Loanwords, New Words and Foreign Names
Loanwords are not scarce in Chinese. Foreign names cannot be translated but must be transscribed with characters that sound like the syllables of the foreign name.
Like all people, the Chinese had an intensive contact with neighboring people. They adopted many words from the northern steppe people that used things the Chinese did not know. When the Chinese learned to know and to use these things, they also adopted the foreign word for these objects: 駱駝 lwaktuo "camel" or 酪 lwak "yoghurt" from the nomad people, 蜜 mjit "honey" and 獅子 shejshe "lion" from the Tocharians. Southern China was occupied 2500 years ago by Austro-Asiatic people, different from the Chinese in ethnic, cultural and linguistic means. Still today, south Chinese people look different from the northern people that were stongly mixed with the steppe peoples. But also the non-Chinese people of the south tributed their parts to Chinese language, especially to the southern dialects of Fujian province. In the official language, we find still today traces of the southern peoples' languages: 江 klang "stream, Yangtse river" or 虎 khla "tiger". Words that came with Buddhist religion were either transscribed with sounds (and their respective characters without taking their real meaning) or translated: the Buddhist term nirvâna is called in Chinese 涅磐 niepan (a crippled version of the Sanskrit word) or 寂 ji "serenity" or 智緣滅 zhiyuanmie "destroying the cause of awareness" or simply mie 滅. Even personal names of foreigners were sometimes translated by their meaning, like 竺法護 Zhufahu "Protecor of the Law" for the Indian monk translator Dharmaraksha (transcribed as 曇摩羅察 "Tanmoluoji").
During the 19th century many Chinese went to Japan for educational purposes. Like in Europe where scholars created artificial Latin or Greek words, Japanese and Korean scholars created artificial Chinese words that came to China when the foreign Chinese students went back to their country. In our times, when hundreds of new words rush into China, there is also a need either to describe them with sounds or to translate them. Some loanwords use describing syllables that have also a meaning: 黑客 heike "black host = computer hacker", 雷射 leishe "thunder stroke = Laser". A very famous example of marketing is that of Coca-Cola company, in Chinese called 可口可勒 Kekou-kele "tasty and funny". Other examples are 跑車 paoche "racing car = Porsche" or the word for "taxi", 的士 dishi (Cantonese pronunciation: diksi) "targeting Sirs". Other characters of loanwords have no real meaning in that combination, like 考貝 kaobei "copy", 摩登 modeng "modern" or 克隆 kelong "clone". There are much more examples of translated words, for example 電腦 diannao "electric brain = computer" or 光碟 guangdie "gleaming disk = CD". Some items also show the possibility of both translating, like 擴音器 kuoyinqi "sound enlarging tool = microphone", and transscribing 麥克風 maikefeng, or 電子郵件 dianzi youjian "electronical mail" as a translation for e-mail, simply called yimeir 伊妹兒 following the sound of the English word. A special field of adopting loan words and even creating new characters, is the field of chemistry. 氨 an "ammonium" is described with the character for 氣 "gas, air" and the phonetic part 安 an. 碘 dian "iodine" with the radical for 石 "stone" and the phonetic part 典 dian. 汞 gong "quicksilver" is decribed as a liquid thing 水 "water" called 工 gong (from mercurium). 酯 zhi "esters" are described with a bottle 酉 and 旨 zhi "tasty, fragrant", because many esters have a very aromatic perfume. The word for "carbohydrate" 醣 tang (all kinds of sugar) is combined of a bottle 酉 and the abbreviated character and sound for 糖 tang "sugar".
Foreign names cannot be translated but must be transscribed with characters that sound like the syllables of the foreign name: Bulaier 布萊爾 for Prime Minister Tony Blair. While there are great differences in how to transscribe a foreign name, the government of mainland China tries to standardize transscriptions. The Soviet ruler Stalin is transscribed in mainland China as 斯大林 Sidalin [sz-da-lin], in Taiwan as 思達林, with different characters. Countries are often abbreviated, like 阿美利加 Ameilijia (southern dialect pronunciation Ameliga) "America" to 美國 Meiguo "beautiful country". But there are examples of translated names like that of the city of San Francisco. During the gold rush, Chinese immigrants called this city 金山 Jinshan "Gold mountain".