Jan 2003

"Dialects" in China

[Here’s something I wrote way back in 2000, shortly after coming to China. I still think it’s pretty accurate.]

The linguistic situation in China is truly mind-blowing. Most people with a basic knowledge of China know that Mandarin is the official language, though quite a lot of people also speak Cantonese (in the south, in areas like Hong Kong and Guangzhou). Those people might also know that there are many more languages in China, spoken by various minority groups. All this is true, but this assessment barely even scratches the surface.

In reality, almost every person in Eastern China (developed China, not the countryside) is at least bilingual. China is a vast patchwork of languages, with every single town speaking its own brand of Chinese. Chinese people call these “dailects”, but it’s not actually that simple. When Americans think of dialects, we might think of black English, or the English of the American South, or of England. Though there might be some communication difficulty (with certain dialects in particular), communication between speakers of different dialects can generally proceed.

Chinese “dialects” are not so. This is largely because tones are a vital part of the Chinese language, and tones (as well as other sounds) vary from “dialect” to “dialect”. Neighboring towns tend to speak varieties of Chinese which can be mutually understood, but if you go just a little further away to another town, communication often breaks down completely. Since mutual intelligibility is generally accepted as the basic dividing line between dialect and language, these “dialects” are actually separate languages. Thus, this means that every town in China speaks a separate language! Since most people in China speak their hometown language as well as Mandarin, that means almost everyone is bilingual! Furthermore, many people who have moved from city to city can speak or at least understand more than one local language (and can understand the closely related ones as well).

So what we have here is a vast lingual patchwork with countless patches, and where one patch ends and the next begins is unclear. In addition, Mandarin is laid on top of that patchwork, lending cohesion to the linguistic mess. This is not to say that Mandarin is completely standard (or even necessarily often spoken) throughout the nation. It’s not (though much more so in northern China). This is where the true dialects come in — the local languages of different regions affect the way Mandarin is pronounced and used, but mutual intelligibility is preserved. Thus, the Mandarin of Beijing, of Shanghai, and of Taiwan are not the same. They each have their own dialect of Mandarin. In some parts of China like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Cantonese is spoken more often than Mandarin.

Thus, China is a land of countless languages, united under one government. Calling the separate languages merely “dialects” and downplaying the linguistic disparity (and individuality) actually serves to help unify the country. It’s easier to consider people your fellow countrymen when they are merely speaking a “dialect” of the same language instead of a separate language. Even more unifying than the government’s psychological manipulation through words, though, is the Chinese written language. Despite the differences in the great array of languages — the differences in word pronunciation, in tone (sometimes even in number of tones), in grammatical usage, etc. — they all use the same Chinese characters in written form, with the exception of some minority languages. Any literate person in China (with the exception of some minorities) can read a Chinese newspaper aloud, character for character, in his native tongue, and it will be understood by native listeners, but not by most people from other regions of China. Read aloud in Mandarin, the official language of China, it will be understood by most people throughout China.

Because China is such a multilingual country, the use of Chinese characters and of Mandarin as the official language of China were crucial prerequisities to China’s modernization. Chinese characters have of course been around for thousands of years, but the adoption of one official language for the country did not take place until the beginning of the 20th century! It is perhaps one reason why China got a slow start on modernization. In selecting one language as the standard for the entire country, China was actually following Japan’s example. Japan underwent the same process as a precursor to its modernization. Perhaps because of its vastness, or maybe also because of its particular linguistic situation, China to this day does not have the linguistic cohesion that Japan does. Japan cannot be said to be a country of many languages (although in addition to Japanese it does have the the language of the Ainu, the aboriginal Japanese). To be sure, each part of Japan speaks a distinct variety of Japanese, but these are merely dialectual differences, and do not depart from mutual intelligibility for the most part.


Oct 2002

Tutor Update / River Story / Mr. Manners

A while back I listed a bunch of requirements for the tutor I was looking for. Well, with the help of someone in the Foreign Language Department, I have found him. He’s an awesome tutor. He’s critical. He tells me when my pronunciation is a little off, he tells me how it’s off, and he tells me how, phonologically, to correct it. He speaks to me all in Chinese. He speaks fast, and with good vocab. He’s well-read, and knows Chinese history well. He speaks standard Mandarin. He brings his own materials and demands that I learn this or that. It’s great to have a tutor with definite ideas of what I should be learning. He brings me 12 new chengyu (Chinese idioms) to study every class. He requires me to read from a standard Mandarin pronunciation class textbook, and criticizes my pronunciation, and then makes me read again, and again, and again… He also records his own readings onto my computer so that I can practice on my own for the next class.

After each two-hour session, I am exhausted. He’s a good teacher. I can feel the now unfamiliar soreness of progress once again.

Last Thursday I had my advanced English discussion class at the English Department. Those students are just great. Their English is so good, and the people just have such personality. I thought college students were great for those reasons, but these adult students take it to a whole new level.

Last week we did the “River Romance Story” (for lack of a better name), which I’ve already made famous at this school. It’s pretty famous already anyway, so I’m kind of afraid to use it, always expecting my students to be familiar with it already. But last Thursday none of my students were. Good.

Before I give an account of the discussion, I should tell the story. Here goes.

Long, long ago, in the time of kings and queens, there lived a Man and a Lady, deeply in love. It was true love. The Man was a high-ranking servant of the king, often sent off to new posts to solve problems. Where the Man went to work, the Lady followed. Then the Man was assigned to a faroff village that was only reachable by way of a treacherous river. On the river, a storm suddenly sprang up. The boat was run into rocks, and everyone thrown overboard. The Man was the only passenger that could swim, and he managed to save himself, all the while looking fervently for the Lady. He couldn’t find her. Not a single body turned up; all were lost in the swift current. After searching for days, grief-stricken, the Man was forced to accept the unimagniable. The Lady was gone. With heavy heart, he headed off to the village to fulfill his post.

As fate would have it, however, the Lady didn’t die. She was rescued by an inhabitant on the other side of the river and nursed back to health over a series of weeks from the brink of death. As soon as she could walk, she set about trying to get back to the Man. However, the river was uncrossable. There was no bridge. There was only one way of crossing: by way of the Boatman. He was the only one with enough skill to ferry people from one side to the other. He charged 10 gold pieces each way for his service.

By the time the Lady reached the Boatman, he had long since heard of her. When she asked his price, he told her 100 gold pieces. She had only 10. No matter how she begged and pleaded, he would not bring the price down or even let her pay after crossing and finding the Man. It was 100 or nothing.

The Lady soon met another man, however, named Sam. Sam was a landowner with a good deal off money, but he was a bit of a womanizer. The Lady was beautiful, and he took to her immediately. She made it clear that she wished only to return to her Man, though. Magnanimous man that he was, Sam said he could help her — on one condition. The Lady must sleep with Sam for a night.

The Lady was outraged at this request, and stormed off. She soon sank into despair, however, and quickly came to the conclusion that her life there, on the wrong side of the river was meaningless, and there was only one way out. She would sleep with Sam.

So the Lady slept with Sam. She received 100 gold pieces. She paid the Boatman and crossed the river. She made her way into the village and found the Man. They were reunited at last, and their joy was boundless. Yet, at the back of the woman’s heart gnawed the question: should I tell him? She decided to leave it be for the time being.

After arriving, the Lady met the Man’s new Friend, who also worked in the village. This Friend left the next day for the other side of the river to do business. His business was with Sam, and Sam liked to talk. He had a tendency to brag about his womanizing exploits, but he was known to always tell the truth. Sam told the Friend about his night with the Lady.

The Friend was now in a hard position. Should he tell the Man? He didn’t know all the circumstances of the incident in question, but he could be sure what Sam said was the truth. Finally, he decided that the Man should know the truth, and told him.

The Man was angered by this information, calling the Friend a liar. Still, doubt overtook him, and he brought the “outrageous rumor” up to the Lady. She immediately burst into tears, admitting it was the truth.

The Man was in total shock. Never had he felt so betrayed. He had vowed never to love again when he lost the Lady, but how could he forgive this? In the end, he couldn’t. He parted ways with the Lady.

They never saw each other again.

So that’s the story. The task is then to rank the people, 1-5, from “best” to “worst.” Then discuss. This always yields great discussion. I love it.

After discussing that, you can reveal what each person is supposed to symbolize: Lady – Love, Boatman – Business, Friend – Friendship, Sam – Sex, Man – Morality. Then we discuss whether the activity actually reveals our priorities in life.

Anyway, last Thursday my class got so into this discussion. It was incredible. They were funny, too — when I mentioned in the beginning how in love the Man and Lady were, one of my students said, “what’s the use?” Later, when they were guessing what each character symbolizes, this same girl said the Lady represents weakness! Funny stuff.

Anyway, we had a long discussion on morality. This example really brings out the differences and similarities between Western and Eastern morality. Eastern is much more relativistic. I taught them phrases from Western thought like, “the truth will set you free,” “the ends doesn’t justify the means,” and “ignorance is bliss.”

Chinese girls seem to love to say the Lady is the best (and even that she did nothing wrong), and the Man is the worst for not forgiving the Lady. Some of them also say the Boatman is worse than Sam, because the whole mess was started by him, even if he was ignorant of the drama he set in motion.

So I thought of all kinds of hypothetical situations to test their stances. Unsurprisingly, the girls became quite similar to the Man when I posed the situation of their husband sleeping with his female boss to get a promotion and provide better for his family (which was struggling to make ends meet and had no hope of properly educating the child).

What blew my mind, though, was two girls’ answer to this question: “Would you rather have a husband who was completely faithful to you and made you happy, or a husband who was not faithful, but you didn’t know about it, and so were still happy?” The answer? “Either one is fine, as long as I never find out he’s cheating.” Either one is fine! Incredible.

That class was a blast. I learned so much. It’s classes like that that remind me how much I’m still learning here, and how my life is totally on track.

This past week I also started a third teaching job. It’s for a large department store, only teaching three times, for two hours each time. It pays very well. My job is to provide training for some of the department store employees so that they can do a little job-related communication with foreigners when necessary. I was also asked to give a short lecture, in Chinese, on “how not to offend foreigners.” My first lecture in Chinese. Awesome. I was excited.

The lecture went pretty well. I held their interest with humor well, and they learned a lot. Here’s what they learned:

1. Foreigners value hygiene highly. Do not cough, yawn, or sneeze without covering appropriate orifices. Don’t spit. Don’t pick your nose or ear in public. Don’t scratch. Don’t fart. Don’t have a runny nose (or at least don’t blow a snot rocket!).

2. Be careful with questions. Don’t ask age or salary. Don’t assume people are American or any nationality.

3. Be careful in your actions. Don’t fidget. Don’t yell for any reason. Be patient. Smile. Never litter, anywhere.

4. When eating… Eat slowly, with small bites. There should be no noises coming from your mouth. Sit up straight, never hunch. Put one hand on your lap, with your napkin. Don’t spit out anything if it can be avoided.

5. When communicating… Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Don’t be too self-deprecatory. Don’t comment on physical appearance.

Some of these may seem unnecessary, but I personally made this list, and my reason for adding each item comes from my own real-life experiences with people in Chinese society….


Sep 2002

Ideal Tutor

Speaking of Chinese, I’m still learning that thing. Last semester I made very little progress. I need to turn into a vocabulary acquisition machine. But how? Also, I’ve reached a dangerous level of fluency. It’s a level where I’m completely functional and conversational, and I don’t make many mistakes when I speak, but my Chinese is still by no means perfect. At this point it’s easy to be complacent and get slack in my studies, but I’m trying hard to rebel against that urge. I’ve decided to hire a Chinese student to tutor me (15rmb(US$2)/hour). My criteria were threefold:

  1. The tutor must be male. I’m tired of learning to speak like a girl. My Chinese is good enough now that personality comes through in my speech, and it doesn’t need to be some girly-boy personality.
  2. The tutor must be critical. I still make mistakes when I talk, but they’re mostly pretty minor. I’m not completely conscious of all of them, but I want them eliminated. It’s so easy to get praise, but so hard to get criticism where I need it.
  3. The tutor must be business-like, and must be a stranger. I want a business deal. Chinese students are all for huxiang xuexi (“you teach me English, I teach you Chinese”), but I really don’t want to spend my free time teaching more English. Plus, if I’m dissatisfied with a tutor and decide to discontinue, he’s only deprived of a small amount of income, not some rare, precious source of real English exposure.


Sep 2002

Verbal Horror

Asiafirst‘s recent post on City Weekend reminded me of an interesting topic… diarrhea.

Now, since you’re most likely of the Western tradition, you probably squirmed a little when you saw that word. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. In Asia, they treat diarrhea like a cold — a temporary, uncomfortable condition. Meanwhile, in the United States it’s an unmentionable dark secret. No one wants to hear about your diarrhea, as if just the word in itself is some kind of plot to make us visualize something disgusting.

It took me some time in Japan and China, when I was in a position requiring someone else’s help, to be able to just tell people, “yo, I’ve got diarrhea, help me out here.” In the U.S. we’d be much less direct about that kind of thing. As your hints about your condition zero in on the unspeakable, the listener gets your drift and tactfully pledges assistance and then immediately changes the topic. On the other hand, if you mention it to your Chinese friend while you’re at the store, he just replies matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’ve got diarrhea??” and then, loudly, to the clerk across the store, “hey, my foreign friend here has diarrhea! Where’ s the medicine for that?” You get the picture.

Just one of those little differences…

Oh, and as long as I’m on this taboo topic, a word to the wise: if you come to China, bring some immodium.


Sep 2002

Linguistics, Anyone?

Ah, love of linguistics… both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that it’s just fascinating, and I’ve somehow been let in on that little secret. It’s a curse because the fact that it’s interesting is either withheld from or is being actively denied by the rest of the world. It’s really shocking to me how linguistics bores most people to tears.

So I picked up a few books on linguistics at the friendly neighborhood foreign bookstore. Evidently Oxford University Press and the Cambridge Books for Language Teachers series have deals with Chinese publishers. The result is that quality educational material cames to China unaltered (?) except that a Chinese title is slapped onto the cover and a Chinese introduction is inserted. The best part, of course, is that the prices are also Chinese, and they are very good. Check these out: Pragmatics by George Yule (8.80rmb; roughly US$1), Psycholinguistics by Thomas Scovel (8.80rmb), Second Language Acquisition by Rod Ellis (9.20rmb), Psychology for Language Teachers by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (23.90rmb, roughly US$3), and — the best buy in terms of immediate application — Lessons from Nothing by Bruce Marsland (8.90rmb). That last one is a great buy for any TEFL teacher.

I also picked up Hong Lou Meng (“Dream of Red Chambers”), Chinese edition. Anyone familiar with this Chinese classic should be thinking I’m crazy right about now, as it’s volumes and volumes long. However, I cleverly side-stepped the length issue by picking up the children’s verison. It’s a good level; it’s almost 300 pages long and it doesn’t have the pinyin for all the characters like really low-level children’s books, but it has parenthetical pinyin for the really tough characters. (That will save me a lot of time looking up characters by radical!) The rest of the characters are not too hard. I can read this thing!

Finally, I got a book called “100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings.” I suppose there’s no really good translation for “xiehouyu,” but nevertheless, I hope the guy that came up with “Two-Part Allegorical Sayings” is not too proud of himself. The idea is that you deliver the first line, which seems kind of strange, but then you deliver the second line, and the meaning of the first line becomes clear. They’re usually pretty clever or funny, and sometimes involve puns. I first heard about these a while ago from my friend Andrew, but this is my first time actually studying them. Here are a few of the interesting ones:

> Putting make-up on before entering the coffin — saving face even when dying.

> Boiling dumplings in a teapot — no way to get them out.

> Killing a mosquito with a cannon — making a mountain out of a molehill.

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