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05

Jul 2013

Chinese Baijiu Toasts as an RTS Video Game

The “Chinese Banquet Baijiu Toast” video game needs to be made. (Indie game developers, this idea is free. Hurry up and go start a Kickstarter campaign!)

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

I was having dinner last week with former AllSet intern Parry and current AllSet intern Ben, and we started talking about baijiu (白酒) drinking strategies. I told them about my friend Derek who kind of made himself into an authority on baijiu by drinking way more of the foul liquid than most white people ever have. And then we started talking about baijiu toasts at Chinese dinners. I told them about my experience in Baoding last CNY, and how our hosts had brought “baijiu assassins” to bring down my father-in-law, who’s kind of legendary in the bajiu-drinking department. And I told them about some of the different strategies that are used in big banquet situations where the baijiu flows freely.

What are these strategies, you ask? I’m not talking about cheap “drink water instead of baijiu” tricks, I’m talking about respectable above-board strategies for these drinking events. Some basic ones:

1. Ganging Up: Individuals go toast one particular person, one by one, in rapid succession. That way each “attacker” only has one shot of baijiu, but the “victim” has many, with no time to recover.

2. Table Takedown: Similar to “ganging up,” but you send one person from your table to toast an entire table (everyone at that table must do a shot). When that person from your table returns, you send another person from your table to toast the whole table again. Repeat ad nauseam (and I do mean nauseam!).

3. Empty Table: If things get hot and heavy and there are enough tables at the banquet, it might be wise for everyone at the table to fan out and do multiple table takedowns (or ganging up) at the same time. That way there’s no one left at your table to get taken down! This is also a good time to go to the bathroom, but beware: if you seem to just be running from your drinking duties, you’re just asking to get ganged up on.

Now rarely is there really this much strategizing going on, I think (although there certainly was that dark night in Baoding!). But it makes me think that this could make a cool strategy game. It all reminds me of an RTS (real-time strategy) game like Starcraft.

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

Could some indie game developer make the Starcraft of Chinese Baijiu Toasts? That would be cool… As long as I don’t really have to drink any baijiu to play!

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

Thanks to Mei for doing the PSing!


02

Jul 2013

The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.

jieke

These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”

But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.

So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.

From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)

After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:

1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names

These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.

Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, and are both common in Chinese names. and … not quite so much.

Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).

But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.

The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)

Rose's Revelation


28

Jun 2013

Shanghai had no Grid Plan

Shanghai: not being a grid

Shanghai: not being a grid

I saw this Speed Levitch video in which he rails against the grid plan of New York City, and I couldn’t help but think of my adopted home of Shanghai. Here’s a quote from the video below:

> “Let’s just blow up the grid plan, and rewrite the streets to be much more a self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles… I mean, doesn’t she find this infuriating?”


23

Jun 2013

Strong is good

Here’s another one for the Chinese pun file:

浓好

So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”

The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that and share the phonetic element , and that in this case the person radical in and the water radical in carry meaning.

On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…


19

Jun 2013

Handwritten Chinese Numbers: Alternative Arabic Numerals

I mentioned before in my post “Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6” that I’d have a longer post on this topic. This is it (although not quite as long as I was hoping). Again, I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what foreigners are used to, and present serious potential for confusion and misunderstandings.

4 and 6

This is the issue I mentioned before, and illustrated with this image:

6-4

I actually had a hard time finding really good examples of this “in the wild,” but here’s a fairly representative example:

figures

Here are some more “normal” 4s:

IMG_1346

9

This one is the easiest to document, and by far the least recognizable to Westerners, in my opinion. How do you even describe it? Kind of like a cross between a “P” and a “q”? Spot the 9s!

IMG_1289

IMG_1293

IMG_1422

This last one is interesting:

IMG_1711

You’ll notice the same hand that wrote the wacky 9 also wrote 早餐 as the non-standard 早歺 (that’s a second round simplification character).

5

Sometimes it looks like a backwards Z, and other times it looks like a weird curvy thing with a line through it. In an un-5-like way!

IMG_1294

IMG_1296

One more…

As a bonus, here’s an 8 that looks like a 6:

IMG_1569

Sooo…?

Consider this post a little heads up. If you’re suddenly in a situation in China where you have to be reading numbers, running into these forms can be a little bewildering.

Also, I’ve been trying to collect representative examples for months, and this is all I’ve come up with. (And three of them came from ChinesePod co-host Dilu. Yes, the food-related ones were all me.) If anyone could share additional examples that I’m allowed to post, please email them to me, or link to them in the comments, and I’ll add them here as an update.

Other comments are, of course, also welcome!


11

Jun 2013

Privacy: a great conversation topic

yinsi

This whole PRISM debacle has freaked out and enraged a good section of the American population, and with good reason. But if you try talking about the issue with a Chinese citizen, some very interesting themes may emerge.

Here’s an imagined dialog to illustrate the point:

> American: Did you hear about this whole PRISM thing going on in the U.S.?

> Chinese: No, what is it?

> American: The U.S. government seems to have made a deal with a bunch of major internet companies to get all kinds of supposedly “private” information on all kinds of people.

> Chinese: And?

> American: Well, it was kept secret until recently, when the truth was revealed.

> Chinese: But this was actually surprising to the American people?

> American: Well yeah! We have a right to privacy.

> Chinese: Sounds like Americans and Chinese have pretty similar rights to privacy.

> American: Whoa, whoa… not the same thing! We have rule of law, we have democratically elected leaders, and we can actually speak out against this thing and effect change!

> Chinese: Yeah, good luck with that.

So the Chinese person above was depicted as overly cynical for dramatic effect, but seriously, you should have a conversation with your Chinese friends about the topic of privacy (隐私). It’s not just a political issue; it’s also a cultural issue, and it’s really interesting to hear the views of young Chinese people on privacy. I talked with some friends about some of the issues in the article Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, and it provided a great starting point for this complex topic.


03

Jun 2013

Valuing Vocabulary

My daughter is now one and a half years old, and while she can’t say much yet, I know that little brain of hers is hard at work acquiring language.

One thing that’s become really obvious lately is how much she values the words she already knows. Every morning, as soon as she can, it’s all “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy…” and “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy….” It’s not just that she’s happy to see us in the morning; I’ve come to realize that she’s still slightly uncertain of her mastery of her earliest words (she still occasionally fumbles with the words she knows). She wants to use these words as much as possible because she worked hard to learn them, and doesn’t want to forget them.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: how much do we learners really value the words we learn? I mean, we value them enough to “learn” them in the first place, but do we value them enough to put in the ongoing effort to keep them? When we learn words that we know are useful, do we make damn sure that we use them right away, repeatedly, so that we never let them go?

Granted, not every vocabulary word is going to be as crucial to us as the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” are to a baby. But still, with applying a fraction of that earnestness would go a long way. I’m finding myself grateful for this new daily reminder I have.


Hopelessly Doomed Scooter Ride in China

27

May 2013

Hopelessly Doomed Scooter Ride in China

This video is too amusing to just let it go by… This guy on his scooter is so comically bad that it almost feels engineered. Like it’s meant to be some kind of allegory or something. Anyway:

Here’s the 4.5 MB animated GIF version (blown up 2X):

[Sorry, had to remove the GIF… it was getting too much traffic, and it’s a fairly large file!]

This GIF had the title “humanity is powerless to stop him from riding his scooter” (人类已经无法阻止他骑摩托车了) on the Chinese site it was posted to.

And a great comment from YouTube:

> my computer must be muted… i don’t hear any benny hill music

On the other hand, if you’ve ever been afraid to ride a scooter on the streets of China, this video might actually give you some hope…


23

May 2013

Eating Insects and Animals in China

I recently read the article Five reasons we should all be eating insects.

(I think I would totally eat insects if any of them were as delicious as shrimp, the grasshoppers of the ocean. Alas, I’ve tried eating various types of bugs in China, and they’re just not that tasty. Or… maybe they take quite a bit of getting used to?)

Anyway, reading the article, two China-related thoughts jumped out at me:

1. China should be eating more insects

With this massive population and the multitude of food safety issues, it makes sense, right? And look at the abundance of edible insects in China (especially compared to the U.S.)!

edible-insect-species

2. What would China’s “percentage of animal edible” figures be?

efficiencies-of-production

I know that the U.S. and China have very different thoughts on “percentage of animal edible” for all kinds of animals, including poultry, pork, beef, and lamb. So which numbers are these, and what are the differences between the numbers of the U.S. and China?

The Chinese have never been squeamish eaters, and as long as the cooking methods themselves were Chinese, I can imagine a China where people eat insects in larger quantities.


20

May 2013

Interview by Furio

Furio of the Sapore di Cina blog recently interviewed me about the Chinese Grammar Wiki and AllSet Learning in general. He had some great questions, and I really like how the interview turned out. Check it out: Interview with John Pasden, the founder of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning [also in Italian, in Spanish].

The interview includes a number of questions I’m frequently asked these days by foreigners in China. Here’s an example from the interview:

> You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?

> Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.

> That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.

Read the full interview.


13

May 2013

More “more”

Photo by @biesnecker:

多 + 50%

The original character is, of course, (“more”).

(Specifically, “50% more more.”)


09

May 2013

OF COURSE Radicals

Please excuse a short rant.

Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.

I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).

So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.

(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)

Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!

So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.


07

May 2013

Shanghai bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian

There’s a lot of talk in the Shanghai Catholic Church about recently deceased bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (金鲁贤). It’s kind of a shame, because he seems like a really interesting man, but I didn’t really hear much about him while he was still alive. Probably mostly my fault, but nothing to do now but educate myself.

From the description of his recently published The Memoirs of Jin Luxian, Volume 1: Learning and Relearning 1916-1982:

> Jin Luxian is considered by many to be one of China’s most controversial religious figures. Educated by the Jesuits, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained priest in 1945 before continuing his studies in Europe. In 1951 he made the dangerous decision to return to the newly established People’s Republic of China. He became one of the many thousands of Roman Catholics who suffered persecution. Convicted of counter-revolutionary activities and treason, he was imprisoned for 27 years and only released in 1982. His subsequent decision to accept the government’s invitation to resume his prior role as head of the Shanghai Seminary and then assume the title of Bishop of Shanghai without Vatican approval shocked many Catholics.

From Wikipedia:

> Bishop Jin was ordained bishop without Vatican approval in 1985, but this was later granted by the Vatican in 2004.

The book is very new, and there are no reviews for the book on Amazon yet. Anyone read it? (It’s nowhere to be found in Amazon.cn, which I suppose is a good sign?)

Oh, and here’s a little taste of the political drama that is Catholicism in China (via the LA Times):

> Jin’s first anointed successor as acting bishop, Joseph Xing Wenzhi, resigned last year for reasons still unclear, and his replacement, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, was placed under house arrest at Shanghai’s Sheshan Seminary after enraging party officials by renouncing his membership in the party-controlled Catholic association.


Further reading:

Keeping Faith by Adam Minter on The Atlantic (2007)
Jesuit Bishop Jin of Shanghai, Who Worked to Rebuild Church, Dies at 96 on Jesuit.org
China: Secretary of State note on death of Bishop Jin Luxian on Vatican Radio


02

May 2013

Support Phonemica!

My linguistically-inclined friends at Sinoglot have been quietly building out an amazing project called Phonemica. What’s Phonemica?

phonemica

> Phonemica is a project to record spoken stories in every one of the thousands of varieties of Chinese in order to preserve both stories and language for future generations. We are a team of volunteers working within China and abroad.

> Our mission: Bringing the richness of oral Chinese to a wider audience, through the words of natural storytellers, from every corner of the world where Chinese is spoken.

Phonemia is beautifully designed, has great audio content in various Chinese dialects, and has a really cool custom audio player/annotator to boot. If this interests you at all, you should really check it out.

But there’s more! Phonemica has recently launched an indiegogo campaign to continue the mission and expand the project. Support Phonemica while you still can so that Phonemica can chronicle China’s linguistic riches while it still can.


24

Apr 2013

Reasons for (and against) Code-Switching

NPR has a blog called code switch now, and recently published an article called Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. I recommend you read it in full if you’re at all interested in the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll some up the five reasons listed:

switch.jpg

Photo by ROCPHOTO.CO.UK on Flickr

1. A certain language feels more appropriate in a “primal” state

2. To fit in to a certain linguistic environment

3. To be treated “like a local”

4. To communicate in secret

5. It helps convey a concept more “native” to a certain language

Code-switching is a well-researched linguistic phenomenon, and you can go into it way deeper than the NPR article does (just check out the references of the Wikipedia article on code-switching).

But while in Beijing over the weekend, I was reminded of another aspect of code-switching: it can be annoying. Although the act of code-switching is generally accepted as “normal,” there are still limits. People can code-switch too rapid-fire, or for “the wrong reasons.” (Alas, the Wikipedia article does not comment on “when code-switching gets annoying.”)

So assuming that non-comprehension isn’t a factor, what are the circumstances under which code-switching becomes annoying? I would guess that a flagrant violation of reason #5 above would be the most annoying… switching to another language to express a thoroughly generic concept, rather than for a “culturally justified” reason. Worse yet: doing that repeatedly. This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.

I’m curious, though, what factors might also make code-switching annoying. Some thoughts:

1. Code-switching too often, and for no discernible purpose

2. Code-switching which seems to be for the purpose of showing off

I’m pretty tolerant of code-switching, though. Maybe you readers have other reasons to add?


18

Apr 2013

Reactivation (character art)

reactivation

I’m planning a trip to the Shanghai Power Station of Art, and I couldn’t help but notice (and appreciate the cover design for a book called Reactivation. Can you read what it says on the cover?

(You’ll need at least an Intermediate level of Chinese to know the words, but even a high elementary-level student should have learned most of the characters, in theory.)

OK, to prevent anyone from getting too frustrated, here’s the Chinese:

重新发电

I’m looking forward to seeing more Chinese creativity at the Power Station of Art.


16

Apr 2013

Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6

This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what an American like me is used to.

An example to prove the point:

6-4

I won’t post my own observations in this blog post. Feel free to contribute your own interpretations in the comments (and tell us where you’re from), and, more importantly, ask your Chinese friends to do it and post those results too.

I’ve done this little experiment with a number of people, Chinese and non-, and have gotten surprisingly varied replies (but with some identifiable patterns).


If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl.


09

Apr 2013

Your Little Sister Is Popular

Over the past year or so the expression 你妹 (literally, “your little sister”) is pretty popular. You might guess that it’s kind of dirty, based on other common vulgar phrases involving mothers or grandmothers, and you’d be kind of right. It’s clearly not a polite phrase, but it seems to be more often used in a flippant way among friends rather than a vulgar way to start fights.

One of the means by which the phrase 你妹 is getting more exposure is through the crazy popular new game “找你妹” (literally, “Look for Your Little Sister,” although that’s not how the name is really understood). I first noticed this game a couple weeks ago while riding public transportation. I’m seeing it played on iPhones and iPads everywhere around Shanghai. It’s especially interesting to me because it looks so lame, despite being so popular. You basically scroll through a bunch of little drawings of objects, and click on the ones you’re told to find. Whee.

It looks like this:

找你妹

找你妹

There’s even a video on YouTube about how a kid played 找你妹 all night and went blind. (Well, I guess there are allegedly more embarrassing ways to go blind…) You can see footage of the game in action in parts of the clip:

As for the recent upsurge in usage of the phrase 你妹, it’s kind of interesting, and Baidu offers an explanation (in Chinese, of course). I’m not going to try to explain it because I’m not personally super familiar with all the nuances of its usage yet, but this is exactly the type of situation where having a group of young Chinese teachers on staff comes in super handy, so I’m going to have to get into this topic in the AllSet Learning office. (Anyone interested in it or have a link to an explanation as good or better than Baidu’s? The other explanations I could find were a bit lacking.)


If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…

03

Apr 2013

If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…

pbr-interview

The AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app comes preloaded with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each book is a simple interview question which is then answered by 10 different Chinese college kids. They’re all studying in Shanghai, but they come from all over China. You get to hear each young person’s own voice, see their photo, and even read their actual handwriting (in characters), which is also accompanied by text. This is a lot more interesting than most textbooks the kids are using these days! Through this app, it’s my hope to show a diverse, modern side of China’s youth, different from other sources.

We’ve aimed for intermediate level learners in the past, but we would consider doing simpler or more difficult questions. The interview questions already included in the app are:

1. 你最喜欢吃什么? (What do you most like to eat?)

2. 谈到美国,你第一个想到的是什么? (When speaking of the USA, what’s the first thing you think of?)

3. 你认为幸福是什么? (What do you think happiness is?)

And this is the part where I ask you, my readers, what types of questions you’d like us to ask for the next round of interviews. The questions need to be relatively short, and somewhat open-ended, but nothing requiring an essay to answer. It’s OK to get just a little bit into the human side of politics (One Child Policy, etc.), but we’re not going to do any particularly inflammatory topics, or topics that could get the interviewees in trouble.

So what questions would you like to see covered in the Chinese Picture Book Reader? Please share in the comments, or drop me an email if you like.


01

Apr 2013

School’s out for April Fool’s Day

It’s April Fool’s Day (愚人节), and I don’t have anything special, but I just thought I’d share this cute photo I saw online:

IMG_1464

Here’s the original text:

> 放学了好开心

> 老胡快走~

> 好的~

> 我收拾一下书包

Here’s the text with punctuation (and pinyin tooltips added):

> 放学了,好开心!老胡,快走!

> 好的。我收拾一下书包。

And the translation:

> School’s out. I’m so happy! Lao Hu, hurry up!

> OK. Just packing up my book bag.

Have a good April Fool’s Day, 童鞋们 (that’s cutesy talk for 同学们).