more Chinese-to-English translation fail(ure)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Wed Aug 19 21:25:21 UTC 2009

Victor Mair provides a detailed discussion on Language Log (referring
specifically to Randy's comments here):

On Wed, Aug 19, 2009 at 2:18 PM, Joel S. Berson<Berson at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: more Chinese-to-English translation fail(ure)
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> Fascinating, Randy.  And the Manchus seem to have been as fearful of
> smallpox as the American colonials (whom I've read about), as well as
> the British and continentals (whom I haven't) of the same period.
> Joel
> At 8/19/2009 01:50 PM, Randy Alexander wrote:
>>Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit
>>Continuing on, off topic:
>>On Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 1:10 PM, Douglas G. Wilson<douglas at> wrote:
>> >>> (1) Why is smallpox called "sky-flower" or so?
>> > As for smallpox, I found this --
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> > -- apparently an excerpt  from an early-modern-Chinese-medicine text
>> > from 1830 with commentary (text on p. 177, footnotes on p. 181). The
>> > name "tian-hua" for smallpox is said to refer to the lesions like "red
>> > flowers" as one might expect. As for the "tian", note "tian-xing", here
>> > glossed "heaven current" and equated to "epidemic", I guess based on a
>> > belief that such diseases appear secondary to some disturbance in the
>> > sky or heaven (or maybe depending on the season, i.e. the positions of
>> > the stars?). Conceivably this is the source of the "tian"? [Quick
>> > Web-Google shows this "tian-xing" today mostly in the name of contagious
>> > conjunctivitis.]
>>As I was looking for something in some Manchu-related materials I
>>serendipitously found the answer to this question.
>>Journal of the History of Medicine: Vol. 57, April 2002, p177-197
>>Chia-feng Chang, Disease and Its Impact on Politics, Diplomacy, and
>>the Military: The Case of Smallpox and the Manchus (1613-1795)
>>The Manchus were so afraid of smallpox that they used only auspicious
>>words when referring to smallpox patients. They adopted terms such as
>>_tianhua zhixi_ the auspicious heavenly flower) or _xidou_ (auspicious
>>smallpox) to describe smallpox sufferers in the hope of avoiding bad
>>luck. When the Shunzhi Emperor contracted small pox in 1661, any words
>>pronounced like _dou_ (smallpox), such as bean (_dou_), were strictly
>>prohibited; nor were frying beans or lighting
>>candles allowed, because the flames of candles were shaped like beans.
>>The idea that the Manchus considered smallpox a life-threatening force
>>that could also mature the body was embodied in their worship of the
>>smallpox goddess. The Manchus begged the _Zisun Niangniang_ (Offspring
>>Goddess) for the protection of smallpox patients.... According to a
>>folk collection about the Manchu legend of Nishan Shaman during the
>>Ming dynasty, _Zisun Niangniang_ was surrounded by a number of women
>>who were busy carrying or holding children and doing other things
>>connected with child care. _Zisun Niangniang_ was also named..._Omosi
>>Mama_. ..._Omosi_ means descendants, and _Omosi Mama_ therefore was
>>regarded as symbolic of fertility. ...the Manchu deemed smallpox as a
>>potentially fatal affliction but also as a turning point of life. Once
>>they safely passed through the point, they were no longer bothered by
>>smallpox and reached their maturity.
>>(If anyone wants a PDF of this paper, email me.  It's 153k.)
>>All of the words discussed here are Chinese words, which of course the
>>Manchus used, but looking at the Manchu words is interesting as well.
>>Via (Online Manchu-English dictionary)
>>[x sounds like sh, everything else is more or less like you might guess]
>>- erxembi  - 1. to serve, to wait on, to attend 2. to take care of
>>(children) 3. to get smallpox
>>- mama erxembi - for pocks to appear, to get smallpox
>>- sure - 1. wise, intelligent 2. prajna, wisdom (Buddhism) 3.
>>chilled (of fruit)
>>- sure mama - the goddess of smallpox
>>- surgi - a smallpox pustule
>>"Mama" is the second element in many Manchu goddesses' appellations.
>>Here we can see the Manchu phrase meaning "to get smallpox" also means
>>"the goddess takes care of you".
>>Some other important points: 1) "surgi" is not a Chinese import word.
>>2) There is another Chinese word for pox (which until smallpox was
>>eradicated I would guess usually referred to smallpox), dou4.
>>Assuming this word was already around, this gives more credence to the
>>idea that the Manchus invented the word tian1hua1 (pertaining to
>>smallpox pustules, not ceilings). 3) "sure" means "wise" -- the
>>Manchus certainly had a heck of a lot of respect for (or fear of)
>>smallpox to name their goddess of smallpox "wise goddess", and even to
>>have a goddess of smallpox in the first place.
>>Randy Alexander
>>Jilin City, China
>>My Manchu studies blog:
>>The American Dialect Society -
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