Everyday swordplay
2016-09-23, DUNCAN POUPARD

It seems like everyone in China has read a martial arts novel, or at least seen a TV adaptation of one.

The undisputed king of wuxia (武侠wǔ xiá), a kungfu literary genre, is Jin Yong, aka Louis Cha, whose tales of beautiful heroes and heroines read like modern Chinese takes on Arthurian legends.

Characters in wuxia books, films and TV shows all speak a distinctive patois. This lingo crops up on occasion in modern-day situations, too, from formal dinners to company meetings to social media chats, so it is useful to know if you want to impress your friends and colleagues.

Although wuxia novels became popular in the 20th century, they are mostly all set in ancient China. As a result, the language can often come across as stilted and old-fashioned. Hence, opinion is divided about how appropriate this language is in everyday use, which is akin to walking around an English town saying “where art thou?”

A major tenet of the martial arts code is chivalry, hence the phrase: “Upon seeing injustice on the road, draw one’s sword and come to the rescue.” (路见不平, 拔刀相助; Lù jiàn bùpíng, bádāo xiāngzhù.)

The following sentences should be spoken with the authority that comes with the knowledge you are a human death machine, and it may help to have a wispy beard to twirl, too.


Two tigers cannot share one mountain.

Yī shān bù róng èr hǔ.


From the movie The Forbidden Kingdom 


Don’t think that because you are handsome I won’t hit you.

Bié yǐwéi nǐ zhǎng de shuài wǒ jiù bù dǎ nǐ.


From the movie Kung fu (功夫)


Today is not the day you die. It is the day I live.

Jīnrì bú shì nǐ sǐ, jiù shì wǒ huó.

今日不是你死, 就是我活.

From the movie The Sentimental Swordsman (多情剑客无情剑)


Just like in real life, first impressions are important in the martial arts world. The next sentences are a few icebreakers, but probably best not to use them at an important business meeting.


Which school (of martial arts) do you belong to?

Géxià shì nǎ mén nǎ pài de?


Real meaning: Where are you from, and what do you do?


May I humbly ask your great name?

Qǐng wèn géxià zūn xìng dà míng?


Real meaning: What is your name?


When introducing oneself, it is usual to use the first person singular, zaìxià (在下), literally “below”, which is a way of showing one’s humility. Others should be referred to as géxià (阁下), literally “I address you from below your mansion”, akin to m’lord or m’lady.


When encountering one another, a pair of kungfu practitioners might greet each other with:

I am A. May I be so bold as to learn your great name?

Zàixià A, gǎn wèn géxià gāo xìng dà míng?

在下A, 敢问阁下高姓大名?


I am known as B.

Zàixià B.

B: 在下B.


Aha. Brother B, good to make your acquaintance.

O. Yuánlái B xiōng, jiǔyǎng jiǔyǎng.

哦. 原来B兄, 久仰久仰.


In kungfu novels, characters are constantly judging each other on their martial arts prowess, and they are certainly not afraid to brag. Nowadays, kungfu (功夫; gōngfu) does not necessarily refer to just martial arts ability. It can mean performing any skill, from using spreadsheet software to riding a motorbike or even cooking pasta.


I’d never have thought your kungfu would be so amazing.

Méixiǎngdào nǐ de gōngfu rúcǐ liǎodé.


Real meaning: That’s impressive.


Your kungfu isn’t bad. You probably count as one of the best martial artists around.

Nǐ de gōngfu búchà, yīnggāi yě suànshì dāngjīn wǔlín zhōng de gāoshǒu le.

你的功夫不差, 应该也算是当今武林中的高手了.

Real meaning: You’re very good at what you do.


All this flattery can be rebuffed with a simple: “I dare not accept such praise.” (不敢; Bùgǎn.)

Most kungfu speak can be put to use when two or more people are competing, be it in a high-stakes game of table tennis, or tiddlywinks on an empty office desk.


Fighting with our fists, we are evenly matched. Let’s see who’s better with the naked blade.

Zánmen quánjiǎo nánfēn gāoxià, bīngrèn shàng zài jué shēngsǐ.

咱们拳脚难分高下, 兵刃上再决生死.

Real meaning: Let’s try a different game.


Your kungfu is exceptional, and I bow to your superiority.

Géxià de gōngfu fēi tóng yī bān, zàixià gān bài xiàfēng.


Real meaning: I admit it. You’re better than me.


And if you are tired of the usual phrase zaijian when saying goodbye, why not bid adieu in consummate kungfu style.


As the mountains do not move and the rivers keep on flowing, we will meet again.

Qīngshān búgǎi, lǜshuǐ chángliú, zánmen hòu huìyǒu qī!

青山不改, 绿水长流, 咱们后会有期!


While this kind of language does not conform to the everyday usage you find in textbooks, or even out and about in the streets, throwing a few kungfu terms into your speech — if used properly — will show a familiarity with local culture that many learners of Chinese can only dream about.


Courtesy of The World of Chinese,

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