Hot and Noisy Perfection

A bustling market promenade in the summer heat. The whole atmosphere bathed in the red-orange hue of lantern lights. Steam and the scent of frying meat rising from the kitchen of one market stall. Miniature porcelain figurines on display at the next. On our trips to Chongqing, China, my family and I frequented the busy Sichuan marketplaces and walked along the endless line of booths and the incessant, emphatic advertising of their owners. “Xiaomei, you won’t find these anywhere else!” a vendor beckoned aggressively. “Three for one yen!” another insisted. The hum of constant chatter filled the street, complete with the raucous Sichuan dialect and the fiery interjections of bargaining wars between vendor and customer. Elbows rubbed against elbows, sweaty shoppers in cozy proximity with one another. I felt the heat of excitement spreading through my insides as the animated marketplace glowed around me. At that point, I would exclaim, “It’s so 热闹 (rènào)!”

Rènào, an adjective, is a combination of two separate Chinese characters joined to create a new term. 热 () means hot or warm and contains the radical 灬 (biāo), which represents fire or heat. The second character, 闹 (nào) means noisy or loud. The pronunciation of rènào itself adds another layer to the term. Chinese speech requires four tones, each spoken in a specific intonation. You must enunciate both characters of rènào in the fourth tone (à) with an incisive and brusque inflection. I would describe the fourth tone as a solid chop of a blade; for the sake of comparison, the third tone (ă) and first tone (ā) give the impression of a meandering river or the still surface of a lake, respectively. In the midst of a busy market street, rènào illustrates the energetic immediacy and vivacious intensity of the situation, illuminated in the sharpness of the fourth tone.

Rooted in Chinese values, the concept of rènào carries a positive connotation, contrary to the literal translation, “hot and noisy.” While other cultures may view “hot and noisy” as chaotic and unpleasant, Chinese culture appreciates the energy and excitement of a rènào marketplace. But the definition of rènào isn’t limited to elevated temperatures and loud surroundings; rènào encompasses social interactions and human sentiments.

On the weekends, my parents would invite family friends to our house for parties and dinners. As the children played with each other, the parents engaged in a couple rounds of cards. I never understood the rules and technicalities of the game, but the riotous enthusiasm and rowdy shouts of the adults were unmistakable (unfortunately) from behind my closed bedroom door. A typical game would proceed in this manner: one parent lays down a card, another grimaces at the move, some sort of disagreement emerges, and suddenly the circle of adults is in uproar. Outraged yells pierce the charged atmosphere, shoulders crash against shoulders as accusatory fingers point across the table, but among the disgruntled expressions, a sense of amity and intimacy is palpable through a certain expression of enjoyment: laughter. The kind that makes your sides hurt, the kind that brings tears to your eyes, the kind that arises out of the familiarity of friendship. It’s lively, it’s boisterous—it’s rènào.

Rènào defines a focal point of fun, a hub of energy—any place where you would want to be. It captures the spirit and exuberance of a setting, not only physically, but emotionally as well. Back in that animated Sichuan marketplace, with my family members around me, I remember the sense of belonging and the zealous excitement blazing through my heart. Maybe it was hot. Maybe it was noisy. But, to me, it was rènào.