Tag: books


Aug 2017

Chinese Grammar Wiki: it’s a print book now!

It’s hard to believe I’ve been working on converting the Chinese Grammar Wiki ebook into a print book for almost a year, but the work is finally done! You can buy the new print version on Amazon. It’s a hefty 2.2 pounds, and has 400 pages. And that’s just beginner and elementary (A1-A2)!

Chinese Grammar Wiki Print Book Stack

My staff and I were so happy to finally launch the print book that we promptly threw a party over it.


It was going to be a thick book no matter what, so I made sure we didn’t skimp on font size (the Chinese and pinyin fonts are a decent size), line height, or margins. The margins are quite generous. This is a book that you can take some serious notes in, if you are that type of learner.

One of the greatest things about this book, for me, is that the Chinese Grammar Wiki is still there, online and free, continuously updated. Students love it. But for anyone who can afford to support this ongoing project of ours, having an offline version (ebook or print) can be seriously useful.

Special thanks to the always inspiring Dr. David Moser for writing the Foreword, and my tireless content editor Chen Shishuang.

All friends of the Chinese Grammar Wiki: please help spread the word! We’re already working hard on the next book (I’d say it’s 75% done), and we need the support.


May 2017

Cool Custom Fonts for Chinese Book Covers

It’s a lot of work to create a new font in Chinese. Instead of English’s 26 capital letters, 26 lower-case letters, 10 numbers and a smattering of symbols, you have literally thousands of Chinese characters you need for even a basic font. But if you just need a special font for a logo or a book cover, it makes sense to put the design work into just the Chinese characters you need. And if you look at enough Chinese book covers, you discover some cool custom fonts!

Here are some covers with custom Chinese fonts which I discovered on a recent trip to the book store (Chinese title in text below each photo):









I suppose it’s possible that not all of these are custom-designed characters (they might just be fonts I’m not aware of), but they’re still pretty cool!


Nov 2015

Chinese Place Names in the Hyperion Cantos

It’s been a few weeks since I finished Dan Simmons’ sci-fi classic quadrilogy, the Hyperion Cantos. It was a great story, full of grand sweeping ideas, and one thing that got my attention was the repeated use of Chinese names (especially in Book 4).

Anyone studying Chinese might be a little thrown off by the use of the (mostly) Wade-Giles transcription instead of pinyin, but the names are all right out of Chinese history and geography (with a few errors).

Here’s a list of all the major ones I caught, with notes following (please leave a comment if I’ve missed anything):

Hyperion Pinyin Characters Notes
Tsingtao-Hsishuang Panna Qīngdǎo-Xīshuāngbǎnnà 青岛西双版纳 [Notes]
T’ien Shan Tiān Shān 天山 [Notes]
Hsuan-k’ung Ssu Xuánkōng Sì 悬空寺 [Notes]
Hua Shan Huà Shān 华山 [Notes]
Heng Shan Héng Shān 衡山 / 恒山 [Notes]
T’ai Shan Tài Shān 泰山 [Notes]
Sung Shan Sōng Shān 嵩山 [Notes]
O-mei Shan Éméi Shān 峨眉山 [Notes]
Chiu-hua Shan Jiǔhuà Shān 九华山 [Notes]
Wu-t’ai Shan Wǔtái Shān 五台山 [Notes]
P’u-t’o Shan Pǔtuó Shān 普陀山 [Notes]

Tsingtao-Hsishuang Panna

It seems odd to bring together the city of Qingdao (青岛) and the southern region of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) into a name for a planet. In fact, the only way they make sense in my mind is drinking a Tsingdao (beer) in Xishuangbanna (a touristy region of Yunnan Province). Maybe that’s Simmons’ little secret for this planet?


T’ien Shan

Tian Shan (天山) is actually a system of mountains, so it makes sense to use as a name for a mountainous planet. It’s also got a nice picturesque name, meaning “mountains of heaven.” Those of us the live in Shanghai might recognize it from the street name: 天山路.

天山山脉西段航拍 / West Tian Shan mountains

Hsuan-k’ung Su

Normally referred to as the “Hanging Temple” in English, this fantastical Buddhist structure is a real thing, located in China’s Shanxi Province.

Hanging Temple 2011

Hua Shan

Hua Shan (华山) is one of China’s “Five Great Mountains,” so it’s an obvious candidate for inclusion. Interestingly, at one point in Rise of Endymion the mountain is referred to as “Flower Mountain” (花山), but this is almost certainly a mistake based on similar romanization, considering that there are no obvious candidates from the list of possible 花山s in China, and pretty much all the other mountains listed can be found on this list of the “Sacred Mountains of China.” (There’s another Shanghai street name here too.)

hua shan

Heng Shan

I’m not sure whether Heng Shan refers to 衡山 or 恒山; both are in the list of “Give Great Mountains,” and the pinyin (including tone) is identical. I’m assuming Simmons wisely used one “Heng Shan” for both.

T’ai Shan

Tai Shan (泰山) is another of China’s “Five Great Mountains.”

Pano: 象鼻峰青雲洞 (象鼻峰青云洞 “Elephant Trunk Peak Green Cloud Cave”)  /  山東省泰安市泰山 (山东省泰安市泰山 Mount Tai, Tai'an City, Shandong Province) / 中國旅遊 中国旅游 China Tourism / SML.20121011.7D.09602-09605.Pano

Sung Shan

Song Shan (嵩山) is another of China’s “Give Great Mountains.”

O-mei Shan, Chiu-hua Shan, Wu-t’ai Shan, P’u-t’o Shan

The mountains Emei Shan (峨眉山), Jiahua Shan (九华山), Wutai Shan (五台山), and Putuo Shan (普陀山) are China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, so they’re also easy choices. The “flower” translation mistake happens again with 九华山 at one point, and as I final question, does anyone else see “Chiu-hua” an think, “chihuahua”?

Ay Chihuahua

It’s cool to see a Western author drawing on Chinese names in his world-building, and before you cry “Pander Express!” keep in mind that these novels came out in the 90’s.

Feel free to leave a comment if I missed something or you have something to add.

Related Links:

Hyperion Cantos Wiki
Hyperion Cantos on Amazon


Jun 2015

The Chinese Chinese Room

I’ve been listening to a series of lectures called Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines. A lot of these concepts I’ve read about before, but it’s nice to have everything together in a coherent set. One of the topics covered refers to the Chinese Room, an anti-AI argument devised by philosopher John Searle:

Modus scribendi

> Searle writes in his first description of the argument: “Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.

> The experiment is the centerpiece of Searle’s Chinese room argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a “mind”, “understanding” or “consciousness”, regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave. The argument is directed against the philosophical positions of functionalism and computationalism, which hold that the mind may be viewed as an information processing system operating on formal symbols.

So my first thought was: what do the Chinese call the Chinese room? The laowai room? Turns out the answer is a little more boring than that: in Chinese it’s called the 中文房间. (You might have been tempted to translate it as the 中国房间, but that doesn’t work as well, since the whole part of the argument is that there are these inscrutable symbols that can be manipulated. It’s Chinese characters that are key, not Chinese culture or nationality.)

The room is “Chinese,” of course, because of the inscrutable nature of Chinese characters. It boosts the argument if it feels like there’s no chance that the person in the room will actually learn them in the process of their Chinese room work.

I have to take umbrage at that: you can read Chinese. (If you want to.) I admit, though, that the Chinese room is not the best way to go about it.

There’s one other thought experiment mentioned which touches on China: the China brain. That one doesn’t seem to have a well-known translation (and no page on Wikipedia), but it seems at least some translators have gone with the straightforward 中国脑子. (This one refers to the people of China, and not the Chinese language itself.)


Feb 2015

My Chinese Classroom vs. Our Chinese Classroom

The Chinese textbook My Chinese Classroom has been around since at least 2005; I once reviewed it on this site, in fact. I was amused, then, to see a new textbook, Our Chinese Classroom (《我们的汉语教室》) on the shelf of a local book store, right next to My Chinese Classroom (《我的汉语教室》).

My Chinese Classroom vs. Our Chinese Classroom

Upon closer inspection, the main editor is the same (徐文静), but the publishers are different.

I’m curious: is this the next generation of the series, with a rather unimaginative title evolution, or is this a new project for a new publisher that blatantly rips off the old one?

I didn’t have time to check this out today, but I will examine later. (If anyone knows the inside scoop, let me know!)


Sep 2014

Missing Elevator Buttons

I recently read China Simplified’s book, Language Gymnastics. It’s a great entertaining introduction to the Chinese language which combines Chinese and foreign perspectives. The book included this passage in chapter 4, which is aptly titled “Sorry, There Is No Chapter Four“:

> Enter a Hong Kong residential tower elevator and you’ll often discover buttons for floors labeled 3A, 12A and 15B–no doubt alternative universes guarded by daemons and fairies. Other times the 1st floor is renamed the “ground floor” (following British conventions) and the 2nd floor is counted as the 1st floor, so then the 3rd becomes the 2nd and abracadabra! — the dreaded 4th floor becomes the less deadly 3rd floor right before our very eyes. Problem solved.

> Whenever a lift whizzes past the imaginary gaps between the 3rd and 5th floors or the double gap between the 12th and 15th floors, I’m taken by cleverness of it all. A property agent can show her clients a breathtaking flat on the “16th floor” without admitting it’s only 13 floors up. Sweet–higher rent and nobody dies. So depending on your perspective, apartment 4D at 1441 West 14th Street is either a deathtrap or the bargain of a lifetime. I say drop that cash and grab that key.

Chinese number superstitions are real, and not just in Hong Kong. I happened to encounter this elevator in Shanghai:

Elevator Buttons

Yeah, quite a few numbers missing there. In this case, skipping so many floors also means that the penthouse becomes “18,” a number desirable for the “8.”


Apr 2014

Shanghai’s Mobile Library

I was surprised to see a library-on-wheels in Shanghai’s Jing’an Park the other day. The vehicle is called “Reader No. 1” in English, “读者1号” in Chinese.

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

The mobile library visits various spots in Jing’an District three times per week, for two hours each time. According to the sign, this has been going on since 2010? I had no idea.

I wonder how many foreigners are using this service?


Aug 2013

China, the Country of the Blind

Old man in alley

Photo by Iris River on Flickr

I recently read H.G. Wells’ short story The Country of the Blind, and it immediately struck me how relevant this story is to western visitors of China in modern times. If you’re a China observer, and an observer of how westerners interact with China, it’s definitely worth a read.

If you’re too busy to read a short story (and it’s not overly sci-fi, for those of you not into the genre), you might check out the plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

Here’s an excerpt to give you a taste:

> “Why did you not come when I called you?” said the blind man. “Must you be led like a child? Cannot you hear the path as you walk?”

> Nunez laughed. “I can see it,” he said.

> “There is no such word as see,” said the blind man, after a pause. “Cease this folly and follow the sound of my feet.”

> Nunez followed, a little annoyed.

> “My time will come,” he said.

> “You’ll learn,” the blind man answered. “There is much to learn in the world.”

> “Has no one told you, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King?'”

> “What is blind?” asked the blind man, carelessly, over his shoulder.

> Four days passed and the fifth found the King of the Blind still incognito, as a clumsy and useless stranger among his subjects.

> It was, he found, much more difficult to proclaim himself than he had supposed, and in the meantime, while he meditated his coup d’etat, he did what he was told and learnt the manners and customs of the Country of the Blind. He found working and going about at night a particularly irksome thing, and he decided that that should be the first thing he would change.

There really is a lot there to appreciate. Read the original.

On a related note, Kaiser Kuo has recently stated:

> On my podcast not long ago, Evan Osnos suggested that the best way to understand China today is to read Mark Twain—specifically “The Gilded Age” and “Life on the Mississippi.” Paul Mozur from the WSJ did just that and concurs. I’m now reading “The Gilded Age.” Yep.

Evan Osnos also recommends The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells for the same reasons.


May 2012

China Ammo for argumentum ad antiquitam

The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went to a somewhat unusual “nerd camp.” I attended a 6-week “enrichment course” at the University of Tampa entitled “Logic and Critical Thinking.” We covered quite thoroughly the different types of logical syllogisms and logical fallacies. It was a singularly eye-opening experience for me, as many of the arguments I’d heard many times before were suddenly and for the first time exposed for what they were. In another sense, it was a new form of power. Adults rule the world, but they’re not above logic. Being able to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of politicians, teachers, and even parents was a potent little trick indeed!

Recently I read the book How to How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, which is basically a rundown of various types of fallacies, how to recognize them, how to defend against them, and even how to effectively employ them if you need to.

While a good read and quite entertaining in parts, many examples used in the book probably make more sense to a British audience than an American one. It also feels a little outdated at times, such as this passage on the argumentum ad antiquitam (“appeal to tradition”) fallacy and how it relates to China (links and bold added by me):

> Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.

>> This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.

>> (It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)

> There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

> […]

> Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.

Hmmm, “Shin Shan Province,” eh? The use of “province” in two different senses in one paragraph is a little confusing, but I would guess that “Shin Shan” is supposed to be “Shanxi” or “Shaanxi.” Anyway, I suspect that even when dealing in fallacies and tradition, it’s still a good idea to use the name of a province that actually exists.

It’s true, though, that China is still a treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” anyone?), or mystical traditions. I’m curious if my readers have run into many China-centered argumentum ad antiquitam fallacies out there.


Mar 2012

Awesome Speech Habits of Americans

I’ve been slowly reading through Professor Orlando Kelm‘s book, When we are the foreigners: What Chinese think about working with Americans, and right in the first chapter I was highly amused by this passage:

> Recently, Mr. Jorgensen has been working closely with Xiaoliu Li, the human resources manager for TPC China. Upon entering her office, an aura of competence is immediately apparent. Young, pretty, polished, professional, and easy to engage in conversation, Xiaoliu Li gives the impression that she loves her job. In fact, Mr. Jorgensen usually introduces her to others by saying, “I’d like you to meet our highly competent human resources manager Xiaoliu Li.” Almost sheepishly, she acknowledges the the introduction, always noticing, however, how extraordinary it is to hear “highly competent” when making an introduction. Those types of phrases are, in fact, one of her observations about Americans. “You Americans think everything is great, wonderful, fantastic, amazing, cool, or awesome.” Not only do Americans think everything is awesome; they also say so, using these terms in both casual and formal conversations. That style of speech and feedback seems out of place among Chinese. “Chinese aren’t prone to use those types of words when describing people,” observes Xiaoliu Li, “much less when directly talking to them.” Basically, My. Jorgensen is oblivious to the effect of the way he uses vocabulary. To him, it’s just a matter of having a positive attitude.

My wife has made almost exactly the same observation. She claims that it’s hard to know what Americans really feel about something because everything is “great” or “awesome” or “amazing.” (This is, of course, the opposite of what is often said about the Chinese, who always seem to be “hiding their true feelings,” forever inscrutable to most foreigners.) So to her, it’s not that Americans “think everything is awesome,” it’s that they say everything is awesome, which can, in her mind, only be construed as (at least a mild form of) insincerity. So I guess that’s what we Americans get for being positive and enthusiastic about life: suspicion of insincerity!

Anyway, I’m enjoying this book, because instead of trying to make blanket statements about culture, it takes the case study approach and shares real people’s views on real incidents. (Now if only I had more time to read…)


Sep 2011

Ode to a Paper Dictionary

The Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary is a solid dictionary. It’s a great compromise between “comprehensive” and “portable,” and it’s the one I had with me in my early days in Hangzhou, when I had to look up every other word that I heard. I started with the “handy pocket-sized” version, but I quickly realized that even though it was half the size, it was still a little brick of paper I had to slug around, and the characters were just way too small at that size. So I used the medium-size brick of paper comfortably for years.

I still have that dictionary, although it’s showing its age. Over the years, I have had to use packing tape to reinforce its edges and spine, but at least I managed to do that before it started totally falling apart. Here’s what it looks like now:



Slightly worn, you might say.

When I used this dictionary regularly, I used to highlight words, phrases, and sentences that popped out at me as being useful or somehow study-worthy. What’s great is that I can still browse the dictionary now and see what I once highlighted. Sure, nothing is dated; there is no metadata. But it’s enlightening and amusing to flip through this paper record of my progress.

A little sample:

避免 to avoid
关心 be concerned about
关于 about; on; with regard to; concerning
上当 be taken in
下流 obscene; dirty
大海捞针 look for a needle in a haystack [I’m pretty sure I never ever had a chance to use this, even if I managed to memorize it briefly]

You get the idea.

But the point of this post is not to recommend a great dictionary. I used that dictionary every day for a very important period in my life, and it facilitated all sorts of conversations on a regular basis (yes, I was one of those annoying students that would occasionally put a conversation on hold if there was a word I felt I just really needed to know right away). And yet, I don’t recommend that dictionary much at all. Nowadays I regularly recommend Pleco (and sometimes Wenlin) to AllSet Learning clients, but not paper dictionaries.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons…

– Most people don’t want to carry around a heavy book, but they take their cell phones everywhere
– Most people find looking up words in a paper dictionary quite a hassle
– Electronic dictionaries are so fast, and with one more touch you’ve saved the word as well for later reference

I remember when I first came to China, lots of people were using mini hand-held electronic dictionaries. They were great, except that (1) they rarely provided pinyin for English-Chinese lookups, and (2) they had short dictionary entries with very few sample sentences. Well, those days are over. The day has finally arrived, and entries are now bursting with information, while internet connectivity offers potentially limitless sample sentences.

So why am I still a little sad? Well, there’s definitely something to be said for idly flipping through those pages made of paper. I’m not sure why dictionary serendipity of the eyes-to-paper variety feels more special than dictionary serendipity of the search-and-related-data variety, but it does. And looking at that old battered paper dictionary, its mere existence does feel meaningful. I beat the crap out of that thing with my learning, and then did just enough work to keep it on life support. And now I neglect it, relegating it to a bathroom book, while computer-based dictionaries serve my daily needs.

We had some good times, paper dictionary. It’s not you, it’s me. But relationships change.


Mar 2011

Edmund Backhouse: Decadence Mandchoue

I first started hearing about Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) years ago from Brendan O’Kane and Dave Lancashire. A “self-made sinologist,” he was apparently fluent in Chinese and quite well connected, but was also later exposed as a magnificent fraud. A prolific diarist, he also dwelled quite a bit on the sexy details of the Qing Dynasty.

Anyway, it may at times be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in Edmund Backhouse’s story, but it’s quite a story. So I’m really looking forward to reading a new book called Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, which makes a lot of Backhouse’s memoirs available for the first time. From the Amazon page:

> Published now for the first time, the controversial memoir of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, Decadence Mandchoue, provides a unique and shocking glimpse into the hidden world of China’s imperial palace with its rampant corruption, grand conspiracies and uninhibited sexuality. Backhouse was made notorious by Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1976 bestseller Hermit of Peking, which accused Backhouse of fraudulence and forgery. This work, written shortly before the author’s death in 1943, was dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than a pornographic noveletteA” and lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Yet even the most incredible tales deserve at least a second opinion. This edition, created using a combination of the three original manuscripts held by the Bodleian, has been comprehensively annotated, fully translated and features an introduction by editor Derek Sandhaus, urging a reappraisal of Backhouse’s legacy. Alternately shocking and lyrical, Decadence Mandchoue is the masterwork of a linguistic genius; a tremendous literary achievement and a sensational account of the inner workings of the Manchu dynasty in the years before its collapse in 1911. If true, Backhouse’s chronicle completely reshapes contemporary historians’ understanding of the era, and provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle that can only be described as intimate.

Full disclosure: I’m friends with Derek Sandhaus, editor/author of the book. But that doesn’t make this book any less awesome.


Sep 2010

Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu

Magnus of MandMX.com has been busy lately. You may be familiar with his Shanghainese podcast or his bilingual comics (he even did one about Sinosplice once). Anyway, now he’s come out with a book of his English/Chinese comics. It’s called Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu (a reference to the Chinese words 电话 and 臭豆腐).

Magnus was kind enough to give me an advance copy of this book to share my thoughts. I like that the book is bilingual, and that it’s focused entirely on the “foreigner in China experience.” This makes it unique. We foreigners in China all have our photos, our little private whining sessions, our blogs about life in China… but this book takes a lot of those recurring themes and distills them into one convenient collection.

The book isn’t all about being funny… some of it is too true to be funny. And I daresay that most people that have never been to China won’t understand a lot of it. In some ways it’s almost like a reference book of inside jokes. I like that.

Congrats to Magnus on making this book happen. You can order it on his site.


Jul 2010

Churchill and Hitler: Evil Supervillains?

Yesterday in the bookstore I noticed these two books, titled 丘吉尔 (Churchill) and 希特勒 (Hitler):

Churchill and Hitler

Now am I crazy, or do these two historical figures both look really evil, perhaps Churchill even more so than Hitler??

Apparently this was just a bad choice of photo (and color) in the cover design, though; if you click through to either Churchill’s or Hitler’s Amazon.cn pages, you see lots of other books in the series. Only Mussolini looks as evil as these two.

According to the introduction on Amazon, the book about Churchill is not an explanation of how he was actually Britain’s greatest supervillain. That’s a relief.


Jun 2010

Quotes from Tales of Old Peking

It’s been a while since I got my copy of Tales of Old Peking. I’ve taken my time going through it. It’s a patient a book, its contents largely magazine-style, most articles only indirectly related to each other. A book like this doesn’t demand your attention or keep you frantically turning those pages until the end. But it’s still a fascinating collection of accounts of old Beijing, through the eyes of foreigners. Below are a few of the quotes I enjoyed the most:

On the City

Page 92:

> I visited Peking about thirty years ago. On my return I found it unchanged, except that it was thirty times dirtier, the smells thirty times more insufferable, and the roads thirty times worse for the wear. —Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, The Breakup of China, 1899

Page 14:

> … But in spite of so much that disgusts and offends one in this wreck of an imperial city, who can deny the charm of Peking, that unique and most fascinating city of the East! –Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Note Book, 1904

Page 135:

> …if you have once lived in Peking, if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments of Chili, all other parts of China seem dull and second rate… when you have seen the best there is, everything else is anticlimax. –Ellen N. LaMotte, Peking Dust, 1919

I may be a member of the Shanghai faction, but I’m not totally immune to the charms of Beijing either.

On Foreigners in China

Page 26:

> As I am here and watch, I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever – no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite. —Sarah Pike Conger, Feb. 1, 1899

Page 72:

> He has been in Peking nearly four months now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears thoroughly at home. He is really very original. –D. de Martel & L. de Hover, Silhouettes of Peking, 1926

The more things change, the more they stay the same?


Dec 2009

Zhou Libo's New Book: Hui Cidian


Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).

The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.

“Shanghainese” Characters

What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:

> “伊迪句闲话结棍,讲得来我闷脱了。(他这句话厉害,说得我一下子说不出话来了)”

> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]

The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:

1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.

2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).

3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.

To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.

The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”

So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.

Shanghainese Romanization

Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.

Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.



Nov 2009

Aspect, not Tense

You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.

I’ll quote from the Wikipedia entry on aspect:

In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.

So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?

It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:

Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)

OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?

According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING[6] and HAVE +EN,[7] respectively.

Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:

Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects,[3] and also marks aspect with adverbs….

If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): , , and . It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.

In the case of , the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).

, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs or (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.

It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.

(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)


Oct 2009

Chinese Modal Verb Venn Diagram

I’m a bit of a sucker for Venn diagrams. When I was recently asked by a student about the Chinese modal verbs , , and 可以 (all of which can be translated into English as “can”), I recalled a nice Venn diagram on the topic and dug it up.

What creates the most confusion with these three modal verbs is not that they can all be translated into “can” in English. The problem is that they are usually explained over-simplistically something like this:

> : know how to

> : be able to

> 可以: have permission to

This is not a bad start, but this sort of definition is eventually revealed as insufficient to the learner because in usage, the three modal verbs actually overlap. Enter the Venn diagram. The image below is a reconstruction of the one on page 95 of Tian Shou-he’s A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese:

Chinese Modal Verbs: A Venn Diagram

> A = ability in the sense of “know how to” (“” is more common than ““)

> B = permission/request (use “” or “可以“)

> C = possibility (use “” or “可以“)

> D = permission not granted (use “不可以“)

> E = impossibility (use “不能“)

Yeah, grammar needs more Venn diagrams.

Update: I’ve been informed that this diagram is actually a Euler Diagram. Oops. I stand corrected. I should have read up on the requirements for Venn Diagrams first! (Hey, some of those extensions are pretty cool!)


Aug 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

Today I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of stories which owes its title to this great quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Custom-House:

> Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

Well put.


Aug 2009

Tone and Color in Chinese

In his book Chinese through Tone and Color, author Nathan Dummitt presents his system of color-coded tones. In his own words:

> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.

From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.

Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:


Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?

The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.

An Alternate Color Scheme

OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?

In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:

1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.

2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.

There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:

> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.

> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.

These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.

Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.

As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.

The results:



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