Beijing bi-literacy

Explorer, n. one who digs through his* own rubbish pile (or someone else’s) for the hidden treasure he never found as a kid

Tourist, n. One who favors packaged over live, who inches squeamishly past the teeming fauna of his own backyard — with its outrageous comedies, its epic contests, its tawdry intrigues — in order to reach the specimen cabinet at his neighbor’s place.

I like exploring almost as much as I hate tourism. The recent trip to Sinoglot’s Xiamen office, thankfully, was 80% exploring and only 20% t**rism. Even better, my parents, who have been visiting over the new year, are both more explorers than tourists. So when I take them on a hike in the western hills of Beijing, trying to find “a different trail that I’m sure could get us up to that pagoda,” and we end up on a desolate road squeezed between the base of a hill, abandoned development projects, and some rather weedy graves — they’ll enthusiastically tell me they had a great time.

stonescriptThey might even have enjoyed the evidence, displayed here, that Beijing has multicultural, multi-script aspirations as much as the rest of China.

I had to quiz Mr. Multiscript, Kellen, about the green writing on the top. He confirms it’s Arabic — ghufrānak غفرانك, a noun meaning forgiveness — but says there’s a bit of interesting background to go with it that he’ll get to in another post.

In the meantime the rest of the stone is poignantly simple:

In red: 兄高永禄之墓 “The grave of elder brother Gao Yonglu”

Gray on the left: 弟 永利 立 “Set up by younger brother [Gao] Yongli”


*Yes, grammatically this should be “their” followed by “they”. But somehow I just couldn’t get it to sound right.

17 responses to “Beijing bi-literacy”

  1. Julen says:

    I like the explorer thing, I consider myself at least 70% explorer, 30% tourist.

    On the other hand I have to say China is a terrible place for explorers, loads of dead ends, both in the city and in the country, it drives me CRAZY!

    Incidentally, do you know in Shanghai we also call those dead ends “死胡同”, even if it is not in Beijing and even if it is not a Hutong? (well, at least that is what I have heard a few times here).

  2. Kellen Parker says:

    Syz and I had a slight disagreement about the translation of the Chinese. I agree with everything but the inclusion of 高 Gao in the second name. So I’m here now to rattle some cages.

    My understanding is from a more Islamic perspective. In Islam, the faithful address each other as brother or sister, Arabic اخ akh. I think this is what’s happening here. The elder vs. younger distinction is the Confucian influence, but not, I believe, to be taken as any indication of actual blood relation.

    永 Yong appearing in both names suggests I’m wrong, while 高 not being written might suggest I’m right. And I certainly can accept that I might be wrong. But I’ve got a gut feeling these two men didn’t actually have any blood relation.

    Just a thought.

  3. Syz says:

    @Julen: Hear, hear! China — at least Beijing, and now Shanghai too, including your report — has more than its fair share of dead ends and non-through roads. I find that true as much in the suburbs (bottlenecks everywhere because roads that should go through don’t go through) as well as in my countryside exploring.

    @Kellen: This could well be right — I’d be interested to hear other opinions. It was the opinion of my Beijinger (non-Muslim) father-in-law that led me to the assumption that they were blood related and that the younger brother had left off the last name. At the time, I thought it seemed odd, but that’s what he thought and I have no basis for believing anything else.

  4. Tim says:

    It also could be that the 永 is an old-style generational name marker?

  5. Syz says:

    Tim, yeah, I didn’t ask my father-in-law, but I’m sure that’s what he was thinking and why he thought the two were blood related

  6. Kellen Parker says:

    … but!

    How common is it to drop a family name like that on the assumption that the reader will know they were related?

    *rattle rattle*

  7. jdmartinsen says:

    On gravestones I’ve seen, sons’ surnames are commonly (but not absolutely) omitted when they’re listed beneath the names of their deceased parents. I wonder if brothers setting up gravestones is common enough to have a formula of its own, or if it’s more ad-hoc.

  8. Syz says:

    jdm: I’ll take the children-with-omitted-surname-on-gravestone observation as a vote in favor of the blood-brother interpretation*. Especially given the shared character, it’d seem like a way of showing the brotherly equivalent of filial piety.

    *Does living in China increase inclination to use hyphenated adjectives, sort of a pseudo-的 construction?

  9. Explorer, n. a person who digs through their own (or another person’s) rubbish pile for the hidden treasure they never found as a kid.

    I think the problem is with “one.” “One” and “their” don’t seem to play as nice with “a person” and “their”. In fact, I think ‘person’ also trumps ‘individual’ in this case as 井.

    That is unless you’re experiencing symptoms of hypercorrection from PSTD (post-singular they disorder.)

  10. Alternatively:
    one who digs through one’s own rubbish pile for the hidden treasure one never found as a kid.

  11. Syz says:

    @translit: PSTD is beautiful. Is that your coinage? It’s definitely a borrower. For the record, though, it’s not a syndrome I suffer from.

    I get the same reaction towards “one” v. “person” too. Latter definitely better with singular they. But “individual” seems to work about as well to my ear as “person”…

    @KP: that’s more awkward than watching me write hanzi left-handed

  12. Syz,
    That can’t be so awkward what with all the practice. I mean, having seen your hanzi handwriting, I thought you’d been doing it left-handed all along.


    But yeah, it’s pretty awkward.

  13. Zach says:

    Explorer: one in the position to extol the (read: his or her own) exploratory virtues in a thinly veiled dig at non-explorer types; frequently glib in the usage of “real”, “authentic” and other significations of their penetration into the depth of the human condition, ostensibly on behalf of educating non-explorers.

    Keep up the good work.

  14. Syz says:

    KP: if you’d really seen my hanzi, you’d have thought I was doing it with my elbow

    Zach: nice — my just deserts for the crime of fatuity

  15. They must be brother by blood as indicated by their Yong 永 generation.

  16. Kellen Parker says:

    I can’t agree with your use of must. If it were a rarer character, I’d be more liley to buy it. But the existence of 永 alone doesn’t prove their blood relation.

    I accept that it’s the likeliest scenario, but it is by no means the only one possible.

  17. Syz says:

    xjr: well Kellen doesn’t like your *must*, but I’ll take the vote in favor of my interpretation 😉

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