money talks

The World of Chinese - - Street Talk - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

There’s a pop­u­lar old joke of­ten used to mock peo­ple who, let us put it del­i­cately, lack much knowl­edge, ex­pe­ri­ence, or imag­i­na­tion: Two poor farm­ers are ploughing the fields, and be­gin talk­ing about what the em­peror’s life must be like. One says: “The em­peror can prob­a­bly eat as many steamed buns as he likes for ev­ery meal.” The other one replies: “Yes! And the hoe he uses to work the fields must be made of pure gold!”

It’s a pretty good, al­beit ob­vi­ous punch­line, that de­scribes what some see as a gen­uine so­cial phe­nom­e­non— sum­ma­rized in the web-slang “贫穷限制了我的想象力”( P!nqi5ng xi3nzh# le w6 de xi2ngx­i3ngl#, Poverty has limited my imag­i­na­tion), a phrase first pop­u­lar­ized in 2017.

The ex­act ori­gins of this ex­pres­sion is unknown, but most learned of it af­ter one of China’s high­est-paid ac­tresses, Fan Bing­bing, showed off her en­gage­ment ring—fea­tur­ing a shock­ingly huge di­a­mond. Some ne­ti­zens in­no­cently won­dered about the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of do­ing ev­ery­day tasks with “such a heavy thing on her hand.” Pre­dictably, such a ques­tion in­curred a cho­rus of mock­ery: “Did you think she had to hand-wash her clothes ev­ery day?” other ne­ti­zens jeered. The orig­i­nal askers were forced to ad­mit: “Poverty has limited my imag­i­na­tion.”

About 1,300 years ago, China’s great­est re­al­ist poet, the Tang dy­nasty’s (618 – 907) Du Fu, gave voice to the poor and wretched with his savage stanza, “While the por­tals of the rich reek of sour meat and wine/ Out­side these gates, frozen bod­ies lie by the way­side.”

But to­day, many peo­ple choose to face the in­come gap with hu­mor and self-mock­ery, rather than sat­i­riz­ing the su­per-rich. Per­haps it’s be­cause, in­stead of those truly liv­ing in ex­treme poverty, it’s the mid­dle classes who like pro­claim­ing them­selves poor. You may have heard of the be­wil­der­ing ex­pres­sion “五行缺钱”( w^x!ng qu8 qi1n, short of money among the Five El­e­ments). The Five El­e­ments or wux­ing (metal, wood, wa­ter, fire, and earth) were a five­fold con­cep­tual scheme in many tra­di­tional Chi­nese fields, once used to ex­plain ev­ery­thing from cos­mic cy­cles to the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween in­ter­nal or­gans.

In folk be­liefs, many peo­ple at­tribute bad luck to the lack of a par­tic­u­lar “el­e­ment” in their life. But ap­par­ently, for many peo­ple, poverty is the great­est mis­for­tune, hence the joke: “The one wux­ing el­e­ment I am re­ally short of is money.”

Still, in other cases, it’s rich folks spend­ing their money con­spic­u­ously who be­come the tar­get of teas­ing and ridicule. There’s a term for these ex­trav­a­gant fools—人傻钱多( r9n sh2 qi1n du4, rich in dol­lars, poor in sense)—who are soon parted with their money.

But some­times, it can be hard to de­fine some­one’s ex­act ex­pen­di­ture, es­pe­cially in these times of on­line economies and crypto cur­ren­cies. For ex­am­ple:

He do­nated tens of thou­sands of RMB to a live streamer—is he is just a rich id­iot, or has poverty limited my imag­i­na­tion? T` d2sh2ng le j@ w3n ku3i g0i w2nglu7 zh^b4. Sh# t` r9n sh2 qi1n du4, h1ishi p!nqi5ng xi3nzh# le w6 de xi2ngx­i3ngl#?他打赏了几万块给网络主播。是他人傻钱多,还是贫穷限制了我的想象力?

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