Lost in Translation: 潇洒 (xiāo sǎ)
The English language is a marvelous thing. It was created as mix of Germanic dialects, seasoned with Norse, and topped off with French. By becoming the lingua franca of the Western world in perhaps the most communicative period in humanity’s history, English has picked up many foreign expressions and loanwords along the way. Despite this, there are thoughts and concepts that haven’t quite made it into the English lexicon; though they could eventually stand to, they are still might be considered pretentious to use in everyday conversation. Oft-referenced examples such as schadenfreude, l’esprit d’escalier, or hygge might belie the German stereotype of angst, the French tendency to argue, or the Danish reaction to cold, but have found admirers in the English-speaking community as well.
There are many lesser known expressions that not only deserve more recognition, but also constitute a fundamental part of my worldview. These are chiefly in Chinese, specifically in Shanghainese, but also include a few French expressions. One such expression is the Chinese term 潇洒.
A few weeks ago, my family and I book clubbed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. During our discussion, our favourite characters came up, and my sister immediately identified mine, Augustine St. Clare. St. Clare is a frivolous slaveowner, whose principal leisure activities include doting on his daughter and employing his Socratian wit for his own amusement. He treats his slaves liberally not because he is sympathetic to their plight, but because he is a libertine. He seems to be in good humour not because he is content, but he derives pleasure from a dry sense of humour. He is, without a doubt, one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel, a stock playboy whose life is a caricature of wealthy slaveowners who live in the city, and whose death serves as a plot device for the sale of Tom.
My sister then proceeded to elaborate: “Chris doesn’t actually like St. Clare. He wants to be St. Clare.” She was right. Although many people would like St. Clare’s wealth and societal status, it’s how he carries himself that attracts me the most. I was perhaps first enamoured with the eponymous protagonist from the Artemis Fowl series, an Irish child billionaire who kidnaps a fairy, all the time cool, collected, and in control. What really sealed the deal for me was Lord Henry in Picture of Dorian Grey: definitive proof that literature could corrupt. In any sort of media henceforth, I had an immediate attraction to the aloof, boyish, and cool characters. It helped if they had a caustic wit that hinted at a heap of knowledge that they choose not to employ for any gain except for verbal sparring. A sharp sense of style stopping just short of flamboyant wasn’t a necessity, but certainly an accessory. A certain aloofness was valuable, serving to detach them from any sort of cause. I’m quite relieved that I’m a heterosexual male and desire to be this sort of man as opposed to desire to be with this sort of man.
In the English language, there is no simple way to describe this. It’s all the above simultaneously: demeanour, dress, detachment, and of course, razor sharp wit. Cool is too broad a term to concisely capture the meaning; sarcastic, aloof, languid, relaxed, and stylish, are all only aspects of the aesthetic. When trying to explain the concept to someone who doesn’t speak Chinese, my preferred method is finding literary analogues: Jay Gatsby, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, Fermín Romero de Torres, and anyone that Humphrey Bogart has played.
Alternatively, the Chinese term 潇洒 is all-encompassing. The term has almost exclusively positive connotations; the only negative way to employ it would be to call someone 潇洒 as a means of complaining about their lack of concern or travail while their peers are stressing away. Though often associated monied people, wealth is not an essential property; an abundance of wealth helps with the insouciance, but many wealthy people are too intense, too passionate, whereas one can still be 潇洒 while accumulating mountains of debt.
Another closely related term is the Shanghainese term 噱头 (xué tóu). Different from the Mandarin definition, 噱头 is an adjective that describes a certain elegance or form to an action or person in Shanghainese. Something done with 噱头 is done both efficiently and beautifully: with flair but not flamboyance, with skill but not with smugness. The closest English term I can think of is perhaps “swagger”, as a noun describing actions. Snapping open a Zippo, but not indulging in too many lighter tricks. A black Mercedes E-class with expensive interior upgrades instead of a bright colour or matte wrap. A nice jelly lay-up without any of the flexing and other celebrations that sometimes accompany it. A 潇洒 person does things with 噱头.
Is an equivalent for 潇洒 missing from the English lexicon? Certainly. Is the English language sorely lacking as a result? Not particularly; the idea can be easily conveyed with a sentence, or a comparison, as the archetype is so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche: “you know, kinda like Tony Stark?”
To me, 潇洒 is important because it’s an aesthetic ideal which I aspire to achieve. At the same time, I am aware of its pitfalls. 潇洒 characters are generally flat and not protagonists. Their disinterest prevents them from becoming passionate about anything, and are consequently consigned to a boring life without growth. Their cynicism and ennui hides under a veneer of sarcasm and humour, preventing them from getting to know anyone intimately. Although they might be beautiful and even fun to observe from a distance, no one enjoys prolonged periods of contact with a cold person with a barbed tongue.
It’s important to clarify that in my life, I’ve only tried to achieve this aesthetic, because I’m perfectly aware of the side-effects of fully embodying this philosophy, of becoming 潇洒. It’s also important to clarify that in my life, I’ve failed miserably at achieving this aesthetic. I do things with 潇洒 sometimes, when I can manage. I also think that my mountain of trivial knowledge and sense of humour results in some level of wit. However, I’m far too warm of a person to start letting the negative effects of 潇洒 affect me. I can’t help but smile genuinely when I see people I know, and I couldn’t bear to cause too much damage with my words.
But I still try. I try to picture myself as Amory Blaine. I try to dress the part. I try to put on airs when I meet new people. But most of all, I try my hand at wit when I write. I want to sound like Oscar Wilde, and falling short of that, at least Fran Leibowitz. Just not Ignatius J Reilly.