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Using Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times as a Path Toward Cross-Cultural Understanding

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Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times has been both praised and criticized by film reviewers worldwide. It has been described as “sweet and funny” by some, while others have deemed it an “unsatisfying” work.1 While lauded as “reflective, compassionate and affectionate,”2 it has also been dis­missed as a “bland, patronizing piece with little in the way of social observa­tion.”3 One reviewer from a Christian Web site gave the film a positive rating, but lamented that its plot centered upon “pity, deception and love,” thus mak­ing it a morally flawed ambivalent film.”4 Indeed, Roger Ebert noted that “when American critics” praised the movie, they did not truly understand it, but rather were “making some kind of concession to its Chinese origins.”5 Likewise, when I showed it to an audience of both American and Asian ESL undergraduates as part of our Asian film night, reactions were mixed, mirroring those of film reviewers.6

These diverse reactions reflect the enormous potential the film has for undergraduate students as a window into the differences between traditional Chinese culture and society and the West. Indeed, the film is a good teaching tool in an undergraduate class­room because an instructor can link the characters and plot to tradi­tional Chinese society and use them as markers to illustrate its trans­formation amidst the changes brought on by capitalism and con­sumer culture. Resonating with both East and West, the film’s themes center upon conceptions of marriage and family, the impor­tance of working for the greater good, or good of the group over the self, and questions of loyalty, truthfulness, and self-esteem rooted in employment, consumer culture, morality, and self-restraint.

The plot revolves around the universal themes of marriage, relationships, and employment. An elaboration of one of the short stories from the great Chinese writer Mo Yan’s Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, both the written story and film center upon the exploits of an unemployed man who converts an abandoned bus into a pay-per-use romantic meeting place for lovers. However, there are important differences between the book and the film, and students would find it valuable to compare the two.7 The first differ­ence is that Mo Yan’s protagonist, Shifu, has a wife, while Happy Times’s unemployed factory worker Zhao is an unmarried man so determined to find conjugal bliss that he engages in exhaustive efforts that try some viewers’ credibility.

An Australian reviewer noted that “in materialistic modern-day China,” getting married and having a family requires money;8 how­ever, this is new neither in terms of tangible reality for modern-day China nor as a fictional plot. Students can learn of the importance of marriage and family in Chinese history using Chinese literature. Thus Zhao might be introduced to undergraduate students in a Chi­nese history class as a modern-day recreation of the protagonist of earlier twentieth-century Chinese works of fiction such as that of Lao She, who writes of a rickshaw puller in 1930s Beijing in Rick­shaw: The Novel Lo-t’o Hsiang Tzu.9

Like Xiang Zu, the central character of Rickshaw, Zhao is a sin­gle man of very limited means in a corrupt, unfair society that will not allow him to earn the livelihood necessary to marry a wife of his own choosing. The rickshaw puller in Lao She’s work can be seen as representing the harsh unfairness of early twentieth century urban China, while Zhao’s unfortunate circumstances are contemporary; however, both are naïve urban protagonists who cannot maintain romantic attachments.

Zhao not only is circumscribed in terms of marriage prospects, but has no apparent family of any kind.10 The lack of children is an important aspect of Mo Yan’s short story as well, and can be an interesting point of contrast between the work of literature and the film. Students can discuss the significance of Shifu’s attitude toward his wife, as illustrated by Mo Yan’s observation that “because she was infertile, in his eyes she was simply inferior” and ponder how American film audiences might have reacted to the kind of central character that makes this observation.11 Students can make cultural comparisons between the United States and modern day China by analyzing Shifu’s observation that “any man who can’t make a liv­ing and take care of his family is like a woman who can’t have chil­dren. He can’t hold his head up in society.”12 In the short story, Mo Yan highlights Shifu’s sense of hopelessness when he observes that “if he had a child—son or daughter . . . he wouldn’t be . . . sitting under a tree early in the morning, laid off or not; he was like the fool who saw a rabbit run into a tree stump and break its neck, then spent his days after that waiting for a second rabbit to do the same.”13 Stu­dents can ponder whether childlessness has played as significant a role for male characters in American literature and film.

As a departure from this important theme, students can learn of the significance of devoted friends for both Shifu and Zhao. That both men are not ostracized and lonely is clearly due to the exis­tence of a pseudo family, a group of devoted friends who prescribe to the Maoist doctrine of putting the greater good before themselves.14 The questionable activities of Zhao and his group of helpers shed light on the dual themes of truthfulness and friendship that an instructor might highlight as illustrating existing cultural dif­ferences between China and the United States.

Urban life is intertwined with corruption and other city evils, and all protagonists, Xiang Zu, Zhao, and Shifu, are deceptive in their own right. If students are asked to compare the three, they will note some differences. While Mo Yan’s Shifu makes a significant amount of money from his shady activities, causing some suspicion from his wife, neither Xiang Zu nor Zhao profit. Instead, Xiang Zu and Zhao are tricked by duplicitous, acquisitive women who do profit from the existing corruption: Xiang Zu is tricked into marry­ing one such woman, while Zhao is tricked into believing that his object d’amour is sincere in her feelings toward him, and into taking in her blind stepdaughter.

The plot develops as Zhao, assisted by the exhaustive efforts of his friend Xue Jian, works to win the heart of this woman by posing as the manager of a fictitious hotel, “Happy Times Hut,” one reason for the title of the film. That Zhao’s identity is completely concoct­ed, as the hotel is really a repainted abandoned bus at a lovers lane, and that he and his friends intentionally (not accidentally, as in The Wedding Planner) deceive his love interest in such a fundamental way, struck at the heart of my American students’ criticism of the film. One student noted that since many of the important characters were lying, the film was bereft of likeable characters. How could we, as an audience, sympathize with central characters who lie, not to impersonal entities—as in, for instance, a corporation in Catch Me if You Can—but to people they purportedly care about and with whom they want to have a loving relationship? The significance of deception in American culture is evidenced by the fact that in many American films when a hero or heroine realizes that they have been duped, it often signals a turning point in the plot; however, from the Chinese perspective, and that of the Japanese students in my group, this deception mattered less and the emphasis was more on the rela­tionships among Zhao, his friends, and the object of his unrequited love.

While scheming femme fatales have made sensational heroines in the West, the object of Zhao’s affection would not have made for a Hollywood sex symbol. When the audience meets her she is exco­riating someone about how useless it is to provide them with food. We see from the outset that the object of Zhao’s affection is literally someone whom society has allowed to grow into callous indiffer­ence toward human suffering. While Chinese culture traditionally places unquestionable importance on food, Zhao’s girlfriend is clearly portrayed as representing the “excesses” associated with acquisitiveness. She and her portly son gorge on “Haagen Daz” ice cream, hog all of the amenities and space in their apartment, and as we soon learn, use the woman’s blind stepdaughter as a servant while practically starving her. Instructors can take this opportunity to explain to students that a central tenet of Maoist Communism is that everyone in society must be fed and taken care of.15 The audi­ence soon learns that the woman is the archetype of the wicked step­mother, who has starved and exploited her eighteen-year-old blind stepdaughter Wu Ying; indeed, the audience learns that it was the fragile Wu Ying that the stepmother was initially excoriating as wasteful to feed. She had inherited the girl from a passing husband, and used her as a servant—quite literally, a commodity to be used and discarded at will. An instructor can take the opportunity to ask students to interpret this character in terms of the significance of Communist tenets.

Zhao, played by Benshan Zhao, and Wu Ying, played by Jie Dong.

While the stepmother has dramatically departed from the Chi­nese communist emphasis on serving society, her behavior is also repugnant to important Confucian precepts that are complementary to Communism. While Communism and Confucianism are often contrasted, students can learn of their similarities. Ren, or benevo­lence, is a principal moral tenet of Confucianism, and it mandated the fulfillment of ones obligation to family and society, the principle that one should act selflessly rather than selfishly.16 Thus, while exploiting the girl as a commodity, the stepmother and stepson act in direct opposition to both Communist and Confucian precepts. Because these characters are unique to the film and absent from Mo Yan’s short story, one might ask students to consider Zhang Yimou’s motivations for including them. Is Zhang criticizing capi­talism, or perhaps issuing a warning about how its excesses might damage a culture that has placed greater emphasis on the communi­ty than on the individual?

Zhao’s creation of the Happy Times Hut is dismissed by one reviewer as a “half-hearted capitalistic endeavor;” however, from a Chinese perspective, his escapades display good-capitalistic effort in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping.17 Zhao clearly has used his initiative and creativity, making the most of his resources. Unlike the step­mother, and unlike Shifu, the character from which he is modeled, Zhao attempts to adhere to traditional codes of behavior that represent a benefit for the greater good of society. This is in keeping with both Confucianist and Communist principles. Like Shifu, Zhao and his best friend renovate the abandoned bus at a lover’s lane with the intent of eliciting contributions from the young lovers who use it; however, there are differences. Shifu profits significantly before his exploits come to a climactic end,18 while Zhao stubbornly clings to the idea that no hanky panky is to go on in the bus, despite the fact that this insistence prevents him from earning any money, which had been the objective in the first place.19 During a recent interview, the film’s director Zhang Yimou offered the Chinese expression “da yi mie qin, she shen qu yi” to emphasize his conception of heroism as “one above personal desires and affinities and self-sacrifice.”20 How might students view Zhao’s behavior given Zhang’s definition of heroism? Is Zhao a capitalist who has refused to eschew morali­ty? Has he retained the selfless aspects of Chinese culture while seeking to embrace entrepreneurship?

Zhao and Wu Ying’s stepmother, played by actress Lifan Dong.

As the plot evolves, Zhao’s morality is further developed. Like the central characters of many other Zhang Yimou films, such as the young teacher Wei in Not One Less, Zhao naively seeks to achieve his goals while doing the right thing. Unaware that the portly mother and son duo are negligent and abusive to Wu Ying and that they perceive her as a commodity, Zhao continues to woo the stepmother without suspecting any blemishes in her character. Eventually, the unsuspecting Zhao is tricked into taking in the blind stepdaughter Wu Ying for an indeterminate amount of time at the woman’s insis­tence that she live in Zhao’s “hotel” and work as a masseuse (which was what the stepdaughter had been trained to do) to earn her keep.

While at least one Western reviewer was incredulous that Zhao and other middle-aged men involved in this plotting would not use the peephole to peer at the young girl as she changed her clothes, the film is devoid of emphasis on sex (Unlike Zhang Yimou’s earlier films like Ju Dou and Red Sorghum) precisely because it presents Zhao as a moral character. Some reviewers have interpreted Zhao as a man transformed by “the redemptive qualities” of Wu Ying, liken­ing the film to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and this might have explained Zhao’s purist behavior;21 however, despite his comedic, con-man like qualities, Zhao’s sense of honor and moral correctness were evidenced in many ways from the beginning (i.e., his behavior toward the lovers in the Happy Times Hut). When the stepmother and her son enjoyed their ice cream without offering any to Wu Ying, Zhao noticed and asked whether the girl could have some. The stepmother quickly snatched the ice-cream away after Zhao’s departure, and Wu Ying was left with only a sense of longing; but it would be Zhao who would later tenderly dip into his rapidly deplet­ing savings to buy her an ice pop.

Why would Zhao be so altruistic? American students did not find it plausible that he was devoid of sexual intentions. Given the development of Zhao’s character as a moral one, however, one can argue that Zhang Yimou convinces the audience that his actions are fatherly rather than sexual, in keeping with Confucian precepts dic­tating the responsibility of the father as head of the household and role model. When Zhao is forced (due to lack of space, since he has no hotel) to take Wu Ying into his living quarters, he chooses to sleep in an abandoned factory to carefully safeguard her privacy. All of this is in deliberate contrast to her adoptive mother’s willingness to allow her to walk around the apartment barely clothed. Students were uncomfortable when the young Wu Ying suddenly appeared on the screen in her undergarments and curious as to the purpose of a display that seemed out of place.22 An instructor might ask stu­dents what Zhang Yimou’s motivation might have been for present­ing this kind of relationship between Wu Ying and her stepmother while projecting morality onto the character of Zhao.

Zhao’s friends mirror many of his altruistic qualities. One reviewer has called them “dim-witted,” while another praised Zhang Yimou for plausibly showing that people will do the “craziest and most ridiculous things when driven up a wall . . . ;”23 Another critic noted that they had “no eye on the near future.”24 Indeed, while my American students found the machinations of Zhao’s friends humor­ous, they also found them simultaneously laborious. Students won­dered why they behaved as they did. An instructor might point out that both Mo Yan’s story and Zhang Yimou’s film emphasize that, given their ages (the film puts much emphasis on references to the “fiftyish Zhao” as an “old man”), there is no future for them. Zhao’s coterie of middle-aged unemployed factory workers reflect the changes resulting from government closings of many state-owned enterprises deemed inefficient under Jiang Zemin. Might the group represent the old, selfless Communist world of the state-owned enter­prise? As such, the former state employees in the film act as a family would, working hard to make sure that the lovely Wu Ying believes that she is a valued worker, appreciated and paid by her clients, even if this means personal sacrifice for them. Students might be asked whether the group is a testimony to Director Zhang Yimou’s concept of selfless heroism. Might they be victims of capitalist development? Do they reflect an ability to triumph over circumstances by working together, something prized in China? Like the rickshaw puller in Lao She’s novel, Zhao and his friends are outside the pale in society. What the characters have in common is that all are underdogs; however, students who had read Rickshaw noted some important differences. Xiang Zu’s downfall might be perceived as a result of the inability of all rickshaw pullers to work together. In contrast, Zhao and his friends work cooperatively and students can decide for themselves whether the film’s ending represents a triumph or defeat. The film’s heroine Wu Ying certainly recognizes the power of their cooperative effort.

Wu Ying’s triumph might be seen as providing evidence for Zhang’s affirmation of the ways of selflessness emphasized by Con­fucianism and Communism. The blind Wu Ying may represent the plight of the disabled in China today.25 As such, she displays enor­mous intuitiveness and strength throughout the film. Like Zhang Yimou’s strong women in previous films, such as the peasant in The Road Home and the schoolteacher in Not One Less, Wu Ying saw much beyond what many critics identified as untruthfulness and deception and was grateful for the unselfish kindness of Zhao and his friends. Wu grew increasingly aware of the group’s efforts to provide her with validation.26 She expressed this realization when, in an exchange of letters with Zhao, she explained that these “happy times” they spent together would be her source of strength, thus enabling her to face the world. Students can determine whether or not through the group’s selfless heroism Wu Ying had found the validation that she needed to help her succeed in society.

That this exchange between Wu Ying and Zhao, in letter form, would be the apex and the nadir of their heartfelt communication, was a source of frustration for my American students, who remained unsatisfied at the dearth of emotional expression in the film; howev­er, the Japanese students were uplifted by the ending, noting that some emotions were simply too deep for words and, in fact, were better understood without them.

What does this prevalence for mitigating emotion tell about the two cultures? Both Confucius and Mao emphasized self-restraint and as early as preschool, Chinese children are taught this by their teachers (who ideally should model the behavior). This contrasts with the Western notion that children learn through self discovery and that expressions of this should be encouraged, both in the class­room and in society. Confucian emphasis on ren can also be under­stood as a compassionate love for others requiring an enormous amount of self-restraint, for without this it would not be possible to put others before oneself. Since a key component of traditional Chi­nese healing systems are the emphasis upon mitigating emotional excesses (love, jealousy, and anger, for instance) in order to achieve optimal health, an exploration of this theme would be a valuable one for undergraduate students of Chinese history.27 This theme resonat­ed deeply with Japanese students and some American students who held a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.

The mixed reviews of Happy Times by Western audiences have been matched by those in the People’s Republic of China. Dong Jie, the young actress who portrays the blind stepdaughter Wu Ying, noted that some Chinese were dissatisfied with Zhang Yimou’s work, preferring that he instead do more dramatic or historical films as in the past;28 however, in one recent interview, Zhang noted that the Chinese government emphasizes the “present and the future” and allows “such subjects to be talked about as marriage, family and social phenomena” while being “less tolerant on subjects like the Cul­tural Revolution.”29 Might Zhang be using the more private, social, family issues in Happy Times to illustrate political themes that the Chinese government would not have tolerated in a more direct way?

Because Zhang’s political message is so creatively woven into the film, which emphasizes the more preferred private realm, there is much room for interpretation among viewers, consequently mak­ing the film a valuable teaching tool in undergraduate instruction.

Might one interpret the film as one that heralds the value of hard work as well as the cooperative efforts of the group over acquisitiveness? Importantly, students can analyze the differences among themes in the literature and film and the significance of the particularities of each. Students can contemplate whether Zhang Yimou is extolling the virtues of maintaining that which is tradition­ally Confucian and Maoist while veering off with great caution into the capitalist horizon.

More importantly, the film’s usefulness as a teaching tool goes beyond the academic. Happy Times was not merely the “happy times hut” that represented Zhao’s distortion of reality, but the cul­turally boundless search for an existence that affirms each person’s value as a human being. Happy Times not only illustrates invaluable cultural differences but posits them in the context of the perennial human search for fulfillment that transcends all cultures. As such, the film is an invaluable tool for cross cultural understanding


1. See William Arnold’s review. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, accessed Friday, August 2, 2002 at

2. accessed Thursday, July 17, 2003.

3. Philip French, The Observer, 7, September 29, For a com­parable British review, see Independent, Sunday (London) September 29, 2002, 11., accessed June 5, 2003.

4. Carole McDonnell, volunteer guest reviewer at spotlight/movies/2002/happytimes.html, notes that Zhao is asked by the “fat woman” to give her “blind step-daughter work” but “instead of owning up to the lie, Zhao says he will employ” her. Accessed Thursday, July 17, 2003.

5. See Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun Times at ebert/ebert_reviews/2002/08/080903.html, accessed June 18, 2003.

6. The American students were all undergraduates, born and raised in New York. The Asian students were born in Japan and studying English at Adelphi for one or more semesters.

7. “Shifu” is the laid-off factory worker in the title story. See Mo Yan, Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.

8. See Stuart Diwell, Sunday Tasmanian (Australia), January 19, 2003, T06 of TV guide, accessed June 5, 2003.

9. Lao She’s Rickshaw was set in Peking and published in 1938. See for example, Jean M. James’ translation, Rickshaw: the novel Lo-t’o Hsiang Tzu. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu. This is the first Chinese novel with a laborer as a hero.

10. Jung Chang offers many examples of the significance of family in her very read­able and informative memoir Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China, Anchor Books, 1991. The author notes that “to have several generations of a family living under one roof was considered a great honor. Streets even had names like “Five Generations Under One Roof” to commemorate such families, 54. Students who are assigned a work such as The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun can explore this from a different perspective: how the family, or lack of one, is tied to economic and social status, thereby condemning the poor to a lifetime of social ostracism and loneliness. See Lu Xun Selected Stories, W. W. Norton, NY, 70, and Lu Xun, The True Story of Ah Q. Foreign Languages Press, 1991. Go to: http://chinesecul­ gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site= cip/ahq/ahqstory.htm for the online book.

11. Mo Yan, 14.

12. Ibid, 25.

13. Ibid, 28.

14. Emphasis on “selflessness and collectivism” has its institutional beginnings in the preschool, where Asian children learn that they must sacrifice the personal and individual for the “greater social good.” See Joseph J. Tobin, David Y. H. Wu, and Dana H. Davidson’s Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China and the United States, Yale University Press. New Haven, 1989, particularly 30, which refers to Japanese preschool teachers’ eagerness to predominantly instill such qualities as “empathy,” “gentleness,” “social consciousness,” “kindness” and “cooperativeness,” 30–31 and Chinese emphasis on the collective good in 104–109.

15. See Maurice Meisner’s Mao’s China and After, A History of the People’s Repub­lic, Free Press 1986, Edwin E. Moise, Modern China, a History, Longman, 1994, Richard H. Solomon’s Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture, Uni­versity of California Press, 1971, and Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, W. W. Norton & Co. 1990.

16. For online primary sources that explain ren, see http://academic.brooklyn.cuny. edu/core9/phalsall/texts/analects.html. Note that “ren” is the pinyin spelling, but that online sites often use the Wade-Giles Romanization; hence, “ren” would be “jen.” A valuable online source for understanding Chinese history and philoso­phy is by Professor Paul Halsall.

17. On this topic, see Maurice Meisner, The Deng Xiaoping Era, an Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978–1994, New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

18. Mo Yan notes that as Shifu’s business boomed, his “purse grew fatter . . . he grew more cheerful and physically robust . . . joints that had turned rusty limbered up . . . and his eyes, which had seemed frozen in place, were now filled with life.” Initially embarrassed to stock up on condoms for his place, he soon grew brazen, responding to a curious clerk’s queries by naughtily identifying himself as “both a sex fiend and a black marketer . . . ” 34.

19. Arnold sees this as a “half-hearted capitalistic endeavor.” William Arnold’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, accessed Friday, August 2, 2002 at from=2&searchdiff=830.

20. See Clarissa Oon, The Straits Times (Singapore), January 15, 2003, Life! Lexis­com, accessed June 2, 2003.

21. See, for example, Peter Rainer’s online review, accessed June 2, 2003, at He notes that both Chaplin’s and Zhang’s films feature “an impoverished funnyman” who tricks a blind girl into thinking he’s rich and that both films “achieve a withering sadness at their conclusions.”

22. An instructor might take this opportunity to discuss the origins of massage in China, and how, more recently, since 1997, the China Disabled Persons’ Federa­tion (CDPF) began the project of training blind masseurs to work in hospitals, clinics, and hotels. According to the director of the CDPF, more than 40,000 blind masseurs can be found across China.­lish/China/60077.htm, accessed December 15, 2003, and TuiNa/tuina.history.htm, accessed December 27, 2003.

23. Philip French, The Observer, September 29, 2002, and Francis Dass, New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad New Straits Times (Nalaysia), November 30, 2002, Entertainment Cinema,

24. Michael Atkinson’s review of the film for The Village Voice notes that “Zhao and his retired buddies trick the waif into thinking she has a legitimate job . . . ” See issues/0230/atkinson.php.

25. See “China’s Disabled Are Victims of a New Economy,” bm/bm99/bm990612.htm, accessed December 27, 2003.

26. A. O. Scott, “Where Happiness Comes in Small Dollops,” The New York Times Company, The New York Times, July 26, 2002, Friday, Late edition-final, Section E; Part 1; Page 22; Column 4; Movies, Performing Arts/Weekend Desk. Lexis­

27. See Ted J. Kaptchuk, O. M. D., The Web that Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, Contemporary Books, 2000. This book makes the complex philosophies that underlie Chinese medicine understandable to Western readers.

28. Giovanni Fazio, “Another muse is born,” The Japan Times Ltd., The Japan Times, October 30,, accessed July, 17, 2003.

29. Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (London), September 28, 2002, Saturday Lon­don Edition 1, Ft. Weekend, arts,, accessed July 17, 2003.


All the films listed below are available in DVD format with English subtitles from: IMDb,

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Director: Stephen Spielberg

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken

141 minutes

City Lights (1931)

Director: Charles Chaplin

Starring: Virginia Cherrill

87 minutes

Happy Times: Xingfu shiguang (2001)

Director: Yimou Zhang

Starring Benshan Zhao, Jie Dong

95 minutes

Not One Less: Yige dou bu neng shao (1999)

Director: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Minzhi Wei, Huike Zhang

106 minutes

Red Sorghum: Hong gao liang (1987)

Director: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Li Gong, Wen Jiang, Rujun Ten

91 minutes

The Wedding Planner (2001)

Director: Adam Shankman

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey

103 minutes

desk  [desk]  详细X
n. 书桌,办公桌,写字台;服务台,问询台;(办理某项业务的)部门;乐谱架,演奏者席;<美>(报社)编辑部
adj. 书桌的,桌上适合用的
desk: 书桌
desk clerk: 值班服务员
desk lamp: 台灯