My Chinese language skills remain sub-standard. At best. But, that doesn’t prevent me from taking enormous pleasure in my wall-to-wall waking-hours’ immersion in Chinese. Often, it’s just the sound and cadences of Chinese local accents, which occur in extraordinary numbers and varieties. Even calling them “accents” doesn’t capture the bewildering array, since to an English speaker, the comparison that comes to mind is likely the difference between an English and American accent. In China, regional accents can be so extreme they are mutually incomprehensible. I often feel like the most common phrase I hear in Chinese is “What?”, accompanied by a puzzled expression that shows the listener didn’t catch a word of the Mandarin just spoken at him.
In other words, I often feel like I’m in the majority in China that’s in the dark about the meaning of someone else’s spoken phrases. But, of course, that’s not quite the case. Chinese do just fine here. I stumble, fall flat, get back up and trip again. Again and again. That about sums up the path of my linguistic development.
There are moments of transcendence as well. For example, in Shenzhen recently, I listened in on pitches by six Chinese companies seeking private equity or venture funding. They were from different industries, but I heard repeatedly the phrase “shangye moshi” in the presentations. The first ten times or so, I just let it pass through my brain unmolested, assuming it was just another word that was outside my active vocabulary. Then it hit me. I knew both words: “shangye” means business, “moshi” means model, or method. Put them together, you get 商业模式, or “business model”, an increasingly common business jargon term in English that I now know was translated literally into Chinese.
I never liked the term “business model” in English, and so rarely use it. Companies have a way of making money, it seems to me, not a “business model”. Models are static, not dynamic, ever-mutating structures, which is what most good companies must be in order to keep making money.
But, my aversion to the term disappears in Chinese. I’ve taken it to using it quite often now. Why? For one thing, at my age, it’s rare that any new word will stick around long enough in my memory for me to use more than once. I’m on an email list that sends me seven Chinese words every day. I read today’s words about 15 minutes ago, and I’ve already forgotten half of them. By tomorrow, the rest will probably be gone also. So, the fact I’ve retained “shangye moshi” is already cause for minor celebration.
The other reason is that it does seem to fill a slight conceptual void in Chinese. Languages, including Chinese, often import foreign phrases for this reason. Two other well-known Chinese examples of this are “lang man” and “you mo”, meaning “romantic” and “humor”, both of which entered as corrupted versions of the English original. Others have speculated about what this says about China, that it had no native words for “romantic” and “humor”, but I’ll leave that to theoreticians.
With “shangye moshi”, the missing native concept in Chinese was likely a simple way of saying a company has a recurring source of profit. If so, of course, it’s a welcome addition to the Chinese language, and one hopes, to Chinese management strategy as well.