Bloody Helicopters

On a recent trip to Sinoglot HQ, for my annual review, I was appalled to find the chairman sitting on a large sack of unopened mail. After brief negotiation, during which my past year’s productivity was called into question, it was agreed that I would work my way through the letters. The following item was undated and I’m not sure how to respond.

Dear Auntie Sinoglot,

I write in the hope that you can help me.

I’ve developed an irrational hatred of helicopters. This is not about fear of flying. Though, I confess, I don’t much like flying. The flying thing is just about trying to pass ten hours in an airborne coffin with my body sprung into a shape even my tai chi master couldn’t master. At least when they finally lay you out you get to straighten your legs.

The helicopter thing; that’s something quite different. I’ve never even flown in one. But it all began long, long ago…

I was just a baby; but a few months old, in China years. A kindly grown-up had taken me to a big bookshop and we’d returned home with a book of “One Hundred Tang-Dynasty Poems That Every Child Should Know By Heart”, a deck of never-to-be-used flashcards and three posters of the kind that might be hung on the crèche wall to teach the alphabet by associating a picture with each letter – A Apple, B Banana…you know the ones. Except these weren’t teaching the alphabet. There was no alphabet. They were teaching Chinese words for fruit, animals and…forms of transport.

The transport one was taped to the back of the apartment door and stayed there until the door was ripped off. That is, ripped off its hinges, within hours of my departure, presumably by the same goons who’d smashed the windows, demolished the garden wall and generally tried to ‘encourage’ the residents to make way for a shiny new development.

By the time I left, the poster’s imperial yellow background had already taken on the colour of tobacco residue, its edges had curled like barbecued squid, and a top sheet of cellophane was flapping from about halfway down. But most of the forms of transport were still clearly visible: the 1930s train 火车, the 1830s horse and cart 马车, the 1950s bus 公共汽车, and a ridiculously mean looking 1970s helicopter 直升机.

I never really looked at this poster. I mean, it was there to catch my eye every day as I left the house, but I never really looked at it. I imagined that things like this around the apartment might help me to learn stuff without actually studying. But my acquisition of transportation vocabulary was seriously hampered by the bloody helicopter.

It’s the word you see: 直升机 zhíshēngjī – machine that goes straight up.

One day, a kindly old neighbour came round to see me and asked why I’d shuddered when I opened the door. When I told him the reason, he smirked, told me to fetch some tea and settled himself down on the cardboard sofa. What follows is, as well as I can remember, the story he told me:

One day a helicopter landed in a mountain pasture, rudely waking a shepherd boy from his afternoon nap. As the boy stood in awe, some guy, no doubt wearing a silly all-in-one orange suit, jumped out of the chopper, bagged a couple of sheep and loaded them aboard, probably with the intention of performing a series of cruel experiments. As the wap, wap, wap, of the blades seemed to reach a crescendo, the machine just lifted straight into the air, and the mesmerised shepherd boy, uttered the words, barely audible even to himself, “Wa! A machine that goes straight up!”

The poor boy left the rest of his sheep on the mountain and rushed down to the village to tell of what he’d seen. At first the villagers were worried. The boy’s mother was called and she rushed out to embrace him. But when he explained what had happened, to the gathered throng, they exploded with hoots and hollers, “A machine that goes straight up! A machine that goes straight up!” Soon hilarity turned to anger. The poor boy was scolded by his mother. Everyone agreed he should be on the mountain tending his flock. As he ran back into the mountains, his face burning with tears, the call rang in his ears, “A machine that goes straight up!”

There are those who believe that the boy was never seen again. Some say he was eaten by the wolf. But there are those who believe that he survived, tending his sheep and eating nothing but mutton kebabs, the cooking of which he pretty much perfected. It’s said he lived in a cave and, at night, by the light of his fire, sketched on the walls of the cave the design for his own flying machine. After years of testing and development, not to mention several injuries sustained during test flights in which wooden blades mysteriously snapped, the boy, now long since a man, took to the skies.

Though you or I might have flown straight back to the village to show how we’d been wronged, this boy was made of sterner stuff. He set a course for the capital. He was going to show his creation to the elders and ensure that the whole nation would know the name of the machine he’d seen that day on the mountain.

As he set down by the lake where he’d heard all the elders lived, several crusty old gentlemen, in the finest silk pyjamas, and carefully supported by their nurses, tottered out to see what the racket was. After a brief demonstration, during which one of the elders sons fell out of the machine at a considerable height, all agreed that it was a fine invention. The former shepherd was asked what he called this wondrous machine, and he replied, “The machine that goes straight up!” “Whaddya say?” blurted out the old man who had been tending his injured son. Unbowed, the young man responded, “The machine that goes straight up!”

There were grumbles and murmurs from all sides. One voice piped up, “You can’t call it that! What about…” But he was interrupted. An even older man, who to this point had kept a little back from the main gathering, with a voice like an angle-grinder, cut in, “The boy says it’s called, ‘The machine which goes straight up.’ It shall be called, ‘The machine that goes straight up’!” There was silence. Time seemed to swirl around the machine’s now-static blades. Then one of the several nurses attending the screech-voiced old man scuttled forward and announced, “He says you are to have the boy build more.” “Build more machines that go straight up,” the old men all muttered. The young woman returned to her master and he was nursed back to his quarters.

As the young inventor beamed with pride, a nod from one of the elderly gentlemen brought an ambulance. The inventor was bundled inside and the assembled men set about planning the opening of their aircraft factory. It would take them years, not to mention the lives of several young engineers, to work out how to build another of these machines, but once the machines went into production, the old men would all became very rich indeed. And true, as ever, to their word, the machine would be called, “The machine that goes straight up.”

Now, all of the old men are long-since dead but, sometimes, in a park, not far from where they once lived, another old man, with a pair of underpants on his head and plastic bags over his threadbare socks, can be seen staggering around and, as the police helicopters buzz overhead, he burbles, “Mine! Up! Straight! That! Machine! Goesssssss!”, whilst the ducks throw their bread at him.

You’ll see that the old neighbour’s story left a deep impression on me, and I’m sorry I can’t quite remember all the details. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I should believe it all. I think he might have embellished it a little in places. But this bloody word still haunts me.

Why couldn’t it be called something else? Why does everything have to be so damn literal? It seems such a burden. I know the English word ‘helicopter’ is longer, at four syllables. Yes, it’s derived from ‘helix’ and ‘pteron’. Sure, English stole the word from French, like so many others and, sure, the French thought it would be clever to use bits of Greek, but at least they had the sense to describe the essence of the machine, rather than just what it does.

When I hear the word helicopter, I can forget the etymology and just enjoy using the word. It’s a nice word after all. How could it not be, with all that sexy French and Greek flavour? On rare occasions, the word dances across my taste buds, and I’m reminded momentarily of the very nature of the thing; of the elegance of the design; even of the great Leonardo himself.

There was a time, before I encountered this word, when I appreciated the Lego-like nature of Chinese. As a child, I loved being able to take things apart and try, though often fail, to put them back together again. But now, as I near middle-age, I find myself constantly discombobulated by all these does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin words.

To make matters worse for the helicopter, I understand there are aircraft with fixed wings which can take off and land vertically. What am I to call these in Chinese now that the helicopter has bagged the best word? VTOL飞机?I couldn’t bring myself to pollute the language in that way!

Perhaps you can advise me on how I might come to terms with such problems. How can I learn to just think, without feeling overburdened by such crude description-masquerading-as-vocabulary? I’ve searched high and low for an answer and now, in desperation, turn to you for a way out of my predicament.

Yours, in a spin,

Name and address withheld

28 responses to “Bloody Helicopters”

  1. “One Hundred Tang-Dynasty Poems That Every Child Should Know By Heart”, because children should cultivate the feeling of inadequacy at as young an age as possible.

    Auntie Sinoglot, I think your decision to publish this letter is response enough. However, I’m a little concerned that the annual review seems to be happening at the end of March. Even if you’re on the Chinese calendar, which you aren’t, that’s still quite a bit behind the times.

  2. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? A person who’s actually going ga-ga over the Chinese word for ‘helicopter’??? I hate to imagine how this person reacts to the [mainland] Chinese word for ‘computer.’

    Oh, BTW, it’s THREE HUNDRED Tang dynasty poems. Ever noticed there’s a shrinking trend going on in this part of the world? It’s like the multiplication tables: on any pre-1983 exercise books you’d find 12 by 12 multiplication tables; now it’s just 9 by 9. Is that arithmetic with Chinese characteristics or what?

  3. 300, yeah I was going to say (but I’m a little slow in reaction times these days).

    But having gone to elementary school in the 70s, I have to say that the multiplication tables I learned were 10X10 (same as 9×9), but I noticed that my kids are learning with software that goes up to 15×15 (Tux Math).

    I’ll also say that (contrary to Sima), I actually appreciate the fact that so many Chinese words are so simple and descriptive. It makes vocabulary a whole lot easier; once you know a certain amount of characters, you can pick up lots of new words for a huge discount!

  4. @Randy: As a product of the Swinging Sixties, my multiplication was on 12 by 12, but dad was 50 by 50 – just imagine the convenience! Learning that has to be the killer lifehack.

    You’re a better man than I am that you’ve found Chinese simple and descriptive. I spent seven years learning it and it’s, well, frankly, helluva bigger challenge for me than 50×50 times table, Latin and Classical Greek combined – or even making money (via the stock market)!

  5. Umm, not to go off-topic, my mind’s just blown away with that helicopter letter. I just can’t get my head around the notion that there’s an actual, living, breathing human being who wrote that. If I were to get that letter, the choices for me would be (a) the round filing cabinet on the floor, (b) ask the letter writer to summarise or (c) want to date his/her mother with his/her dad watching us just to make things unlively and tense.

  6. julen says:

    Wow, I am left speechless after reading this long post in my telephone, even though I skipped every second paragraph.

    I happen to be very fond of helicopters, I have quite a few of them (rc models) and I use the word quite a lot. I find there is a variant which is about as common: 直升飞机。

    Regarding the linguistic issues, I think there is less of a problem than you imagine. Just like in English, most people would refer to those vertical flying airplanes with a periphrasis, as few know the proper technical word in either language. As for the beauty of French engineers trying to sound Greek… well, it is a matter of taste, but let me just say I prefer the 300 Tang poems.

  7. For goodness sake, people, it’s called a helicopter 直升機 back in the 40s or 50s because it’s the most prominent feature of the aircraft. Just as the computer was called 電腦 at the outset for the same/similar reason. I’d be interested to know how there could be a linguistic issue.

    @Julen: You also found the letter mind-blowing, huh? I read every single paragraph and, honestly, it doesn’t actually make any sense – other than for trolling purposes.

  8. I just checked on Google Translate and it produced 垂直起降飛機 for VTOL aircraft, which sounds right for Vertical Take-off [and] Landing aircraft.

    It also just occurred this minute to me that grandpa (who was an excellent Mandarin speaker) said never to use 直升飛機 for a helicopter (this was back in the 70s) because a helicopter isn’t strictly a 飛機 (airplane/aeroplane) since it’s in a class of its own (even though it is a flying machine).

  9. Chris Waugh says:

    Geez, I dunno, I just took this letter as humour. Not necessarily the greatest comedy ever written, but nevertheless, humour. I mean, the kindly old neighbour’s story, for crying out loud…

  10. Rolik8 says:

    Dear Friends,

    Apart from wondering, why someone would spent so much time and effort to discuss the origin of the word helicopter, I must admit I was very impressed by the actual use of language in the letter. Absolutely brilliant control of the English language.


  11. James Hollaran says:

    This attempt at humour has failed to amuse anyone, except apparently he who picked to publish it on this otherwise-informative blog.

  12. @Rolik8: True. ‘Tis brilliant control. But the humour, strictly down the tubes (apologies to Kojak).

  13. @Chris Waugh: ‘Tis true it’s humour. But, honestly, tense humour only a linguist could come up with. (Been wanting to say this a long time.)

  14. 葛修远 says:

    Is it a joke, maybe? It was a pretty interesting read on a lot of levels, not just for being so bizarre.
    I agree with other commenters above – the literalness of many Chinese words is enjoyable and useful.

  15. Carl says:

    I was amused. I don’t know why the commenters are so confused by this. It’s funny.

  16. Sima says:

    I’m sorry if some of you were a little disappointed with this. Sinoglot is quite a broad church; its contributors and readers have a range of (China-language-related) interests and (as my recent assignment has made abundantly clear to me) problems.

    In Auntie’s absence, I will, from time to time, share some of our correspondence with you, but will try to spare you the more gruesome items. Perhaps the above letter was a bit much for some readers.

    Thanks for your concern about my review. I thought it was rather late, but the chairman assures me it’s simply that, in preparation for HQ’s move to new premises, we’re now operating on the Iranian solar calendar.

    I visited Auntie this morning and passed on your regards – she’s not been at work since the accident. She did ask to be remembered to your mother, whom she says had quite a talent for word building herself.

    @various people
    Times tables and 300 Tang Poems. I suspect learning all your times tables up to 50 is not quite as tough as 300 poems, but getting close. Certainly being able to quickly recall 5×9, or whatever, is useful in itself. More generally, perhaps their real value is in building a comfort or familiarity with numbers, bringing many indirect benefits. One of my former teachers felt very strongly about memorising (at least some) classical poems, and other texts. He insisted that though the child has little appreciation of them at the time they’re learned, the language learned will continue bubbling to the surface and finding all sorts of applications throughout the person’s life.

    Yes. 直升飞机 (zhíshēng fēijī) also seems to be in very widespread use, and it was the word I learned first, but I agree with thenakedlistener’s grandfather.

  17. Sima says:

    @葛修远 and Randy
    I’m glad you commented on the literal nature of words such as these. This was the element of the letter which persuaded me it was worthy of publication. It seems to be partly about how the Chinese language, perhaps because of the writing system, handles imported, or international, terms and concepts.

    I agree that it can seem a help when, learning new terms, that many seem so literal (though they can often mislead and, I suspect, my own learning was at times hampered by attempts to pick words apart, rather than just accept them as whole items).

    I’m inclined though to agree with our correspondent that this can become a burden. Sometimes terms with more obscure origins force us to just accept them as ‘tags’ and *perhaps* make it easier for us to begin to manipulate them – work with the whole idea, rather than grapple with the word itself. Do you ever feel this way?

  18. JS says:


    The matter of “accepting” words as atomic units so that it is “easier to manipulate them” is not a task which speakers of Chinese languages have the slightest problem with. To take a young native speaker as most illustrative, s/he has no idea that zhi2sheng1ji1 is morphologically ‘straight rising machine’, that chang2jing3lu4 is morphologically ‘long neck deer’, etc. (I mention this last because I happen to have recently queried my four-year-old daughter about its analysis and, unsurprisingly, it was opaque to her.) This knowledge of words, naturally enough, persists even as knowledge of the “folk morphology” possible by reference to the orthography expands exponentially in later life.

    HOWEVER, the task you note IS a tremendous problem to learners of Chinese as a SECOND language: the relentless production and processing of CHARACTERS in the learning process naturally privileges the “syllable-cum-morpheme” unit, with very special effort required to focus upon “words” proper… like zhi2sheng1ji1.

    Thus, the experience with the door-poster could only be one of a later learner: the “confusion” there is of one who KNOWS TOO MUCH about characters and NOT ENOUGH about words. The solution, if you or others are interested, is to read texts written exclusively in well-parsed Pinyin. Read enough, and you’ll forget about your “problem” entirely… and maybe feel three again.


  19. David Moser says:

    Bravo! The problem is for we second language learners, yes. Also, for the sake of raising intuition about words and semantics, think of words in English that we grow up learning with no little or no semantic awareness. Who remembers that “cupboard” is “cup” + “board”, or that “passport” is “pass” + “port”. I remember being surprised to realize that the “Empire State Building” was the “building” of the “Empire State” (New York). The first time I heard 珍珠港 in Chinese I puzzled over its meaning “Pearl Harbor”. The semantics of “pearl” had never cropped up in my mind when using the lexical item. What English speaker puzzles over how the “under” and “stand” function in “understand”? Chinese, too, obviously just learn these sounds in chunks like we do. It’s only we second language learners who delight over 火车 being “fire vehicle” and “immediately” expressed as 马上.

  20. The problem is for we us second language learners, yes.

    Some of us second language learners have been in China way too long. 😉

  21. Sima says:

    @JS and David

    The ‘Pearl Harbour’ moments that David describes are quite familiar. This parallel to the English examples, suggests JS has a very strong case. And it’s common enough to ask a Chinese speaker how to write a word, only for them to hesitate in the choice between a pair of similar-sounding, but meaningfully different, characters.

    David’s ‘cupboard’ has already departed a little from ‘cup-board’ in pronunciation. As for our ‘sheep-herd’, the writing system accommodates a small change. Each example suggests that, in English at least, we are somewhat cut off from etymology. Indeed, some would suggest that we might need to unlock English by learning Latin.

    As a non-native Chinese speaker, I would be quite tempted to follow JS’s advice and lock up some of the language. Using only pinyin for the first year or two of study sounds like a great way of giving the learner a ‘grace period’ to compensate for the lack of a listening and babbling phase. Perhaps a self-enforced pinyin-only diet could reinvigorate my own reading, maybe by forcing me to anticipate more, treat words as wholes and hear the sound of the language as I read. But surely native and non-native alike ultimately have to acquire and maintain a significant proportion of their vocabulary in the form of Chinese character texts? Indeed we do have to engage with the language on its own terms, not merely for the sake of learning it. At this stage, do we not all get railroaded, to some extent, into the building-block mindset? By the time JS Junior knows that 颈 (jǐng) means neck, will she start to think of a long necked deer?

    Does anyone know of Chinese language courses run without character learning in, at least, the first year or so? I’d be very interested to hear more.

  22. Chris Waugh says:

    “Does anyone know of Chinese language courses run without character learning in, at least, the first year or so? I’d be very interested to hear more.”

    Based on very limited experience: A lot of the language schools in Beijing’s CBD area certainly seem to avoid characters as much as possible. I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s due to the market they’re pitching at – a market that seems to think it unnecessary to learn how to actually read, that just seems to want to focus on survival spoken Chinese.

    I have very strong doubts about the effectiveness or usefulness of their methods.

    I don’t know of any programme that tries to recreate a “listening and babbling phase” by avoiding characters for the first couple of years.

    Please, bear in mind the “very limited experience” I started this comment with.

  23. julen says:

    @David- I have had many “pearl harbour” moments too. But the Chinese can get even better than that: when a word’s characters have a clear meaning, except this meaning is absurdly misleading – see for example 猫王.

    Seriously though, it is not so sure that these words (like 飞机) are bad for learners. I was trying to argue this in the long debates we had last year in my blog, but many students said on the contrary these words actually help them. And I conclude that, if the character clues are of little help for active vocabulary use (ie. you can’t just guess how to say 直升机) they are very useful to help remember a word passively, especially when reading.

    In the end of the day, as I argued here , what makes Chinese so extremely difficult is not so much the characters or word formation, but the fact that it is the language of a different civilization. In other words:: “helicopter” is not amazing because it comes from Greek, but because virtually every language In the World uses this word… Except Chinese!

    (I am writing on my phone and couldn’t check things, excuse if any error)

  24. > Some of us second language learners have been
    > in China way too long.

    I’ll say!

  25. Sima says:

    I suspect those language courses were not quite what I had in mind, but it would still be interesting to hear from someone who spent an extended period learning Chinese as a second language without seriously approaching Chinese characters before going on to become literate.

    I’m sure many learners feel that learning the meaning of each morpheme can be helpful. I certainly felt that way. A more important question is, I think, whether this is really a help or a hindrance in achieving genuine fluency and fully functional literacy.

    I hope, in one or two future posts, to show some of the ways in which Chinese is not so very different. Of course, there are differences, and some of them seem likely to be caused by the writing system itself.

    From the story:

    One voice piped up, “You can’t call it that! What about…”

    What might he have suggested? And, had he known of the word ‘helicopter’, could the answer have been any different?

  26. Sima says:

    From Victor Mair, via email:

    Many of the best and most recent textbooks for learning Mandarin deemphasize or omit Chinese characters altogether (Cornelius Kubler, Robert Sanders, Julian Wheatley, Cynthia Ning, etc.). I consider this a very enlightened form of pedagogy. I’m a strong advocate of not teaching any characters for at least the first whole year, until one learns the basic vocabulary, sound system, grammar, intonations and rhythms, etc. I’ve always said that we should learn languages naturally, like small children do, mastering the speech (primary) first, and then moving on to writing (secondary). That’s how I learned Nepali too, and I learned it very well in a relatively short amount of time. Eleanor Jorden used to teach Japanese that way, and she was a genius at it, with excellent results.

  27. Julen says:

    @Sima – thanks for the info. I don’t discuss these opinions, clearly V. Mair and others cited have more experience than me in teaching Chinese to foreigners (I have none).

    On the other hand, this is perfectly compatible with my old theory of the “different civilization”. OK, that is just the silly name I give it with an eye to write a best seller :) a more suitable name would be “different system of vocabulary”.

    Essentially what I argued in those articles is that, at the lower to intermediate level in any language, the challenges encountered by the student are completely different from those at advanced level. And that the higher the level goes, the more it is vocabulary (the “data” element) that becomes the obstacle rather than pronunciation or grammar (I called this the “code” element) — except that, of course, in most languages there is virtually no vocabulary at the higher level, most words being, like “helicopter”, adopted from international use.

    I am focused only in the advanced level because it is at this point that language starts to become really useful, when it becomes a tool to communicate rather than a curiosity focused on itself. That is when you use it daily at work, when you get 100 page contracts in Chinese for a variety of projects and you have a deadline to prepare for a negotiation meeting — this is where I am trying to get today in Shanghai, and it is from my own experience in this and various other languages that I draw my conclusions.

    I suspect most linguists never get to this point, as they are forced to split their efforts to grasp the basics of many different languages. Correct me if I am wrong, but I guess Mr. Mair, while surely acquiring an admirable level of Nepali in a short time, was never required to discuss contracts, speak of ions and helicopters, or discuss nuclear fission and tectonics in Nepali, and then compare it with the same experience in Chinese.

    I have done this comparison myself between languages as different as Basque, French and Chinese — in all of which I can discuss tectonics, helicopters and fission (well OK, in Chinese I am still half-way there).

  28. Ben says:

    I think I can understand the writer of the letter, to an extent. When I came to China I was amazed at the beauty of the language: that every character was literally an image, and the images put together, formed additional, more complex images. I had the same feeling towards English as the writer seemed to have towards Chinese, albeit from a different perspective: I felt English was unfocused, unwieldy, and sycophantic, whereas I felt Chinese poetic, powerful, and undoubtedly direct.

    However after having been here for years now, my opinions have leveled out somewhat and I have an appreciation of both. I suppose the culture shock is over. The English language, while incredibly complex and difficult is astonishingly beautiful, while Chinese is often without creativity when used in ordinary life (although poets seem to have no problem inventing their own words by stacking whichever characters together; although that does seem to be the freedom of the poet in any language), and even offering suggestions for a new way to say something is looked down upon or outright refused by a majority of speakers. However, Chinese is like a construction set of beautiful anomalies, just waiting for someone to come along and compose a masterpiece (at some point in the future).

    On the other side though, Zhishengfeiji is just soooo much fun to say. Far more fun than helicopter, in this opinion. 😛

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