The Chengyu Bias

Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.

But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle ? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require no chengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?

Jason's Chinese Project Presentation

The Bias

Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.

The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.

The Four-Character Fetish

Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.

Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.

Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”

In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.

No Special Treatment

In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.

Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.

Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.

So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.

The Caveat

If you really love chengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.


Thanks to @saporedicina for motivating me to finally put this post up. See also Olle of Hacking Chinese’s post (we definitely see eye to eye): Learning the right chengyu the right way.

Credit Sinocism When Credit Is Due

I’m often to busy to give the info-packed Sinocism newsletters my full attention, but when I do, I often find really great stuff. I’ve also noticed a trend on Facebook and Twitter. It goes something like this:

  1. Sinocism newsletter comes out, with a link to especially interesting story “X”
  2. Sinocism readers click through to the story on “X,” love it, share it via Twitter and/or Facebook
  3. The Sinocism readers who share “X” get Likes, retweets, comments

You see the net effect here? Sinocism is serving as an invaluable information hub, but it’s not getting credit for the major role it’s playing in the dissemination of China-related news. And the worst part is that the Sinocism readers aren’t doing it on purpose; they’re just using their social media like they always do, but the way the system is set up, Sinocism gets no credit.

I’m pretty sure I saw an example of this last week. There was a great article about Chinese surnames‘ geographical distribution in China that got a fair amount of attention: Mapping China’s Surnames 制图 “老百姓”. I admit, I tweeted it too, the “bad” way. I then saw lots of people I know on Twitter and Facebook sharing it, no credit. I strongly suspect Sinocism set off the rash of shares (but wasn’t credited).

There are two solutions, as I see it:

  1. Sinocism needs to build its social media presence. Ugh, I feel a little slimy just using the phrase, and I can understand if Bill Bishop would much prefer to keep the endeavor as a blog and newsletter. (Sinocism does have its own (private) Twitter account and Facebook page, but neither are used or promoted much.)
  2. Sinocism readers make an effort to credit the articles they discover through Sinocism when they share them on social media. (For example, you could add “via @sinocism” to tweets, or maybe even “#sinocism“.)

Here’s an example of #2:

Comments welcome! I’ve also asked Bill Bishop for comment. Please also support the Sinocism China Newsletter however you can; it’s a great service.

Apps, Graded Readers, Wiki, Duolingo

Time for a personal update on some of the stuff I’ve been working on….

Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app

Over the weekend AllSet Learning’s Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app (v1.3) was finally approved! I am repeatedly surprised by how much time and effort the creation and maintenance of an iOS app takes. Although the app itself looks great, this is clearly not the best way for developers… it really makes me yearn for HTML5 apps.

That said, I’m really happy with what we’ve done! Sinosplice readers actually contributed ideas for this app’s new content, some of which is free, and some of which is paid. We probably should have added a bit less all at once to this release, but there’s still some more coming. Details about the release are on the AllSet Learning blog post: Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3.

I’m also putting a lot of time into my (sort of) new Chinese graded reader project, but I’m saving more details on that for a future update.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow. We’re adding more sample sentences and more translations across the whole thing, and while it’s already quite extensive in its coverage, it’s also beefing up across the board.

One thing I’ve gotten into personally (for fun, but also research) is Duolingo. I’m trying it out as a purely iPhone experience, and I chose French because I know very little about it, and I know that pronunciation is a challenge. Man, I’ve got some opinions. That’s a future post too, though.

I’m staying super busy, but I have a big long list of blog topics that will see publication on Sinosplice sooner or later. Because I’m spending so much time working on my own projects, it can be hard to not want to blog about them all the time too, but that would get annoying to some of my readers. If anyone has specific questions about what I’m working on, though, let me know, and the answers might just become blog posts.

If you’re interested in updates about all these Chinese-related projects I’m working on at AllSet, please do sign up for the newsletter. We won’t annoy you, and we’ll keep you updated!

The Shaping of a Bilingual Child’s Reality

My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.

The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.

Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?

Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.

Reality Check

Photo by Feldore

Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.

She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.

Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?

More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.

We All Scream for Bling-qilin

The Chinese word for “ice cream” is 冰淇淋 (bingqilin). [Somewhat annoyingly, it also has an alternate form: 冰激凌 (bingjiling), but we’re ignoring that one for the purposes of this pun.]

So from “bīngqílín” (冰淇淋) we get this:

bling淇淋

Honestly, though, they could really be trying a little harder on the bling.

Via friend and ex-co-worker Jason, who’s new doing cool things at FluentU from Taiwan.

Classical Chinese through Chinese Texts

I have to give a quick recommendation to the readers out there that have been toying with the idea of learning a little classical Chinese: Chinese Texts. It’s actually more fun than you might expect.

Via Sinoscism, which offers this introduction:

This course is intended for people who would like to learn how to read classical Chinese philosophy and history as expeditiously as possible. The professor is a specialist in early Chinese history. He is not a linguist, and offers no more discussion of grammatical particles and structures than is strictly necessary.

This may be true, but I find many of the grammatical explanations rather linguisticky. I don’t mind (and I’m sure they could be a lot more abstruse). I like how supplementary grammar examples given are short, to the point, and interesting.

Here’s an example:

而 ér

This is one of the most common words in classical Chinese. It links phrases, not nouns. “And” or “but” is often a satisfactory translation. However, often the phrase preceding 而 is subordinate, so it should be translated as a participle indicating modification. Thus, in the first sentence of the Mencius, the King of Liáng says 不遠千里而來 “[You] came, not considering a thousand miles too far.” In such cases the first phrase describes a condition or background to the second, as in the English sentence “Peter, fully knowing the danger, entered the room.” In other cases the two phrases are co-ordinate, and the second phrase simply narrates what follows (from) the first.

This is also one of those little bits of classical Chinese that will help sophisticate your modern Chinese. We cover 而 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki in a number of patterns.

Another great example of classical Chinese common in written Chinese:

以 yĭ

This character was originally a verb meaning “to take, to take up, to grab onto.” Thus “X 以 noun verb” would mean “X takes or grasps the noun and verbs,” hence “X uses noun to verb.” Thus 以口言 “speaks with the mouth (口 kŏu),” or 以心知 “knows with the heart/mind (心 xīn).”

以 also precedes verbs, in which case it usually acts as a conjunction meaning “in order to.” Thus 出門以見日 “to go out the door in order to see (見 jiàn) the sun,” 溫古以習之 “to review ancient times in order to become familiar with them.”

One of the most common uses of 以 is in the phrase 以為 “to take and make, take and use as, take and regard as.” This phrase can also be divided to form 以 A 為 B, “to take A and make it into B, use it as B, regard it as B.” As the translations suggest, this action can be either physical—to take some object or substance and make it into something—or mental—to regard something as being something else. Thus 以木為門 “to take wood (木 mù) and make a gate,” 王以天下為家 “The king regards the whole world (天下 tiān xià) as his household (家 jiā),” 孔子以國為小 “Confucius considered the state to be small (小 xiăo),” 吾以為子不知之 “I thought that you didn’t know it.” This use of 以為, both as a unit and as separate words, is still common in modern Chinese.

(You can find 以 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki as well, of course.)

I’m just starting this online course (my education in classical Chinese is still spotty and very incomplete), but it came highly recommended by a friend, and what I’ve read so far I’ve enjoyed a lot.

The (Chinese) Alcohol for (Chinese) Alcoholics

Here’s another one for the “I can’t believe they named the product that” file (see also “Cat Crap Coffee“). This one has more of a cultural differences angle, with a little bit of translation difficulty thrown in for good measure.

There’s a brand of Chinese rice wine called 酒鬼酒. Here’s a picture of it:

酒鬼酒

in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “white wine“).

A person who routinely drinks to excess is called a 酒鬼 in Chinese, which literally means “alcohol demon” or “alcohol devil” or “alcohol ghost,” depending on how you want to translate . It sounds pretty negative, but in fact, in Chinese culture this type of alcohol abuse is not nearly so stigmatized. Although the police forces of many regions in China have begun cracking down on drunk driving in recent years, alcoholism in China is not as closely linked in the public consciousness to vehicular manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, and the host of other evils as it often is in the west. In fact, regular heavy drinking is closely linked to some of China’s greatest poets, most famously 李白 (Li Bai).

Here’s 李白 getting his drink on:

Li Bai drinking

So it’s more in the spirit of historical drunken poetry (as opposed to inebriated abusiveness) that this brand of Chinese rice wine is called 酒鬼酒.

Translating the brand name into English is a new challenge in itself, though. If you simply translate 酒鬼 as “alcoholic” and as “alcohol,” you get “Alcoholic Alcohol,” which sounds like it means “Alcohol that Contains Alcohol,” which is just plain dumb. In fact, you can’t use the word “alcoholic” as a modifier at all for that reason, so if you don’t want to ditch the noun “alcoholic” altogether you have to say something like “Alcohol for Alcoholics,” which sounds like some kind of horrible demented “charity” to my American ears.

So what else can you do? “Booze for Boozers” and “Wino Wine” are ridiculous. “Drunk Spirits”? I’m curious what a creative translator can come up with. (Pete? Brendan?)

Anyway, 酒鬼酒 is a real company in China, and has its own Baidu Baike page (in Chinese, obviously), and is also listed on Wikipedia under “unflavored baijiu.”

Chinese Interbank Transfers Go Offline, and Alipay Swoops in

This National Day holiday (October 1-7), the People’s Bank of China (中国人民银行) is doing some major work on its computer system which handles interbank transfers, and as a result, interbank transfers will not be possible for the entire vacation.

It strikes me as totally ridiculous (and incompetent) that such an important part of China’s banking system would need to be down for so long. One could hope that it’s the last big push the country’s banking system needs in order to be completely modernized and never require this kind of downtime again for interbank transfers (or anything else), but I’m not quite that hopeful.

The amusing silver lining of this incident is that Alipay (支付宝, Taobao’s payment service) is taking advantage of the business opportunity and sending out its own marketing message: “hey, you can’t do regular interbank transfers during the October holiday, but if you try Alipay instead, no transfer fees!

Alipay's National Day Holiday "Deal"

Pretty clever.

Bring on the Seed of a Free Internet!

Yesterday quite a stir was caused by an article on the South China Morning Post called EXCLUSIVE: China to lift ban on Facebook – but only within Shanghai free-trade zone. To be clear, though, it’s not just about Facebook:

Beijing has made the landmark decision to lift a ban on internet access within the Shanghai Free-trade Zone to foreign websites considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government, including Facebook, Twitter and newspaper website The New York Times.

An unfiltered Internet? In Shanghai? Seriously?! For some of us, this is a total dream come true. I often say that filtered (and slow, as a result) Internet access in China is one of the most frustrating downsides to living in China as a foreigner. Maybe we should be more concerned about food safety, pollution, and social issues, but the truth is that Internet censorship directly affects us (and our businesses) every single day.

OK, but first, let’s be clear about what this so-called “Shanghai FTZ” really is:

Shanghai Free-trade Zone is the first Hong Kong-like free trade area in mainland China. The plan was first announced by the government in July and it was personally endorsed by Premier Li Keqiang who said he wanted to make the zone a snapshot of how China can upgrade its economic structure. Other mainland cities and provinces including Tianjin and Guangdong have also lobbied Beijing for such approvals. The Shanghai FTZ will first span 28.78 square kilometres in the city’s Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone and Yangshan port and it is believed it may eventually expand to cover the entire Pudong district which covers 1,210.4 sq km of land.

Pink Flowers

Photo by Will Change

OK, so it’s not all of Shanghai, it’s just a corner of Pudong. Bummer. But one could hope that such a haven of free internet access right in Shanghai could be expanded over time… or at least exploited by the entire city. It does give one hope.

Lastly, I’m reminded of a quote here:

百花齐放,百家争鸣 (“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”)

Here’s hoping for the best!


Update: The People’s Daily has refuted the claims made by the SCMP article linked to above. Here’s some English coverage. Bummer, but I guess there’s no new “100 Flowers” incident brewing, at least!

Cat Crap Coffee

OK, so you’ve heard of kopi luwak, right? Just in case you haven’t, here’s some Wikipedia for you:

civet-cat-coffee

Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, refers to the beans of coffee berries once they have been eaten and excreted by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). The name is also used for marketing brewed coffee made from the beans.

Given the process by which this coffee is created, it’s not too surprising that we elect to refer to it in English by a foreign name–kopi luwak–rather than actually giving it a descriptive name. I mean, you can’t just call it “cat crap coffee,” charming as the alliteration may be, right? Well, you can in Chinese.

The Chinese name is 猫屎咖啡, literally, “cat crap coffee.” If you want to be a little cruder, the translation “cat shit coffee” is no less accurate.

What kind of blows my mind is that a coffee shop in the business of trying to sell this product (and it’s kind of expensive coffee) just straight up calls it 猫屎咖啡 (“cat crap coffee”). Don’t strain yourself too much with the marketing effort, right?

You can ask your Chinese friends if they’ve heard of 猫屎咖啡, and probably most of them have. What you won’t hear is them saying things like, “isn’t it weird that we just call it ‘cat shit coffee?'” Well, I have to hand it to the Chinese for calling a spade a spade.

But what I find even crazier is that there’s now a coffee chain expanding to multiple locations in Shanghai that goes by the very name “猫屎咖啡.” So some entrepreneur heard of this coffee, liked it, and decided he wanted the word “shit” in both his main product’s name as well as the name of his very business. Now that’s bold. Sassy, even.

猫屎咖啡

The English name for the Chinese chain is, notably, “Kafelaku Coffee.”

Looks like there’s some backlash forming around this particular strain of coffee in the UK. I can’t imagine it’ll faze the Chinese market, though!

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