Another bit of humor in Veltman (see this post) involves playing with a Chinese name, and trying to investigate it has taken me through interesting paths to a dead end. Here’s the passage in Veltman:

He found the tea business tempting. He learned that besides the Chinese van-sun-cho-dzi there was the Russian Ivan-sun-cho-dzi, and he began to deal in tea, opening a store for Chinese teas, sugar, and coffee. […]

Needless to say, selling tea at retail did not satisfy Vasily Ignatov, and he started wholesaling it; he started off for Kyakhta himself, he himself went to Dmitrovsky uyezd to buy the best sort of Ivan-sun-cho-dzi at wholesale.

Его соблазнила чайная торговля. Он узнал, что, кроме китайского ван-сун-чо-дзи, есть русский Иван-сун-чо-дзи и стал торговать чаем, завел магазин китайских чаев, сахару и кофе. […]

Нужно ли говорить, что мелочная торговля чаем не удовлетворила Василья Игнатова, он пустился в оптовую, пустился сам на Кяхту; сам съездил в Дмитровский уезд, чтоб сделать оптовую закупку самого лучшего сорту Иван-сун-чо-дзи.

The Russian name is a play on Иван-чай [Ivan-chai, literally ‘Ivan-tea’] ‘Chamerion Raf. ex Holub, fireweed, willowherb’; what I’m wondering is what the Chinese might mean, and I think I’ve found where Veltman must have come across it, in this paragraph from page 20 of the article “Май-Май-Ченъ” [Maimaicheng, the Chinese border trading town just south of Kyakhta] in Памятник искусств и вспомогательных знаний, Vol. 2 (Saint Petersburg, 1843):

The dialect of the merchants living in Maimaicheng, from Shansi province, differs greatly in pronunciation from that of Peking; for example, the firms pronounced in the Peking dialect Shi-de-tsyuan’-tszi [Shi-de-quan-ji?], Van’-shun’-chan [Wan-shun-chang?], and Mei-yui-gkun [Mei-yu-gong?] are pronounced in the Shansi dialect Shi-ty-choan-dzi [Shi-ty-choang-ji??], Van-sun-cho [Wang-song-chuo??] and My-yu-kon [My-yu-kong??]. This difference is due to the fact that in Shansi they pronounce sounds from the larynx, through the nose, so that voiceless sounds, especially soft ones, cannot be distinctly/intelligibly expressed. In general, dialects all across China are the same, but differ in the pronunciation of certain sounds; this difference extends from north to south and imperceptibly reaches the point that it is difficult for a southern Chinese to understand a northern one.

Нарѣчіе живущихъ въ Май-май-ченѣ купцовъ, губерніи Санъ-си, имѣетъ по произношенію большое различіе съ Пекинскимъ; напримѣръ: Пекинскимъ нарѣчіемъ произносятся фирмы торговыхъ домовъ: Ши-дэ-цюaнь-цзи, Вань-шунь-чанъ, Мэй-юй-гкунъ, а по Сансинскому произношенію — Ши-ты-чоан-дзи, Ван-сун-чо, Мы-ю-конъ. Разность эта происходитъ отъ того, что въ Санъ-си произносятъ звуки изъ гортани, чрезъ носъ, при чемъ, безгласныя, особенно мягкія не могутъ быть внятно выражены. Вообще во всемъ Китаѣ нарѣчія одинаковыя, но отличаются произношеніемъ нѣкоторыхъ звуковъ; это различіе простирается отъ сѣвера на югъ и нечувствительно доходитъ до такой степени, что южный Китаецъ съ трудомъ понимаетъ сѣвернаго.

This is a perfect storm of vague and exoticizing linguistic description (apparently in Russian, too, foreign speech is always “guttural” and “nasal”), Sinocentric totalizing (all Chinese talk the same, just differently), and antique transcription (this was written before the standard Palladius system for transcribing Chinese, so I’ve added question marks to all my Latin transcriptions, which are based on the Palladius system), so I suspect it’s unlikely that anyone can decipher it more accurately, but if anyone has any idea what Wan-shun-chang/Wang-song-chuo might have meant in North China two centuries ago, I’m all ears. (I assume Veltman stuck the -dzi on for effect, taking it from other firm names mentioned.)

Update: It seems the ван-сун-чо-дзи label was well known as representing high-quality tea from Kyakhta, so I withdraw my suggestion that Veltman got it from the article I quote above; see my comment below for details. Also, I have discovered that in the original magazine version of this passage, there is a much more detailed discussion of how Ignatov discovered the immensely profitable potential of the tea trade (after being beaten up for selling fake booze) and learned how to mix the expensive Chinese tea with cheap Russian Ivan-chai; I wonder if Veltman was forced by the censors to delete it for book publication? It’s practically a manual of how to cheat the public for fun and profit.

Further update: Bathrobe has discovered that the Chinese name is 萬順昌 Wànshùnchāng ‘success in everything’: 萬順 Wànshùn means ‘ten thousand things go smoothly’, 昌 chāng means ‘prosper’. He adds that “There is a Hong Kong company called Van Shung Chong Holdings which uses those characters, although it was only established in 1961.”


  1. Earlier in the same article, a translation is given – “prosperous from success in everything”

    I can’t quite figure out the Chinese characters, though

  2. They all look like personal names, except for the attached цзи (子). If they are surnames, then the following are some wild guesses.

    Ши-дэ-цюaнь-цзи (Ши-ты-чоан-дзи): Shi could be anything, it could even be the 习 in Xi Jinping. De could be 得 (obtain) or 德 (virtue). Tsyuan is likely to be 全 (complete).

    Вань-шунь-чанъ (Ван-сун-чо): Well, Van is 王 or 汪 (probably the former), шунь is possibly 顺 (smooth, successful), one can only guess at чанъ, 长 (grow) or 展 (open, develop) maybe?

    Мэй-юй-гкунъ (Мы-ю-конъ): This is a bit mysterious. There is one surname mei, 梅, and three pronounced mi (米, 糜, and 宓). юй could be 玉 jade (but it sounds feminine — although I assume it’s not 鱼 fish :)), гкунъ could be 功 (gong, success)? 恭 (gong congratulations?) Or it could be something else again. There are too many gongs and kongs and kuns in Chinese.

    If they aren’t personal names, then the whole thing is thrown wide open. I’m not sure which one SF’s suggestion refers to. 旺 (wang) means prosperous, 顺 (shun) means go smoothly, not sure how чанъ equates to ‘everything’.

    Sorry, I haven’t got any other ideas at the moment.

  3. Don’t apologize, that’s more than I hoped for! Yeah, they’re probably personal names, and the details are probably unrecoverable. … But wait, I just googled and found this, from Sergei Tikhvinsky’s Документы опровергают: против фальсификации истории русско-китайских отношений: “Так, на чайных этикетках известной в Кяхте фирмы Вань Шуньчан было по-русски написано: «Чай байховый цветочный ван сун чо дзи (фирмы Ван Сунчо, точнее, Вань Шуньчан. — А. X.), лучшей доброты и во вкусе приятен…” Note that Вань can’t be 王 (that would be Ван), it has to be Wan. So it seems my guess of Wan Shun-chang was correct, not that that gets us very far. But if that label was well known on tea from Kyakhta, Veltman didn’t need to get it from that article I quoted in the post.

  4. beaten up for selling fake booze

    If this means methanol, I can understand it; unlike other pastimes, that stuff really will make you go blind (to say nothing of kidney, liver, or brain damage, possibly fatal). But how could anyone with an interest in repeat business, not to mention his own skin, believe that he could get away with selling stuff that doesn’t actually make you drunk as alcohol? For that matter, I should think the taste (or lack thereof) would be a dead giveaway after one swallow. That seems to be a kind of folly inconsistent with being such a clever tea-faker; indeed, it reminds me of what Johnson said about Sheridan’s father: “Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in nature.”

  5. If it’s chang then it has to be some other character, like 常 or 昌. I was supposing that there could be confusion between ‘ch’ and ‘zh’, but I don’t know enough about how Russians treated Chinese pronunciation.

  6. If this means methanol

    I don’t think so, but it’s not clear what exactly his scam was; Veltman says he was selling винный запах ‘wine/booze smell’ instead of вино ‘wine/booze,’ and I have no idea what that would have suggested to a Russian reader in the 1840s.

  7. “selling винный запах ‘wine/booze smell’ instead of вино ‘wine/booze’” Probably simply diluted booze.

  8. Perhaps a bottle or glass dipped in wine to make it smell right, but containing only water or the like, to be sold only to those already 2.99 sheets to the wind.

  9. Right, the “alcohol smell” trick was played on those already drunk. But I couldn’t figure out what was the mechanics… Before going for fireweed herbal tea mix, our hero was drying up leftover tea leaves for reuse (the text never suggests adding burnt sugar or baking soda for deeper coloring though, both well known recipes for tea reuse schemas)

    “чо” on the brand name must have been interpreted as “tea” in Russian folk consience. See also this Russian “Chinese proverb about tea tricks”, here attested in 1994 but certainly much older than that.

  10. Stefan Holm says

    A maybe far fetched idea but couldn’t винный запах ‘wine smell’ mean fusel-smelling booze? Fusel alcohols contribute to the bouquet of wines (and whisky!) but is a nightmare in vodka, giving it an awful smell and taste. Perhaps the guy was selling inferior moonshine along with his tea. (Our Austrian friends could tell us about Jagertee/Jägertee).

  11. I forgot to mention, Wan is likely to be 万 ‘ten thousand’.

  12. 万顺昌 Wànshùnchāng is in fact your ‘success in everything’. 万顺 Wànshùn means ‘ten thousand things go smoothly’, 昌 chāng means ‘prosper’. There is a Hong Kong company called Van Shung Chong Holdings which uses those characters, although it was only established in 1961.

    That means that the names are not personal names; they are business names. That leaves the other two names pretty hard to guess at. Мэй-юй could be 美誉 or 美玉 (‘good fame’ or ‘precious jade’). Having a meaning makes things a lot easier.

  13. I should have been using the traditional characters: 萬順昌.

  14. Wow, that’s terrific! I really didn’t expect such an exact identification. If I ever get the chance to do an annotated translation of Veltman, you’ll get full credit!

  15. дэ-цюaнь-цзи at a guess could just possibly be 德全吉. Ши could be either shi or xi, I have no idea how the Russians heard those sounds.

    Like I said, having the meaning makes all the difference.

  16. I’ve been reading the fascinating description of Maimaicheng linked by Languagehat. I just wanted to share this description of Dzarguchey’s court (dzarguchey was Mongol/Manchu official, whose duties also included being a judge)

    It’s a ring surrounded by numerous posters and flags and filled with punishment implements, boxes for dzargurguchey’s stamp and the book of laws.

    The posters say:

    “Even though it’s the steppe people who live here, a lot of intellect is needed to rule them”

    “Only quiet wind brings rainclouds”

    “It’s not the size, but form which makes thing elegant”

    “Spring winds and blessed rains bring grace”

  17. Looks like Kyakhta had what they called 万里茶路 (10,000 mile long tea street).

    Footnote 86 from Management of Kyakhta Merchants by the Qing Government seems to confirm Bathrobe’s 万顺昌 and 美玉公 guesses.

    No luck on the 3rd one, unfortunately. My guess is 实德全季 (True and Virtuous Throughout the Season).

  18. Nice find!

    I’m a little puzzled by the 记 following the business names in that document (万顺昌记, 美玉公记). Is it part of or attached to the business name? (As an aside, I think I’ve seen 記 ‘kei’ used in the names of traditional eateries in Macau, an example from the Internet being Tai Lei Loi Kei 大利來記, although I’m not sure what 記 here actually means.)

    If 记 is part of or attached to the business name, and not something else completely irrelevant, then the last name could be something like 十德全记 (‘ten virtues complete’).

  19. You people are amazing. I never expected all these details to be found.

  20. Brief historical note.

    Town of Kyakhta (then officially named Troitskosavk), on Russian side of the border, has a dubious distinction of being the only town in Russia which has been under Chinese occupation*.

    * In January-February, 1920, during Russian Civil War.

  21. Troitskosavsk, according to Wikipedia.

  22. My guess is that since these are businesses in a name register (名册), 记 probably mean “recorded by” (i.e. 记录). It wouldn’t surprise me if such a popular trade area had enough civil servants to justify sending one official to each merchant.

    The rest of the list from the footnote, for those interested.

    德玉明记刘元杰 (Virtuous Jade Brightness recorded by Liu Yuanjie)
    广隆光记李懋盛 (Vast Prosperous Vastness – 广 guǎng and 光 guāng are probably puns here – recorded by Li Maosheng)
    万顺昌记高永绣 (10k Things Go Smoothly recorded by Gao Yongxiu)
    裕顺昌记孔照煜 (A Plentitude of Things Go Smoothly recorded by Kong Zhaoyu)
    美玉公记姜丕坊 (Beautiful Jade Co. recorded Jiang Pifang)
    大兴玉记邓王翼 (Large Bright Jade recorded by Deng Wangyi)
    美玉德记冯开埛 (Beautiful Jade Virtuousness recorded by Feng Kaijiong)
    兴玉中记侯宁 (Bright Jade Center recorded by Hou Ning)

  23. 記 as the last character in a business name means “mark” or “sign,” so the whole expression could typically be translated as “At the sign of…”

  24. いい勉強になった!


  1. […] latest foray into Vel’tman (the comments and the post are both delightful) includes a link explaining the Palladius […]

Speak Your Mind