Mashang and Mei banfa: the words foreigners hate to hear

Mashang and Mei banfa: the words foreigners hate to hear
Jan 28, 2009 By Fred Dintenfass ,

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?”
“Roughly how long?”
“5 minutes?
“4 days?”

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?

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This is coming from very myopic and limited perspective on the concept of meibanfa and Chinese culture on the whole. When you look at videos of how people go through mountains to go to work/ school and back, you know there is a helllll lot of banfa that us spoilt first world people couldn't even fathom. When you look at people lumping a tiny home sized load of things on their motorbikes to deliver you know there is a hell lot of banfa! Donkeys going up mountains carrying heavy construction load to reconstruct temples that were probably made by the same method who knows how long? Or just people/ men carrying huge load balanced on each end of a stick? I had a short kungfu teacher who replaced the light bulb in my room putting two chairs together back to back and balancing himself on the edge of the two backs of chairs. I have had a woman in heels climb up high to fix my air-conditioner. I have seen women in heels driving motorcycles with their kid at the back. I think when it comes to expats, maybe Chinese people like to make their lives a little harder because they feel foreigners are spoilt princesses.

Oct 01, 2021 10:58 Report Abuse