The subtle traps of Chinese modesty

Although I study Chinese language every day for at least a couple of hours, I know I will never appreciate the full range of its subtlety. Many expressions seek to soften a statement, modifying it ever so slightly so that one does not draw undue attention to oneself. Let me give one example, the character 算 (suan). It means to count, calculate, be counted or considered as. It all depends when and how you use it.

For example, one might say: 我的孩子算是学习好的 (wode haizi suan shi xuexi haode).

That is: My child may be counted as one who studies well.

You do not want to claim too much for the fruit of one’s loins.

By contract (and still somewhat on the theme of loins and their fruit), I may think of trying to soften the effect of the following statement, addressed to a woman: 你算很美丽 (ni suan hen meili).

However, the effect is not what you may expect, for it means: ‘You may be considered as very beautiful’. That is, I do not think so, but others – at a stretch – may with some imagination be able to think so.



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