Saturday, May 25, 2024

‘Soup dumpling’ and ‘big cousin’: quirky Chinese names for Western celebrities

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Attempts to bridge the linguistic gap between Chinese and English can often lead to things being lost in translation.

This has helped spawn a cottage industry on mainland social media of giving Hollywood movie stars ingenious and often adorable Chinese nicknames.

Among them is Scarlett Johansson, who starred alongside Bill Murray in the above-mentioned 2003 blockbuster Lost in Translation set in Tokyo, whose nickname relates to one of China’s most famous culinary delights.

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The phenomenon in part relates to difficulties encountered when pronouncing English names, but there is more to the endearing nicknames than meets the eye, or the ear. Often it makes long foreign names easier to remember while giving them some form of Chinese meaning.

For instance, Ryan Gosling is nicknamed “General Gao” because in Mandarin his surname is pronounced gao si ling and si ling means a commanding officer. The Chinese internet went into a meltdown about US singer Katy Perry being called “Fruit Sister”, or shui guo jie, due to her penchant for fruit-styled costumes.

Another reason for the craze is to allow netizens to share their common interest in films quickly and easily on social media. It can also be linked to the appearance and stand-out characteristic of the celebrity, a Chinese homonym of their English name or with the roles they play in a movie.

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However, the overriding motivation behind the growth in nicknaming Western stars is that it is a way to express endearment. Here are a few other nicknames and the stories behind them:

Lady Gaga bie bie – “ground beetle”

This one has nothing to do with Lady Gaga’s name. It stems from the outlandish way she dressed before she hit the big time. In Mandarin, a ground beetle is called a tu bie or bie bie and refers to someone who dresses rustically or distinctively.

Timothée Chalamet tian cha – “sweet tea”

The pronunciation of Timothée Chalamet is similar to tian cha in Chinese, which means sweet tea.

Billie Eilish bili – “green pear’’

The pronunciation of Billie is similar to bili in Mandarin, which means green pear.

Tom Cruise a tang ge – “brother Tom”

Tom sounds like tang in Mandarin, a link latched onto by a TV news anchor in China whose use of it led to the nickname becoming widespread.

Britney Spears xiao tian tian – “little sweetie”

For Chinese fans, Britney Spears looks very lovely and sweet. Also, “sweet” is pronounced tian in Mandarin.

Jessica Chastain lao mo jie – “lady model worker”

In Mandarin, the term lao mo is used to praise a hardworking person. Chastain earned the honour because Chinese people recognised the hard work she put in making seven films in a year.

Jennifer Lawrence da biao jie – “big cousin”

A netizen who liked Lawrence very much described the actress as a big cousin of hers, and gradually the name stuck and eventually began trending on mainland social media.

Chris Hemsworth chui ge – “hammer brother”

In the movie Thor in which Hemsworth plays the leading character whose weapon of choice is a hammer. This and Hemsworth’s bravery and physique led to the nickname.

Selena Gomez wa wa lian – “baby face”

This name derives from the singer’s baby face and girl next door smile. Also, in Mandarin Selena sounds similar to sha lian na which means “silly face”.

Ryan Reynolds xiao jian jian – “little cheeky cheeky”

Chinese fans of his Deadpool movie have dubbed him “little jianjian,” because the character he depicts in the film appears to mock and laugh in the face of the world.

Scarlett Johansson shui jiao – “soup dumpling”

The name stems from her first trip to China in 2011 when she ate a scalding dish of soup dumplings in China and burned her tongue.

Benedict Cumberbatch juan fu – “curly blessing”

His trademark hairstyle as Sherlock Holmes led to Cumberbatch being known as “curly blessing” or juan fu. In Mandarin, juan means curly, and fu represents the Chinese name of Holmes, symbolising happiness or blessing.

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