Never been shot at, stabbed, or arrested by the fuzz? Well, then you can forget about the rousing, adrenaline-infused life of a gangster; you are free to get on with your dull, tedious daily life, knowing you’re not mobster material.
But remember, real gangsters rule by intimidation. So, here is a little guide to get you started on the path to your very own protection racket, using Chinese gangster talk (黑话, hēihuà, black talk) or 江湖隐语 (jiānghú yǐnyǔ, underworld code) in Chinese.
Chinese gangsters don’t exactly look like OGs. In fact, some of the earliest gangsters preferred ordinary apparel, so as to blend in with the crowd, and, as such, their language would often sound cryptic to outside ears, a mix of half-muttered codes and secrets. The traditional concept of 帮会 (bānghuì, underground organizations or secret societies) covers a wide range of different gangs. Some were just powerful tradesmen, such as the influential “Canal Trade Gang” (漕帮 Cáobāng) founded in the early 18th century, which was in charge of all the trade on the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou for more than 150 years. Gang members had to follow certain rules, including a loyalty oath that included, among other things, the prohibition of adultery and a ban on bullying the weak.
Other gangs even enjoyed an honorable reputation, such as the legendary “Beggars’ Gang” (丐帮 Gàibāng). Although made famous in various novels and depicted as a school of martial arts, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to join, as it required a ragged appearance and an ascetic lifestyle. Historians believe gangs existed in certain periods, albeit with fewer heroic deeds and more organized crimes. Some even consider the outlaws of the marsh a gang. And, of course, there are plenty of your standard gangsters, mobsters and ne’er do wells knocking about the streets of China today.
Gangs are more than just about running weapons and vice; the Heaven and Earth Society (天地会, Tiāndìhuì) in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) was one such example, since they strove to overturn the Manchu rulers and restore the country to its previous dynasty, Ming (1368-1644). Joining this gang at your personal discretion would probably cost you your head if discovered. To avoid getting whacked, secret codes were developed to initiate contact between unacquainted members. Members would approach their potential point of contact citing the first half of a couplet:
We are on the high mountain of eternal magnificence.
Dì zhèn gāogāng, yípài xīshān qiāngǔ xiù.
An ordinary person would dismiss it as confused babble uttered by a poem-happy lunatic. But your partner in crime would reply:
We face the ocean of ever-flowing water.
Mén cháo dàhǎi, sān hé héshuǐ wànnián liú.
At this point, you could feel relieved, and greet your co-conspirator with proper courtesy:
Turns out you are also a friend from the Heaven and Earth Society, please forgive my disrespect!
Yuánlái xiōngtái yěshi Tiāndìhuì de péngyou, shījìng shījìng!
GANGLAND GEEK SPEAK
Similar secret codes were used by more fearless political-gangsters and bandits (土匪, tǔfěi), who killed mercilessly for profit. In the north east of China during the early 20th century, these mercenary bandits were called 胡子 (húzi, mustache) or 响马 (xiǎngmǎ, loud horse thieves). If you are an outsider, trying to imitate the way they speak is no easy venture; Tracks in The Snowy Forest (《林海雪原》 Línhǎi Xuěyuán) had a try. The novel depicts a brave scout from the Eighth Route Army, Yang Zirong (杨子荣), who relied on these secret codes to win the trust of a bandit chief on a one-man undercover mission. The encrypted conversation between them became a classic in the annals of gangster speak.
Bandit chief: The heavenly king overpowers the earthly tiger.
[How dare you come to infuriate me?]
Tiānwáng gài dìhǔ.
This seemingly random statement is actually a question. Failing to understand or reply at this point would be disastrous. Luckily, our hero had his gang talk covered.
Yang: The pagoda can surely quell the river demon.
[I didn’t mean to. May I drown if that’s my purpose.]
Bǎotǎ zhèn héyāo.
However, faced with a cunning criminal mastermind, it takes more than knowledge of slang to pass the test. Your nerves have to be as strong as steel.
Bandit chief: Why is your face red?
Liǎn hóng shénme?
Yang: Because I am in high spirits!
Bandit chief: Why is it yellow now?
Zěnme yòu huánɡ le?
Yang: It’s face wax to protect from the cold.
Fánɡlěnɡ, tú de là!
Today, such gangster talk has lost all meaning, but can still be fun banter with friends.
Though most ancient gangster talk has been lost to history, brave language learners can find all the mobster mumbo-jumbo they need today. When dealing with drugs, such as heroin (海洛因 hǎiluòyīn), gangsters call it 白面儿 (báimiànr, white flour) or even 茶叶 (cháyè, tea leaves). When referring to weapons, they say 家伙 (jiāhuo, chap) instead. A pistol (手枪 shǒuqiānɡ) is called 喷子 (pēnzi, spray).
A police officer or 警察 (jǐnɡchá) is referred to as “a strip” (条子 tiáozi) in southern gangster talk, which is said to come from the strip pattern on mahjong tiles. Frequently raided by the police, mahjong gamblers developed this code name to send out warnings. When they can’t shake the fuzz, gangsters get put in “platinum” (白金 báijīn), the code name for handcuffs, and sent to the “bitter cave” (苦窑 kǔyáo), prison. If you think the odds of using these words in a healthy daily conversation are low, there are still many you can find daily use for. For instance, to have bad blood is called 结梁子 (jié liánɡzi), which literally means to tie a knot of hatred. When you want to convoy that you have a grudge, just say:
You and I have tied a knot of enormous hatred!
Wǒ ɡēn nǐ de liánɡzi jié dà le!
Gangsters may become enemies because of territorial disputes or disagreements, but ordinary people may hate each other for much more trivial reason, like:
There’s bad blood between those two, all because of a joke.
Tāmenliǎ yīnwéi yí ɡè xiàohuɑ jiéxiàle liánɡzǐ.
Staying on alert is essential for gangsters. The expression 风紧 (fēnɡjǐn) or “the wind is tight” is describes a tense situation with the police. When you are on the police’s radar, you can either continue with your crimes, known by the idiom 顶风作案 (dǐnɡ fēnɡ zuò àn, to commit a crime against the wind), or start packing and 扯呼 (chěhu), which is northern gangster talk for “flee”. Feel free to apply to situations that are generally intense and where you have to pull out immediately.
The stock prices are declining; the wind is tight, withdraw quickly!
Gǔshì kāishǐ xiàdiē le, fēnɡjǐn, chěhu!
In planning a crime, gangsters would often case the premises; this is called 踩点 (cǎi diǎn, treading the spot) or 踩盘子 (cǎi pánzi, treading the area). You can easily use them in a daily situations:
The exam is tomorrow, I will go to case the examination room today.
Mínɡtiān jiù yào kǎoshì le, wǒ jīntiān xiān qù káochǎnɡ cǎidiǎn.
Terminology aside, to speak like a great gangster, you have to remember the essence of the gang, 义 (yì) or 义气 (yìqi), meaning brotherhood code and personal loyalty. To start, call all your peers 兄弟 (xiōnɡdì, brother), and your superior 大哥 (dàɡē, big brother). Be generous with their requests and assure them from time to time that you take the codes to heart:
The most important word in the underworld is yi.
Rén zài jiānɡhú, zuìzhònɡyào de shì yí ɡè yì zì.
(We will) stick together through thick and thin!
Yǒu fú tónɡ xiǎnɡ, yǒu nán tónɡ dānɡ!
When they extend their help or return your favors, be sure to compliment them:
Good brother, that’s true loyalty!
Hǎo xiōnɡdi, ɡòu yìqi!
Like the Italian mafia, Chinese gangsters have their own philosophy; a philosophy of brotherhood in a world with severe consequences, far beyond their ability to manipulate:
The underworld is beyond one’s control.
Rén zài jiānɡhú, shēn bù yóu jǐ.
This phrase is applicable to any situation that demands you go with the tide:
A: Why did you go drinking again?
Nǐ zěnme yòu qù hējiǔ le?
B: It’s business. one cannot put oneself first in the underworld!
Shì qù tán shēnɡyi, rén zài jiānɡhú, shēn bù yóu jǐ a!
Last but not least, a clever gangster knows the price they have to pay for the life they lead. Thus, the most important motto in the underworld:
You pay for what you do, sooner or later.
Chūlái hún, chízǎo yào huán de.