I came across this image on WeChat:
The original image was written in traditional characters. Here’s a simplified Chinese transcript:
Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it at first. Some native speakers even take a second to figure out what happened.
This is a case of syntactic ambiguity. You can interpret the first statement in two ways, and it’s all because the verb 教, meaning “to teach,” can take two objects: who is being taught (what we think of as a “indirect object” in English) and what is being taught (what we think of as a “direct object” in English).
The other key is that in Chinese, 没有用的东西 (literally, “useless things”) can also refer to people.
So the joke is that when the student says “everything you teach is useless,” the teacher flips it around and interprets it as “everyone you teach is useless.” Then the teacher pretends to take the high road and says, “I won’t let you talk about yourself that way.”
Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:
In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.
The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.
The ads roughly translate to:
- Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
- Exercise, not just because everyone else is
- Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
- Exercise, not because of what other people think
- Exercise, not for the selfies
(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)
Last month my friend Zach Franklin and I spent a half-hour in a recording studio talking about reading Marvel graphic novels as a way to practice Chinese. Not sure how often I’ll do this kind of recording, but hopefully you Chinese learners will find it interesting!
The last interview I did of Zach was all text, for the 2010 interview post The Value of a Master’s in Chinese Economics. Now you get to hear his voice and learn a bit more about how he uses his Chinese for less serious endeavors.
Here are a few markers for the audio, as well as some of the Chinese mentioned in our conversation:
- 03:00: 2000 AD, Judge Dredd and Spawn discussion
- 03:48 : Harry Potter discussion begins
- 04:50: 4 Privet Drive = 女贞路4号
- 05:38: Buying James Bond 连环画 books in Xujiahui
- 09:16: to answer this question, Spawn (再生侠) has still not been officially translated for the Chinese market
- 10:20: Beijing 潘家园 Market, 星球大战（上、中、下）
- 11:41: my “Vader didn’t get a lot of screen time” comment was a reference to this YouTube video
- 12:51: Discussion of Marvel Comics in Chinese, and the experiece of tackling them for the first time
- 15:10: Discussion of the graphic novel Infinity
- 17:49: Why Zach is a hypocrite (when it comes to study methods)
- 19:12: Character names in Chinese discussed: 钢铁侠 (Iron Man)、雷神／托尔／索尔 (Thor)、鹰眼 (Hawkeye)、黑寡妇 (Black Widow)
- 21:09: Calling out Pleco for lack of Marvel character name vocab
- 21:28: 灭霸 (Thanos)、黑色兄弟会 (the Black Order) / 杀戮黑曜石 (lit. “Slaughter Obsidian”)、黑矮星 (Black Dwarf / Cull Obsidian)、超巨星 (Supergiant)、亡刃将军 (Corvus Glaive)、比灵星午夜／暗夜比邻星 (Proxima Midnight)、
- 25:10: “Infinity” is not the same as “Infinity War” at all
- 26:38: Is reading translated comics in Chinese a good idea for other learners as well??
- 27:44: “Cultural depth” of Marvel comics and Star Wars in Chinese society
- 29:06: The value of studying material you’re actually interested in
Images from Infinity (Chinese Version)
The front of the book has a list of all the Marvel characters’ Chinese names, and here are the sections that relate to this podcast (apologies for the quality; it’s a photo of a physical book!):
Here we can see the members of the Black Order more clearly:
And, just for balance, here are a few shots where the Chinese used is actually really easy to read:
Finally, a few cases where apparently translation was not really an option (or maybe just too much trouble):
(Take that, 灭霸!)
If anyone has a question for Zach, please leave a comment on this blog post, and I’ll gleefully harass him until he answers!
My partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared, recently created this meme for a blog post:
The blog post is a learner story, and it touches on flashcards, but that’s not really the main point of the story. Still a useful read for other learners of Chinese, though.
But the meme struck me as very timely, because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about flashcards over the years. Back in my ChinesePod days, my friend John B was always quite the flashcard software (SRS) “believer,” and my co-worker JP was always against it. At the time I was somewhat neutral (probably more on the pro side), but over the years I’ve gained a lot more insight into the issues surrounding flashcard usage. One of my earlier posts, Misgivings about SRS, touches on some of the ideas, but I wrote that the same year I started AllSet Learning, and since then I’ve come into contact with many different kinds of learners and gained far deeper insight into how flashcards work for whom, and how they don’t work.
I’m still organizing my thoughts for an upcoming blog post (it’s going to be rather long), but if you have your own flashcard story to tell (for or against), please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email. Links to academic studies of flashcards are also very welcome.
I’ll end with a thought related to extensive reading, which is what Mandarin Companion is all about: Chinese graded readers. Reading is the original spaced repetition. (For many cases, it’s still superior.)
It might be hard to make out the characters used in this furniture store’s ad:
They are: 生活现场. 生活现场 is a phrase that’s not easy to translate… if you ask a native speaker what it means, they’ll have trouble answering you without a context. It’s something like “scenes of daily life.” The characterplay kind of works, I guess… I like the 场 the best. The 生 is not impressive.
Anyway, the ad is for 美好家 (MEHOS), a furniture store in Shanghai.
I studied abroad in Japan for the 1997-98 academic year. During spring break, a friend and I hitchhiked from Osaka to Fukuoka. We visited from friends of mine, and explored the northern half of the island of Kyushu. Now, just over 20 years later, I’ve just visited Fukuoka again. This time the differences I noticed felt meaningful, and it’s not because of Japan. It’s because of me, and the 18 years I’ve spent in China in the meantime.
Obviously, this is a personal take. So-called “evidence” I cite is anecdotal. It doesn’t take into account the societies as a whole. I know, Fukuoka is not Tokyo. But if you can handle all that, read on.
The overwhelming sense I got which took hold of me early on in the visit and just wouldn’t let go is that Japan hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Of course it’s changed. But having lived in China, where pace of development permanently stuck in “breakneck speed,” Fukuoka really made me feel like Japan’s development is at a standstill. I’m no economist, but I’m into technology, so that’s one of the areas I was constantly checking up on. Remember when Japan felt super high-tech, back in the 80’s and 90’s? Now it feels kind of like Disney’s Epcot center, the “city of the future” conceived of in the 1970’s.
Just a few things that left an impression:
Vending machines everywhere. This is one of the things that’s so Japan, and I take no issue with the approach, except that these are literally the exact same machines from 20 years ago. They really haven’t changed. Meanwhile, China is outfitting these machines with scanners to support WeChat and AliPay.
“Cashless” restaurant ordering also means vending machines. My wife’s mind was blown that so many Japanese restaurants use meal ticket vending machines. This way the staff doesn’t have to handle money at all, and no one has to take orders. Makes sense, right? The modern Chinese solution, though, is to just put QR codes on the restaurant tables. Diners scan, order, and pay right away. The restaurant staff knows which table you ordered from. You barely have to talk to the staff, much less give them a ticket. No cash, no paper, no human interaction necessary. Cold efficiency.
Japan’s rail system is still legendary. Again, exactly the same as 20 years ago. You buy train tickets from vending machines. There’s a very real sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can understand that. The train system works so well! It’s easy to use, and the trains all run on time. Shanghai’s subway and light rail system is not better than Fukuoka’s. And yet, there’s this feeling that in 10 more years (if that), Shanghai’s will be clearly superior, and Fukuoka’s will be the same.
Japan’s still doing great with recycling and environmental protection. I know, Japan still kills whales and does other bad things. But in general Japan is great at recycling, the streets are clean, and a retreat into the mountains (also clean and relatively unsullied) is never far away. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it would be so great if China could catch up in this respect.
It’s not hard to be alone in Japan. Sure, the cities are super crowded, and apartments are small. But if you need to get away from it all, it feels way easier in Japan. You can hop on a train or bus, and a short ride later be headed into the mountains where you’ll be totally alone. Sure, it’s possible in China, but harder.
I could say a lot of these same things about China and the US, especially if I cherry-pick my cities. One interesting thing, though, was that when my wife told Japanese friends about how we use mobile payments for everything in Shanghai now, they were surprised and blown away. They had no idea.
It’s been a busy summer so far, so it was nice to pop over to Fukuoka for a week to unwind a bit. I ended up doing a lot of thinking about Japan and China. More on that next week.
P.S. River crabs (河蟹) are totally real in Fukuoka and actually crawl all over the mountains!
This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.
I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.
Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.
But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:
Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name
(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)
You know those Japanese “capsule toy vending machines”? They’re called gashapon (ガシャポン) or gachapon (ガチャポン) in Japanese, and they’re fairly common all around Shanghai these days. The only problem is that these things were all originally designed to be coin-operated, and modern Chinese cities are using cash less and less, opting for mobile payment giants AliPay and WeChat whenever possible. So what’s a gachapon operator to do?
The most straightforward option is to offer token machines that accept mobile payments. The machine scans your mobile payment app’s QR code, you make the payment, and you get physical tokens. Then you use those in the machines to buy the capsule toys. Ka-chunk! Simple, effective, but it feels like it’s unnecessarily keeping physical currency as part of the operation.
Enter the mobile payment-powered gachapon network! I saw this in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park Toys R Us:
So one of the machines has been converted into a payment unit with a camera for scanning QR codes. You make your payment there, then choose a machine and turn the crank to get the toy.
Works great! (My kids needed some mini Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. 20 RMB each… not cheap, but not outrageous.)
I’ve been in China 18 years now, and started working at ChinesePod over 10 years ago. I remember when we first started, we were creating lessons about simple everyday interactions which simply did not exist in any available textbook. The one that comes to mind is a Newbie lesson from 2006 called Using a Credit Card. The super useful question was:
现金还是刷卡？ [Cash or credit?]
This lesson was so useful because credit cards had only fairly recently been introduced to China, or at least only in recent years become common. No textbooks taught 刷卡 (“to swipe a credit card”) because textbooks typically needed something like 10 years to catch up with development of that sort. So they weren’t even close, happy to focus on iterations of the classic “Going to the Post Office” chapter, which was rapidly becoming irrelevant in modern life.
In the years to follow, ChinesePod did lots of lessons involving 手机 (“cell phones”), and later 智能手机 (“smartphones”). I observed over time as textbooks struggled to update to even include the word 手机 at all.
The irony is that in 2018, even the lesson Using a Credit Card is now almost irrelevant itself. It’s so easy to bind your bank’s debit card to your WeChat or AliPay account, and Chinese consumers, for the most part, don’t like living on credit. So now the most important question you always hear when you buy something is:
支付宝还是微信？ [AliPay or WeChat?]
It doesn’t appear that ChinesePod has this exact Newbie lesson yet, but it should. This new trend is especially important to point out to China newbies because in this particular regard, China is actually ahead of western countries, a fact which takes a lot of visitors by surprise.
I oversaw lesson production at ChinesePod for almost 8 years, and one thing became clear about the business model: the ChinesePod users wanted new lessons continually added. There were some in the company that considered this a problem, because the archive had already grown large enough to meet almost learner’s needs. Looking back from 2018, it’s easy to see that a lot of those lessons weren’t actually targeting serious communication problems for learners. On the other hand, some regular new content is also necessary in this age of rapid technological growth, where Chinese society develops quickly in new directions that no one can anticipate. Textbooks might find keeping up impossible on a traditional publishing cycle, but even for internet companies, it’s a challenge.
I spotted these pro-veggie ads in the Shanghai Metro recently:
少吃肉 [Eat less meat]
多走走 [Walk more]
少吃肉 [Eat less meat]
多福寿 [Be happier and live longer]
This is good to see, because as anyone who has lived in China should know, the (even remotely) affluent Chinese consume quite a bit of meat these days (and waste a lot of it, too).
The ads aren’t too clever, but the message is good, and there’s even a spot of characterplay in there. 蔬食 refers to a “vegetarian diet.”
I did another podcast! In this one I talk with my partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared Turner, about the challenges of learning to read Chinese and how graded readers can help. The podcast (62 min.) is called: Chinese Graded Readers and ER in Chinese.
We covered a range of topics related to extensive reading (ER) and learning Chinese, and even did a bit of comparing learning Chinese and Japanese. On topice I think worth mentioning is something I last mentioned in 2012:
Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”
No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.
Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.
One of the things I talked about in the podcast (at around 17:50) is how Chinese graded readers also help learners to tackle “the wall.” Maybe certain tools are “blowing holes” in the wall as mentioned above, but graded readers present much smaller, realistic walls as intermediate goals. They prepare the learner for the ultimate task: being able to confidently and reliably scale that wall on a regular basis.
No matter what language you’re learning, you should give graded readers a try. They help “build fluency now” and give learners a great sense of satisfaction that learners (and Chinese learners in particular) might otherwise be forced years to get a taste of. More on this is in the podcast.
My son’s preschool (in China, they still call it “kindergarten,” or 幼儿园) has a little case on display near the entrance to the school which shows what foods are on the menu for that day. The school uses small pieces of actual food for the display. It’s a great way to familiarize the little ones with various types of meat and vegetables, and I use it as a sort of English vocabulary review with my son, since he’s already learning the food vocabulary all in Chinese.
Well, despite having been in China for so long, I was a little shocked to see this last week:
…then this week, I saw this:
Some Chinese friends were a little surprised too, but at least no meat was wasted (unlike for the pork). I have to agree: it’s better that kids know from a young age where their meat comes from, rather than thinking meat just comes from a supermarket, and then being traumatized at the age of 10 to discover people are killing cute little animals just so they can eat them.
Still, I hope we don’t see a big pig head on a pike next week…
As a parent, I am keenly aware of all the work that goes into educating a child on what is “dirty” and how to avoid getting dirty, as well as why getting dirty is (normally) bad. The concept of “dirty” is surprisingly complex when you think about it, since some of it is visible and some not, and the “clean” and “dirty” objects can have all kinds of interactions. You really just have to be taught.
This issue reminds me of an experience I had years ago in Hangzhou. Quoting a blog post from 2005:
Shortly after I arrived in China, I went on a trip to a park with some Chinese friends. It had been a while since I had seen grass, so I was happy to sprawl out on it, which promptly resulted in my Chinese friends’ disapproval. “It’s dirty!” they told me. I just shook my head. In a corner of the world where there’s so little nature left to enjoy, they regard what little is left as “dirty”? That’s so sad! Then, as an afterthought, I ran my hand across the grass. My palm was turned gray. Dust. From the grass.
That little incident drove home that I really didn’t know how everything worked here, even when I was so sure I had it all figured out.
Just like children, as a China newbie, I, too, had to be educated on what was “dirty” in my new environment.
A similar example comes to mind: foreigners often think nothing of storing their bag on the ground next to their desks or chairs, but this frequently causes Chinese acquaintances to recoil in disgust. In China, you don’t put things you want to keep clean (like your bag) on the ground, even indoors. You also don’t put your bag on your bed at home. There are lots of “rules” to learn.
I was surprised, then, to see this ad:
“脏”显个性 [“Dirty” shows personality]
Of course we have “dirty desserts” in English as well, which is likely the source of this idea. But this concept feels even more eye-catching in China, where you’ve got to constantly be on your guard against the “dirt.”
I noticed these ads on the Shanghai Metro recently:
教我的发音 [The pronunciation Teacher Tom taught me]
Amy老师说不对！ [Teacher Amy says is not correct]
今天外教 [today the foreign teacher]
把我的名字 [got my name]
“Dada English” is one of a new wave of Chinese online English learning platforms which includes “VIP KID.” What makes these platforms special is that they all purport to offer native speakers as teachers, and many of them are from North America or Europe. (I understand that some of the competition uses mostly teachers from the Philippines.) The first ad above emphasizes 欧美外教: teachers from North America and Europe.
What about the Chinese teacher of English? A resource long known to be often “less than perfect” with regard to native-like English abilities and yet nevertheless a crucial component of the educational system, is not even a part of the discussion these ads are trying to create. Rather, it’s a matter of where your foreign teacher is from and how professional he is.
I’m really curious if there is enough of the right kind of labor in North America and Europe to keep these business models afloat in the long-term. I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder building and maintaining a team of online freelance English teachers when those teachers are not Chinese or physically in China.
The Avengers: Infinity War finally hit theaters in China this past weekend. (You might say it was a hit.) Tired of carefully avoiding spoilers, I was among the first in China to see it. Since it’s come out, I’m enjoying the cultural impact and various manifestations of the Chinese perspective on the movie, from Avengers-themed WeChat stickers (with Chinese text) to hilarious Photoshop jobs.
Here’s one I enjoyed (mild spoilers, sort of?):
(I would credit the original source, but I can’t read the watermark.)
The Chinese reads:
- 超神: super-god
- 很厉害: very impressive
- 有帮上忙: were able to help
- 尽力了: really tried
- 废物: useless
- 一坨屎: pile of crap
Love the Chinese bluntness!
As for Thanos, what’s going to be the Chinese perspective on a “mad titan” that wants to take out half the population of the universe? That actually sounds quite familiar to citizens of a country with population issues of its own! So you get this:
If you can’t get family planning right, no purple yams for you!
There’s a certain type of question, phrased in the negative, which is answered entirely differently depending on the conventions of the language you’re speaking in. Take this English language exchange for example:
A: You’re not going?
B: No. (I’m not going.)
In English, we say no to the idea of going. Not going, therefore “no.”
Chinese works differently, however:
A: [You’re not going?] 你不去了？
B: [Yeah. (I’m not going.)] 嗯。（我不去了。）
In Chinese, we say yes to the statement itself. “Not going” is correct, therefore “yes.”
This is all fairly well-known stuff. Any English teacher in China is well aware of this issue, and hopefully anyone learning Chinese is as well. Even after you know about this difference, though, it takes some getting used to. You have to think about it for a while.
What I didn’t expect is that this seems to be just as hard for my bilingual kids. Both of my kids attend all-Chinese kindergarten, but I speak with them entirely in English at home. For the most part, they’re quite fluent in English for their ages, but occasionally Chinglish creeps in a little. How they respond to negative questions is another example of this: they respond the Chinese way.
So I’m constantly having conversations like this:
A: You’re not going?
A: You mean “no, I’m not going,” or “yes, I am going?”
B: No, I’m not going.
Not a big deal, but my 3-year-old is especially stubborn about answering these questions the Chinese way. He’ll get it eventually, though.
Still, if you’re feeling annoyed as a learner of Chinese that these are still tripping you up, you may take some consolation that even children, who supposedly “absorb language effortlessly like a sponge,” struggle with this. The big difference is that they don’t get discouraged, and they never ever give up.
Check out the English name of this little shop:
“Born Fried” is almost certainly an overly literal character-by-character translation of 生煎, a kind of bready, fried stuffed bun. Wikipedia describes it like this:
…a type of small, pan-fried baozi (steamed buns) which is a specialty of Shanghai. It is usually filled with pork and gelatin that melts into soup/liquid when cooked. Shengjian mantou has been one of the most common breakfast items in Shanghai since the early 1900s. As a ubiquitous breakfast item, it has a significant place in Shanghainese culture.
That same page gives the literal translation “raw-fried” for 生煎. Still, there’s something about “Born Fried”… it has a cool ring to it.
In case you’re not familiar with this little joyful celebration of grease, here are a few photos from Flickr (not my own; click through for the photographer’s photos):
This ad (spotted in the Shanghai Metro) is interesting for a number of reasons:
What caught my attention was the font. “Blocky” (sometimes pixely) fonts are quite common, but I’ve never seen one so “spaced out” like this before. Yet the word 流行 (“popular”) is clearly visible.
And I didn’t even realize it at first, but the word 流行 is also written backwards! This is not something I have seen before, and I’m not sure what the intended effect is. (Maybe if I were a fan I’d get it?)
Nice of the poster to include the pinyin for 流行 (liúxíng), though!
Chris Lee is the English name for Li Yuchun (李宇春), which some of the older “China watcher” crowd might remember for her rise to prominence on the popular “Super Girl” singing competition in 2005.
I’m not a history buff. I recognize it’s important to study history, and that no educated person should be ignorant of history. So while I do read about Chinese history, I don’t do it a lot. But every time I do pick up a Chinese history book, one of the things that drives me crazy about books on this topic is that so often there are no Chinese characters given for important names. (Or characters are given, but no pinyin.) Is this so hard?
China Simplified has a new book out called History Flashback. It’s a fun read, beautifully illustrated, and it’s actually pretty short! How does one condense “5000 years” of Chinese history into only 200 pages? Well, it’s possible. And although the book does a pretty good job of providing characters and pinyin for the Chinese names and other words mentioned, it seemed like a good starting point for a list of “essential Chinese history terms.”
So using this book as a starting point, my company AllSet Learning teamed up with China Simplified to create this handy list of 100 Chinese History Keywords. It’s a free PDF; no signup needed. Just download.
It was hard narrowing the original candidate list of 500 or so to only 100, but I think we did OK. What do you think? Are there any glaring omissions that an intermediate learner would really want?
Apr. 26 Update: We had a repeat word in the original list. It’s been removed, and we’re still at 100!