The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - - HUANG WEI­JIA (黄伟嘉) AND LIU JUE (刘珏)

It’s the hol­i­day sea­son again and that can only mean one thing: ram­pant con­sumerism. In ur­ban China, peo­ple learn Christ­mas car­ols pri­mar­ily in shopping malls and cel­e­brate the New Year by tak­ing ad­van­tage of hol­i­day dis­counts on Taobao. In keep­ing with this mod­ern­day rit­ual, our char­ac­ter this time is 买 ( m2i, pur­chase, buy).

The tra­di­tional ver­sion for 买 is 买, on which you can still find traces of its pic­to­graphic past. On top of the char­ac­ter is the ( w2ng, net) rad­i­cal, and on the bot­tom, the 贝 ( b-i, 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 “十” rad­i­cal. Put this sim­pli­fied rad­i­cal on top of 买, you get 卖 ( m3i) or “sell”.

Nat­u­rally, when put to­gether, 买卖 ( m2i­mai) means “busi­ness” or “trans­ac­tion.” Run­ning a small busi­ness is 做买卖 ( zu7 m2i­mai) and own­ers of small busi­nesses call them­selves 买卖人 ( m2i­mair9n). A buyer is 买主 ( m2izh^) or买家 ( m2iji`), the lat­ter of which is used more of­ten th­ese days on Taobao, whereas a seller is 卖家 ( m3iji`).

The goods that are bought and sold go right be­hind th­ese char­ac­ters, like “to buy fruits” or 买水果 ( m2i shu@gu6), but some­times, th­ese trans­ac­tions may not be lit­eral. For in­stance, 买单 ( m2id`n, “buy bill”) is what you say to a waiter or wait­ress when ask­ing for the bill; 买账 ( m2izh3ng, 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, “买卖不成仁义在( M2i­mai b& ch9ng r9ny# z3i),” which means “friendly re­la­tions de­velop be­tween buy­ers and sell­ers even if they fail to clinch a deal.” A re­la­tion­ship suc­cess­fully es­tab­lished is equally valu­able as money chang­ing hands.

The in­ter­twined na­ture of busi­ness and per­sonal re­la­tions mean that so­cial in­ter­ac­tion can of­ten be de­scribed with terms of trade. To “buy face” or 买面子( m2i mi3nzi) is “to stretch rules out of re­spect for some­body.” For ex­am­ple, 不是我不买你的面子,这件事实在不好办。( B% sh# w6 b& m2i n@ de mi3nzi, zh-ji3n sh# sh!z3i b& h2o b3n.)—“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 卖人情 ( m3i r9nq!ng, do some­body a fa­vor). For in­stance, 在工作中,他不喜欢卖人情,也不会偏袒熟人。( Z3i g4ngzu7 zh4ng, t` b& x@huan m3i r9nq!ng, y0 b& hu# pi`nt2n sh%r9n. When it comes to work, he does not like do­ing peo­ple fa­vors and won’t be par­tial to his friends.) “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 买春( m2ich$n), which is a word with quite a long his­tory. Turns out 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 买醉 ( m2izu#, “to buy drunk­en­ness”).

We ex­pe­ri­ence all kinds of sales tricks day in and day out, but one an­cient fa­ble over 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 买椟还珠( m2i d% hu1n zh$, 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.” ’Tis the sea­son not just for 买, but to re­mem­ber what’s re­ally im­por­tant about this spe­cial time of the year: fam­ily, friends, and a brand new be­gin­ning.

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