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 definitely don’t like this logo as well as the 永久 logo, but this one is still noteworthy:
The name of the Japanese restaurant is 吟味. This is kind of a strange name to me; the only Chinese word I’m very familiar with that contains the character 吟 is 呻吟, which means “moan” or “groan.” It has numerous sound-related meanings, like “sing,” “chant,” and “recite.” 味, of course, means “flavor.”
In Japanese, I found an entry for 吟味 (ぎんみ) which means “testing; scrutiny; careful investigation.” I guess a name like that could be comforting in a country so beset with food safety issues?
I found it interesting how the mouth radical (口) is used in the same logo to form two very different pictures. The first one is of a table reminiscent of ancestral forms of the character 口, except upside down. The second one looks like a bowl, and although looking more modern, resembles a few of the other ancestral forms of the character 口 (and not upside down this time).
The right side of 吟 (the roof combined with the kneeling Japanese figure) to me really looks more like the character 令 than 今 in certain calligraphic styles.
Logos like this are interesting, but to me highlights an important point: Chinese characters are not pictures. They’re not even very much like pictures. If characters were really “like pictures,” this kind of logo wouldn’t work.
Certain Chinese characters and character components arehistorically pictographic in nature, yes, but you can see how even a basic pictographic element like the mouth radical (口) is actually very plastic. To me, what’s so fascinating about characters is not that they’re “like pictures,” but that they’re a ridiculously complex (and yet still viable) alternative symbolic system to alphabet-based writing systems.
Last night I went to see the movie Pacific Rim at Shanghai’s newest, biggest mall, Global Harbor. My hopes were not super high, but I ended up really enjoying the film. I had totally forgotten that it was directed by Guillermo del Toro; I think it was suddenly seeing Ron Perlman’s face in the movie amongst all the other relatively unknown actors that reminded me. Anyway, very fun movie.
A few things struck me about seeing the film in China:
1. The Chinese mech dies first. This is kind of a shame, not because they’re Chinese, but because their badass red, four-armed robot with buzz-saws for hands looked awesome, and I would have liked to watch it do a little more damage in battle. This didn’t really seem to bother the audience, though; the Chinese mech pilots weren’t even really characters in the movie… easy come, easy go.
2. The human characters in the movie use the Japanese term kaiju (怪獣) for the giant monsters they’re fighting. This was kind of interesting. The (simplified) Chinese is 怪兽. (Another common word for “monster” in Chinese is 怪物.)
3. The Hong Kong Chinese are experts at dicing up the kaiju (giant monster) corpses and selling the parts on the black market (as “medicine”?). There is discussion of the going rates for ground kaiju bones and various kaiju organs. This struck me as both a funny stereotype as well as somewhat insightful.
What do you think? Racist? Or would the biological matter derived from monsters from another dimension totally be worked into the black market, extreme fringes of TCM relatively quickly?
A friend pointed me to this article: Emotions For Which There Are No English Words. A nice intersection of some of my favorite topics: semantics, translation, psychology, and infographics. You’ll need to go to the site for the full infographic (it’s zoomable), but here are the Chinese words that make an appearance:
The Chinese words are:
> 心疼: The feeling somewhere between sympathy and empathy, to feel the suffering of loved ones.
Literally, “heart aches.” This one isn’t too hard to understand.
> 加油: A form of encouragement as if you are fighting along with the person, backing them up.
Literally, “add oil.” It does take a little bit of time to get used to how when you say “加油！” you’re actually putting yourself on the same team as the enouragee, somehow. (Similar deal with Japanese 頑張って.)
> 忐忑: A mixture of feeling uneasy and worried, as if you can feel your own heart beat.
(That one is also kind of famous for its characters… good ideogrammatic fun.)
> 纠结: Worried, feeling uneasy, don’t know what to do.
纠结 probably gets my vote for “newest super useful slang word that you won’t find in a textbook,” but it’s not just a word-fad that’s going away anytime soon.
I really like this next Japanese choice. It’s once of my favorite Japanese words:
> 懐かしい: Missing something. The sense of longing, being nostalgic for something, someone, or somewhere.
The weird thing about the word 懐かしい is how often it’s used as a complete sentence, usually as an exclamation. When you’re not used to the word, and you see someone confronted with something dear but forgotten from childhood, and then they bust out with “nostalgic!” it seems very odd at first. It’s like one word to say, “oh wow, that really takes me back.”
Just thinking about using 懐かしい is kind of 懐かしい for me. (I do miss Japanese!)
Recently an AllSet Learning client came to me with an interesting problem: he was seeing strange, slightly “off” variations of characters in his ChinesePod lesson, “Adjusting the Temperature.” Once upon a time I studied Japanese, so I could recognize the characters he was seeing as Japanese variants:
What he saw:
What he expected to see:
[If you really care about the tiny discrepancy, you may need to click through and enlarge the screenshot to see the difference. I’m not going to focus on including text here, because that’s exactly the nature of the problem: the text is subject to change based on your system’s font availability.]
The really strange thing was that he was experiencing the exact same issue on both his 2010 MacBook and on his iPad 2. In troubleshooting this problem, I discovered that my client was running both an older version of iOS (4.x) as well as an older version of Mac OS (Leopard). I was experiencing neither on my 2008 MacBook (running Snow Leopard) or on my iPad 2 (iOS 5.x). But his system had all the required fonts, and switching browsers from Safari to others did nothing to solve the problem. So I concluded it was simply a system configuration problem.
Fixing the issue on the iPad
Here’s the fix. On the iPad, go into Settings > General > International (you might need to scroll down for that last one). You might see something like this:
Note that in the order pictured above, Japanese (日本語) is above simplified Chinese (简体中文) in the list. This is crucial! That means that if English fonts are not found for the characters on a given page, the system is going to match characters to Japanese fonts next.
So to fix this issue, Chinese should be above Japanese. The thing is, there’s no obvious way to change the order. The only way I found to do it is to switch the system language to Chinese, then switch back to English. [Warning: your entire iOS system interface will switch to Chinese when you do this; make sure you can read the Chinese, or you know where the menu position for this settings page is before you switch!]
Switching to Chinese makes the Chinese jump to the top of the list, then switching back to English makes English jump back above that, leaving Japanese below Chinese.
You should see something like this when you’re done:
Fixing the issue on Mac OS X
The exact some issue applies to Mac OS X system preferences. Go to: System Preferences… > Language & Text > Language.
This time, though, there’s an easier way to rearrange the order. Simply click and drag:
Notice the little message on the right about when the changes will take effect.
Does this really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, not really. It’s actually good to have some tolerance for font variations. But the detail-oriented may find this particular issue quite maddening. It’s good to have a simple way to fix it.
So why didn’t I have the issue, and he did? Well, I had at some point tried switching the system language to Chinese, on both my MacBook and on my iPad, but I later switched them back to English. So without even trying to, I had taught my system to prefer Chinese over Japanese. The problem appears when English is the only language ever used, and the system doesn’t know what to give preference to. In my client’s case, you would think that adding a Chinese input method might clue in the system, but apparently Apple isn’t quite that on the ball yet.
Here’s a chart which incorporates illustrations of food into their Chinese character forms [Note: these are based on Japanese kanji, so not all apply equally to Chinese; see my notes below]:
Below are the characters involved, suped up with Sinosplice Tooltips for the readings of both the Chinese and Japanese (more notes at the bottom). I get the impression the English translations were not written by a native speaker, so I’ve added a few notes in brackets to clarify where appropriate.
蛯 ( / 老 / 蝦)
root [= radish]
Creating this table was a good exercise in both vocab comparison between Japanese and Chinese, and also simplified and traditional characters. A few things jumped out as I created the table above:
1. Many of the Japanese characters above are not normally written in characters (kanji). In modern Japan, many words like 林檎 (apple), 苺 (strawberry), and 蛯 (shrimp) are often just written as “りんご,” “いちご,” and “えび,” respectively, in hiragana (no characters).
2. There are words like レモン (檸檬), the word for “lemon,” which looks weird not written in katakana. And I’m not familiar with 腹詰; I’ve always encountered “ソーセージ,” which entered Japanese as a loanword from the English “sausage.”
3. 苺 means “strawberry” in Japanese, but it’s the morpheme “-berry” in Chinese, used in such words as 草莓 (strawberry), 蓝莓 (blueberry), and 黑莓 (blackberry).
4. I’m not a big fish-eater, so I’m not confident in the fish translations. Any corrections are welcome.
There’s a lot more I could say here, but unfortunately, my blogging time is limited. Comments welcome!
I was recently introduced to the awesome Google Suggest Venn Diagram Generator by Micah. Some interesting suggested searches by Google were crossed with a Venn diagram by some creative soul, and then the process was automated on the web by request. The result is a unique way to visualize and compare the data indexed by Google.
Here’s an example of what the diagram generator produces:
So we can see from this graph that according to Google, lots of people are asking (or telling) why both people and girls are mean, why girls and Americans are dumb, and why people, girls, and Americans are all stupid.
I decided to try some queries of my own. I chose the terms “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “English” as my recurring comparisons, and then added a little color to the results. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
how does _____ …
Yikes, “how does Chinese water torture work“? Gotta love the intellectual curiosity. I like the “how does English sound to foreigners” question though.
learn _____ …
Apparently there’s a whole lot of learning going on in the DC area. It’s no surprise that people want to learn online for free, but it’s interesting that Chinese is the only language of the three that people expect to learn in 5 minutes. (Tip: it might take slightly longer than that.)
_____ grammar …
Ah, good old 的. (I’m kind of surprised it trumped 了, though.)
Pink Tentacle recently did a post showcasing Japanese town logos which make prominent use of kanji (Chinese characters in the Japanese written language). These designs totally blew my mind. I love seeing creative manipulation of Chinese characters, so this stuff was pure gold.
Be warned, though; some of these are a bit hard to make out if (1) you don’t know what character(s) you’re supposed to be looking at, and (2) you don’t have significant experience with Chinese characters. Below I’ll explain a few of the designs to make them a bit more accessible.
I’ll start easy. This one is cool because it’s not hard to make out, and it has an easily recognized source of inspiration:
This next one is actually two characters, but both are fairly easy to recognize (they’re just a bit chubbier than usual), and they have the added benefit of resembling a Japanese robot! Nice.
Two characters again (八 returns!), but this time a decidedly asymmetrical character is forced into a symmetrical design, with interesting results.
Now we’re getting a little crazy. This very stylized logo turns a line into a circle and a box into a triangle. It takes a bit of mind-bending to see it.
Translation Party is a website built using Google Translate. The idea is to take an English sentence, translate into Japanese, then back into English, and keep going back and forth until an equilibrium is reached and the translation stabilizes.
I tried out various different sentences. Here’s what I got for “China and Japan will never get along“:
I knew Google’s motto is “don’t be evil,” but I didn’t expect that to result in translations that lecture (politely). Still, pretty cool.
Anyway, I recommend you play around with Translation Party. It’s a very simple concept; would love to see it done in more language combinations (especially Chinese to English!).
“Reduplication, in linguistics, is a morphological process by which the root or stem of a word, or part of it, is repeated” (Wikipedia). You see reduplication in Chinese a lot, with verbs (看看, 试试), nouns (妈妈, 狗狗), and even adjectives (红红的, 漂漂亮亮).
You get reduplication is Japanese too (some of the coolest examples are mimetic), in words such as 時々 or 様々. As you can see, rather than writing the character twice, the Japanese use a cool little iteration mark: 々. Now if the Japanese learned to write from the Chinese, why don’t the Chinese use the same iteration mark?
According to Wikipedia, the Chinese sometimes use 々, but you don’t see it in print. This is true; what the Chinese use (only when writing shorthand) actually looks something like ㄣ. Ostensibly, because you never see 々 in print in China (or it never even existed in neat, printed form), it comes out a bit sloppily as ㄣ in Chinese handwritten form.
I recently read a cutesy Taiwanese comic called 兔出没，注意！！！ Rabbits Caution about the lives of two rabbits named 呵呵 and 可乐 and their owners. In the comic, the author took a rather “mathematical” approach to reduplication. Look for 宝宝 and 玩玩 in this one:
Look for 看看 and 谢谢 in this one (and don’t be confused by the 回 in 回家):
In this frame, even “bye-bye” gets the treatment:
While cute, I figured this representation of reduplication was not likely original. I was quite surprised, however, to see an almost identical representation on Wikipedia dating back to 900 B.C.! The quote:
The bronzeware script on the bronze pot of the Zhou Dynasty, shown right, ends with “子二孫二寶用”, where the small 二 (two) is used as iteration marks to mean “子子孫孫寶用”.
Well, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and history repeats itself. The weird thing is that 2 and 々 even sort of look alike, in the way that 々 and ㄣ do. 2 is 々 without the first stroke, and ㄣ is 々 without the last stroke. Meanwhile, the ancient Chinese iteration mark 二 bears a striking resemblance to the modern “ditto mark” used in modern English! (I’ll leave those for the orthographical conspiracy theorists among you to chew on.)
> In hospital I ran into a few Cantonese speaking patients and visitors, who in some cases spoke no English. With the luxury of ample time, I was able to say things I don’t really know how to say, by finding inventive ways to use the few words I did remember. For example, instead of asking if she’d mind opening my water bottle top because my hands were too weak and the cap is tight etc etc, I simply asked “please, can you?” and held the bottle at the top. Worked like a charm. But I’d spent half an hour agonising over the words before accepting that a simpler method was not “cheating” but rather “communicating”.
> When learning a language I too often make it hard for myself by fixating on the words I don’t know rather than finding more uses for the words I do know. Lesson learned. I got my water, the “it’s a talking dog!” look, and a new friend.
> My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers. You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too. We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.
I often wonder how good I want my Chinese to be. I have lots of room to expand my vocabulary and improve my ability to express myself, but there are two big questions: (1) do I really need to? and (2) do I really want to?
I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive linguistic motivation, and the longer I live, the more practical I become. The truth is, I’m not a terribly talkative person, and I’m already pretty comfortable in Chinese. I don’t want to be a Chinese spy (ha!), and I really don’t want to memorize the damn chengyu dictionary. I’d rather get my Spanish and Japanese back to levels where I’m more comfortable and able to enjoy the experience of speaking.
> I have been in china for two years and always used paperback dictionaries or the one on my computer. However, now that i will start studying it seems more handy to have one of these pocket size electronic dictionaries. However it seems that all of these machines have a pinyin function for INPUT only. When looking up a word in english, it only gives you characters. This is quite a pain in the ass for someone like me who can speak some Chinese, but is almost illiterate. Do you have any advice on where to find one of these gadgets that would suit my needs better or can you redirect me to a good place to find information on this topic?
I went through this exact same dilemma when I first arrived in China. I had my handy Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary
which I took everywhere. I noticed the Chinese students all had these little handheld electronic dictionaries, and I wanted one to help me with Chinese. But they really don’t help you a whole lot when you have no way to look up the pinyin for the characters that appear.
I had a Canon Wordtank to help me get through my Japanese studies, and it was great. Designed for the student of Japanese, it provided a “jump” feature which made it easy enough to look up the readings of any word even if the readings weren’t directly displayed everywhere. It got me through my last two years of formal Japanese study, which involved a lot of reading and translation.
But for Chinese? I’ve seen some really cool dictionaries that essentially do what the Wordtank does, but for English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese. With audio. They’re not cheap, though.
I never found a reasonably priced handheld Chinese electronic dictionary that did what I want. I ended up jotting down words and looking them up at home on Wenlin or online.
If you’ve made it this far without a handheld electronic dictionary, then you should just hold on a little longer. The days of single-function handheld electronic devices are numbered. I, for one, wish this new generation of handheld devices would move in for the kill a little faster.
My friend Sean has a hilarious post up about cultural differences compounded by generation gaps in China. This particular drama revolves around toilet paper. Here’s an excerpt:
> By the time the night was finishing up and the massage was over, it was quite late, around 10:30pm. The parents live in a slightly remote part of Shanghai, only accessible by bus or taxi, and they always refuse to take a taxi because its too expensive (even if I offer to pay). I told JJ to tell them to just stay the night at our house, that made the most sense and it was totally fine by me (and of course by JJ). We do have an extra room and I did buy this couch bed for this very reason. So it only made sense for them to stay, especially since it was holiday and JJ was not working.
> Here comes the kicker. They were at first totally against it. Why, you might ask? Well it was not for the normal reasons you might imagine, such as ‘we don’t want to intrude’, ‘we have plans tomorrow morning’, we simply want to get home’, ‘we don’t like the couch bed’. None of these things mattered to them. Instead, the issue at hand was literally:
> We don’t know if we want to stay because the toilet paper I buy is too soft for them and they really don’t like using it.
The type of “toilet paper” the parents prefer is called 草纸 (literally, “grass paper”), although it’s sometimes just referred to as 手纸 (which, amusingly, are the same two characters used to write the word for “letter” in Japanese).
I used to use 草纸 as paper towels back in the day. I tried to find a decent picture of it online, but this was the best I could do.
The video is the theme song for a Japanese anime series called Saint Seiya (圣斗士星矢 in Chinese — apparently it’s well-known among the Chinese). This case is a little different, because the song was actually re-recorded with (ridiculous) Shanghainese lyrics. (In a karaoke parlor, from the sound of it.) And there are subtitles for us Shanghainese-impaired! The kind subtitler put the Shanghainese “transliteration hanzi” on the top line, and the Mandarin translation on the bottom line.
Here’s a quick and dirty translation of the lyrics:
> No hot water for washing my feet
> Today I’ll go to bed without washing them
> The water for washing my face is still heating up
> Going to bed without washing my feet – so dirty
> No hot water for washing my feet
> Mom says the bills are too high
> She says wash your face first, then use that water to soak your feet
> Water for your feet and water for your face
> They’re both heated with the gas burner
> Why don’t salaries go up? The cost of water, electricity, and gas have
> Oh my God
> Heat it, heat it*
> If you don’t heat it, the price’ll be higher next year
> Heat it, heat it
> Wash you feet, then go for the spa, oh yeah
> Heat it, heat it
> Heat it from now til the end of the month
> Heat it, heat it
> Why not heat it?
> My mom is paying the bill
Lots of great cultural context here:
– Water in Shanghai has traditionally been heated with gas heaters (although electric ones are also common now)
– Traditional Shanghainese good old-fashioned thrifty living
– Washing one’s face and feet traditionally has been a common substitute for taking a shower
Here’s the original Japanese theme song.
The Shanghainese version of the video was recommended to me by a local friend who said the Shanghainese lyrics sounded like the Japanese. I don’t really hear the resemblance, but it’s good wacky fun nonetheless.
– The more familiar I am with the people I am with, the funnier I am. Thus, in my nuclear family I am a comedic superstar, while at work or when meeting people for the first time, not so much. Other friends fall somewhere in the middle.
– I never got very fluent in Spanish (and I’m definitely not at my high point now), but I never felt it was very hard to make jokes in Spanish. In general, the humor translated well across the cultural gap.
– It was verrry difficult to be funny in Japanese. Granted, I only lived in Japan for a year, so I wasn’t super fluent, but I repeatedly made efforts to be funny in conversations with friends, and I crashed and burned a lot. My homestay brothers mocked my failed attempts rather mercilessly. (Their cries of “さぶっ！” still haunt me.)
– It was kind of hard to make jokes in Chinese, but I never felt as much pressure to be witty as I did in Japanese. Furthermore, failed humor tends to result in confusion or non-comprehension rather than mockery.
– Even when I make a bad joke in Chinese, rarely does anyone call me on it. The exception, of course, is my wife (one of the funniest people I know), who dutifully reminds me that in Chinese, I am not very funny.
Based on my experiences, it seems like familiarity raises the stakes in humor. When you tell a joke to someone you’re close to, you either score big, or you lose big. And losing big can mean violence (according to the study)?
But I’m guessing that’s pretty cultural. I’m not at all surprised that it’s hard to be funny in France. This is a great quote from the article:
> “I may have been Nancy funny, but I was not French-speaking-Nancy funny,” she said.
I’m curious if any readers have had “violent” reactions to bad jokes in Asia.
Two nice pop culture references there, but interested in Chinese onomatopoeia as I am, I can’t help but fixate on the Street Fighter sound effect label: 欧由根. This especially amuses me because I remember when I was playing Street Fighter II in high school, my friends and I could never quite agree on what the heck Ryu was saying. We always thought it was something like “Har-yookin,” but apparently at least some of the Chinese hear it as “oh-yoogun.”
For those of you who have no idea of what I’m talking about, or only a very fuzzy recollection, this video, taken directly from the Street Fighter II video game, has plenty of sound bites for you:
Anyway, curious, I Baidu’d the phrase and, on a page about 我们丫丫吧, found some interesting stuff. I couldn’t help trying to decipher these:
– 欧由根: the classic shoryuken in the illustration above (see 0:11, 0:12, and countless other places in the video)
– 啊卢给: Hmmm, either it’s a hadouken (0:08), or it’s someone else’s move. (Anyone…?)
– 加加不绿根: the hurricane kick (0:54)?
If you’re Chinese and you used to play Street Fighter II, I’d love to hear what you used to hear the characters saying.
I started learning Japanese in 1996. When I began learning Mandarin in 1998, I already had a foundation in Chinese characters, thanks to my Japanese studies. Learning the two languages at the same time, I was frequently annoyed by little discrepancies such as 歩 and 步, 別 and 别, 氷 and 冰, etc. Those little character details caught my attention, though. I ended up writing my senior thesis on how and why the Chinese characters of the Chinese and Japanese writing systems ended up diverging.
One little detail that always nagged at me, though, was stroke order. The truth is, stroke order of Chinese characters is not consistent across Japanese and Chinese. I was reminded of this recently by Tae Kim’s blog entry entitled, What’s the stroke order of 【龜】? Who cares? He brought up the stroke order of the character 必 as an example of a “weird character.” This character just happens to be one of the ones whose correct stroke order has been ever so slightly bugging me all these years.
必 is a great example, because it shows up in plenty of relatively simple words in both languages, like 必要 (necessary) and 必须 (must) in Chinese, and 必ず (without fail) and 必要 (necessary) in Japanese.
Now let’s take a look at the stroke order of this simple character. I’ll have to assign letters to each stroke so that we can keep the different stroke orders straight:
– Ocrat, MDBG, and Wenlin all say A-B-C-D-E.
– Learn to Write Characters (click on 必), maintained by Dr. Tim Xie, says A-B-C-E-D.
– A-B-C-E-D makes a lot of sense to me, because the character’s radical is 心 (but that doesn’t necessarily matter at all).
– Remember that Chinese has the added excitement of the simplified/traditional divide, as well as other regional differences in the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
– If you have more to add to this (especially from more authoritative sources). please leave a comment!
– WWWJDIC, Kawatsu, Kodansha, and Gakken all agree on the bizarre C-D-B-A-E.
– It’s almost as is they’re writing 义 first, then adding “wings,” but no, the radical here is 心 as well. (We can see why Tae calls it weird.)
Hmmm, that’s a lot of inconsistency. Gives you more respect for the people that can create good Chinese handwriting recognition software, doesn’t it?
But wait! It doesn’t end there. An even simpler character — 出 — behaves inconsistently as well. I’ll spare you all the details and jump to a diagram taken from a very interesting tool I found illustrating various stroke order differences:
Note that aside from the incredibly common 出, the heart radical 忄 — a component of tons of very common characters — is also among the ambiguously stroke-ordered. Notice too that the Japanese-only variants are not included in this list.
So what’s my point? Well, it’s not any of the following:
– Chinese is really hard
– Chinese characters are really complex
– Chinese characters are hard to learn
– Chinese character stroke order is fun!
Chinese is not semi-mystical. Chinese characters were created by people a really long time ago, and thus it is an amazingly imperfect, inconsistent system. East Asian brains aren’t semi-mystical either; with all these differences going on you can bet that the Chinese and Japanese get mixed up too. In fact, armed with the chart above you’ll find it really easy to spark debates with very literate Chinese over the “correct stroke order.”
Like me, you may be bugged by these inconsistencies. You may feel compelled to seek out some underlying pattern or just memorize a big list of exceptions. Don’t do it! Be satisfied with a quick look over the chart above. Just get the non-exceptional stroke order basics down and you’ll be fine, trust me. Don’t obsess over perfect stroke order and all the exceptions, because it’s an imperfect system. The deck is stacked against you. Learn to read and use characters to communicate, and you win.
I’ve lived in China for close to a decade now, and I’m much more comfortable with Chinese, even if I once majored in Japanese. When I arrived in China in 2000, though, my Japanese was much better. At the time, some people used that slippery term “fluent” to describe my Japanese speaking ability, but I definitely wouldn’t get that compliment now.
What happened to my Japanese skills is not as simple as plain neglect, however. During my first few years in China, I made several visits to Japan. While I practiced Japanese very little in China, I was determined not to just “let it go,” and I was able to retain a lot of what I had learned. The big problem, though, was that I wasn’t practicing.
Why not? It’s not because I never met Japanese people in China. The real answer may sound a little strange. I had struggled hard for my right to speak in Chinese here in China, and I was sick and tired of people trying to use me for English practice. I just couldn’t bring myself to pester Japanese people in the same way. I didn’t want to be perceived as another user.
I know my intentions were good, but I was being oversensitive (as I often was doing the harder days of the language power struggles). My Japanese was (and is) conversational; attempting a conversation in Japanese with a Japanese person doesn’t automatically amount to “language rape.”
Still, the end result has been the loss of many Japanese speaking opportunities, potential Japanese friends, and communication in Japanese. I am reminded that a good language learner needs to be adventurous, friendly, bold, and… not so damn sensitive.
These days my Japanese is quite rusty. Although reading and listening are not problems, I just need to get out there and speak Japanese again. Now that I’m done with my masters, I have the time to do it, and I’m making it a priority. If anyone has suggestions for Japanese speaking opportunities in Shanghai or Japanese tutors, please let me know. (I’m not interested in classes; four years of Japanese class was plenty.)
Thinking about it now, I find it strange that I’ve never written about James W. Heisig and his landmark work, Remembering the Kanji.
It was in 1997 while I was studying in Japan that I came across the book. I was still in this “I must write every new character a million times every day” frame of mind until I came upon this system, and after discovering it I abandoned the traditional approach forever. The book ignited my imagination and unleashed its energy on Chinese characters. Heisig’s system ensnared me immediately, but surprisingly, the more I studied the method, the more I found myself dissatisfied with Heisig’s mnemonics and devising my own. I bought a copy and wrote all over it, “correcting” it for myself. Personalizing it, you might say. Heisig would have approved.
I didn’t stay with the system forever. I never learned a mnemonic for every last character. There just came a point when everything sort of “clicked,” and memorizing characters wasn’t difficult anymore. Sure, I would forget characters (and I still do), but every time I’d forget one and have to look it up, those old mnemonics returned to me and helped lock that character back in my memory. The important thing is that I never had to write characters over and over again. I’ve passed various written Chinese tests without ever having to do that. I have been able to make better use of my time and of my mind.
Occasionally I would come upon a character that resolutely defied my memory. If the character mattered to me, it would get “special attention.” That meant setting aside some time to deconstruct the character, research the etymology (sometimes, but not always, a helpful practice), and apply some imagination. It might take as long as 20-30 minutes for just that one character, but eventually I would come up with a memorable story mnemonic involving the character components, tailor-made for me. And then I would not forget the character again.
In short, Heisig’s book totally changed the way I approach characters. It’s a triumph of imagination over rote learning. I am very grateful to him for that. If you’re trying to learn Japanese or Chinese, I strongly recommend you get Remembering the Kanji.