The 20-year-old Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui who won bronze in the women’s 100-meter backstroke on 7 August in the Olympic Games, has become a sensation on Chinese social media after an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
When asked if she had hidden her real strength during the early stages of the competition, Fu stated she had exhausted all her “Hong Huang Zhi Li (洪荒之力)”, which could be roughly translated as a kind of power that is “mighty enough to manipulate the universe.” This phrase has soon become a buzzword on the internet and has been interpreted by western media in a variety of ways.
“I have used all my prehistoric powers to swim,” Fu Yuanhui said in an interview with CCTV5 after she qualified for the women’s 100m backstroke final. (BBC News, 10 August 2016)
“I didn’t hold back…I used all of my mystic energy!” (The Guardian, 10 August 2016)
“I used my primordial powers!” (The New York Times, 11 August 2016)
“She used a comic phrase – ‘I used all my prehistoric energy’ – to insist that she had been giving her all in the semis. The phrase translates roughly as ‘The Force’ in the ‘Star Wars’ movies.” (Variety, 10 August 2016)
“Fu said she didn’t hold back in the semis and used all her “hong huang zhi li” – a Chinese phrase interpreted as “primordial” or “mystical” powers.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2016)
So, what is the exact meaning of “Hong Huang Zhi Li”?
According to Sino-us.com, the phrase – “Hong Huang Zhi Li” means “the power which can separate the heaven from the earth in the chaotic world of prehistoric times.” While literally “Hong Huang” refers to the chaotic state of the antiquity, “Li” refers to power in Chinese.
All the translations by the media are trying to convey the knowledge and idea from another culture, but in different ways. To be specific, “prehistoric powers”, “mystic energy” and “primordial powers” carry the meaning and the tone of the original text, but they are not culturally sensitive and appropriate to the target audience. However, as stated in Variety, “Hong Huang Zhi Li” was compared to “The Force” in “Star Wars”. This analogy is used to link an unfamiliar or new idea with objects common and familiar to the readers, who are thus able to comprehend the new phrase because they observe its similarity to something that is familiar to them. In this case, this literary tool helps increase readers’ interest as “The Force” is a metaphysical and ubiquitous power in the Star Wars fictional universe, and it is wielded by characters in the franchise’s films and in many of its spin-off books, games, and comics.
Instead of translating it, The Sydney Morning Herald keeps the original Chinese characters in pinyin “Hong Huang Zhi Li”, and indicates two possible translations – “primordial” or “mystical” powers. Words in the original source language are retained not only because this phrase enjoyed great popularity on the internet nowadays, but also in this case, this phrase is associated with a specific cultural representation. The word “Hong Huang” originates from the Thousand Character Classic (千字文), a Chinese poem used as a primer for teaching Chinese characters to children from the sixth century onward. “Hong Huang Zhi Li” came into popularity because of the 2015 TV drama The Journey of Flower based on a fictional novel about the Daoist legends regarding the path to immortality. The TV drama adapts the magical and fantastical parts of the novel into martial arts, and is becoming one of the hottest topics on social media. Currently the meme is used to describe one’s physical strength or one’s urge to do something.
On the basis of the above, it seems safe to conclude that “Language has no independent existence apart from the people who use it. It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of understanding who you are and what society is like.” (David Crystal)
Written by Ting Huang
Study visitor at TermCoord
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