting, not inquiry, then this posting may be titled something like "Ni Hao Ma?" is not a native mainland Chinese greeting. (After all, there's not one single Chinese linguistic authority in the world, but as many as the number of regions where the majority of the population speak Chinese.)

[2013-05 Update] In case a reader is still confused, I'd like to briefly emphasize the main point: The single Chinese word "问候" has two meanings, greeting and inquiry. In the sense of greeting, "你好!" is the choice. In the sense of inquiry, "你好吗?" is a perfect question sentence. This short note is about greeting, as when two friends run into each other on the street and neither had any recent incident that would worry the other. Saying "你好吗?" as a greeting sounds foreign, or causes confusion or misunderstanding.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chinese Dance "Flower Kidney"

My kids were reading the English version of the program for an end-of-year show in the Chinese community. They had doubt about the last one in the list, supposed to be the most exciting among all, "Flower Kidney". That doesn't sound right to them, or to me. If you have some knowledge of Chinese folk dance and also enjoy Chinese cuisine (a really Chinese one), you may guess what the Chinese title for the dance is: 花腰花.

What the hell is this? And Why is it linked to kidney? Here's my guess (and I can pretty much guarantee the accuracy). Go to Google Translate:|en|%E8%8A%B1%E8%85%B0%E8%8A%B1
and see what it is. That's right. The first 花 is "flower" and the two characters "腰花" is kidney, as in "炒腰花"  or stir-fry (pig) kidney.

So, what is exactly this dance? Ignorant of Chinese folk dance, I have to hazard a guess. "腰花" is likely some dance stressing the waist (pun intended) of the dancer, not sure how the name came about. The first "花" is unlikely related to Flowers, but instead suggests variations of a standard pattern, as is often the case in traditional Chinese folk music. Therefore, the most appropriate literal translation is probably "Waist Dance With Variations". Prepend "Chinese" and add translator's note, as you wish.

(On the other hand, I bet the waist dance indeed can be related to kidneys, in the sense that it improves your health if practiced moderately, or degrades it or harms the kidneys if otherwise.)