Lost in Translation: 识货 (shí huò)
Welcome to Lost in Translation, a collection of articles where I explore terms that don’t have simple translations in English. These terms might be personal to me or might be interesting simply because of the ideas they convey, but the question answered at the end of each piece is if English is a poorer language for lack of this term. The first article in this series can be found here.
识货 is a Chinese term, specifically a Shanghainese term, as are the majority of expressions in this series. When young, I believed that these were common to all Chinese dialects, but as I grew older and started speaking more Mandarin, I realized that they held a different meaning in Shanghainese. For example, 识货 is comprised of a character meaning to recognize and a character meaning goods or product. Taken together, the term would then mean “to recognize the goods”.
However, a quick search on the internet reveals few results: the Chinese Wikipedia clone only has an article on it in reference to 出门不认货, which means something along the lines of ‘no refunds’. A website listing common usages of the term contains mostly expressions about commerce and customs. Thusly, we have arrived at another expression that only exists in Shanghai, owing to the stereotypically elitist culture.
Even in Shanghainese, 识货 literally means to recognize goods, often applied to specific domains. This is similar in spirit to then English expression “to be in the know”, or as Gen-Z would say, “If You Know, You Know”. But whereas its English analogues are more concerned with gossip and events, 识货 refers specifically to recognition of material goods. “The know” is perhaps more similar to the concept of 拎得清, explained here.
Another way of looking at it is by comparing it to the concept of taste. If someone knows how to 识货, they can discern quality. They can tell the thread count of a pillowcase, the vintage of a wine, and the fidelity of a speaker. Yet, there is a difference once again: whereas taste connotes opinion and elitism, 识货 suggests it. To have taste means not only to have the ability to recognize the distinction between varying options within a category, but to believe in the objective superiority of one. Taste can be construed as subjective: taste in home decor, taste in wine, taste in music. To 识货 is merely to be discerning, to know one from the other. There is certainly the implication that someone who can 识货 is also pompous, but that isn’t an essential property.
One can 识货 in many subjects. The most common usage is for material goods with a luxury segment. Automobiles, clothes, watches, and jewellery are all typical examples. In this case, to 识货 is associated with an elitism, since this knowledge is generally acquired through continuous exposure, from the inside of the storefront window display. But it is not synonymous with taste, because someone can be knowledgeable about brands, materials, and manufacturers, but still opt for a neon pink Bugatti, a gemstone studded Patek, or a ostrich Birkin. Likewise, someone can 识货, yet remain on the outside of the looking glass, fawning over luxury items without any ability to purchase them.
Outside of this application, 识货can also refer to knowledge of goods within a trade: fishmongers knowing their nets, hooks, and fish or a carpenter knowing their lathes, drills, and desks. To accuse someone of not 识货 is then a slight, particularly if it is within a domain they take pride in. It carries the same sting as telling someone they don’t have taste, with a less subjective slant. Being able to 识货 is a talent of sorts. It requires above average familiarization through either study or repeated interaction to diversity.
Is the English language weaker for not having this term? I say not. Most of its meaning can be simply conveyed with a few extra words: “Chris knows a lot about cars,” or “Chris is very familiar with his trade.” Only in one case, a blanket judgement of knowledge is the English language lacking. If someone is generally 识货, then the closest English expression is tasteful, which is deficient in the ways explained earlier. I think the use case for 识货 is small enough that another term isn’t required, though some nuance is lost. If someone dresses well, compliment their taste. If someone shows knowledge about trading cards, call them a nerd.
So to return to the beginning: that there is a specific expression for being able to identify material goods in Shanghai perhaps speaks to its commercial nature. That in times of yore, it was a vaunted quality, and perhaps it continues to be of value today. I certainly think knowing the value of other things is valuable in itself. To have experience and knowledge, to be able to determine the utility and worth of something is no easy feat. Does it also say something about me, that I chose to write about it instead of all the other words without an English translation? Perhaps it does.