Subversive Panda II: More freedom, more confusion (updated)

Recently I mentioned the winsome advertising-panda of the Dongsishitiao subway stop in Beijing. (Cameo reminder photo below; previous post here, with link to larger picture.)

I asserted that the English version of the slogan -- "More Freedom, More Happiness" -- was ambiguous in a subtly provocative way. Was the beloved symbol of the Chinese nation really saying, "the freer you are, the happier you will be"? Or saying that only to visitors who could read the English translation? Or saying it inadvertently via mistranslation?

As for the Chinese version of his slogan, 更多自由, 更多欢乐 -- that is, the version that 99.9% of the passersby would pay attention to -- I (wisely!) declared myself agnostic on how that should be read. And I had no explanation for the oddity of a panda talking about freedom in the first place.

The wisdom of the readers:

1) Many people, Chinese and otherwise, said that the ad was really a way of stressing that the pandas of Chengdu and greater Sichuan province now enjoyed bigger, freer enclosures than before and therefore are happier.  Sounds like a stretch to me, but: OK. More on the pandas of Sichuan and the now-destroyed Wolong Panda Reserve in this article and this slideshow and these posts.

     1A) One man suggested that it was an ad for tea. The cup in the panda's hand paw in fact says "tea." 

     UPDATE 1B): John Zhu and some other native-speakers of Chinese have said that the "freedom" implied by the term 自由 really implies the ease, leisure, and kicking-back approach to life with which Chengdu is associated. By this reasoning, the ad is speaking neither about bigger enclosures for pandas, nor wider political liberties for people, but simply a nice-and-easy vacation in Sichuan.

2) I have had a delightful and instructive introduction to the mysteries of language via emails like the two I list after the jump. Basically the pattern has been this: an expert on the Chinese language who is not a native speaker (linguistics professor, long-time resident, etc) writes to say: "Obviously the Chinese phrase means X..." The meaning of X varies from one expert to another. Then a native Chinese speaker will write in to say, "I dunno... could mean one thing, could mean the other."

3) And, with gratitude to all who wrote, my favorite reply was from reader KS who said that Subversive Panda "will be the name I suggest for my son's rock band, when he's old enough to have a rock band."

Illustrations of point 2, below.

Two notes that arrived within minutes of each other, back to back in the email inbox:

First, from an American in China:

I'm a mid western guy studying chinese in china, here four years now. [The Chinese sentence] 更多... 更多.... Does not have a causal relationship, because there is implicitly more 更多's that are not mentioned. Give you an example: 更多快乐,更多自由,更多耐心,更多愉快。 Lots of happiness, Lots of freedom, Lots  of patience, Lots of happiness! There is no causual relationship at all.

Why? Chinese HAS a causual relationship sentence pattern 越有钱,越快乐。 The more money, the happier. The Yue character 越 has this meaning and is used for this purpose. [Yes, and this is a point of grammar that even I know!] Geng duo 更多 does not have this meaning because there is always the unspoken other examples, 更多A,更多B,(更多C, 更多D). Geng duo means, lots of, not "the more A causes the more B" That is the yue character. Just as if I say Lots of Fun, Lots of freedom. There is no causual relationship. There may also be Lots of charming children and lots of ice cream. But if I say, The more money I have, the more problems, there is clearly a causual relationship intutively understood by native english speakers.

I'm not sure how your Chinese friends answered any other way.

And immediately after reading the sentence above, I saw this in the inbox:

Native Chinese speaker here. I think both translations are valid, so it really depends on what the reader wants to make of it.

Similar illustrations here, including entertaining back-and-forth in the comments, from the wonderful UPenn-based Language Log. And I suppose if Barbara Wallraff among others can sustain years-long engrossing discussions about English nuances among (mainly) native speakers of English, it's no surprise that opinions will vary about even this brief passage in Chinese.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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