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Lost in Translation: 拎得清 (līn dé qīng)

Exploring terms that don’t have simple translations in English

Photo by chester wade on Unsplash

Welcome to Lost in Translation, a collection of articles where I explore terms that don’t have simple translations in English. These terms might be personal to me or might be interesting simply because of the ideas they convey, but the question answered at the end of each piece is if English is a poorer language for lack of this term. The first article in this series can be found here.

It’s been many years now that I’ve had a singular response when asked about which trait I appreciate the most in someone. This someone doesn’t necessarily have to be a friend, just somebody I am looking to spend extended periods of time with. However, the answer is the same for a friend. The trait isn’t integrity, warmth, or reliability. It’s not even humor, intelligence, or attractiveness. I would typically sigh, look my interlocutor in the eye, and explain that the concept is perfectly captured in the Shanghainese expression 拎得清.

In Chinese, 拎得清 means “become clear through lifting”; though its poetry makes me feel like Pope translating Greek epics, it is the literal definition. 拎 means to lift or to carry, in a more physical sense; 得 serves more of a grammatical purpose than anything here, and merely relates the adjective/adverb 清 to 拎; 清 means clear. Feel free to let me know if I missed a shade of nuance here or there; though I like telling people English is my second language, my Chinese is rudimentary at best.

The meaning of 拎得清 in common usage is slightly more challenging to define, and significantly less poetic. It is an adjective used to refer to a certain cognizance in situations, both social and personal, but goes beyond self-awareness and social awareness. 拎得清 also encompasses agreeableness, reasonableness, social savvy, and a degree of intelligence, both emotional and rational. An individual who is 拎得清 doesn’t break decorum and knows when to bow out of a losing battle. Someone who is 拎得清 doesn’t need a kick under the table to get a hint.

Strangely for a positive trait, people aren’t usually called 拎得清 to their faces, just like one wouldn’t compliment someone’s tact or amicability to their face. To really understand 拎得清, it is best to understand what it is not. It is much more common to use 拎得清 in negation, that is to remark that someone isn’t 拎得清. In many cases, this is less a judgment of how 拎得清 someone is, and more so used to express the speaker’s discontentment with someone. Interestingly, it occupies a unique spot that can cause maximum resentment without being outright vulgar, similar to telling a frustrated person to calm down, or a person with a raised voice to stop screaming.

“You’re being unreasonable.” “You’re being disagreeable.” “You’re being obtuse.” “You’re being stubborn.” “You’re being annoying.”

“How can you be so not 拎得清” sums all the sentiments in the previous paragraph while maintaining the plausible deniability of rational judgment. Likewise, telling someone that a third party is any of the above statements passes under the bias radar much better than calling someone a vulgarity. Simultaneously, one would be reluctant to spend time with someone exhibiting even one of these traits, and even more unenthusiastic to spend time with someone known to demonstrate all of them.

That same logic now applied inversely to calling someone 拎得清 shows its importance. It is pleasant, aware, tactful, yet not overwhelming. In the same way, using it in negation implies rationality despite the strength of the insult, 拎得清 implies a nuanced compliment, also communicating that it is something that develops with good nature over time, not simply inherited looks or raw intelligence. Despite this measured approach, someone without a sense of humor or a brush of intelligence cannot truly be 拎得清. If everyone were to have the same physical attributes, 拎得清 would encompass, or at least touch on all that remained.

拎得清 is one of many expressions that are exclusive to a dialect in Chinese, specifically Shanghainese, the dialect in which I am fluent. Though the centralized powers of the Communist Party of China insist that Mandarin Chinese is the only Chinese language, regulated all others to the status of dialect, the differences between the various dialects of Chinese are more pronounced than those of many considered languages: around that of Italian and Portuguese, and definitely more so than Russian and Ukrainian. As with the most well-known Chinese dialect, Cantonese, Shanghainese is completely unintelligible with Mandarin or other dialects of Chinese.

But 拎得清 is known to all speakers of Shanghainese. I’ve often had the opportunity to interact with other Canadian-Born Chinese who learned Shanghainese from their parents, and they all know what the expression means. Consequently, I feel as though 拎得清 is inseparable from Shanghai, just as 拎得清 is inseparable from 拎得清. Even more so than the rest of China, the Shanghainese are concerned with decorum and propriety, thus giving 拎得清 more power. Ever since the late nineteenth century, after its ports were forcibly opened as a concession for losing the Opium wars, Shanghai had always represented a certain pinnacle of refinement in China, one associated with the West, be it good or bad. Between xiao sa and 拎得清, the Shanghainese dialect is rife with these traces.

There are many reasons that it would be nice for people to be 拎得清. However, I have identified it as the single most important trait for anyone I spend time with to possess, as well as for my loved ones to have not only because it makes people more pleasant to spend time with, but also because those who aren’t 拎得清 to, at least some degree, are utterly unbearable. Personally, I’m not one to rock the boat, especially when spending time in a larger social setting. I support propriety, decorum, and good laughs all around. When someone ruins the ‘vibes’, they better have a great reason or a great joke.

I might be a bit biased when I say that the English language is a poorer language for lack of the term 拎得清. I can tolerate stupid people, stingy people, mean people, and mopey people. People that are fat, ugly, or even racist are often so not of their own making. But so long as someone has other redeeming traits, so long as someone can carry themselves socially, I have no problem with them, so long as they’re 拎得清.

But someone who can’t read the room, someone who has no emotional intelligence, someone who has no self-awareness, these traits are unforgivable. Though they are also perhaps through no fault of their own, they are utterly insufferable to me. More often than not, I find that these terms, though not interchangeable, come hand in hand. And when they do, they can be summed up as not 拎得清.

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