The Meaning of ‘Siusa’

There is a word in Chinese – 瀟灑. In Mandarin, it is pronounced as ‘xiāo​sǎ’ and in Cantonese it is pronounced as ‘siusa’. Since I can actually speak Mandarin, I favor the Mandarin pronunciation, but since this blog is in English, I am going to use the Cantonese romanization ‘siusa’ for readers who do not know how to pronounce the Mandarin ‘x’ sound*. (Note: I am assuming that this word has the same meaning in Cantonese as in Mandarin, but since I don’t know much Cantonese, I cannot be sure of that.) The ‘siu’ in ‘siusa’ is pronounced like the phrase ‘see you’ but compressed into a single syllable, and the ‘sa’ has the same ‘a’ as the word ‘father’ (don’t ask me about pronouncing Cantonese tones, since I don’t know how to pronounce them myself).

So, what the heck does the word ‘siusa’ mean? Here is one dictionary definition. Here is a different dictionary definition. I notice that the second dictionary gives the word one definition, but then translates it very differently in the examples. I think this just goes to show that English does not actually have a word for the concept of ‘siusa’.

The fact that there is no English word for ‘siusa’ means it is often trips up translators. For example, in the English translation of this song, they translate ‘siusa’ as ‘debonair’ which is not an accurate translation. It does not make sense in context ‘ Be debonair like the wind, lightly floating’ and it makes even less sense in the overall context of the song. But there are worse examples. In the translation of this song (the translation is in the description, not the video itself), they translate “huó​ de xiāo​-xiāo-​sǎ-sǎ” as “have a stylish life” which is a downright bad translation (though at least it makes sense in English, unlike the phrase “let the secularity go with us”).

So what, after all, is the meaning of siusa? I think it is better to use examples than to try to write definitions. Since it is often used as an adjective to describe people, I am going to try to find examples from various works of fiction in English.

Harry Potter: I would say that the most siusa character is Sirius Black (and I’ve seen native Chinese speakers describe him as ‘siusa’).

Romeo & Juliet: Obviously, the most siusa character is Mercutio, in fact he is probably the most siusa character in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, maybe in the entire Shakespeare canon.

Star Wars: It has been about 15 years since I’ve seen any of the Star Wars movies (except as clips), but based on my memories, I would say Han Solo is the most siusa character.

Star Trek: I’m only really familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation; in that series, I would say the most siusa recurring character is Deanna Troi’s mother, Lwaxana Troi (this clip offers a sample of her personality).

Pirates of the Caribbean: I’ve only seen the first movie, and I saw it more than ten years ago, but, ummm, Jack Sparrow seemed like a siusa guy.

James Bond: Once again, it’s been over ten years since I’ve seen a James Bond movie / read a James Bond novel, but based on what I remember, James Bond is siusa in the movies, not so siusa in the novels.

Supernatural: I’ve only seen a few episodes. Maybe there are siusa characters, but based on what I saw, neither of the Winchester brothers nor Castiel are siusa.

Girl Genius: There are actually a lot of siusa characters in this webcomic. Among the main characters, I would say the most siusa are Zeetha, Maxim, and Bangladesh Dupree.

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Believe it or not, I have not seen a single MCU movie, so I don’t have the faintest idea. If anyone wishes to suggest a siusa MCU character, feel free to comment.

Doctor Who: Never seen it, any of it, if anyone wishes to make a suggestion, go ahead.

Game of Thrones: I read the first 30 pages about 15 years ago, and I completely forgot what happened, aside from the fact that there is a character called … Eddard Stark? (I could look that up, but I want to do this strictly from memory) who is some kind of nobleman. If anyone wants to make suggestions, go ahead.

Also, apparently, the Chinese language edition of GQ magazine is called “Xiāosǎ”.

The word siusa is often associated with movement, or at least not being tied down by an anchor, which is why a song lyric like ‘be siusa like the wind, lightly floating’ makes sense, and why a word like siusa can also be used to describe calligraphy. One of my favorite descriptions of siusa I’ve found was somewhere in the Chinese-language internet where someone said (my translation/paraphrase) ‘a siusa person leaves when they want to leave’.

Siusa is also associated with a lot of other Chinese words which do not have direct equivalents in English, but methinks if I want to explain more of those words I need more blog posts. Thus, I’m just going to describe the one which has a good English equivalent – 英俊, which is pronounced as ‘yīng​jùn’​ in Mandarin and ‘yingjeon’ in Cantonese. It means ‘handsome’. The common phrase is ‘yīng​jùn xiāo​sǎ’ (Mandarin) or ‘yingjeon siusa’ (Cantonese), and I suppose the English word ‘dashing’ is a decent translation of the phrase. However, while ying​jun and siusa (yes, I can mix Mandarin and Cantonese if I wish because this is MY BLOG) are associated with each other, they are separate words because they represent different ideas, and in particular, some of the discussions I’ve seen of the meaning of siusa in Chinese make it clear that there is no requirement that somebody be good-looking in order to be siusa. And unlike ‘yingjun’, ‘siusa’ is a word which can be used to describe people of any gender. I suspect that ‘siusa’ is often (mis)translated as ‘handsome’ because it’s often paired with the word yingjun.

One thing I noticed as I was putting together the list of characters is that it is a lot harder to think of siusa protagonists in English language fiction than in Chinese language fiction (in fact, the only examples I could think of were Jack Sparrow and movies!James Bond). Siusa characters, when they appear in English language fiction, are a lot more likely to be supporting characters, like Mercutio and Sirius Black, and they are also less common than siusa supporting characters in Chinese fiction. Siusa characters are especially common in wuxia, my favorite genre of Chinese language fiction, but even in other genres of Chinese language fiction, it is easier to find siusa characters than in English language fiction. The conclusion I gather from this is that siusa is a personal quality which is more valued in Sinophone cultures than in Anglophone cultures, which might be why Chinese has a word for it and English does not.

I rather like the concept, and since English does not have a word for it, I propose that English import the word ‘siusa’ itself. And now that I’ve written this post, if I ever feel an inclination to use the word in future blog posts, I can link back to this one.

* If you really want to know how to pronounce the ‘x’ in ‘xiāo​sǎ’ then do this: 1) pronounce a ‘sh’ sound and feel how the air whooshes through your teeth 2) pronounce a ‘k’ or a ‘g’ sound and feel it in the middle of your mouth 3) create another ‘sh’ sound, but instead of having the air whoosh around your teeth, have the air whoosh in the same part of the mouth where you pronounce ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds, congratulations, you can now pronounce the Mandarin ‘x’ sound.

9 thoughts on “The Meaning of ‘Siusa’

  1. I’m not sure I’ve entirely grasped this concept, but I find it really interesting and have a few suggestions based on how I understand it thus far:

    -MCU: Maybe Tony Stark?
    -Doctor Who: I think I might consider the 10th and 11th Doctors to be siusa. Maybe also Jack Harkness?
    -Another possible protagonist example: Would Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly be considered siusa?

  2. Ooo, I like this topic! I always find it interesting how you can understand exactly what a word means in one language, but be unable to translate it into another language. In my case, I sometimes have to remind myself not to use the Japanese word “genki” because most anglophones don’t know what it means. But then I struggle to come up with an English equivalent: “Lively”? “Vivacious”? “Enthusiastic”? “Energetic”? “Healthy”?

    The definitions you cite are definitely confusing and even seem contradictory. I mean, “natural and unaffected” and James Bond really don’t go together in my mind! Actually, I’m tempted to suggest that “cool” might be the best English translation. Or, if that’s not exactly the right word, then “siusa” seems, like “cool”, to express an attractive quality that is easily recognised but hard to define.

    Given that you mention both Han Solo and James Bond, I’m wondering if you’d also call Indiana Jones a siusa character? What about Lando Calrissian? I’m also wondering if Peter Quill from the Guardians of the Galaxy might qualify. In terms of ASoIaF/GoT characters, maybe Jaime Lannister? Or Daario Naharis? For Doctor Who, I second Jack Harkness, and maybe River Song? Oh, and in the Hunger Games, maybe Finnick Odair?

    Looking at this list, it’s striking that most of the examples are male. Do you think that says something about Western culture? Is the same also true in Chinese?

    Oh, and apparently “siusa” also has a Japanese equivalent, pronounced “shousha”. Neat!

    • I have only seen 10 minutes of the first Indiana Jones movie, and that was a) a long time ago and b) not really enough to judge Indiana Jones’ character. IIRC, Han Solo is more siusa than Lando Calrissian, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any Star Wars movie (and in the Star Wars novel I read this year, Han Solo seems more siusa than Lando).

      Huh, I’ve read the first Hunger Games novel, but that was a few years ago, and I don’t remember much about Finnick.

      I do think the fact that most of the examples I cited are male does suggest something about Anglophone culture. In Chinese media, siusa characters also tend to skew male, but it is easier to think of examples who are not male (though that just be because it is easier for me to think of examples in general). There is actually a Mandarin pop song called ‘Miss Siusa’ (the English title is ‘Miss Genuine’) – which is an obvious example of the word being applied to someone who is not male.

      Even for Chinese speakers, the concept is not easy to define, since I found a number of discussions online among native speakers who were trying to define what siusa actually is. I would not translate it as ‘cool’ since it is possible to be ‘cool’ without being siusa (and vice versa) (though siusa people are often cool).

      I did not know that there is also a Japanese equivalent, though that does not surprise me. I wonder if it is as common a word in Japanese as it is Chinese.

      • Finnick is only introduced in the second Hunger Games trilogy book, Catching Fire, and he plays a big role in the books and films but is not in the first one at all, hence you not remembering him, Sara. I like the idea of him as Suisa after all this discussion, it does feel right, in part because he does sort of remind me of characters like Sirius Black, the character on the list I know best, but he also reminds me of maybe Dean Winchester, so maybe not? I guess I don’t see why Dean on Supernatural isn’t Suisa but Sirius is. I’ve only seen a bit of Supernatural myself, too…

      • To be fair, Dean Winchester not being siusa is more of an opinion than a declaration of fact. Native Chinese speakers can argue a lot among each other about whether a character is siusa, just as people can argue a lot about whether someone is ‘handsome’.

        Based on the few episodes of Supernatural I’ve seen, Dean Winchester seemed a bit too … strung up? hung up? tense? to be siusa (not that siusa characters are never tense, but their default state tends to be relaxed, and they are only tense when their circumstances push them into being tense). Dean seems a bit too sharp and stiff in general, whereas siusa characters tend to be smooth and flexible. But maybe that reflects the particular episodes I saw more than Dean Winchester’s character in general.

        And yeah, that is a great explanation for why I don’t remember Finnick ;P

    • Now that I’ve looked up Finnick Odair on Wikia – wow, based on the descriptions there, he seems like a very yingjeon siusa / yīng​jùn xiāo​sǎ character.

  3. For what’s it worth, here’s what one Taiwanese person told me:

    She said siusa has two meanings:

    one meaning is external: good-looking, dashing, often describing a guy

    the other meaning has to do with character: not worrying about details, following his or her own thought, marching to the beat of his or her own drum. It’s a mostly positive quality, though sometimes it can lead to trouble.

    In Harry Potter, Gilderoy Lockhart (played by Kenneth Branagh in the movie) seems siusa, until it turns out he isn’t.

    In Game of Thrones, Brienne, the woman knight, is siusa even though not so good-looking.

    In Lord of the Rings, Legolas (played by Orlando Bloom) is siusa. I suggested that the hobbits Merry and Pippin, who accompany Frodo and Sam, are siusa. She objected that they are not good-looking enough. I argued that surely they could be seen as siusa by other hobbits?

    (And now I wonder, in the Iliad, is Paris siusa? What about Odysseus? Or Achilles? Perhaps the latter two are too serious. But I’m still trying to understand the word.)

    • One of things I never appreciated until I did research for this post is just how much native Chinese speakers disagree about the concept of siusa. But that is part of what makes the concept so interesting to me.

      I would say that Odysseus is siusa, but not Paris or Achilles. Yang Guo is often described as being very siusa, and he angsts a lot over being separated from his beloved wife for 10+ years, so I don’t think Odysseus’ ‘seriousness’ disqualifies him from being considered siusa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.