Oct 2015

Tone Corrections from a 3-year-old


When my daughter was still learning to talk, she used to occasionally make tone mistakes, and this amused everybody. Now she’s almost 4, attending a Chinese pre-school, and her tones are pretty perfect.

The other day I was taking to her about a picture that featured a Chinese lantern (pictured at right). I was speaking in English, but for some reason I also brought up the Chinese word: 灯笼 (dēnglong). I pronounced it “dēnglóng.” Although those are the correct tones for those characters, I slipped up, because for this word, the second character should be read as a neutral tone: “dēnglong.”

She immediately pounced on my mistake. This is the first time she’s corrected me in a tone error, and she was delighted. (I’m sure I have many more years of this to look forward to…)

So then she was all, “ha ha, you said ‘dēnlóng’ instead of ‘dēnlong’…” and I noticed a mistake on her part. Instead of saying “dēng,” she was actually saying “dēn” (final -n instead of final -ng). I pointed this out, and she was, of course, incredulous that she, too, could be wrong. Looks like we’ll need to spend some time training that “thick Shanghai accent” out of her!

My daughter has also commented to me on how people from different countries pronounce English in different ways… I’m looking forward to having more linguistic conversations with my bilingual kid!


Oct 2015

The Case for Zhuyin

Zhuyin (also called “bopomofo”) is a system for writing Chinese phonetically, instead of using, say, pinyin. It’s pretty much exclusively used in Taiwan, but it’s quite popular among a minority of Chinese learners. The first time I saw it, I thought it looked like “bizarro kana,” as some of the symbols are similar to those used in Japanese. Some symbols also look like Chinese character components. It looks like this:





Mark of recently released a program called Zhuyin King (注音大王), which is still in its early stages, but aims to provide all the support one needs to fully master zhuyin.

When Mark made a post on Reddit, he was challenged with the question: why in the world would you learn zhuyin instead of pinyin? (A fair question.)

The best answer Mark gave was this one:

> When reading books annotated with pinyin, it’s very easy for the familiar Latin alphabet to draw your eye, even when you don’t need it. With zhuyin, westerners often tend to stay focused on the characters until they hit one they truly need help with… and then they look at the zhuyin beside it.

This is a big problem with a lot of Chinese learning materials: pinyin is featured too prominently, making it virtually impossible to ignore even if you really do want to focus on the characters before “cheating.” Zhuyin allegedly solves this problem.

Still, if you’re studying (or planning to study) Chinese in mainland China, no one uses anything but pinyin. So you have to wonder: who should be interested in zhuyin?

My answer:

1. Anyone planning to study or work in Taiwan (not mainland China) should learn zhuyin
2. Anyone that already knows some Chinese but plans to move to Taiwan for more than a month or two should learn zhuyin

It’s not that no one uses pinyin in Taiwan (more and more people do), or that you can’t get by without it (you certainly can); it’s that only if you learn zhuyin can you have the “no cheating” advantage listed above. (Mark estimates that the number of learners of Chinese is “about 15% for foreign students and most of them are either learning in [Taiwan] or 2nd generation [Chinese].”

If you’re just interested in browsing the zhuyin symbols, check out AllSet Learning’s pinyin chart. Click on “Show more Settings” and you can choose to display zhuyin for every pinyin syllable:

Pinyin + Zhuyin

Related Links:

– Wikipedia: Zhuyin (Bopomofo)
– Chinese Pronunciation Wiki: Zhuyin
– Chinese Pronunciation Wiki: Pinyin chart (with zhuyin support)
– Hacking Chinese: Learning to pronounce Mandarin with Pinyin, Zhuyin and IPA: Part 2
Zhuyin King (注音大王)


Oct 2015

A Graffiti Theory on Love

I feel like this message is not something you’d see in American graffiti:



It reads:

> 爱情最终目的是婚姻

> Àiqíng zuìzhōng mùdì shì hūnyīn

> The ultimate goal of love is marriage

Hmmmm, not hard to guess the story behind that one.

The same graffiti “artist” seems to have left this as well:


幸好 is a word meaning “fortunately”, but the final character ( on ?) appears to not exist? The character comes close.


Sep 2015

Fishing for Cancer Sticks, Chinese-style

I think we’re all familiar with the “claw crane” arcade game, whereby players are suckered into spending lots of coins trying to pluck a stuffed animal or plastic-encapsulated toy out of an enclosed box using a (very hard to control) mechanical crane.

What I’m not familiar with is seeing boxes of cigarettes as prizes (with a fairy Hello Kitty on the machine, no less). I saw this in a backstreet in Shanghai the other day:



The two main domestic cigarette brands in the box are 利群 (Liqun) and 红双喜 (Double Happiness). It’s a bottled green tea box and a instant noodle (红烧牛肉面) box propping up the fun prizes.


Sep 2015

Bill Bishop: Trust between Obama and Xi is a Fantasy

I enjoyed this little piece of political philosophizing from Bill Bishop’s Sinocism Newsletter, so I thought I’d share:

> I have a bit of headache wading through the mass of competing OpEds about the Xi visit and US-China relations. One thing I do not understand is people talking about the need for trust in the US-China relationship. I am sorry to be so cynical (then again the name of this newsletter rhymes with cynicism) but Chinese politicians do not trust each other, US politicians do not trust each other, the Communist Party has made it very clear it sees itself in an ideological struggle with the “Western values” represented by America, so how can any sentient person really expect there to be trust between the two governments?

> Or is it just a diplo-speak nicety people think needs to be parroted, even though everyone realizes it is a bit of a fantasy?

US President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping

The last article I read on the topic called the two world leaders frenemies. (I’m pretty sure such a designation would preclude trust?)

P.S. Bill Bishop recently left China, but Sinocism lives on. Even when based in Washington, D.C., a better source for China reading is not likely to come along any time soon.


Sep 2015

How I Learned Chinese (part 4)

It seems to have become a tradition of mine to drag this series out over years and years, but this part should be the last one I need to write for quite some time. Just a quick sum up:

Part 1 (2007): How I got started in Chinese in college
Part 2 (2007): How I coped with no one understanding me after arriving in China, and how I got to a decent (intermediate) level of Chinese
Part 3 (2012): How I updated my goals to help me power through the “intermediate plateau”

This post is more of a look at how I learned, rather than specifically what I did. I’d also like to look more closely at the relationship between study and practice. This balance is essential to any learner’s long-term progress, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Learning Timeline

First, a quick timeline of my experiences:

1998-1999 (STUDY): Started Chinese classes at UF. “Practice” consisted of meeting a language partner once a week, but it barely made a difference.
2000 (PRACTICE): Arrived in China and started using my busted Chinese. Was dismayed to discover my Chinese was decidedly not awesome.
2001 (STUDY): Found a professional tutor who was able to help me fix my major pronunciation issues. This, in turn, led to much more efficient practice.
2001-2003 (PRACTICE): Lots of speaking practice with people around me (details here), some self-study on the side, but the major emphasis was practice.
2003 (STUDY): One-semester HSK course helped me identify some holes in my self-studied Chinese, especially in more formal Chinese.
2004 (PRACTICE): My first job in Shanghai was English-related, but I still got to use Chinese for most of my work. I learned a lot.
2004-2005 (STUDY): Prepped for grad school, using a tutor.
2005-2007 (STUDY/PRACTICE): Masters program in applied linguistics in Chinese. Heavy components of both practice (everything was in Chinese) and study (there was plenty of vocabulary and sophisticated grammar to learn).
2006-2013 (PRACTICE): Working at ChinesePod was tons of great practice, but I also learned a great deal, even if I was never directly “studying.”
2010-present (PRACTICE): Building AllSet Learning, learning to run a business, managing Chinese employees, was all done in Chinese. More great practice. And learning all day long.

The Role of Study

Especially in the beginning, you need a helping hand to learn Chinese. It’s very hard to start “practicing” without some kind of structured study. Many learners turn to schools for this, and tutors are another option (both have pros and cons), but it’s hard to argue that some kind of formal study is not helpful for most people.

The key is that study alone will rarely lead to real fluency. At some point (preferably in the elementary stages), you need to be given ample opportunities to speak Chinese in a natural way. Hopefully this is motivating and fun, and not something scary. If the end goal is spoken fluency, you have to start practicing speaking. Exorcise those demons of bad Chinese!

Study itself has many forms, however, and I’ve found that many learners appreciate school lessons in the early stages, whereas 1-on-1 tutoring becomes much more useful once there’s a good foundation, and concrete goals for how Chinese can be applied start to take shape. So for me, the “schooling” was OK as my first three semesters’ foundation and then as HSK prep. Tutoring helped me fix the very specific pronunciation problems I was still having when I first arrived in China (I really needed individualized attention for that). Later, again, tutoring made the most sense once I had the concrete goal of getting into grad school and needed help learning some specific material. (I also had to spend a lot of time managing my tutor, though… There was no AllSet Learning back then!)

I remember very clearly, sitting in my Chinese syntax class in grad school, listening to the professor detail some finer points on the relationships between certain Chinese prepositions and verbs, and thinking, “these are the ultimate advanced Chinese lessons. The meta-lessons that even native speakers are clueless on.” So there was always a strong aspect of “study” within the “practice” of grad school in Chinese. Once I started working, though, “practice” really became the main focus, and “study” was relegated to an ongoing “as needed” self-directed activity.

The Role of Practice

My real “practice” started when I arrived in China. It was the reality check I needed, but also a source of motivation. To quote part 2:

> OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

> At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism.

That was kind of rough. It would have been nice if I had been prepared for actual communication in Chinese in progressive stages. I got through the initial shock, though.

The early years of practice in China were both the hardest and the most fun. They were the hardest for me because I had to force myself to talk to strangers regularly, and often my non-comprehension made those conversations quite awkward. Oh yes, I dealt with a lot of awkwardness. But my psyche was protected, in part, by this weird “I can’t believe I’m in China talking to people in Chinese” euphoria that imparted a certain delusion of unreality. And so in many ways, it all felt like a weird, fun dream.

The “delusion of unreality” slowly wears off as you get to the Intermediate stage, however. Most things Chinese people say in Chinese are no longer “funny” or “crazy” because you’re used to Chinese culture, and you’re used to the way people speak. To give a simple example, you stop thinking, “it’s so weird that Chinese people are always asking me if I’ve eaten” every time and you start thinking of it as a normal greeting. You stop “hearing Chinese” and you start just listening to people. And just talking back.

It’s at this point that the practical application type of “practice” becomes really important. For me, it was my initial training job in Shanghai first. Then it was the work of my Chinese language masters program: following the lectures, completing the readings, writing papers, etc. Then it was directing ChinesePod lesson development. And then it was my work at AllSet Learning (and later Mandarin Companion).

Bob and Weave

It’s all about a Mix

If you look at my timeline, you’ll see a lot of vacillating between “study” and “practice.” You’ll see long periods of “practice” broken up by mostly shorter periods of intense “study.” And you’ll notice that the “study” is heavily concentrated in the beginning, whereas “practice” is heavily concentrated in the later stages.

Hopefully you never have a total lack of practice in the beginning (even if it’s just with a teacher), but practice should really ramp up over time until it’s just “application” (using Chinese for normal communication or work or whatever). Similarly, your “study” looms large in the beginning, but should never go away completely (even advanced learners pick up new vocabulary all the time), as it shrinks down in overall prominence.

It’s not that I concocted this; it’s not a method. It’s a very natural process, and I’m merely reflecting on how these principles played out in my own experience. Through my work at AllSet Learning, I often help frustrated learners, and a study/practice imbalance is one of the major sources of frustration. Some learners have unrealistic expectations about how far traditional “study” can take them, fluency-wise. Others have been immersed in “practice” for far too long and are not even sure how to go about addressing the gaps caused by years of neglecting “study.” I admit that it’s partly just luck, but somehow I managed to strike the right balance over the years.

I can’t say I learned Chinese the fastest or to some mind-blowing level, but I achieved my goals and have the skills to apply it in my career. I’ll never stop studying Chinese (“活到老学到老,” as the Chinese say), but especially due to the strong “practice” components of the past 10 years, I do feel confident in saying “I’ve learned Chinese.” (Just not all of it!)


Sep 2015

Update on Work at AllSet

I don’t blog as often as I once did, mostly because I’m so busy at work. (Also, having two kids now doesn’t give me lots of extra free time.) Sometimes I get asked about what AllSet Learning is doing. I’ve even been criticized for not writing about it enough here!

So here’s a little Q&A to fill in readers…

Q: Is AllSet Learning still providing 1-on-1 Chinese lessons in Shanghai?

Yes, of course! We normally do not advertise; we rely mainly on word of mouth (which has been quite kind to us over the years). We’ve got lots of satisfied customers at all levels, each studying a personalized curriculum. If you’re in Shanghai, definitely get in touch. (If you’re not in Shanghai, it might be worth getting in touch too.)

Q: But you’re also doing other things?

Yes, working day in and day out with individual learners helps me stay in touch with learners’ needs and keeps me sensitive to where the gaps still are. Then we release products to fill those gaps when we have time to develop them. So we’ve got the Chinese Grammar Wiki, Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, iOS Pinyin chart and Picture Book Reader, and Pronunciation Packs, plus the books we developed for Mandarin Companion.


Q: And you still have time for new clients?

Yes, in fact, we’re currently gearing up to start new clients post-summer, so if you’ve been deliberating, now is a good time, while there’s still room. Summer is typically our low season, so we spend more time on product development, then get busier again with client duties in the fall.

Q: So were you developing anything new this summer?

Definitely! We’ve had a very busy summer. Aside from the new Mandarin Companion Level 2 book, we’ve got quite a few things almost done, which we’re currently polishing and will be announcing soon. (If you’re curious about these, sign up for the newsletter to the latest news.)


Q: Aren’t you also involved in the Outlier Chinese Dictionary workbook?

Yes indeed! I’ve already started meeting and discussing with Ash, and that project will start soon as well. I’m very excited about this, because it’s something I’ve sensed a need for among my clients. Unlike some language issues, characters are not something I want to tackle on my own, so it’s very satisfying to be part of a larger effort at helping making characters more accessible to learners.

That’s about it for now! If you’re curious about anything AllSet Learning is doing, please get in touch.


Sep 2015

Can Chinese Names and English Names Co-exist?

I recent saw this question on Quora and liked the following answer by Raj Bhuptani:

Do Americans prefer that Chinese people use their original Chinese name or an English name?

> I think either name is fine, but personally something that annoys me is when a Chinese person gives his Chinese name to his Chinese friends and his English name to his non-Chinese friends. The reason for using an English name should be that you prefer the English name, not that you think your Chinese name is too hard for an American to pronounce. In addition to feeling a bit patronizing (“My name is Mingyuan, but you can call me William”), using different names with different friends can lead to confusion when you have both Chinese and non-Chinese friends (in college, more than once have I had an epiphany along the lines of “Ohhhh! Lucy and Lu Xi are the same person?!”)

I totally agree with this answer, but I also understand that Chinese people with a name like “Xu Juan” or the like basically have no hope of Americans pronouncing their name correctly, so it’s kind of a dilemma.

I personally arrived in China eager to use a Chinese name (I chose 潘吉), but over the years started to feel it was a little silly, and just reverted to my English name. In my case, “John” is quite easy for Chinese speakers, and now, pretty much only my in-laws call me by my Chinese name (which is fine).

It’s safe to say, though, that most Chinese names are harder for English speakers than most English names are for Chinese speakers.

Solution: The world needs to learn Chinese! (ha… OK, maybe just pinyin?)


Sep 2015

McDonalds Getting its Pun on

I spotted a punny McDonalds ad in the subway yesterday that might not be obvious to a lot of learners:


The ad presupposes knowledge of the word 充电宝, which is a pretty recent word, and isn’t in a lot of dictionaries yet. 充电 means “to recharge” (electricity, but sometimes metaphorically as well). means “treasure” and is also used in the common word for “baby” (宝宝), but here it just means “thing.” 充电器 already means “charger” (for electronics), but the difference here is that a 充电宝 is a battery that can be carried with you and used to recharge you smartphone. These portable chargers seem to be way more popular in China than the battery-extending cases (Mophie and the like) I’ve seen a number of Americans use.


OK, so back to the pun. It’s focused on the “bǎo” part of 充电宝 (portable charger). It uses the character , meaning “full”. It creates the sense that a meal at McDonalds is a “recharging fill” (not “full recharge”).

Anyway, you get the idea.


Aug 2015

More Effort Means More Learning

This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.

Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?

A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”


Q: What? Why?

A: I’m glad you asked…

1. Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
2. Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
3. Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
4. You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.

Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.

HSK hundreds

But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.


Aug 2015

Upgrading Self-Introductions

Remember when you first started studying Chinese? The teacher always made you introduce yourself. It usually consisted of something like the following:


Photo by zhengdzi on Flickr

* My name is _________.
* I am from _________.
* I am _________ years old.

It’s all very cute and practical, and instinctively seems appropriate to both beginners in a language as well as three-year-old native speakers. This type of basic self-introduction is generally accepted as normal and necessary.

Unfortunately, this self-introduction (自我介绍 in Chinese) often goes un-updated for years on end. So you’ve been studying Chinese for 2 years, are at a solid intermediate level, and yet you basically still recite the same self-introduction above (perhaps swapping out your age for your job). That’s kinda lame.

In reality, every new word you learn, every cool new grammar point, could potentially enhance your stale old self-introduction. Take the time to do the upgrade! Just like failing to upgrade your 听不懂 is going to affect your interactions with Chinese people, failing to upgrade your self-introduction will have the same effect. Ideally, your self-introduction should be as cutting-edge, language-wise, as you can smoothly handle. It’s OK to show off your Chinese level with your self-introduction just a little, if it means people will stop treating you like you just learned to say 你好.

The nice thing about self-introductions is that you can be creative. Keeping in mind that this is going to vary a lot depending on the individual, the audience, and the Chinese level of the speaker, here are a few suggestions to get you going:

* If you have a Chinese name, and you tell your audience which characters are used to write it, use creative, interesting choices of words that use the characters in your name. You can use this trick to associate your name with a famous Chinese person you’re a fan of, or whatever you can come up with.
* As you tell your audience where you are from, use the opportunity to stifle annoying stereotypes from the beginning (e.g. “I’m an American but I’ve never owned a gun,” or “I’m French but I’m not at all romantic,” etc.).
* Add in your Chinese zodiac sign instead of your age for fun (and to show that you’re not a total newb in this whole “Chinese culture” game).
* Depending on the audience, you may want to head off other annoying questions, by saying things like “I can use chopsticks” or “I am used to eating Chinese food”, but make sure that it comes across as a joke, and not the lamest brag ever.
* Include a few details about why you first came to China or why you haven’t left yet, after all these years (because the Chinese are already curious about that kind of thing)… but be prepared for follow-up questions!
* Include what Chinese movies, books, or dishes you like for a chance to make an instant connection with certain members of your audience.

P.S. Here are two cute kids’ self-introduction videos on Flickr: [1], [2].


Aug 2015

“True Detective” in Chinese is Sneaky

I just finished Season 2 of the bleak HBO TV series True Detective, and enjoyed it (although it depressed me a bit). I’ve had a few discussions with Chinese friends about the show, and I realized that the Chinese name of the show is worth a mention.


So the Chinese name of the show is 真探. The word for “detective” in Chinese is 侦探. Notice that both are pronounced exactly the same: “zhēn tàn.”

So if you’re hearing the name of this show in Chinese for the first time, you’d probably think it is just called “zhēntàn,” translating to “The Detective” in English. You have to actually see the characters to realize that a “True” has been slipped in there. (Makes me think of a line from the show intro: “I live among you… well disguised.”) It’s different from the common character swaps you see in Chinese brand names because it’s actually a translation, and it’s the fusing of two meaningful words into one.

And this got me thinking about similar wordplay for other names. It’s not a true portmanteau, as I understand the term, because there is no phonetic fusing going on. The “fusing” is entirely writing-based, but extends to meaning once you see it. We can do this in English too, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any examples right now.

I actually see this a lot going the other way (semantically) in Chinese: a name makes you think of certain meanings associated with certain characters (that you think you hear), but then the name purposely switches out those characters (in an attempt to be more “subtle”?). One example of that is 肯德基. (The Chinese name for Kentucky is 肯塔基州, but since it’s the name for KFC, the brand could have used instead of ). Another examples is 珍爱网, a dating site, which is clearly playing on the “true love” meaning of the word 真爱.


Aug 2015

Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Cultural Gaps


I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).

Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)

Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.


  1. 唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
  2. 孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
  3. 猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
  4. 沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
  5. 玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)

OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:


  1. The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
  2. In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
  3. When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
  4. Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
  5. 唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
  6. The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
  7. Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
  8. The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
  9. Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)

If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.

I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:

Music video with scenes from the movie:

Additional Links:

西游记之大圣归来 on Baidu (Chinese)
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on IMDb
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on Wikipedia
Journey to the West on Wikipedia


Jul 2015

Watermelon Man’s Secret

I was tempted to use a title like, “You think this guy is just selling watermelons, but you won’t believe what he does next!

Anyway, on my morning commute, I passed this dejected-looking vendor, eyes downcast, as he shirtlessly watched over his truckload of watermelons. He was staring at his scale, and I imagined he was thinking about how absurd it is that this electronic device determines his income.


As I got closer, I saw what he was actually doing.


Yeah, that’s an iPad. Watermelon guy was watching some kind of drama (but due to bad luck, the screen was black right when I snapped this shot).


Jul 2015

A “Home” for Escher in Chinese Design

Here’s a poster I spotted in a mall recently:


The character there is , meaning “house,” “home,” or sometimes even “family.”

The first thing I noticed was its Escher-like quality, updated to a modern aesthetic. (Reminded me of Monument Valley even more than Escher directly, actually.) Very cool, and not something I see much in China, for sure!

The second thing I noticed was that the stylized character on the poster is missing a few strokes. If this character is , then the bottom part is supposed to be , which has 7 strokes. Instead, the bottom part looks more like the 5-stroke , minus the top stroke.

I found this odd, because this is a pretty big difference, and in my experience the Chinese don’t take character mutilation too lightly, especially when it’s not just private use. My wife’s response was just to shrug it off, though, with a, “yeah, but it’s still supposed to be .”

What do your Chinese friends think? Cool design, or heinous affront to the sanctity of the 10 strokes of the Chinese character ?


Jul 2015

Steve Jobs Ice Cream in Shanghai

Passing by Chinese “Italian-style” ice cream shop “Iceason” with a friend yesterday, we were startled to see an ad featuring “3D printed” ice cream bars in the likeness of the late Steve Jobs:



Steve Jobs Ice Cream

The surname “Jobs” is normally written in Chinese as “乔布斯,” or “Qiaobusi” in pinyin (a transliteration, where the characters are chosen for phonetic value only, and essentially have no meaning). For this ice cream bar, it’s written as “乔不死,” also “Qiaobusi” in pinyin, but with different characters so that it includes the phrase “not die” (不死).

The same shop also sells “3D printed” ice cream bars in the shape of the Apple watch and iPhone.


Jul 2015

Dian Dian Sha

This is the logo for a service called 点点啥 (Dian Dian Sha):


So this is the Chinese verb (meaning “to order (food)”), reduplicated. The word is a colloquial way to say 什么 (“what”), used more in northern China.

Nice characterplay here, the second replaced by the service bell, while the first is modified a bit to look more like the bell.

One thing beginners might not know is that the character component consisting of four short diagonal lines (as in ) is frequently written as a single horizontal line. You can actually see this in some PRC character simplifications:

  • 魚 → 鱼
  • 馬 → 马

Obviously, it’s not applied across the board, leaving us with characters like , , and , which still use the four short diagonal lines in printed form. In handwritten forms (or certain fonts), even those four short lines frequently get turned into a horizontal line (usually kinda squiggly).

点点啥 (Dian Dian Sha) has an app aimed at reduced food-related wait times.


Jul 2015

Elementary School Volunteers Push for a More Civilized Shanghai

I was impressed by the “propaganda” handed to me in the subway yesterday. I had seen lots of elementary schoolers on the streets engaged in some sort of volunteer work, and then in the subway I experienced it firsthand. Here’s the flyer I was given:

Civilized Pet Care (Propaganda Flyer)

The “” represents the barking sound a dog makes in Chinese. (In panel 3, the little girls is saying “妈妈“, “mommy.”) The characters in the lower righthand corner read:

> 从我做起 [it starts with me]

> 文明养宠 [civilized care for pets]

> 长宁实验小学 [Changning Experimental Elementary School]

What impressed me was the idea that the school is (1) educating the kids to be “civilized” (文明), but also (2) trying to use the kids to influence the less civilized adults (who are arguably most in need of this type of education, but also prone to negatively influencing the kids). Made me think of the brilliant Thai anti-smoking ad that also used kids.

Here’s hoping these efforts pay off! We’d all like a “more civilized” Shanghai (with less dog poop).


Jun 2015

Mike’s Immersion Experience in the Chinese Countryside

I’ve had many conversations with learners looking for an immersion experience in China. Well, Michael Hurwitz, my friend (and former AllSet Learning client) decided to round out his China experience with a month in the Sichuan countryside (outside Chengdu) doing farm work. He went through an organization called WWOOF that sets up labor-hungry foreigners with organic farms and the like.

But is a month enough? Was it a good experience? I interviewed Mike to get his take on it.


农村 Mike

Could you explain why you felt the need to run off to the Chinese countryside for an immersion experience?

Mike: It was something I’d wanted to do for awhile, but the language element was only part of it. I was also interested in checking out a more “authentic” Chinese place than Shanghai, if that makes any sense. The lack of westerners and English speakers around was a big part of my reasoning, but I was also hoping that the stronger “Chineseness” of the 农村 [countryside] (and 农民 [rural workers], for that matter) would rub off on me a bit and that I’d understand a bit more about China, having seen a lifestyle very different than the urban one I’d been participating in.

What was the farm work like?

Mike: The work itself was nothing crazy, primarily because the farm was as much about environmental education as it was about growing stuff. I mostly planted trees and pulled weeds, with lots of other work thrown in. The farm’s owner was really flexible; for instance I sometimes have knee problems (because I’m secretly a 45-year old man) and he had no problem with me forgoing work that involved lots of crouching. Towards the end of my time there, the owner even had me translate some instruction manuals for products he’d ordered from the US into Chinese! Productive work, but not quite what I’d imagined beforehand.


How was the food?

Mike: Food was very hit or miss. I don’t eat pork, which complicated things, as one of the 阿姨s [ayis] simply couldn’t understand that, and often left me no meat alternatives, which is tough when you’re doing physical labor all day. However, the other 阿姨 [ayi] was a wizard in the kitchen and made some absolutely magnificent dishes that I still crave.


Were you able to practice a lot of Chinese? What kinds of conversations did you have? Was the location a good choice?

Mike: Definitely got a huge amount of practice. No one else on the farm spoke English, so all communication was done in Chinese. It was very productive in that it was easy to get past the normal sorts of introductory conversations and actually start talking with people about normal things grown-ups talk about.

This was very cool because so often as a foreigner you’re seen as more of a curiosity than an actual person, so you can’t really have genuine conversations, but living on the farm with the same people for an extended period helped me get past that.

The location was something of a mixed bag. While being out west meant there weren’t any English speakers, it also meant there were some very non-standard accents and a lot of older folks who just couldn’t speak Mandarin. It led to situations where I had to have younger people translate from the local dialect into Mandarin for me, which was colorful but inconvenient.

Another element was that many of the things I was doing and experiencing – farm work, new foods, new activities, etc – were things I had never had cause to talk about or learn the vocabulary for in Chinese, so there was a lot of learning on the fly there as well. It was a bit overwhelming at first but after a week or so it got a lot easier. It helped as well that the farm’s owner and his wife were Beijingers, so I could always lean on them when I needed something more 标准 [standard].

Would you recommend what you did to other learners looking for an immersion experience?

Mike: I would definitely recommend an immersion experience, but location-wise, I’d say I had mixed results. Being in a place with so many non-standard accents and weird dialects made it a less smooth experience than I’d hoped. I think volunteering somewhere with more standard Mandarin would ameliorate that though.

Would you recommend what you did as a purely cultural experience?

Mike: Most definitely. I didn’t know what to expect going into this experience but I learned a tremendous amount about farming and rural Chinese life. Most of the people I met were great and it was wonderful to see a totally different side of the Chinese experience!



Jun 2015

Carefully Translate

I love how this translation is technically correct (and perfect English, mind you)… outside of context:


As usual, context is key for a correct translation.

This sentence is ambiguous because of the word 地. Is it (de, neutral tone), the structural particle that turns words into adverbs? Or is it (dì, fourth tone), meaning “ground”?

If it’s the former, you get, “carefully slide.” If it’s the latter, you get, “be careful; the ground is slippery.” Computers, those infamously stupid translators, still have a hard time with context.