Language Thursdays: The Holy Fractions

Written by Julen Madariaga on March 25th, 2010

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This is a new feature in my blog. It is a follow up of the initial Language and Culture posts last year, and I commit from now on to continue the series every Thursday that I feel like it. The idea is to post about those language curiosities that I encounter in my study of mandarin and I jot down directly on my study desk.

Professionals like you find in the Language log like to mark the difference between a linguist and a polyglot, and I completely agree with them. While I am a fan of linguistics, particularly those of the descriptive kind, I have never studied the discipline seriously and I couldn’t tell a preposition from a palmiped. I am just a curious language learner, and I’ll stick to what I know.

This thought has discouraged me for a while from writing about language,  considering the rich selection of linguist blogs already available. But then I thought, there is a certain level right between anthropology and linguistics, a space wide open to the speculation of non specialists, where living in language immersion is as important as formal training.

I am referring to the observation of how Language and Culture interact with each other, and how a certain character and a view of the World gets imprinted into the language, form the fossils of the remote past to the process ongoing even today. This is the point of the Language and Culture Series, which consists more of questions than of answers. Here is an example:

The Holy Fractions

The observation today has to do with the common use of number fractions or percentages in the Chinese language, going much further than what I have seen in any other culture. It is surprising for a language so rich in flowery adjectives that the speakers should prefer to describe things in hard numbers. Especially when applied to fields like love that have up to now resisted the advance of mathematics.

I observed this first when my friend Fu described a couple as loving their daughter only 20%. “That is terrible”, I jumped, “she is 20% loved”. But it wasn’t funny. In fact, she was pretty serious, she had done her homework well and she was adamant: 20% is the love the girl got. And that is just the most accurate way she found to describe it.

Since then I have observed the same phenomenon in many circumstances, probably the most well known are these:

  • The CCP’s assessment of Mao after his death, the one that says he was 70% right and 30% wrong. Heroic? Disgraceful? No, just 7/10.
  • The well known formula to order your steak in China: 30%, 50% or 70% cooked. No rare or bleu, but numbers.
  • The use in Taobao of (very unrealistic) percentages to indicate the state of an article, such as “99.9% new”, or even “99.99% new”.

The main question I have here: does this come from the legacy of Maoist education? Is this a residue of the “scientific” outlook of the Marxist theories, or is it rather an ancient trait that existed long before in the Chinese culture? Any reader of 古文 has seen instances of poet Li Bai describing himself as 75% drunk, or 37% sinking in the lake under the moon?

Let me know if you know of any other example. And why do the Chinese like to see the World in fractions?

Note: I translate all in percentages, but the original expressions are various, including the usual 分 or 成  for 10th fractions.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar
    25
    10:54
    PM
    Michael

    I think it is tied to the Chinese legalistic tradition and is culturally very old… at least 八成…

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Mar
    25
    11:33
    PM
    george

    八成熟 is fine, but 80% cooked, sounds just weird :P

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Mar
    26
    12:27
    AM
    Julen Madariaga

    @George - I think he was referring to 八成 as in “most probably”. I think it can be considered another instance of the Holy fractions.

    Because the expression obviously evolved from “there are 80% chances that…”. Which means that evaluating chances numerically was already a long established practice in mandarin, at least long enough to become a word accepted in the dictionaries.

    This, together with the old generation of commies that gave the 70% assessment of Mao, would indicate that the fractional thinking is not a new trend.

    I understand from Michael that the expression was in use in old texts 2000+ years ago?

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Mar
    26
    2:05
    AM
    Fanius

    Stalin is given the famous “70%-contribution-to-the-world” assessment by Mao, and this assessment is regarded as the standard apology applied to Mao by the others. Obviously what they say is that our leader’s merits overweigh his faults, and many the beautiful stories therefore last…

    Chinese are good at playing tricks of numbers, so maybe it’s more easy for us to talk about likelihood in some fraction than in word. Saying ‘Nine times out of ten it stands’ is more natural than speaking ‘highly plausible’ in Chinese… Never mind these numbers, treat them like saying “overweigh…”

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Mar
    26
    10:38
    AM
    Julen

    Just one addition copied from the interesting exchange I had on Gbuzz. I clarified that I am not speaking of numbers in general here, but just of fractions, it is not exactly the same phenomenon.

    There is a very ancient obsession with numbers also in the West, going as far back as Pythagoras at least. So just like in China, people in the West likes to find silly “predictions” from coinciding numbers. (ie. the age of Marylyn Monroe + post code of Maryland = the date of JFKs death, wow!)

    But the case of the fractions is not the same. It is not about magic or numerology, but just purely about the way people choose to express a notion. Somehow Chinese have a stronger preference for quantitative assessment over qualitative in common speech.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Mar
    26
    2:50
    PM
    Cathy

    I think Chinese people use fractions often because the sound of describing fractions in Chinese is pretty, it rolls off the tongue in a light way…in fact, it does not sound numerical to me, rather it sounds poetic. Maybe non native Chinese speakers’ ears do not perceive the sound the same way.

    Fraction in English on the other hand, is a whole different story, it sounds, well, more mechanical.

    For example, Chi Fen (七分) sounds so much better than seven percent. I can easily see how Chi Fen could be incorporated in a Chinese poem; but it’s more difficult for me to think of a way to incorporate seven percent in an English poem, it would kind of just ruin it.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    床前七分明月光
    两分疑是地上霜
    举头来计算
    低头十分思故乡…

    Allow me to LOL myself.
    This reminds me that 十分 is also an instance similar to 八成. And so are 十全十美 and a few others involving 十.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Mar
    26
    3:05
    PM
    Cathy

    My Chinese is getting pretty bad. Just realized Chi Fen is not seven percent, but rather seven tenths. Still I wouldn’t use seven tenths in a poem :-)

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Mar
    26
    7:46
    PM
    Sijia Chen

    一比一比三,
    三三三,
    三面红旗,
    四面八方,
    五湖四海,
    六亿神州,
    七品芝麻官,
    八仙过海,
    九亿农民,
    十分高兴。

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Mar
    26
    10:23
    PM
    Michael

    I think language Thursday is a hit… at least with the language geek types… 十分好!

    [Reply to this comment]

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