In case you’re wondering how one should understand the phrase “爱 ♥ 回家” grammatically, 爱 is a noun here, so it means “love returns home” rather than “[someone] loves to return home.” Ah, Chinese grammar and its flexible parts of speech…
Here’s a Chinese public service poster that uses a pun to get its point across:
The big text reads:
> 你是要换， [Do you want to replace it,]
> 还是要患？ [or do you want a (safety) hazard?]
So the key here is that “huàn” can be both the verb 换, meaning “to replace,” as well as the noun 患, which means “hazard” (in the “safety hazard” sense). You often see it in the word 隐患, literally “hidden danger,” referring to potential safety hazards. (隐患 actually appears at the very bottom of the notice.)
What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:
The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.
I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.
> I think I find this form of Chinese “relaxation” painful about 90% of the time, but that other 10% is quite nice!
This prompted this reply from RJ:
> My experience as well. Compared to “foot massage”, water-boarding is a sport. They scrape the sensitive bottoms of your feet with a very dull knife, so as not to draw blood. All the while they are thinking: die laowai, die. Had I been a CIA operative under interrogation, I would have cracked. The gal that took me, my host, seemed to be having a great time however. The deluxe 1.5 hour package also came with a happy ending. They packed my legs in a warm “herbal paste” that felt a lot like hot drain cleaner. They also wrap it up in several layers of cloth and tie knots so you can not escape. I was so relieved to see that there was still skin on my legs when they finally removed the restraints. I had to drink an extra beer at dinner just to get rid of the residual pain. How I managed to smile for an hour and a half I dont know, but I could just imagine the whole crew laughing and slapping their thighs after we left. “We got another one, die laowai die”! 🙂
User podster replied with:
> Ah yes, the Chinese foot torture. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Oh, sorry, it’s just “enhanced interrogation.” I got some chemical goo that probably doubles as rust remover at the shipyard smeared on my legs during one of these therapeutic treatments. As the searing pain began to set in, they asked me “烫吗？” [“Too hot?”] I wonder how to ask in Chinese exactly how much pain is “normal.”
I really do wonder if our western feet are built differently (wimpier), or what. Exaggeration aside, this kind of experience seems to be par for the course when it comes to foot baths/massages.
“How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?”
> The truth is that no materials–textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever–are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.
> At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.
> For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the things you care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.
Definitely check out some of the answers if this topic interests you at all; there’s a lot of them, with lots of good points.
A lot of the answers are what you might expect, but I especially liked the response by Roddy of Chinese-Forums.com:
> I think I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?
> First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.
> It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条 [french fries], not the 土豆丝 [shredded potato] he was requesting.
Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.
But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle 了? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require nochengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?
Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.
The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.
The Four-Character Fetish
Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.
Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.
Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”
In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.
No Special Treatment
In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.
Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.
Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.
So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.
If you really lovechengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.
I’m often to busy to give the info-packed Sinocism newsletters my full attention, but when I do, I often find really great stuff. I’ve also noticed a trend on Facebook and Twitter. It goes something like this:
1. Sinocism newsletter comes out, with a link to especially interesting story “X”
2. Sinocism readers click through to the story on “X,” love it, share it via Twitter and/or Facebook
3. The Sinocism readers who share “X” get Likes, retweets, comments
You see the net effect here? Sinocism is serving as an invaluable information hub, but it’s not getting credit for the major role it’s playing in the dissemination of China-related news. And the worst part is that the Sinocism readers aren’t doing it on purpose; they’re just using their social media like they always do, but the way the system is set up, Sinocism gets no credit.
I’m pretty sure I saw an example of this last week. There was a great article about Chinese surnames‘ geographical distribution in China that got a fair amount of attention: Mapping China’s Surnames 制图 “老百姓”. I admit, I tweeted it too, the “bad” way. I then saw lots of people I know on Twitter and Facebook sharing it, no credit. I strongly suspect Sinocism set off the rash of shares (but wasn’t credited).
There are two solutions, as I see it:
1. Sinocism needs to build its social media presence. Ugh, I feel a little slimy just using the phrase, and I can understand if Bill Bishop would much prefer to keep the endeavor as a blog and newsletter. (Sinocism does have its own (private) Twitter account and Facebook page, but neither are used or promoted much.)
2. Sinocism readers make an effort to credit the articles they discover through Sinocism when they share them on social media. (For example, you could add “via @sinocism” to tweets, or maybe even “#sinocism“.)