Poor translations and attendant miscommunications are a popular source of entertainment - so much so, that in this day and age, documenting that your local Chinese market is selling “cock zero” is a civic duty.
But some things don't get lost in translation and misinterpreted so much as reinterpreted. This is particularly true when it comes to America’s superstars. What can the words “Katy Perry” possibly mean to a Chinese teenager? What is “Leonardo DiCaprio” other than an arbitrary collection of syllables, and a tedious one to pronounce at that?
Contrary to some views, China does receive a hefty share of American imports, especially from the entertainment industry. And when they go through “customs” they become significantly altered. In some cases for the better.
Jennifer Lopez’s impressive butt didn't get by China for a second. And Nicki Minaj has always been vaguely reminiscent of spicy Sichuan cuisine, wouldn't you say?
Check out these hilarious, outrageous and strangely poignant names China has given to Western celebs.
13 Jennifer Lopez: Lord of Butt
In Hong Kong and China, J-Lo is unanimously “luo ba”, the “Lord of Butt”, and for reasons far more clever than might seem.
The Chinese transliteration of J-Lo’s surname is “Luo pei zi”. With perfect improper pronunciation, this sounds nearly identical to “luo ba”.
Kudos to China for seizing this perfect pun opportunity. Surely the Booty singer has no qualms with it.
12 Nicki Minaj: Numbing-Spicy Chicken
I am Numbing-Spicy Chicken, I mack them dudes up, back coupes up, and chuck the deuce up. Works for us.
To be called “numbing-spicy” is the highest order of zest in Sichuan cuisine. Some dishes use peppers with so much kick they’re said to numb your tongue: This is how hot Chinese people find Nicki Minaj.
“Ma la ji” translates to “numbing-spicy chicken”. But why chicken? Perhaps her full figure. Perhaps it’s a particularly “sexy” dish. Dear Chinese readers, please let us know.
11 Katy Perry: Fruit Sister
The Chinese have dubbed the Dark Horse singer a name fitting for a daytime children’s show host, but not because she used to be on Sesame Street.
Katy Perry’s concert fruit props have been particularly amusing to China. From her popping out of a giant banana sequence, to strawberry bras, watermelon skirts, and of course, the cherries hiding her metaphorical melons in the California Gurls video, Perry has become inseparable from her fruity imagery. Not to mention, in a lyric possibly unbeknownst to many native Mandarin speakers, she got us wondering about the taste of her cherry chapstick.
Hence “shui guo jie”: Fruit Sister.
10 Leonardo DiCaprio: Pikachu
What could the four-time Oscar nominee possibly have in common with the Pokémon mascot? Pointy ears? A squeaky voice? A weakness to ground-type Pokémon?
It turns out Leonardo DiCaprio’s name is no more than one of the biggest inside jokes in the Red Kingdom. That’s thanks to a Taiwanese news anchor who John Travoltified Leo’s name into “Leonardo Pikachu” on live television in 2011. The cheeky Chinese media have been calling the Wolf of Wall Street star Pikachu ever since.
9 Benedict Cumberbatch: Curly Blessing
Benedict Cumberbatch brought tremendous joy to China as the lovable curly-headed star of the Sherlock television series.
Since the show’s popularity, Cumberbatch’s Chinese moniker became “juan fu”, derived from the Mandarin “juan” meaning curly and “fu” being short for “Holmes” in Mandarin. But “fu” also means good luck, blessing or happiness, making Curly Blessing (or Happiness) nothing short of the perfect alias.
Wouldn’t it be great to adopt this worldwide and never have to pronounce Benedict Cumberbatch again?
8 Mr. Bean: Inept Person
As cheeky and metaphorical Chinese humour can be, sometimes it’s wonderfully to the point.
When referring to Rowan Atkinson’s famous Mr. Bean character, the Chinese don’t mince words. He is a man with a teddy bear who fails at everyday tasks like exiting a parking garage, mailing a letter and using his credit card. He is Han Dou: the “inept person”.
But in context, han dou can also evoke the equally precise, though far more endearing, “funny bean”.
7 Mariah Carey: Cow Sister
What might appear vaguely offensive is actually one of the most flattering titles on this list, if also the crassest.
“Niu je”, or “Cow Sister”, refers to a popular slang phrase in China, “niubi”. Calling something “niubi” is like calling something the “bee’s knees” in the 1950s, except the bee is a cow, and the knees are a vagina.
Ahem, yes, “niubi” or “cow’s vagina” is an even less-gracious way of saying “f---ing awesome” in China. Mariah is the cow sister because her impressive vocal talents are the metaphorical cow’s vagina. Another likely correlation: the 1992 Sesame Street episode that featured the singing cow, Mariah Cowey.
6 Adam Levine: Flirty Adam
The Maroon 5 singer’s unmistakable sexy falsetto, combined with his participation in ample semi-nude photo shoots, have earned him the title “sao dang”, or “flirty Adam” in China. Not the most imaginative title. But considering how often Levine takes his shirt off, and every Maroon 5 music video is a sequence of him rounding second-base, it seems to cover most angles of Levine’s work.
“Sao” can also have the less flattering connotation of silly, shallow or frivolous, just to catch traction with the Maroon 5 haters as well.
5 Ariana Grande: Little Cow
Some people think of China and the US like ying and yang. While that couldn’t be farther from the truth in most respects, it’s pretty accurate regarding the political correctness of calling women cows.
China flagged Ariana Grande’s obvious Mariah Carey influence right away. From the innocently flirty image to the vocal style and alleged lifted dance moves, the former Nickelodeon star seemed like just another branch of Mimi’s genealogy. But in China, the shadow of the “cow’s vagina” isn’t such a bad place to be in.
Ariana Grande is “xiao niu”, or “little cow”.
4 Martin Freeman: Peanut
With both its starring actors given debatably cool aliases, it seems Sherlock is a massive hit with the Chinese.
Martin Freeman plays Benedict Cumberbatch’s, or rather Curly Blessing’s, Watson on the popular show. The Chinese translation of the British actor, “Hua Sheng”, sound very similar to the Mandarin word for “nut”. Ergo, Martin Freeman is Peanut. Any questions?
Again, not terribly clever on the surface, but it does hold a certain aptness for the 5’6.5’’ actor, who played an even tinier Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy.
3 Justin Timberlake: Boss
While the origins of most of these names are deceptively simple, we can’t help but notice they often make more sense than they should.
In China, the former NSYNC singer is “lao ban”, or simply “Boss”. Apparently, China finds JT’s business investments the most noteworthy thing about him. MySpace, a tequila brand, a chain of barbeque restaurants, a golf course, the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team, a fashion line and a slew of startups, the pop singer’s business acumen inspires China like few celebs do—his actual claims to fame besides the point.
But again, oddly appropriate for the actor who memorably portrayed Napster founder Sean Parker in The Social Network.
2 Jennifer Lawrence: Cousin
The origin of J-Law’s nickname “biao jie” or “Cousin” is another of those “you had to be there” moments. But insofar as it carries an amusing stereotype about Chinese culture, it has more substance than your average inside joke.
With the 2011 Academy Awards looming, hoards of Internet users from China joked about knowing the results thanks to a pervasive “cousin the academy”. This became a popular jest about Chinese people’s obsession for prestige and power, especially asserting to have connections in high places.
As award night neared, every Chinese web surfer became a distant cousin to the Oscars committee. But the joke reached a tipping point when one netizen claimed he absolutely knew Jennifer Lawrence had won the Best Actress award, not because of a cousin in the academy, but because he was cousins with the Hunger Games star herself. Boom!
She never won, but the prevailing nickname leaves us with a poignant case study into the nuances of Chinese humour.
1 The Beatles: Gentlemen with long hair
In conclusion, there can never be a Google translate for culture. Even our brief descriptions of these monikers won’t capture their subtleties; for that, you’ll have to be Chinese.
But there’s one kind of translation we can understand pretty well: the completely literal kind. From people to places, the Chinese often transcribe famous foreign icons with the most basic, simple descriptions of what they are. What’s interesting about this is just what they decide to be in the eyes of Chinese culture.
Stonehenge is called “Ju Shi Zhen”, meaning “huge stone clusters”: that about sums it up. Buckingham Palace is called “Bai Jin Han Gong”, meaning “a white, gold and splendid place”.
But the fab four are evoked not by their namesake, music or social relevancy, but by their being, plain and simple, “Pi Tou Shi”: the Gentlemen with long hair.