Language Notes

On learning to speak and write Chinese,
annotated with references and sources aimed at a grounding in the foundations (rather than fluency);
including a meditation on the hidden difficulties of translation,
some thoughts on the pertinence of aphorisms and idioms,
and some advice about selecting phrasebooks.

I’ve come to the study of Chinese somewhat late, admittedly, and no doubt would have had an easier time of it had I begun while younger. Having said that, though, it hasn’t been impossible to learn the basics.

More importantly, learning spoken Chinese (Mandarin), and a few of the written characters, has been surprisingly fun, even exciting. Part of this, I’m sure, is because Chinese is so incredibly different from any other Western language I’ve encountered.

So, consider this a pep talk: you can figure it out!

With the right tools, both on-line and text or audio books, and with the help of a classroom environment or a tutor, you’ll be able to pick up at least some of the basics. And if you don’t quite get comfortable with speaking Chinese before you go, or even if perhaps you can’t imagine actually having a conversation in Chinese, the basic foundations of the language will be immensely illuminating, and will enliven your experience of being there.

the Four Tones of Mandarin

The first thing you’ll encounter, one of the basic distinctions between Chinese and Western languages, is tonality – the idea that meaning is carried by the tonal qualities of the spoken word. For instance, the example that shows up in almost every Mandarin language guide is the syllable ‘ma’: spoken with a high-flat tone it means “mom”; spoken with a rising tone it means “hemp”; spoken with a falling-rising tone it means “horse”; and spoken with a falling tone it means “scold.” (And spoken with no tone, or a low-flat tone, ‘ma’ designates a question.)

Yes, it seems strange at first, but don’t forget that we use tonality to alter meaning in English as well – the rising tone at the end of a sentence in order to make a question, for example. It’s not the same as spoken Chinese, by any means, but keep in mind that the idea of tonal meaning isn’t completely unprecedented in your own language.

Okay, having said that, however, your first job is to get familiar with the four tones, and especially to be able to distinguish between them. And for that you’ll need to hear the spoken language, a lot. You can do this in several ways: with software lesson systems that analyze pronunciation (the Rosetta Stone series is praised by users I know), and on-line dictionaries that speak words; by joining a language classroom, or hiring a tutor (I’ve been able to find tutors via Craig’s list for very reasonable rates); but the best way to immerse yourself in the sound of Chinese, at least before you actually get there, might be to rent Chinese DVDs and just dive into their stories and characters. Obviously, you’re not going to become fluent simply by watching movies, but that’s not the goal – soaking in the melody of the language is what you’re after.

The Ten Mile Variation

A word of awareness though: the Chinese language is pronounced differently depending on your location. The standard “people’s language” (in English known as Mandarin) is only native in Beijing and the northern regions, though it’s spoken as the “official” language in the rest of the country too. But since China is a multinational country with more than fifty distinct ethnic groups, each of which has its own language, as well as dozens of regional, mutually unintelligible dialects, it’s quite likely that you won’t be hearing a lot of Mandarin when you’re outside Beijing. For example, a native speaker from Beijing is almost completely unintelligible in Shanghai, and vice versa. This feature of Chinese culture is extremely well-known and played against with stories and jokes within China. In fact, there’s a popular aphorism that describes the situation: “shili bu tongyin,” which means, approximately, “ten miles apart doesn’t sound the same.” Which brings us to a discussion of writing.

The Characters

Written Chinese is remarkably consistent across the entire universe of the Chinese language. This means, in practice, that while a Beijinger’s speech won’t be understood in Shanghai, the two of them can communicate clearly and easily by writing. In Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler discusses the history and evolution of the Chinese language at length and from several different perspectives, brilliantly illuminating many of the most interesting and oddly frustrating challenges you’re likely to encounter as you travel in China.

For me, flirting with the written language has been endlessly entertaining and enriching. Practicing the stroke order of a character, trying to become fluid with my pen, and beginning to notice strange concordances between characters (for example the inclusion of the character for ‘moon’, twice, within the word for ‘friend’), has begun to open my mind to expressive possibilities and conjunctions of words and images that are completely outside the universe of my native English. After a couple of years now of learning Chinese, I no longer find it strange to hear Westerners – Americans, English, Germans, Australians, Spanish – proclaim an emphatic infatuation with the language itself, almost apart from their experience of the culture or the country. More importantly, perhaps, is that I’ve been able to at least glimpse the emotion and glee behind the deep Chinese traditions of visual and linguistic allusion and punning that is so common in historical and contemporary picture-making, performance and music.

Simplified and Traditional Characters

Soon after Mao’s victory over the Nationalists in the Civil War that ended in 1949, a committee within the Communist party undertook to reform the ancient characters of the Chinese language. There were various reasons for the effort, as you might expect, and the stakes were high in many respects. Peter Hessler describes the emotional debates from those times, and the resulting confusions, in Oracle Bones. Today, the question over writing has reached a stable resolution: the exiled Nationalists in Taiwan use the traditional forms, and mainland China has retooled its educational and cultural institutions to adopt simplified forms.

If you’re headed to China for the first time, this division in writing probably won’t even emerge to your awareness, but if you begin to study the language, or if you even just start becoming aware of the shape of certain common characters (especially if you travel to both Taiwan and China sequentially), you’ll soon notice the discrepancies. I don’t think they’ll cause too much confusion, however, because at the initial stage of learning Chinese the subtlties won’t be important enough to cause you to stumble.

But somewhere in the process you'll become aware of the differences. And, actually, you might even glimpse some of these old arguments and divisions right at the beginning, if you know what to listen for. For example, when you study Chinese with a tutor or a teacher here in the United States (or in Europe), you might occasionally find personal biases revealed in the way your teacher introduces a particular character. You'll hear, for example, something like “and some people also write it like this….” Depending on which form is introduced first (the simple or the traditional) and which comes second, you might be able to infer something about who “some people” are for this particular speaker, and by extension, who “we” are. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend belaboring or calling undue attention to this kind of thing until your friendship has grown deeply trustful: the old wounds underlying these issues can stir up deep disturbances in the harmony of casual conversations and personal relationships. Nevertheless, it’s probably a good idea to be aware of the landscape regarding the two forms of writing.

Pinyin: The Spelling

Your entry into learning Chinese will undoubtedly be through pinyin, which is the standard system of romanization. (Read the Wikipedia article.) Pinyin, literally “spelling,” was invented by the Chinese in the 1950s to standardize the phonetics of the language. (Previous systems of Romanization had been invented by foreigners and contained internal inconsistencies.) So, since Chinese itself is not phonetic, and since therefore there is no way to “sound it out,” the first really substantial hurdle that non-native speakers face is the challenge of notating what they’re hearing. This means that even if all you want to do is read a phrase book which is otherwise written in English, you first have to master the phonetics of pinyin. The difficulty in doing this, unfortunately, is that though the letters look like standard English, they are pronounced according to specific Chinese rules. For example, the initial ‘c’ is pronounced like the ts in ‘hats’; and the combined ‘en’ will sound like the un in ‘under’. Consequently, an essential characteristic of a good phrase book is an easy to use explanation of pinyin that includes clear phonetic examples. Equally important is that your phrase book includes easy to read tone marks (and I’ve seen some that inexplicably don’t), because otherwise you’ll have no way to know whether you’re saying bao(first-tone) or bao(fourth-tone), transforming your breakfast order from a request for steamed pork cabbage buns into a request, oddly, for a pork cabbage hug.

Language Resources

My favorite phrasebook is Mandarin Phrasebook, by Immersion Guides, a company located in Beijing. Check out their other guidebooks and cultural products as well.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t appear to be distributed in the U.S. However, you can buy it direct from the publishers. Email Victoria Wang (Victoria Wang at True Run Media in Beijing to order and arrange for shipping.

If you decide to forgo this phrasebook (because frankly, though the book is awesome, the shipping from Beijig will be twice or three times the cost of book itself), just be sure to use the information above when selecting one from a local bookshop – namely, that the section on pinyin is easy to access and understand, and that the tone marks (above the pinyin) are clearly visible and easy to read. Then, once you get to Beijing, you can go to one the stores listed on the Immersion Guides website to get a copy of their phrasebook – I think you’ll find it very worthwhile.

There are lots of online dictionaries and translation tools. Not surprisingly, many of them are subscription-based services for a fee. One of my favorite free sites, Mandarin Tools, has lots of skill building ideas, including flashcards and a translating dictionary with speech, as well as a section on Chinese culture that includes a really fun Chinese name generator.

Integrated Chinese, published by Cheng & Tsui Company, Inc.
We used this text series in the language class I joined at the ABC Language Exchange in New York. The book is organized sensibly and efficiently, with good examples and exercises, and excellent web support. (The Cheng & Tsui website also contains a user forum and links to organizations with an interest in Chinese culture, from the Harvard University Museum’s collection of rubbings, on the one hand, to the East-West Center for cross cultural understanding in the Pacific region, on the other hand.

Aphorisms, Idioms, Figures of Speech

From Webster:
Idiom: from the Greek for “peculiar,” and “to make one’s own.” An accepted phrase, construction or expression having a meaning different from the usual or the literal.
Aphorism: from the Greek for “definition, a short, pithy sentence.” A maxim; a short sentence containing some important truth or precept.

Your dip into the waters of the Chinese language will be greatly enhanced with at least a splash of its rich tradition of idioms and aphorisms. These four-character phrases, as they’re called, encapsulate a wide swath of Chinese cultural knowledge and folk wisdom with resonance and wit. In fact, even if you don’t remember them well enough to use in conversation, it’s hugely entertaining and enlightening to collect them as you go, or for that matter, before you go.

On the web: Four Character Phrases

In book form: Chinese Idioms (vol 1 & 2) from Peng’s Chinese Treasury, published by Heian.
Each entry is written in character and pinyin (with tone marks clearly readable), illustrated with a cartoon, and explained literally and metaphorically, with a note about its literary or historical origin. Skimming these pages is a great way to absorb some of the subtlety of the culture and get a laugh or two as well.

Some idioms that continue to resonate from my experience:

This is China!
I’m not sure if, strictly speaking, this is actually an idiom, but it became a sort of rallying cry throughout my time in China. Whether spoken in Chinese or English, it was invoked in gung-ho enthusiasm whenever our project took a turn for the impossible, or nearly impossible. Generally, after playing devil’s advocate for a while, which I saw as one of my key roles, discussion would often be silenced with the shout, sometimes followed by a toast, of “This is China!” And then off we’d all go towards some shining goal hovering on the distant horizon. In fact, after a few dozen meetings in China I became used to the near manic desire for forward motion the cry embodied, and I realized that the quickest way to bring another interminable meeting to a quick conclusion was for me to say, “I don’t think we can do that.” At which point, inevitably, someone would say “This is China!” and we’d all head for the doors.

A man with a foot in two boats.
As a pretty clear illustration of an uncomfortable situation that can rapidly become untenable, even disastrous, this phrase doesn’t need a lot of explanation. I heard it several times in various situations when conversation turned to my nomadic bouncing back and forth between China and the United States, especially with regard to the difficult work-family equilibrium I was trying to maintain. I like it because it indeed describes a certain state of mind and soul that isn’t unprecedented among Westerners I’ve met who’ve also found reason and occasion to get below the Chinese surface.

The frog in a well.
I met the frog in a well during a photography seminar I was leading in Beijing. We were talking about looking at one’s own culture from a new perspective, the benefits of doing so, and the difficulties of actually reaching that view – because, after all, one’s own culture is often as invisible as the air we breathe. My translator was having difficulty understanding the thought process, or the way I was wording it, so as an aside to her I mentioned the English aphorism about a fish and its own water. She puzzled it momentarily and then began speaking to the group, initiating a somewhat robust further conversation among themselves. When she turned back to me again, signaling that I should continue with the lecture, I asked her about the discussion I’d just seen. She said that they’d been talking about the fish and its water and had decided that, in China, we were talking about the frog in a well, a folktale that expressed a similar thought. Happy that my fish had become their frog, we continued.

At dinner later I asked about that frog again and learned he hailed from around the time of Confucius. The story involved our friend in the well and a passer-by, either another frog or a turtle, and their conversation about whether there was a larger world worth seeing outside of the well, or whether the well was all there is. At the time I remember feeling not entirely satisfied that the local frog really did substitute for my fish, but the translation was tough going and it was obvious that not much additional subtlety was going to emerge at that point, so I let it drop. I discovered later that, indeed, our ancient Chinese frog was often employed to reference the idea of an individual’s limited understanding of his own situation, or worldview. So, in that regard, the stories can be seen as analogues of each other.

I met the frog again the following year in the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a ballet dancer from Beijing who defected to the United States in the 1970s, causing an international storm with far reaching implications for Chinese-American cultural relations at the time.

As Li tells the story, our little frog is not simply curious about the world above but desperately wants to explore it, and yet discovers he cannot:

“I want to get out, I want to see the big world above?” the little frog cried determinedly.

“No, my son. Accept fate. Learn to live with what is given,” his dia replied.

So the poor little frog spent his life trying to escape the dark, cold well. But he couldn’t. the big world above remained only a dream.

Yikes. I’m not so sure that this was the resonance I wanted to invoke during that seminar about the joy and challenge of self-expression in photography. In retrospect, I guess, there’s really no way around the occasional deep misunderstanding in situations like these. Somehow, I hope, the intentions came through despite the convoluted maze of translation and misunderstandings.


The Scanning China Project. Last updated: June 4, 2008.