A MEANINGFUL EXCHANGE
Certain expressions in any language seem designed to befuddle non-native speakers, and Chinese is no exception
sion for all corrupt officials.
3 — Intimacy, frankness. This is the most difficult “meaning” of the bunch. The way it’s used in this joke is the boss ribbing the employee that he’s selling himself short, a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that they’re such good friends that the employee doesn’t need to be making him respectful offerings. It also hints that the boss knows the employee isn’t just handing out cash for nothing, but they’re such good friends that the employee should have just come right out and ask what he wanted. While this joke uses an ironic version of (
, “not enough meaning”), you can also use it the normal way — for instance, if a friend in your group doesn’t pay their share of the bill, or if anyone betrays your trust in any way, then they’re .
4 — Care, an action or token into which someone has put some effort and concern. Similar to 2, but this puts emphasis on the concern on the giver’s part rather than the meaning it holds for the receiver. Here, the employee is protesting again that the gift is just small potatoes on his part.
5 — Interest, amusement. To say that a person or thing “has meaning” is to say they intrigue you in some way. Here, the boss is amused by his employee’s protests.
6 — Motive. The employee protests a final time (see a pattern?), saying that he had no ulterior motive.
7, 8 — Part of a phrase that makes apology for your rudeness. The two final uses of “meaning” both have this meaning, used within the phrase (
) in two different ways. The phrase literally means “it’s difficult to mean”, and can be literally interpreted as the speaker saying they’ve been put (or put themselves) in a position where it’s hard for them to muddy their intentions, which is awkward and embarrassing because, hey, that’s what we’ve been trying to do this whole time by abusing the word “meaning” in various ways. In this joke, the first instance of is the boss telling the employee he’ll accept the gift (“Please excuse my rudeness, I will help myself”.) The second instance is the employee apologizing (“No, it’s me who should be embarrassed!”) as a way of making
You thought that was all? Actually, the above joke and Shaanxi donation scandal only grazes the surface of everything you could use “meaning” to mean (or not mean). For example, there is the phrase
( , literally “really meaningless”), which is similar to the version of
that the boss uses in the joke. It expresses the feeling that someone didn’t consider you as good a friend as you considered them, hence they’re being overly polite or distant toward you. It can be used either as an actual complaint or in a complimentary way, as in telling someone that they don’t have to be so kind.
The expression ( , literally, “easy to mean”) is essentially the opposite of , signifying a complete lack of embarrassment. You use it to express your displeasure and outrage that someone is crass enough to do a certain impolite, dishonest, or just generally shocking thing, such as
. “There are so many starving people in the world, you’re not embarrassed to waste food?”).
can also refer to certain trends or signs that something is about to happen, and in this case it’s not just people who can “have meaning”. For example,
Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com . it
The sky has darkened, maybe means to rain.) Finally, there’s another use of
( , “to have meaning”), only in this instance you don’t say that someone else “has meaning” (i.e. is interesting), but that one person “has meaning” toward another person.
Just to make things more difficult, all of these phrases with “meaning” in them can change their meaning slightly depending on who is speaking to whom and in what social context — such as we saw with the difference between
in the joke and in the Shaanxi scandal. Another way to look at it is that “meaning”, literally, is the cue that forces you to look into the context, politeness register and intentions imbedded in your conversation.