Baymax is “Big White”

It doesn’t feel like the movie Big Hero 6 (called 超能陆战队 in mainland China) was hugely popular in Shanghai, but the character Baymax sure is! I see him everywhere these days. His Chinese name is 大白, literally, “big white.”

Baymax = Dabai

To me this name is cute, because it reminds me of 小白, a common name for a dog in China (kind of like “Fido” or “Spot”), except, well… bigger. When I ask Chinese friends, though, they don’t necessarily make the same connection.

The name 大白 also lends itself well to a little characterplay:

Untitled

The eagle-eyed will also spot a little characterplay going on with the word 暖男, which is a relatively new slang term. Literally “warm male,” it refers to a sensitive, considerate guy. Chinese ads often go out of their way to incorporate the latest slang as much as possible.

The Chairman’s Bao

Since my job at AllSet Learning is to create personalized Chinese courses for clients, I’m always on the lookout for good new sources of study material. The most interesting and promising one I’ve found lately is called The Chairman’s Bao (主席日报). More than simply a collection of interesting articles in Chinese, the site describes itself as “the 1st ever online Chinese simplified newspaper dedicated to those learning Mandarin.” This is because each article has been written (simply) to conform to a specific HSK level. The lowest level on the site is currently HSK 3, the highest HSK 6+.

The Chairman's Bao: home page

This is pretty awesome, considering that many learners despair of ever being able to read an actual newspaper until their overall levels are somewhere around “advanced.” I myself put off reading newspaper articles until I was almost ready for my graduate-level studies in Chinese. Some learners feel that browser extensions provide the reading help needed, but it’s still very easy to get discouraged if you’re looking up every other word in an article.

Essentially, this is a news-themed application of the graded reader idea. While the articles themselves are not long enough to be considered true extensive reading exercises, it’s still a refreshing take on the “study the news in Chinese” idea, and it makes news far more accessible to more learners than ever before.

Here are some of my observations about the service:

  • It’s free! It might not remain that way, so check it out while you still can. It’s currently not even necessary to create an account to read articles and listen to audio, unless you want to save vocabulary words.
  • You’ll need an account to use the built-in dictionary. The dictionary isn’t of the “mouse-over” variety, though; you actually have to select text with your cursor. This means that if you incorrectly parse a word, the dictionary is of little help. The good news, though, is that you can also use a popup dictionary extension on the site (which could also provide grammar links), and there will be no conflict with the built-in dictionary. Hopefully the built-in dictionary will improve over time. (If you use the built-in dictionary, though, you have the added advantage of being able to save words to your account on the site.)
  • The articles are pretty well-chosen. While you may not be interested in everything, you can undoubtedly find some articles that interest you, and at your level.
  • The articles’ audio recordings are clear, although sometimes the person reading seems less than enthusiastic. Considering that it’s provided for free, though, it’s quite good most of the time (no robot voices!).
  • The site doesn’t tell you how many articles are on the site, but there are clearly a lot.

Because I had a number of questions about The Chairman’s Bao, I got in touch and actually met with one of the co-founders, Thomas Reid, who is also Chief of Staff. He was also gracious enough to do a mini-interview about the service:


John: How many total articles are on the site? Do you have a breakdown by level?

Tom: As of [May 28th], there are 254 articles that have been published on the site (HSK3: 60, HSK4: 68, HSK5: 73, HSK6/6+: 53). I’m afraid that there is no way to get these numbers on the site itself, however you can sort the articles by level and scroll down right until the first articles published from our launch in January. All articles are available to view.

The Chairman's Bao: so many girlfriends

John: What is your new article publication schedule? Do you have a breakdown by level?

Tom: We aim to publish 2-3 new articles a day. This was being achieved until recently when 2 of our staff left. As such we can only publish 1-2 per day. I am currently recruiting new writers and we will soon be back up to our original quota. As for the level breakdown, I try and keep it as even as possible with the number of articles being written and the days they are uploaded and published. However there are a lot of factors that can affect the timeline here, particularly the strict editing procedure. Sometimes in order to guarantee an article’s quality according to a certain level, modifications need to be made. This can slow down the time it takes for the article to be published.

John: How do you choose what articles to do, and who does it?

Tom: Myself and my partners [CEO] Matt Carter and [CMO] Sean McGibney choose the stories. We are constantly browsing news not just from within China but all over the globe to find our stories. The main focus is on China, but we will, of course, try to include major events and interesting developments from around the world.

John: How do you level your articles, and who does the work?

Tom: Once we have found the news, we add it to a shared folder and assign it an HSK level before sending it to the writers. We judge this on the content of the article. We need to look at what words must be used in order to tell the story in its most basic form. These words are a good indication of a suitable level. If they are relatively simple, then the writers can build sentences around them for low levels. More complex words will, of course, require high levels. The writers then write the articles and submit them to the site. The editors then check the articles to ensure a good style and verify the academic quality. Finally, audio is added and the article is published.

John: Do you have any cool new features planned that you can share?

Tom: We are currently designing the App for both iPhone and android. This has already started and will be finished in time for the next academic year.


I’m not going to do a full review including the vocabulary manager; I don’t use that myself. But there’s definitely a dearth of good study material out there, and it’s great to The Chairman’s Bao breaking new ground and addressing head-on one of the issues that has plagued us for so long: we want to read something interesting.

Check it out and spread the word!

Schrodinger’s Douchebag (Chinese version)

Schrodinger Erwin B9

Note: this man is not the douchebag.

Original Schrodinger’s douchebag:

One who makes douchebag statements, particularly sexist, racist or otherwise bigoted ones, then decides whether they were “just joking” or dead serious based on whether other people in the group approve or not.

(In case you’re not clear on the original original reference, it’s to Schrodinger’s cat.)

Here’s the Schrodinger’s Douchebag, Chinese version (as presented on Quora by user Feifei Wang):

Schrodinger’s Douchebag, Chinese version

[…] Almost every time someone (White or Chinese Americans alike) ask me something about China, it’s always bad or weird: do Chinese people eat dogs? do Chinese people pee at street? are Chinese people still can’t afford this and that? do you have internet? Is it true that you really can’t get on facebook or google? What about Tibet and/or Taiwan? Do Chinese people killing infant baby girls because of one child policy? Just how corrupt is Chinese government?

From time to time, I think people get off on [asking purely negative questions about China]. People enjoy the feeling of superiority, that no matter how bad his personal life is, at least he’s better than someone. And they disguise that (intentionally or unintentionally) with a fake curiosity.

I call this Schrodinger’s douchebag – Chinese version: Someone would ask an offensive question about China and then decide whether they’re “just curious” or dead serious based on whether other people in the group approve or not.

Are there people how are really, genuinely curious about a certain bad aspect of Chinese culture? Sure there are. But the same kind of genuinely curious people are also interested in the good things about China as well. If someone comes to you asking only the bad things, you can just make an excuse and politely walk away from the conversation. People like this don’t deserve your time. They can rot in their ignorant and racist bigotry for all I care.

Of course, douchebaggery about China isn’t limited to those with little working knowledge of China. I had a conversation with a friend recently about the frequent representations of “the Chinese” as “the other” by even the Old China Hand expats often labeled as “experts” that should know better. I’ve been accused myself, in the past, about this act of carelessly “othering” when talking about China.

Does that mean that we can’t talk about cultural differences or point out problems for fear of offending people (not that!) and being politically incorrect? Of course not! (It had better not.) All it means is that we’re all better off and have a better chance of actually being heard by thoughtful individuals if we try to apply just a little discernment and dial down the blanket statements. (Hint: generalizations that start with “Chinese people” are worth investigating.) If something feels a little too “they’re not like us,” try a more sensitive treatment of the topic. At the very least, you’ll likely get fewer racists agreeing with you in your comment section (how embarrassing!).

4 Reasons I Want the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters

There’s a new Kickstarter project related to learning Chinese definitely worthy of more attention: the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters. I’ve had the pleasure of multiple Skype calls with John and Ash of Outlier Linguistic Solutions, and this project is no joke. They’re out to build something I’ve wished has existed for quite a while, and they’ve got the skills and dedication to make it happen.

The Kickstarter page is packed with explanation, so I won’t rehash the same information you can check out on your own. But I will tell you what’s interesting about this project to me.

  1. It integrates with Pleco. Pleco is already my favorite dictionary, largely because it contains so many different dictionaries. It would be annoying if the Outlier Dictionary were a separate app, and building an app from scratch is a huge drain on resources. So I think this was a smart way to launch the dictionary.
  2. The Outlier founders are learners turned experts (check out this profile). Sure, no one knows Chinese better than the Chinese, but the perspective of a foreigner that has the passion to devote years and years of his life to it is hugely valuable. They have put a lot of thought into the difference between how native speakers learn Chinese and how foreigners learn Chinese, they’ve deconstructed the process, and they’ve come up with a better way for foreigners to learn characters. We learners need this!
  3. The dictionary is academically rigorous. Unlike most dictionaries, it doesn’t hold the legendary 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi) as the ultimate infallible reference. In fact, research into mistakes made by the Shuowen are part of the dictionary. This is amazing!
  4. The approach taken to Chinese character structure is new and necessary. I’ve complained about certain products claiming that radicals are a revolutionary way to learn characters. They’re not. In fact, the term “radical” itself is outmoded and confusing, because it’s tied to outdated dead-tree character dictionaries. So the Outlier Dictionary rightly ditches the term “radical” in favor of “functional component,” and it doesn’t stop there. Check out this breakdown:

Outlier Functional Components

OK, but is it too geeky?

One of the concerns I expressed to the Outlier team was that they were building a dictionary for academics that didn’t really serve the practical needs of the average learner. They fervently assured me this was not the case; they are building a dictionary that enables a strong understanding of the system of functional components behind characters, while also enabling curious learners to go as deep as they want in their character studies. This is exactly how it should be done, so I can’t wait to get my hands on this dictionary. I also plan to keep working with the Outlier team and deepen my involvement in their project. I know that clients of AllSet Learning could really use what Outlier is developing.

I’m embedding a demo video at the bottom, but there is a ton of information on the Kickstart page, so check it out!

Outlier Linguistic Solutions — Demo Walkthrough from Outlier Linguistic Solutions on Vimeo.

Far and Near, Black Eyes, and Gu Cheng

Fishermen 漁夫

Photo by Melinda ^..^

Former AllSet Learning intern Parry recently shared this Chinese poem with me. It amazed me with its simplicity. This is a poem that even an elementary learner can get.

The poem [via Baidu Baike]:

远和近

你,
一会看我,
一会看云。
我觉得,
你看我时很远,
你看云时很近。

——顾城

Here it is in pinyin:

Yuǎn hé Jìn

Nǐ,
yīhuī kàn wǒ,
yīhuī kàn yún.
Wǒ juéde,
nǐ kàn wǒ shí hěn yuǎn,
nǐ kàn yún shí hěn jìn.

——Gù Chéng

And in English translation [also via Baidu Baike]:

Far and Near

You,
you look at me one moment
and at clouds the next.
I feel
when you’re looking at me, you’re far away,
but when you’re looking at the clouds, how could we be nearer!

translated by Gordon T. Osing and De-An Wu Swihart.

The only potentially challenging aspects for a learner (armed with a dictionary tool) are:

  1. Use of 一会 (also written as 一会儿), meaning “for a moment,” which is often pronounced “yíhuì” or “yíhuìer” (make sure that you know your tone change rules!)
  2. Use of 时 (shí), a more formal equivalent of 的时候 (de shíhou)

I’m going to have to look into Gu Cheng more. He also has this great 2-line poem (taken from the Wikipedia article just linked to), which is basically at the intermediate level:

黑夜给了我黑色的眼睛
我却用它寻找光明

Pinyin:

Hēiyè gěi le wǒ hēisè de yǎnjing
Wǒ què yòng tā xúnzhǎo guāngmíng

English translation:

The dark night gave me black eyes,
I use them nonetheless seeking for the light.

There are a few words in there that would definitely need to be looked up by an intermediate learner, but the only challenging grammatical point is the use of 却 (què).

It’s so great to have material like this accessible to learners.

“C” is for “Women”

Here’s a little puzzle for you. Why is this women’s restroom labeled with the letter “C”?

"C" is for "Women"

Here’s another clue: the men’s room is labeled with the letter “W”.

It took me a few minutes to work this out, but eventually I solved it. It’s like this:

  1. Men’s and women’s rooms in China, when the traditional “” for “men” and “” for “women” are abandoned for a more international feel, are often labeled simply with a letter “M” for “men” and a letter “W” for “women”.
  2. Someone noticed this, but only remembered the “W” (and not what it stood for).
  3. That same person knew that restrooms in China are often called “WC” (there’s even a hand gesture for it), and assumed that that’s where the “W” came from.
  4. The letters “W” and “C” were arbitrarily assigned to the men’s and women’s rooms.

It makes me wonder if all the international quirkiness around us in China has a similarly comprehensible explanation.

Roofies, Counterfeit Money, and Firearms

I’m used to seeing ads for fake IDs everywhere in China (sometimes as a stamp, sometimes just written in permanent black marker, nothing more than the word 办证 and a phone number), but I was surprised by this ad. I encountered it in a public restroom near Mogan Shan (莫干山):

Illegal Stuff

The ad is the black stamp on the “step closer to the urinal” PSA, and it’s selling three things:

  • 迷药 (something like roofies)
  • 假币 (counterfeit money)
  • 枪支 (firearms)

All of these, obviously, are highly illegal in China. I’m not sure how such a brazen method of advertising illegal goods can be pulled off (even outside the big city).

May Day Word Play

Today is May 1st, China’s International Workers’ Day holiday. Yesterday I saw this amusing little joke, posted by a former student, “Monica.” The humor is based on transliteration. First the joke, then I’ll follow up with a translation and explanation.

小时侯上学,把“English”读为
“应给利息”的同学当了银行行长,
读为“阴沟里洗”的成了小菜贩子,
读为“因果联系”的成了哲学家,
读为“硬改历史”的成了政治家,
读为“英国里去”的成了海外华侨。
而我,不小心读成了“应该累死”,
结果成了一名光荣的劳动者……工作辛苦了,
提前祝大家五一节快乐!

Translation:

When I was in primary school, the kids that pronounced the word “English”
as “yīng gěi lìxī” became bankers,
as “yīngōu lǐ xǐ” became vegetable vendors,
as “yīn-guǒ liánxì” became philosophers,
as “yìng gǎi lìshǐ” became politicians,
as “Yīngguó lǐ qù” became overseas Chinese.
As for me, I accidentally pronounced it “yīnggāi lèisǐ,” and as a result became a glorious laborer…. You’ve all been working hard; I wish you an early May 1st Labor Day!

For this to make sense, you have to read each individual character that makes up each transliteration (phonetic approximations of the word “English”). Here’s a quick gloss:

Washing Vegetables

Photo by IamNotUnique

  • 应给利息: “should, give, interest”
  • 阴沟里洗: “sewer, in, wash”
  • 因果联系: “cause-effect, connection”
  • 硬改历史: “hard/insist on, change, history”
  • 英国里去: “England, in, go”
  • 应该累死: “should, dead-tired”

(The “washing in the sewer” one refers to washing vegetables in less-than-clean water, rather than bathing, I think.)

Chinese people with limited English ability really do pronounce the word “English” as something like “ying-ge-li-xi,” which makes the joke all the better.


A note to learners: please remember that pinyin “x” should not be pronounced like English “sh.”

Holla as “Ni Hao”

I was amused by this translation of 你好 (“hello”) as “holla“:

Holla = 你好?

I’ve been annoyed in the past by how 你好 is almost exclusively translated as “hello” when “hi” or “hey” would serve better in many contexts. In fact, long ago, when I taught English in Hangzhou, I forced my students to stop using “hello” all the time and start using “hi” and “hey” to be more natural in informal situations.

Still, “holla??” Seems like a translator was bored and trying to amuse himself.

Although this does raise another interesting question: how would one most faithfully translate “holla” into Chinese (dialect allowed)?

Chinese Gothic

There are tons of gated communities on the outskirts of Shanghai, each offering its own brand of opulence, and frequently with a western aesthetic. One example of this is 马德里洋房, or “Madrid Western Houses.” I can barely make out the English name in the image below, but I think maybe it reads “Palacio de Madrid”? Considering that most Chinese don’t read Spanish, this name is pushing for new heights in pretentiousness.

Rather than apartments, or 公寓 (where most Chinese live), this community offers stand-alone houses with small yards. These are generally referred to as 别墅 in Chinese (a word frequently translated as “villa” in English, but which is often used in Chinese marketing speak to make clear that these are not apartments).

What’s interesting about 马德里洋房 is the Chinese font it uses in its name, which is based on a medieval gothic style:

马德里洋房: Chinese Gothic

Sorry the image quality isn’t too good; this is the best I could dig up. Has anyone out there seen any other medieval gothic Chinese?

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