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Grab vegetables 抢菜, Study Notes, I.

From the guanxi substack newsletter: https://guanxi.substack.com/. If you would like to support this project, please subscribe there.

The lockdown in Shanghai is a challenge for the city’s residents. For some it may be an inconvenience, for others it has caused heartache, or worse. It’s a difficult time.

As ever it’s worth trying to look beyond the news. For English-language views of what it’s like living in Shanghai at present, have a look at Jaap Grolleman’s most recent posts (https://jaapgrolleman.com/). For a cheerful and optimistic yet sensitive view, see 阿福Thomas’ latest video from Shanghai.

Here in the UK, lockdown is a memory. We should keep the memory alive. We must keep learning from what happened.1 Resilience builds on memory. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

What’s the first thing that you think about when you see the situation in Shanghai on the news? Does it affirm your views about China. Does it challenge them? In any case, it’s worth distinguishing between news and real life.

News from China is outdated by the time it is covered by western media. By the time you see or read something about China in English it’s old news. You are seeing something that has already been investigated and analysed on WeChat and other social media by millions and millions of ‘netizens.’ Chinese news works at a speed and scale that doesn’t exist here.

Along-side news of quarantines, health problems, food delivery issues, etc. Chinese social media is full of creativity and humour. Life continues. How could we live without creativity, without humour?

News doesn’t age well; art gets better with time.

A few weeks ago Shanghainese rappers published a musical reflection on the subject of buying vegetables and getting nucleic acid tests.2 Here’s a loose attempt at translation of the opening lines:

Everybody, grab vegetables,

After the competition, get PCR tested.

Do it together, altogether!

There’s more to it. It’s a lot catchier in Shanghainese.

The song is old news, but I continue to enjoy listening to this catchy, nuanced, multi-faceted reflection on the human condition in lockdown.

I don’t understand the song in real time. I’m still working my way through it. The lyrics are easily available. They’re a useful study exercise to complement my Chinese lessons.3

Re-valuing vegetables: screenshot from the music video – https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV15F411s7W4

Here is the first set of my notes as I study to follow the song.

Study Notes: Grab veggies, test together

大家一道抢菜 [everybody together grab/compete for vegetables]

  • 大家da4jia1 (all; everybody; everyone)
  • 一道 yi1dao4 (together)
  • 抢 qiang3 (to rush, hustle, compete for)
    • Left hand character is a variant of hand 手 (shou3)
    • Compete for business 抢生意 (qiang3 sheng1yi)
  • 菜 cai4 (vegetables).

抢好么做核酸 [afterwards, get a nucleic acid test]

  • 枪好么(了)qiang3 hao3 me (le)
    • Refers to the result of the action, in this case the vegetable competition, with in a resultative complement structure.4 The phrase uses 么 (me) instead of 了 (le) because the ‘song’ is in Shanghainese dialect.
  • 做核酸 (zuo4 he2suan1)
    • 做 zuo4 (to do, act, make)
      • This character evolved as a variant of 作 zuo4 (to work). How did this happen? Via 作+攵(pu1) where the latter character denotes movement. So now we’d have 作攵, but 乍 was changed, evolved, corrupted into 古. Interesting picture for the evolution of 作 in the footnotes.5
    • 核酸 he2suan1 (nucleic acid; RNA or DNA)
      • 核 he2 (nucleus, nuclear, core of a matter)
        • 木 mu4 (tree) LHS linked to meaning, think kernel/core of fruit as nucleus
      • 酸 suan1 (sour; tart / chemistry: acid)
        • Note left-hand part 酉 you3 (alcohol) showing a container used for brewing and pouring drinks.

一道做 [do it together]

  • 一道 yīdào (together)
    • 道 dao4 (path; method). An important character beyond the ordinary if you’re interested: 道可道非常道.6
  • 做 zuo4 (as above)

Do abbreviations pass the sense-test?

There are two main kinds of COVID-19 tests, 核酸 he2suan1 (nucleic acid) tests and 抗原 kang4yuan2 (antigen) tests.

From what I’ve come across in English we most commonly use the acronym PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to describe a test that tries to detect RNA (ribonucleic acid) of the virus. PCR is a method/technology for amplifying small amounts of RNA.

The ‘other test’ is the one we do at home: the ‘self-test’ or ‘lateral flow test.’ The 抗原 tests look for antigens, which are molecules from the surface of the virus. If you have COVID-19, the liquid that you dip your swab into gets the virus to release the antigens and these are then detected by antibodies that are linked to indicators on the test strip.

We already looked at 核酸 above, we need a short excursion into 抗原:

  • 抗 kang4 (resist; defy; but in this case anti-) note hand-radical on the LHS indicating the original meaning, which is related to the meaning: ‘to raise’ something.
  • 原 yuan2 (source, first) a dictionary says that the character indicates spring water flowing out of a basin, composed of ‘cliff-face’ (outside part) and water/source (inside part).7

The Chinese terms give both precision and associative potential: you get the ‘flow’ of ‘lateral flow’ embedded for free if you want it. In English we muddle along with technical-sounding abbreviations that are largely divorced from their roots of meaning.

Dialect and pronunciation

The song is in Shanghainese which is very different from the standard 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà) dialect. Dialect rap like this has become popular. It’s a way of celebrating the diversity of the Chinese language, two dialects could easily be as far apart as Spanish and Italian.

Having listened to 抢菜 a number of times, I tried to tell my teacher about the music I had come across: 我喜欢新上海流行音乐 (I like the new Shanghai popular music…), 你知道抢菜吗 (do you know ‘grabbing vegetables’)? She looked at me blankly. I started repeating: ‘grab vegetables’, ‘grab vegetables’… 抢菜, 抢菜… 你知道吗? My sounds and tones were all off. It was gibberish.8

Just begin again.

To be continued… Subscribe at https://guanxi.substack.com/ to grab more vegetables. 抢菜!

1

See for example: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54755326-duty-of-care.

2

https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1009994/the-shanghai-lockdown-rap-get-fed%2C-go-on-get-tested

3

… now 15 lessons and about 7 weeks in with my Chengdu based teacher Dora via Shanghai based GoEast Mandarin, and still beginning, again and again.

guānxi: Just begin again…

4

This is a good overview that I found for this article. I might explore this course further. https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/chinese-grammar/0/steps/64830

5

Source: http://www.guoxuedashi.net/zidian/ziyuan_3678.htm

6

https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing; https://www.yellowbridge.com/onlinelit/daodejing01.php

7

Outlier dictionary on Pleco.

8

Note to self: I could have asked something like 你知道«抢菜»这首歌吗?

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