Hol­i­day sales are a sign of the an­cient times

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

The tra­di­tional ver­sion for is , on which you can still find traces of its pic­to­graphic past. On top of the char­ac­ter is the ( , net) rad­i­cal, and on the bot­tom, the ( cowry shells) rad­i­cal. As cowry shells were used as an early form of cur­rency in China and many parts of the world, to­gether, they form the im­age of goods ex­changed with cur­rency and put into a net.

By the same logic, the char­ac­ter for “sell” is a slight vari­a­tion of “buy” — adding an “out” rad­i­cal on top of the char­ac­ter, in­di­cat­ing the re­verse flow of goods from the net. Orig­i­nally cre­ated based on the im­age of grass grow­ing out of the earth, the “out” rad­i­cal evolved into the “” rad­i­cal. Put this sim­pli­fied rad­i­cal ) or on top of “sell”. Nat­u­rally, when put to­gether, ( ) means “busi­ness” or “trans­ac­tion”. Run­ning a small busi­ness is ( ) and own­ers of small busi­nesses call them­selves ). A buyer is ( ) or ( ), the lat­ter of which is used more of­ten these days on Taobao, whereas a seller is ( ).

The goods that are bought and sold go right be­hind these char­ac­ters, like “to buy fruits” or

( ), but some­times, these trans­ac­tions may not be lit­eral. For in­stance, ( , buy bill) is what you say to a waiter or wait­ress when ask­ing for the bill;

( , also buy bill but with an al­ter­na­tive char­ac­ter), on the other hand, ac­tu­ally means “to ac­knowl­edge some­body’s su­pe­ri­or­ity or se­nior­ity”, of­ten grudg­ingly.

Even if you only know the ba­sics about China’s tra­di­tional social cus­toms, you re­al­ize that busi­ness is, of­ten, not just busi­ness. And to strike a deal with a com­pany on the more conservative end of the spec­trum can be a night­mare soaked with bai­jiu. As Chi­nese busi­ness­men of­ten say, “(

),” which means “friendly re­la­tions de­velop between buy­ers and sellers even if they fail to clinch a deal”. A re­la­tion­ship suc­cess­fully es­tab­lished is just as valu­able as money chang­ing hands.

The in­ter­twined na­ture of busi­ness , you get ( and per­sonal re­la­tions mean that social in­ter­ac­tion can of­ten be de­scribed with terms of trade. To “buy face” or ) is “to stretch rules out of re­spect for some­body”. For ex­am­ple,


) — “It’s not that I wouldn’t buy you some face (make an ex­cep­tion in your case), but I’m re­ally not in a po­si­tion to do so.”

The op­po­site of “buy face” is “sell a fa­vor”, or ( , do some­body a fa­vor). “Sell a fa­vor” is of­ten used in the neg­a­tive, be­cause it has a con­no­ta­tion of shady deal­ings and per­sonal re­turns.

Even when they buy some­thing in the sense of trade, peo­ple are not al­ways pay­ing for what they say they are. For in­stance, the eu­phemism for pay­ing for sex is “to buy spring” or

( ), which is a word with quite a long his­tory. It turns out that back in the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907), “spring” was widely used in the names of al­co­holic drinks, be­cause liquor was usu­ally brewed in win­ter and would be ready in the com­ing spring. Ever the ro­man­tics, el­e­gant Tang po­ets and literati claimed that the money they spent in the brothel was for the spring wine served there, hence the phrase. But what if one is truly pay­ing for the drinks for the pur­pose of get­ting drunk on a night out? Use ( , “to buy drunk­en­ness”). We ex­pe­ri­ence all kinds of sales tricks day in and day out, but one an­cient fa­ble from more than 2,000 years ago shows how both the seller and buyer can miss the mark en­tirely. Once there was a jew­eler who wanted to sell a pearl. And like many sellers to­day, he pack­aged it to the hilt. His ef­forts were so over the top that he used pre­cious wood to carve a case to hold it, fu­mi­gated the case with cin­na­mon and thyme, and adorned it with jade and emer­ald. The buyer, daz­zled by the glit­ter­ing case, over­looked the item with value; he kept the case but re­turned the pearl even though he paid the full price.

This fa­ble told by an­cient philoso­pher Han Fei gave rise to the id­iom

( , buy the case but re­turn the pearl). The philoso­pher’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was to crit­i­cize the seller, liken­ing him to schol­ars at the time who ad­vo­cated their ideas of man­ag­ing the state with flow­ery, ex­ag­ger­ated lan­guage, but no sub­stance. Later, the tar­get of crit­i­cism switched to the buyer (maybe be­cause the au­di­ence re­al­ized that from the point of view of the pearl-seller, it was ac­tu­ally not a bad deal). The id­iom now means “lack of judg­ment and acu­men”.

So, dur­ing this hol­i­day sea­son, try not to “buy the case but re­turn the pearl”. It is the sea­son not just for

, but to re­mem­ber what’s re­ally im­por­tant about this spe­cial time of the year: fam­ily, friends and a brand new be­gin­ning.

Cour­tesy of The World of Chi­nese, www.the­world­ofchi­nese.com

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