Tag: Chinese Book Reviews


Jun 2011

Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar

Edited by Qin Xue Herzberg & Larry Herzberg (Stone Bridge Press, 2011)

Review by: John Pasden

I quite enjoyed this book on Chinese grammar, but the student would do well to be clear on exactly what this book is and what it is not. Right on the cover are two huge clues:

> A quick study handbook with over 75 key constructions for reference and practice

> A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors

In case it’s not obvious, this book is not the place to start learning Chinese grammar. Sure, it’s packed full of great information and important side notes, but it’s going to be most valuable as a reference material, such as a handbook for a student who’s studied Mandarin for a year, then plans to go to China, but doesn’t want to take his old textbooks.



Nov 2009

Updates and Links


– Since my GFW Android Market rant, it looks like the Android Market may no longer be blocked. I’ve been able to access it again for the past few days on my HTC Hero here in Shanghai. Not sure if this will last, but it’s certainly a welcome development!
Pleco for iPhone (beta) just went into Beta 4 testing. Michael Love says this will probably be the last round of testing (but wow, that team does an amazingly thorough job!), so that means it will likely be submitted to Apple for review very soon.


– Google recently released a pinyin conversion tool on Google Translate, but it’s super primitive. Mark at Pinyin.info details all the ways it sucks (via Dave), but they all boil down to this: the tool simply romanizes characters, without regard for proper spacing, proper punctuation, or multiple character readings that can only be determined with data-informed word segmentation. (Boo, Google! You can do waaayyy better!)
– Google also added a cool-looking new Google Translate Toolkit (via Micah), which looks like the beginnings of competition for translation software like TRADOS (the preferred tool of translator Pete).
– An over-the-top rant on the importance of reading Chinese (via Micah) serves as a good reminder to those of us who might be satisfied with our functional speaking ability and too lazy to improve our literacy (this is definitely me at times!).
– Speaking of reading material, ChinaSMACK recently reminded me that even when you’re too lazy to tackle 老子 or modern thinkers, there’s still less challenging but interesting material to read in Chinese, and reading something is certainly better than nothing.
– Finally, most of us have used character-by-character literal translation as a mnemonic for memorizing certain Chinese vocabulary, but now there’s a blog dedicated to just that, called “those crazy chinese.” “Sweet pee disease,” “hairy hairy balls,” “ear shit”… check it out.


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

The Pleco iPhone App (beta)

I just recently had the pleasure of trying out the beta version of the new Pleco iPhone app. In case you’re not aware, Pleco is the software company behind what is regarded as the best electronic learner’s Chinese dictionary for any mobile device (and possibly the desktop as well). Given the dearth of really good Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone, Chinese learners have been eagerly awaiting the release of this iPhone app for quite some time. The wait has not been in vain; Pleco for iPhone is an outstanding app.

The Video Demo

Michael Love, Pleco founder, has made a two-part video of the new Pleco iPhone app:

For those of you in China, visit Pleco’s mirror site for the videos.

An All-New UI

I’ve never owned a device running Windows Mobile or Palm OS, so I’ve never been able to own Pleco before, but I’m familiar enough with previous versions to make basic comparisons.

The Pleco user interface received a much-needed makeover for the iPhone. While older versions of Pleco squeezed a plethora of buttons and options onto the screen (you have your stylus, after all), this iPhone Pleco had to find ways to increase buttons to tappable sizes and limit button clutter by hiding options on screens where you don’t need them all. Compare (Windows Mobile on the left, iPhone on the right):

maindict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

aisearchdict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)



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

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:




Jun 2009

RJ's Reasons for Learning Chinese

ChinesePod recently published an elemntary lesson called Why are You Studying Chinese? The lesson content itself was quite simple, but it led to an outpouring of thoughtful responses from the community. I especially enjoyed star user RJBerki’s response:

> Why? Work took me to China, and my first trip opened my eyes to a whole new world. I found China to be a fascinating surreal collision of Old and new, rich and poor, east and west, tradition and modernity, capitalism and communism, ancient wisdom and modern foolishness etc etc.

> The language is beautiful, clever, compressed and elegant like a good math problem. The characters are not only a challenge but also elegant and beautiful, an art form in their own right, but also just systematic enough to appeal to the analyst in me.

> I found myself wanting to travel China and learn more and more. The people are wonderfully friendly, selfless and caring, generous to a fault, and just great hosts with hospitality second to none. As I sit at dinner with these folks, I want to “hear” what they are saying, feel what they are feeling” I want to participate in the conversation, I want to gather as well as share new ideas. I want to read, write, listen, and speak. I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of China. I want to be a part of the Chinese family. I want to be able to separate the old lies and prejudices from the modern truth.

> This is why I am learning Chinese, which has now become a wonderful and fascinating hobby. A bottomless pit from which I pluck new information, ideas, and unexpected “joys” on a daily basis. No end in site, and for that I am grateful. And then there is Cpod and the community that comes with. Priceless.

I liked RJ’s response partly because I could really identify with it. He echoed many of the reasons I was so attracted to Chinese in the beginning. (Of course, living in China, you find new reasons as well…)


May 2009

Jiong Permutations

The 囧 (jiǒng) phenomenon has been around for a while now, and I’m starting to see more and more permutations of it. Here are a few examples.

From an online Chinese ad:

Online 囧 ad

From TofuBrain‘s Flickr page:

jiong mutations

From a local shop:

冏 variation

What have you seen?

Flickr updates:

This photo by 强悍的兔子.Rabbit has many permutations:

Also, these two examples of showing up in the character

…are explained by this comic [large size]:

The comic says that the character actually derives, not from and as is commonly taught, but from and . This etymology seems to confirm it. So one of the earliest character etymologies we learn (sun + moon = bright) is either a lie, or actually just a bit more ambiguous than we were led to believe? Interesting!


Sep 2008

Failed Humor Begets Violence?

I read this article on Discovery.com last week: Telling Bad Jokes Invokes Hostility, Violence. It prompted me to reflect upon my struggles with humor in foreign languages, and in English too.

Random observations:

– 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.

Related: When Humor Runs Aground, Dumb Joke [on ChinesePod]


Apr 2006

Wanted: Good Chinese Podcasts

I’d like to find some good Chinese podcasts. I don’t mean podcasts for studying Chinese, I mean podcasts in Chinese, intended for a Chinese audience. Interesting podcasts. The only problem is I don’t have a lot of time to search and then listen to all those podcasts. So I asked around a bit.

As it turns out, CSL blogger extraordinaire Alaric listens to a few Chinese podcasts. These are the ones he listens to:

有一说二 (Roddy also likes this one)
反波 (Antiwave)
Princess Remy

As was pointed out on Chinese Forums as well, Alaric mentioned that the 2005 Chinese Podcast Awards Results are a good place to start looking.

Any other recommendations? Anyone?


Nov 2005


I recently received a new submission for the CBL called blog中文翻译 (“blog Chinese translation”). It doesn’t qualify to be listed on the CBL, as it’s almost entirely in Chinese, but it’s a good idea nonetheless. The author starts an entry with a link to an online English article, then translates it.

It could be very useful to Chinese readers as well as to advanced students of Chinese. The topics all seem to be geeky tech topics. I haven’t yet taken the time to judge the quality of the translation.

There are some terms in the translations which I would not be at all sure how to verify. For example, in one article the author translates “semantic web” as “语义网.” 语义 is indeed the Chinese linguistic term for “semantic” or “semantics,” and clearly means “web,” but is that the official translation for “semantic web?” In this case, it is. However there have to be plenty of cases where a convenient translation standard doesn’t exist.

I don’t envy the Chinese translator his task…


Jul 2005

Pei Sei

My girlfriend and I have been staying with my parents here in Tampa since the 4th of July. My family has been very generous and hospitable to her during that time. Naturally, her response was, “我觉得不好意思.” Then she asked me how to say 不好意思 in English.

I usually find 不好意思 pretty easy to translate, as it can often correspond to “sorry” or “excuse me” in English. When you’re a little late to a meeting, you can say 不好意思 (sorry). When you eat the last cookie and then somone else wants one, you can say 不好意思 (sorry). When you bump someone on the subway, you can say 不好意思 (sorry).

But in this case, my girlfriend’s usage was meant to express something like, “your kindness is too much,” or “you’re being so nice that it makes me feel too indebted.” And she wanted me to come up with one easy word or phrase to translate. When I couldn’t, and I asked for help from my sister, and she couldn’t either, my girlfriend just laughed: “you Americans never feel 不好意思!”

Pei sei is apparently a Taiwanese coinage also meaning 不好意思. According to my source, by speaking fast, the Taiwanese ran the 4 syllables together so much that they became two: pei sei. I thought that was kinda of interesting.


Jun 2005

Animal Names from Animal Names

Not long ago at work I was part of a team working on an educational cartoon about sea creatures. The term 鲸鱼 was used in the script. Someone pointed out that the correct term for the mammal is actually , since a whale is, in fact, not a fish at all (the 鱼 character in means “fish”). I found this quite interesting. In English we don’t need to worry about the actual name of a whale; its name doesn’t carry that information. Still, you hear some of the same kind of nomenclature lecturing from the zoologist crowd when people say “panda bear” or “koala bear.”

I think probably every language has funny words for animals that are based on other animals. In English we have guinea pig, groundhog, hedgehog, prairie dog, jellyfish, and sea lion. I don’t think those are going to change. The ones targeted for “revision” seem to be the ones that are actually potentially misleading due to great similarity.

If you’re a foreigner just learning the Chinese language, however, there are a lot of animal names that could be misleading. Some of the ones that come to mind:

鳄鱼 (lit. “alligator fish”) — alligator or crocodile
熊猫 (lit. “bear cat”) — panda
龙猫 (lit. “dragon cat”) — chinchilla
河马 (lit. “river horse”) — hippopotamus
长颈鹿 (lit. “long neck deer”) — giraffe (hey, some deer do have long necks!)
荷兰猪 (lit. “Dutch pig”) — guinea pig
海豚/海猪 (lit. “sea pig”) — dolphin
豪猪/箭猪 (lit. “badass/arrow pig”) — porcupine
壁虎 (lit. “wall tiger”) — gecko
田鸡 (lit. “field chicken”) — (edible) frog

I’m sure there are more, but I’m not a Chinese animal name encyclopedia.

Maybe I’ve left out a lot, but it seems to me that Chinese does a lot more “borrowing” of animal names to create new animal names than English does. Could it be related to Chinese characters? (A large number of animals have their own characters, but at some point that practice becomes impractical.) It seems that a much greater proportion of animal names in English are loanwords.

I’m not really trying to prove anything here… Just throwing out a few thoughts. Also, I think it’s names like the Chinese examples above that make learning a new language interesting, so it’s a fun thing to share.


Jun 2005

Precious Propaganda

Changning District Propaganda Handbook Cover

Changning District Propaganda Handbook

The other day on the way home I checked my mail. There was no real mail; it was mainly just flyers for satellite TV installation. There was also a little booklet which was quite clearly unrelated to satellite TV, however. It was a Changning District propaganda handbook issued by the government. “What do you want that for?” my girlfriend asked. “Just throw it out.” She doesn’t really get why I would find something like this interesting.

What I find most interesting is that the government still goes to such trouble to even publish something like this. The little booklet is obviously very professionally printed. It’s glossy, in full color. How many people were involved in its publication, and how much money was spent on its production? Was it distributed to all residences in Changning District? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the government is clearly still putting a lot of money into traditional forms of propaganda that seem ineffectual to a new generation of Chinese.

I’m not about to read the whole booklet cover to cover, but it does have some amusing sections. I recommend the Q&A section (30 questions) and the Slogan section (50 slogans). Be sure to click on the “ALL SIZES” button at the top of the photo to see the pages in a readable size. I find Chinese propaganda particularly difficult to translate, so I’m not going to bother. If you read Chinese, have a look. If someone wants to put up a translation, that would be even cooler.

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