Jan 28, 2009 By Fred Dintenfass , eChinacities.com

For all the goodwill, good intentions, and good dictionaries in China, there are still a couple of phrases that bring everything grinding to a halt. Most foreigners have a short list of words they dread hearing and topping all the lists are ‘mashang’ and ‘mei banfa’. No dictionary can ever properly describe what happens when one of these words is uttered and, so far as I can tell, there is no antidote, no superglue remover to undo or modify the effect of these words.

Mashang (马上 | mǎshàng) literally means ‘on a horse’. Less figuratively it means presently, shortly, directly, immediately, or mounted. Though the latter refers to actually being atop a horse but it’s also how you feel when someone says it to you. Mashang is a very relative term. Perhaps at the time of its origin, when on a horse was a common form of transport (as opposed to today when the only people on horses are the Canadian police or those who can afford to be interested in wearing short pants that mushroom out around the thigh), on a horse meant fast. Nowadays, on a horse doesn’t strike us as being really all that quick and the meaning of the term has changed to reflect that.

Something coming on horseback could take either 30 seconds or it could take weeks - the basic time frame that mashang conveys. There is no ‘average mashang’ it could be 2 minutes and it could be two hours. Failing that it could easily take two weeks.

Mashang has a Möbius-like quality to it as well.
“When will our food/plane/messiah come?”
“Mashang.”
“Roughly how long?”
“Mashang.”
“5 minutes?
”Mashang.”
“4 days?”
“Mashang.”

Often the food/plane/emergency medical treatment will arrive right after that interchange and sometimes it doesn’t. After all several days is still pretty quick on a horse. If it’s coming in from India, why, that’s positively fast.

The other phrase which strikes dread in the heart of mere mortals and scares even the immortals silly is ‘mei banfa’. There’s really no way to properly describe mei banfa, you have to see it in action. Preferably while it’s happening to someone else.

In the literal sense mei banfa means ‘there is no way’. In effect it’s a waving of a magic wand that absolves the speaker from all responsibility and often imparts unto them a beatific calm. One of the major complaints foreigners have about dealings in China is how difficult it can be to get Chinese to admit to a problem. If both parties can’t agree that there is a problem then there’s really no good way to solve it. I don’t understand the culture of ‘face’ – I have lived in Beijing for several years but I don’t understand mianzi (面子 | miànzi)anymore than when I first dragged my three rolling suitcases (definitely one rolling suitcase too many) out of the Capital Airport.

Perhaps one of the reasons I don’t understand the concept of face is that I’ve been embarrassing myself for years and have no dignity. You can’t have gone through the fashion phases I have, or loudly announced the totally wrong things that I have, or try to speak Chinese everyday (a perpetually humbling experience) and still be too worried about what others think of you. Because I’ve already invalidated any hopes of being taken seriously I’m not too hung up on it.

But those wiser than I (and there’s quite a few of them) tell me that admitting mistakes causes a lack of face. A loss of face that cannot be redeemed, it seems, by finding a solution to the problem. Apparently an entire project crashing into the ground is better for face then admitting one little problem so it can be solved and the greater good can be achieved. And here’s where mei banfa comes in.

When mei banfa (没办法| méi bànfǎ) is used correctly it’s like a fairy comes down and boinks the speaker with a wand and they are magically transported to a land where the mistake is not theirs and, even better, doesn’t exist.

Mei banfa means ‘there is no way’ and I – foolishly optimistic by virtue of my nationality – always think there is a way. Maybe not a perfect way but, nonetheless, a way; I will go to my grave believing this and may go to my grave because I believe this – because I truly believed the baby could drive the car while I found my sunglasses, or something like that.

I have not mastered mei banfa magic yet and most of my attempts at using it have been failures – I’ve deployed it too early and been boxed out. The following is an example of orange-belt level mei banfa happening to you: you’re going to an RSVP-only event and you’re second in line at the door. When checking off the people in front of you the door person accidentally checks off your name as well. When you get to the desk they won’t let you in because you’re name is already checked off.

 “We all just saw you check my name by accident.”
“Mei banfa.”
“Only one person group is here, how could two names be checked off?”
“Mei banfa.”
“There is a pencil on your eraser, why not erase the check you just made by accident, and then recheck it again?”
“Wo zhende mei banfa” – I really don’t have an y choice.

The traffic may kill a certain number of foreigners in China but the real threat to safety is mashang and mei banfa. I’m betting the majority of expat cardiac arrests occur, not in a careening taxi, but in mei banfa ‘negotations’. As far as I can tell there is no weapon to combat mei banfa or mashang. They are unbeatable when used correctly. Your only option is to watch and learn and try to get your mei banfa in first. Work on your shrug and looking as cheerful as possible while crushing the other person’s will.
 

Related Links
Culture Shock: Rules and Tools
Molehill to Mountain via Mei Banfa: China Service Industry Disaster
Me vs China: What the H*ll is a BCD?

SinoBytes

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17 Comments Add your comment

1

Anonymous
comment|130|0

ok

Feb 01, 2009 19:50 Report Abuse

2

Anonymous
comment|205|0

Fred. I love you.

Mar 06, 2009 05:11 Report Abuse

3

Lorelei
comment|870|0

"The traffic may kill a certain number of foreigners in China but the real threat to safety is mashang and mei banfa." I love this sentence XD

May 12, 2009 22:41 Report Abuse

4

Helen
comment|3888|0

though i am a chinese girl, i have to say that you are totally right! and i don't think face is a virtue or anything like that~

Jun 13, 2010 06:15 Report Abuse

5

Anonymous
comment|4177|0

Hilarious! And so true! "Ma shang" "Wo bu ming bai le. Ji dian lai? "Ma shang. WIng deng yi xia" "TMD!!!"

Jul 02, 2010 19:02 Report Abuse

6

roger
comment|5104|0

Cha Bu Duo, this is what i got from XIN TANG's Finest. The sample was blue, the production sample was green. My rule of thumb when i enter a factory is to state that if one wants to die they will use MaShang Cha Bu Duo and Mei ban fa. I dont care how long of a term i serve and even if i come out believing there are only 2 countries on earth, Wai Guo and Zhong Guo i will destroy the bastard that utters those words.

Aug 01, 2010 03:32 Report Abuse

7

Sara
comment|6106|0

I would but meiyou to this category aswell. It literally means don’t have but it can also mean that I dont want to help you or I am too lazy to go search it now so Ill just say we dont have it.

Aug 24, 2010 23:38 Report Abuse

8

CMX
comment|6942|0

If you get down on your knees and baituo, esp when "meibanfa" comes from the person holding your passport, visa application, and/or marriage certificate,.....

Sep 24, 2010 19:54 Report Abuse

9

Anonymous
comment|6943|0

SORRY FOR THOSE GUYS THAT WORK FOR THESE EXPATS. SINCE SLAVERY WAS STOPPED IN CERTAIN COUNTRIES, THEY TRIED TO CONTINUE SERVITUDE WHEN MEI BAN FA MEANS MEI FAN BA. ARE WE SUPERMEN THAT WE CAN DO ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING?

Sep 24, 2010 20:33 Report Abuse

10

Anonymous
comment|6948|0

But mei ban fa is annoying when YOU choose to do nothing. When if you only took your brain out of neutral you could do something. Read the article again properly and there are good examples of this.
It has nothing to do with slavery.

Mei ban fa is perhaps why it took 50 years longer to get a chinaman into space.

Sep 24, 2010 22:34 Report Abuse

11

Anonymous
comment|6949|0

Last time I was told ’Mei ban fa I moved along the counter to the next official and instantly got what I needed.
I guess mei ban fa can also mean, "I dont know, and I cant ask as that would be admitting that I dont know. It is better to deny than lose face."

Sep 24, 2010 22:38 Report Abuse

12

Anonymous
comment|6954|0

What are RIGHTS if it does not include the right to choose to DO or NOT Do? Does it only include to express hate and irresponsible language?

Sep 25, 2010 05:35 Report Abuse

13

Dan
comment|6962|0

Mei ban fa can mean you have either asked the wrong person or you have asked the wrong question.

The comment about slavery is out of place, and totally unhelpful.
Meibanfa is often used by people in officialdom who are not ’servants.

Sep 25, 2010 19:34 Report Abuse

14

Anonymous
comment|6972|0

WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE WHAT IS OUT OF PLACE OR IN CONTEXT? GO HANG YOURSELF DAN

Sep 26, 2010 10:25 Report Abuse

15

Anonymous
comment|6976|0

Angry toll SHOUTING

Sep 26, 2010 15:26 Report Abuse

16

Anonymous
comment|6988|0

It is so funny. Get down on your knees and say baituo when "meibanfa" is the person holding your passport, visa application, and/or marriage certificate!

Sep 26, 2010 18:32 Report Abuse

17

Anonymous
comment|6989|0

I cannot stop laughing. So comedic, CMX!

Sep 26, 2010 18:33 Report Abuse