Is Zebra in Mandarin really "Spotted Horse"? Why?

Last night my wife showed me the two characters for zebra, the second being ma (horse) and the first purportedly translating to “spotted”.

WTF? Why?


The first character is 斑 (bān).

The Ministry of Education’s online dictionary defines this as:


Spots or stripes of different colors.

In zebra (bānmǎ), bān has the second sense of stripes. ‘Spotted’ is simply the standard dictionary one-off translation of ban1. This kind of mechanical translation (esp. by native speakers) causes all kinds of misunderstandings.

Feel better?

Thanks, I do. My wife showed me the Dr. Eye translation, which only said spots, not stripes. I asked her if that was a correct translation and she yelled at me for asking stupid questions. So I appreciate the more thoughtful response.

Well, I think it’s frustrating for native speakers who are not professional teachers to try to explain this kind of blindingly obvious (to them) meaning.

Personally, I would never allow my SO to teach me a language precisely because of this sort of problem. I’d get a tutor to come to my office. It would be enough for my SO to be supportive and try not to laugh at my attempts to speak to her in her language while I’m learnning. Good luck!

I won’t let her teach me. Funny how many people over they years have said “Oh, you’re wife’s taiwanese, you should have no trouble learning Chinese.” :roflmao:

If they only knew. “Don’t speak Chinese. Your tones are all wrong. No, that’s wrong. Say it THIS way. No, THIS way. No, it’s all wrong. No good. Why can’t you do it? You’re all wrong.”

Okaaaaay. . .

Some people are cut out to be teachers and others aren’t. Mere language proficiency alone is not sufficient.


When people find out that I speak Mandarin, they often knowingly say, “Oh well, your girlfriend must have taught you.” I don’t bother explaining, but it is slightly annoying because I would never have allowed that to happen. To be fair, my significant others over the years have been very patient and supportive even if they were never allowed to teach me per se. I’m very grateful for all the tolerance.

SOs are helpful in language learning after one has gained a minimum level of proficiency, at which point they can help if you both switch to the language in which you’re learning at least half of the time.

I’ll make two points. First, I personally think it’s worth investing in a good dictionary. If you like Hanyu Pinyin, you might want to pick up the excellent ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, ed. John DeFrancis, U. Hawaii Press. At ban1 斑 it gives [quote]N. spot; speck, speckle; stripe; [bound form] spotted; striped bānmǎ[/quote]. So the ban1 in ban1ma3 is the bound form, striped, ergo zebra is lit. “striped horse”.

Second, in general, Chinese concepts including adjectives are very fuzzy notions. A word like ban1 will tend to mean ‘any kind of variegation, spot, blotch, speck, stripe or freckle’, whereas the individual English terms like ‘stripe’ are more precise. Hei1 is vague (black, dark, tanned, and so on), and ‘black’ is relatively precise. And so on.

[quote]If they only knew. “Don’t speak Chinese. Your tones are all wrong. No, that’s wrong. Say it THIS way. No, THIS way. No, it’s all wrong. No good. Why can’t you do it? You’re all wrong.”

Okaaaaay. . .
Dammit MT, stop sleeping with my wife!

Sometimes the guy painting the pony gets it wrong too. (In Japanese)

[quote]Go for a ride on a “zebra”

The white horse with painted zebra stripes /Lu Feng
A Chinese park has reportedly painted stripes on a horse and is charging people to have pictures taken with the ‘zebra’.
Shenyang botanical park is charging 30p each for pictures with the animal which, as well as painted black stripes, has fluffy white hair. When asked if the zebra is real, the feeder answered: “It’s from Africa. What do you call it, if it’s not a zebra?”
“We saw right away that the zebra is fake, but we are here for fun, so it doesn’t really matter,” said a mother who had just paid for her child’s picture.
According to the City Evening News, the park says it doesn’t know if the horse is a zebra or not: “It’s not that important. It is for fun,” said a spokesman. [/quote]
That’s not the only one. A friend spotted a “zebra” ride near Beijing with the paint running in the rain.


I like how the park worker said that humans can be male or female, old or young, ugly or pretty, so this (the zebra) is just a different breed. :laughing:

cross walk = 斑马路 = ban ma lu = zebra road… :sunglasses:

斑馬線 (zebra lines) is the more common term.

This is why
a) Lao Po’s don’t make good teachers :slight_smile:
b) Don’t study Chinese by individual word characters and
c) Let that logic fly out the window