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Daily Drip

These Illustrations Highlight the Humor of Overly-Literal Chinese Translations

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To anyone who has thought about the often-amusing literal meaning of Chinese phrases, Shanghai-based writer and artist Frankie Huang‘s illustration series Putong Animals is a unique and beautiful celebration of the language we know and love.

In the series, Huang visually reimagines the quirky and weird translations of various Mandarin-language animal names. In one drawing, flaming chickens peck at the ground, fed by a person wearing a fireproof suit (the Chinese name for turkey is huo ji, or fire chicken). In another, a “dragon shrimp”, the literal translation for lobster, is seen soaring majestically through the clouds, while the “patterned horse” — or zebra — flaunts its exotic coat.

patterned horse putong animals

But in addition to animals, Huang also creates art of the translations of other Chinese phrases, sometimes making powerful commentary on current Chinese society. For example, on her Instagram @putongwords, she features drawings of a man with a heinous tumor growing out his neck (“straight man cancer,” a slang for a stubborn misogynist attitude), and an illustrated bunny paying homage to the heavily censored #MeToo movement (mi tu, a homonym for #MeToo, literally meaning rice rabbit). 

In an interview with the BBC, Huang said, “All these gems of wit are found on the Chinese internet […] I want to hopefully reach more people to help them be interested in the Chinese language and culture.

“In this day and age, China is in the press constantly. [I want to show] there’s so much more to China than just the politics.

“I want to be independent of all these things and show people that you can love and enjoy the culture without all the politics. The politics are new, but this [language] is not.”

Huang’s longer-term plan is to develop these drawings into something bigger, like a picture book. Read some of her writing for RADII here.

Allison Jiang
    Allison Jiang is a Baltimore-based writer interested in the intersection of art and culture. She is passionate about big dogs, social justice, and stand-up comedy, among other things.