The Sound of Encroaching Footsteps, by Xie Tian Xiao (Part 1)
"腳步聲在靠近", by 謝天笑 | Learning a Chinese song with AI
Today we continue an exploration of Chinese music for the purposes of learning mandarin and getting some listening exposure. In the future this newsletter will also cover chinese literature and old texts, in order to add some variety (always using the simplified characters, however.)
In this post, we’ll start learning 腳步聲在靠近, a pop/pop rock song by X.T.X. It could be translated as “The sound of approaching footsteps.” We have already seen a song by the same artist, and you can read a brief introduction to him and the analysis of his song Sunflower in the first article from this blog, right here.
(Wǒ de fáng zi méi yǒu wéi qiáng)
The first verse means "My house has no walls."
But first, let us listen to the song, of course.
我的 (wǒ de) means "my". In Chinese, possessive pronouns like "my", "your", "his", etc. are typically placed before the noun they modify. 房子 (fáng zi) means "house". The noun comes after the possessive pronoun.
沒有 (méi yǒu) is a negation marker in Chinese. In this context, it means "does not have" or “has no”. The first character, “mei”, is a general negation particle, while “you” is the verb “to have”. 圍牆 (wéi qiáng), means "walls" or "enclosure". The noun comes after the negation marker.
(Què yī zhí yǒu rén pā zài wǒ de chuāng hù shàng)
"Yet someone is always leaning on my window":
卻 (què) means "yet" or "however". It is often used to indicate a contrast between two ideas.
有人 (yǒu rén) means "someone", and 一直 (yī zhí), "always", which is used to indicate a continuous or ongoing action.
趴在 (pā zài) means "to lean on" or "to lie on". The verb "趴" (pā) means "to lie face down", while the preposition "在" (zài) indicates the location of the action.
我的 (wǒ de), "my". It is a possessive pronoun placed before the noun it modifies.
窗戶 (chuāng hù), "window", the noun comes after the possessive pronoun.
Note that in Chinese, the verb often comes before the object, and the preposition indicating the location of the action comes after the object.
(Shì huàn jué hái shì zhēn de yǒu rén zài jiǎng)
“Is it an illusion or is someone really speaking?”
是 (shì), "is", it is the verb "to be".
幻覺 (huàn jué), means "illusion" or "hallucination".
還是 (hái shì), "or", it is used to give a choice between two or more options.
真的有人 (zhēn de yǒu rén), which translates to "is someone really". The adverb "真的" (zhēn de) means "really" or "truly", it modifies the verb (“speaking” in this case.) 有人 (yǒu rén) means "someone", a noun. “Rén” means person.
在講 (zài jiǎng), which means "speaking" or "talking". The character "在" (zài) indicates the ongoing action, while the verb "講" (jiǎng) means "to speak" or "to talk". Here 在 (zài), "in" or "at", which we have previously seen more than once in the song Sunflower, is a preposition that indicates location of action, or state of action; in this case it indicates state.
Here's a Chinese saying related to illusion:
眼見為實 (yǎn jiàn wéi shí), which means "seeing is believing". Like the English expression, it highlights the importance of direct experience or evidence in determining the truth, rather than relying on appearances or hearsay. The word "實" (shí), meaning "real" or "true", expresses the same idea as 真的" (zhēn de) does in the song.
Finally, it's worth noting that Chinese often uses parallel structure in this type of sentence construction, where two or more phrases have the same grammatical structure. In this case, both "幻覺" (huàn jué) and "真的有人在講" (zhēn de yǒu rén zài jiǎng) are noun phrases that serve as options in the question.
Here's another example of parallel structure in Chinese:
你喜歡吃甜的還是鹹的？(Nǐ xǐ huān chī tián de hái shì xián de?) - "Do you like sweet or salty food?" In this sentence, both "甜的" (tián de) and "鹹的" (xián de) are adjectival phrases that modify the noun "food".
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(Shì jīng huāng hái shì nèi xīn zǎo yǐ shī cháng)
“Is it panic or has my heart already gone insane?”
是 (shì), "is".
驚慌 (jīng huāng), "panic" or "alarm".
還是 (hái shì), "or", as we have already seen.
內心 (nèi xīn), "inner heart" or "inner self".
早已 (zǎo yǐ), "long ago" or "already".
失常 (shī cháng), "abnormal; out of order; irregular".
So the phrase can also literally translate to "Is it panic or has the inner self long been abnormal?", which of course does not sound as expressive as the first, more idiomatic English translation. The phrase uses parallelism (the concept we have seen also in the previous verse) to contrast two possibilities, and it implies that there is something unsettling or disturbing going on.
An example of a Chinese proverb that uses the word "内心" (nèi xīn) is "内心平和，外在安宁" (nèi xīn píng hé, wài zài ān níng), which means "When the inner self is peaceful, the outer environment is tranquil". This proverb highlights the importance of inner peace and how it can positively affect one's external surroundings.
Reviewing the song so far
Here is this first part, put together.
我的房子沒有圍牆 || My house has no walls,
卻一直有人趴在我的窗戶上 || Yet someone is always leaning on my window.
是幻覺還是真的有人在講 || Is it an illusion or is someone really speaking?
是驚慌還是內心早已失常 || Is it panic or has my heart already gone insane?
These verses make use of allegorical wording to describe the feeling of being watched or followed, even though there is no actual physical evidence of someone being present. The use of "幻覺" (huàn jué) or "illusion" suggests that the speaker may be imagining things, while "失常" (shī cháng), "abnormal; odd; insane", reinforces that notion.
The phrase from the chorus "有人在隱藏" (yǒu rén zài yǐn cáng), which we will study only next week in the Part 2, analyzing the song’s chorus, means "someone is hiding", and it adds to this same feeling of unease and the idea that something is not quite right.
Another example of allegorical wording in Chinese is the phrase "梦里常常有他" (Mèng lǐ cháng cháng yǒu tā), which means "he often appears in my dreams". This phrase is often used to express longing for someone who is not present, or to describe the feeling of constantly thinking about someone. It’s interesting to note again the use of the verb to have in “yǒu tā”, where “ta” is he/him, so the way the phrasing’s built is “[my dreams often] have him.”
The Chinese proverb "明枪易躲，暗箭难防" (Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng), translating to "It is easy to dodge a spear that is coming at you openly, but hard to ward off an arrow shot from the dark", has a similar theme, with the idea that it is harder to defend against something that is hidden or unknown.
Finally, before we go on with the song lyrics, I’d like to share another more recent Chinese rock band, having a somewhat grunge sound in many of their songs. The band is Residence A, I learned about it on reddit, and this is the song “disco”. It is a song in English, and the singer’s style reminds me of the kraut rock bands Neu! and Can, the latter having a cult classic in their album Tago Mago. However, the overwhelming majority of Residence A’s repertoire is made up of great-sounding chinese lyrics, and the band will be featured soon in this blog, so stay tuned and subscribe at the end of this article!
(Màn tiān chuán lái zhè bù kě sī yì de shēng xiǎng, shǐ zhōng zài zhè shì jiè shàng.)
漫天 (màn tiān), "across the sky; everywhere in the sky" .
傳來 (chuán lái), "to transmit; to come over".
這 (zhè), "this".
不可思議的 (bù kě sī yì de), "incredible; unimaginable; unbelievable".
聲響 (shēng xiǎng), "sound; noise".
始終 (shǐ zhōng) - "always; constantly".
在 (zài) and 這 (zhè) again, meaning "in; on" and "this".
世界上 (shì jiè shàng), "in the world".
Meaning: "Incredible sounds come over from all over the sky, always in this world." This verse showcases the spiritual and poetic lyrics of Xie Tian Xiao, as we had seen in the previous song, Sunflower. It is also a much more uplifting verse than the previous ones in the song, achieving a strong contrast, and in a way it resolves the tension of the unknown that had been built up by those verses.
This is as far as we’ll cover this week, it’s a lot of new words and expressions to learn. See you soon, in Part 2, covering this song’s chorus.
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