China in the West (in a sign)

An interesting design using the characters 西 (west) and (“middle”/China):

西中

Via Sinosplice reader Érica. Photo taken in Hong Kong.

UPDATE: The original post mistakenly had (east) instead of in the 西. My bad!

The 100 Most Common Chinese Surnames

Common Chinese Surnames

Names are an important type of vocabulary. Any native speaker of English can hear a name like “Stephanie” or “Tom” or “Catherine” or “John” and instantly recognize it as a name. Knowing that a word is a name can, of course, have an important impact on listening comprehension.

In Chinese, it’s not the given names that draw from a general pool of “common names;” it’s the surnames. There is a relatively small number of surnames which the vast majority of the Chinese population uses. So knowing what the most common surnames are can come in extremely handy.

I recently discovered the website MingBa.cn (名霸), and among other name-related resources, it’s got a great page on Chinese surnames, apparently from the 百家姓. It has the top 100 at the top, followed by a huge alphabetical list of Chinese surnames, including all the obscure ones (along with pinyin!).

I didn’t like how the font was pretty small, and the top 100 didn’t have pinyin, so I created a vocabulary list for the top 100 on Sinosplice: The Top 100 Chinese Surnames. Enjoy the huge font.


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Japanese Food, Chinese Characters

Here’s a chart which incorporates illustrations of food into their Chinese character forms [Note: these are based on Japanese kanji, so not all apply equally to Chinese; see my notes below]:

Kanji + Food

Below are the characters involved, suped up with Sinosplice Tooltips for the readings of both the Chinese and Japanese (more notes at the bottom). I get the impression the English translations were not written by a native speaker, so I’ve added a few notes in brackets to clarify where appropriate.

English Japanese Chinese (traditional) Chinese (simplified)
apple 林檎 蘋果 苹果
grapes 葡萄 葡萄 葡萄
octopus 章魚 章鱼
lemon 檸檬 檸檬 柠檬
honey 蜂蜜 蜂蜜 蜂蜜
chicken 鶏肉 雞肉 鸡肉
eel 鰻魚 鳗鱼
[mandarin] orange 蜜柑 橘子 橘子
strawberry 草莓 草莓
weigh 量る 稱 (重量) 称 (重量)
bamboo [shoot]
shrimp ( / / )
sausage 腹詰 香腸 香肠
pork 豚肉 豬肉 猪肉
[sweet] dumpling 団子 圓子 圆子
root [= radish] 大根 蘿卜 萝卜
egg 雞蛋 鸡蛋
peach 桃子 桃子
eggplant 茄(子) 茄子 茄子
noodles
seaweed 海藻 海藻 海藻
onion (玉)葱 洋蔥 洋葱
melon
saurel [mackerel?] 鯖魚 [?] 鲭鱼 [?]
mix 混ぜる 攪拌 搅拌
cow
flatfish [flounder?] 鰈魚 [?] 鲽鱼 [?]
milk 牛乳 牛奶 牛奶
persimmon 柿子 柿子
drink 飲み物 飲料 饮料

Creating this table was a good exercise in both vocab comparison between Japanese and Chinese, and also simplified and traditional characters. A few things jumped out as I created the table above:

  1. Many of the Japanese characters above are not normally written in characters (kanji). In modern Japan, many words like 林檎 (apple), (strawberry), and (shrimp) are often just written as “りんご,” “いちご,” and “えび,” respectively, in hiragana (no characters).

  2. There are words like レモン (檸檬), the word for “lemon,” which looks weird not written in katakana. And I’m not familiar with 腹詰; I’ve always encountered “ソーセージ,” which entered Japanese as a loanword from the English “sausage.”

  3. means “strawberry” in Japanese, but it’s the morpheme “-berry” in Chinese, used in such words as 草莓 (strawberry), 蓝莓 (blueberry), and 黑莓 (blackberry).

  4. I’m not a big fish-eater, so I’m not confident in the fish translations. Any corrections are welcome.

There’s a lot more I could say here, but unfortunately, my blogging time is limited. Comments welcome!


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Da Admiral’s Mandarin Un-Learning School

I subscribe to SmartShanghai‘s email newsletter, less because I try to attend all the latest events in this city, and more because the man who writes it, “Da Admiral,” is pretty hilarious.

His latest newsletter, focused on “un-learning Chinese” definitely caught my attention:

Whenever I’m stopped on the streets, the thing I get more than anything is, “Oh Admiral, Admiral… you’re so knowledgeable and good looking and insightful about Shanghai life and society — I bet you speak perfect Mandarin!”

My friends, I’ll let you in on a little secret:

The opposite couldn’t be more true! I don’t speak Chinese for shit!

And then it occurred to me… Why don’t I take my eight-years-plus experience in not speaking Chinese and share it with others? For money?

WBW Couch Potato Edition

Un-learning in action, by Cris

So I’m opening a Mandarin Un-Learning School.

As a sort of compliment to “Mandarin Garden” or whatever it is, I’m calling it “Da Admiral’s Mandarin Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland” and we’re accepting students at all skill levels, whether you want us to rip perfect fluency in Chinese from your brain, or even if you’re looking for something a little more part-time –maybe you’d just like to reduce your vocab a bit and un-learn a few key Chinese phrases — we can help.

Here’s the pitch:

“Through the sweat off his brow and sheer determination, Da Admiral has maintained a near perfect and unassailable wall of incommunicability with 99% of Chinese society. Dude is still pointing at shit on the menus like a nutsack who just got off the plane, like, yesterday.

And now he’s willing to share his secrets with you.

For a small enrolment fee, you’ll have access to our proven tools of whittling down knowledge of Chinese to basically nil. Whether you want to take a special, personal, one-on-one, 24 hour intensive course — basically this involves about seven pounds of weed and the Complete Filmography of Nicolas Cage — or are looking to un-learn Chinese in a group setting with our special “Dog Bloopers and Various Shit on the Internet” group classes, we’ll have you not speaking Chinese in no time.”

Are you a Mandarin un-learner on the go? Subscribe to our special Un-ChinesePod, which is basically just me screaming nonsensical phrases in made-up French to you, intermixed with the latest news on the Batman sequel. Mind-numbing stuff. Just try to retain knowledge after a few of these.

What I’m saying here is nothing about my time in Shanghai has been more rewarding — more spiritually fulfilling — than not learning Chinese, and I feel it’s a duty at this point to share my non-knowledge with others for money.

I’m an educator at heart. I care about my students. They’re like my family for money. And when we’re in cabs together and I see them struggling with that last — “Zho-gw-ai” or “Yoh-gw-ai” or “Ting” or whatever the fuck it is, I don’t know, you know what I mean — I feel like my job is done.

My job is done… and a tear comes to my eye.

I’m obligated to point out here: if you’re looking for a really good one-on-one “Mandarin Un-Un-Learning” experience in Shanghai, there’s AllSet Learning. And of course, the best Un-Un-ChinesePod is ChinesePod.

More Machine Translation Menu Fun

OK, I know, it’s been done before, and it’s just so easy. There are many menus in China with bad (and often hilarious) English translations. But even after all these years, this one stood out to me because (1) it is otherwise an extremely high quality menu, and (2) the errors are of a somewhat bizarre nature, rather than centering on horribly inappropriate mistranslations of the character [more on that here and here].

Anyway, here are some samples (apologies for the quality!):

Roast pork bag

Where pathology and cuisine meet:

Carrots for the corn from what virus

Have make any bacteria

Halogen? (Another meaning of )

Spiced halogen three

A bunch of them have really weird endings (I think the machine translated names have been truncated):

Pomelo the smell of

Bouquet steamed fish when

It smell of cooking rice stuffed with

Member of the bamboo and

'd better meat with a te

This last one is my favorite, because it comes across almost poetic:

Taken meat dishes broken string beans

taken meat
dishes broken
string beans

Indeed.

You can find more of the menu here.


Update:

In case you’re interested, the restaurant is called 炖品世家, or “Aristocratic Family of Soup.” (Oh yes, this is clearly a restaurant that has some fun with the English language!) The restaurant is in Shanghai, near the intersection of Kangding Road and Wanhangdu Road (康定路万航渡路). A photo:

Aristocratic Family of Soup

Also, a big thanks to Will, who introduced this resturant to me and provide the above photo and address.

Happy Birthday to AllSet Learning

This month my learning consultancy, AllSet Learning, turned one year old. It’s hard to believe that a year has already gone by. So much has happened in the first year, and yet there is so, so much more to be done. It’s a good feeling.

I’ve got a blog post up on the AllSet Learning blog: Year One Complete.

The service is developing quite nicely, although I’m nowhere near satisfied. Thanks to all the Sinosplice readers who have shown your support for the new business, and especially the ones that have become clients. Great things are in store for 2011.

If you’re interested in becoming a client, it’s a good time to get in touch; the number of clients I can serve at one time is limited, so I may have to start a waiting list soon.

VPNs Under Attack

Attack!

Attack! by FlyinPhotography

How do we foreigners live in China when YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all blocked here? We use VPNs to get around the blocks. Five years ago, it seemed like only a few foreigners I knew in Shanghai found it really necessary to pay money to circumvent the blocks. Now, almost all foreigners I know find it necessary. Tools like Facebook have become too important of a means of communication to just give up.

For a while, it felt like there was a truce. Lots of sites will get blocked, but the blocks are easily worked around through VPNs. Those who “need” VPNs just had to pay for them. Now the situation is different. Recently many VPNs have stopped working, and even those of us that prefer to stay apolitical need to use the internet (unfettered).

Some recent articles about the status of VPNs in China:

Are all VPNs now disabled in China? Fortunately, no. I am lucky enough to be using one of the ones that has not been affected by the recent changes to the GFW. Who knows how long that will last.

Edmund Backhouse: Decadence Mandchoue

I first started hearing about Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) years ago from Brendan O’Kane and Dave Lancashire. A “self-made sinologist,” he was apparently fluent in Chinese and quite well connected, but was also later exposed as a magnificent fraud. A prolific diarist, he also dwelled quite a bit on the sexy details of the Qing Dynasty.

Anyway, it may at times be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in Edmund Backhouse’s story, but it’s quite a story. So I’m really looking forward to reading a new book called Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, which makes a lot of Backhouse’s memoirs available for the first time. From the Amazon page:

Published now for the first time, the controversial memoir of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, Decadence Mandchoue, provides a unique and shocking glimpse into the hidden world of China’s imperial palace with its rampant corruption, grand conspiracies and uninhibited sexuality. Backhouse was made notorious by Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1976 bestseller Hermit of Peking, which accused Backhouse of fraudulence and forgery. This work, written shortly before the author’s death in 1943, was dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than a pornographic noveletteA” and lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Yet even the most incredible tales deserve at least a second opinion. This edition, created using a combination of the three original manuscripts held by the Bodleian, has been comprehensively annotated, fully translated and features an introduction by editor Derek Sandhaus, urging a reappraisal of Backhouse’s legacy. Alternately shocking and lyrical, Decadence Mandchoue is the masterwork of a linguistic genius; a tremendous literary achievement and a sensational account of the inner workings of the Manchu dynasty in the years before its collapse in 1911. If true, Backhouse’s chronicle completely reshapes contemporary historians’ understanding of the era, and provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle that can only be described as intimate.

Full disclosure: I’m friends with Derek Sandhaus, editor/author of the book. But that doesn’t make this book any less awesome.

Big Taste, as in “Spicy”

Diced Spicy Chicken chong qing style

Spicy, by roboppo

The other night I was enjoying a simple meal by myself in a dongbei (northeast China) restaurant. I overheard an exchange between two women and the restaurant owner. It went something like this:

[after ordering]

Woman: 上次点的菜太淡了,我们要味儿大一点的。 Last time our food was too bland. We want the taste to be “bigger.”

Server: 好的。 OK.

[the dishes are served, the women try them]

Woman: 服务员,我们刚才说过了,我们要味儿大一点的。 Server, we just told you: we want the taste “bigger.”

Server: 你这个“味儿大”啥意思?是说咸点,还是什么? What do you mean, “bigger?” Saltier, or what?

Woman: 就是味儿大一点。辣点。 Bigger taste. Spicier.

Server: 哦,你要辣一点的。我以为“味儿大”的意思就是味道浓一点。 Oh, you wanted it spicier! I thought “big taste” just meant stronger flavor.

Woman: 不,是辣的意思。 No, it means spicy.

Server: 那,你本来就应该说“辣点”。 Then you should have just said “spicy” in the first place…

[The server takes the dish away to make it spicier, grumbling a bit.]

I was intrigued by this exchange for several reasons. First, neither party was from the Shanghai region, so the miscommunication couldn’t be blamed on the north-south divide that you typically see in Shanghai (like the baozi / mantou distinction). Second, the women were using an expression which, although simple, I had never heard either, and I couldn’t find listed in any of the dictionaries in Pleco (I was looking it up while eavesdropping on their conversation). And third, any time groups of Chinese people have trouble communicating, it’s interesting to me for linguistic reasons, as well as somewhat comforting, as a student who has experienced his own fair share of frustrating communication difficulties.

Also, since the word 味儿 can refer to odor as well as taste, in the absence of clear context, a more likely interpretation of 味儿大 is “strong-smelling,” or, quite possibly, “stinky.”

Three Gorges Dam, Yichang, China

Yichang, by DigitalGlobe-Imagery

Anyway, after I finished my meal, I decided to go over and ask the women about the 味儿大 expression they used, where they were from, etc. They were extremely cooperative. It turns out they’re from Yichang (宜昌). I recorded the conversation, edited it down a little, and have included it for your amusement.

Read the rest of this entry »

X is the Unknown

Do you remember “solving for x” in math class? When you first started algebra (or was it pre-algebra?), you had to learn a whole new set of methods which, when applied, could magically reveal the values of the unknown variables.

So when you saw this:

2x = 8

4x + y = 17

z(3x – 2y) = 30

…before long you could handily solve for x. And once you had x, you could solve for y. Then z was a piece of cake too.

The Algebra Connection

Chinese pronunciation is similar. We native speakers of English of English have to learn to produce some new sounds in order to become fluent speakers of Chinese. Although the pinyin “r” sound is formidable, what I’m talking about today are the sounds linguists call “alveolo-palatals“: the three Mandarin consonant sounds pinyin represents as “x,” “q,” and “j.”

So how are the sounds of Mandarin like algebra? Well, just as the in the above algebra example one would first solve for x, then solve for y, and finally solve for z, learning those “alveolo-palatals” involves a similar chain effect. Once you’ve solved for “x” (I’m talking the pinyin x here), “q” and “j” both become relatively simple. “X” is definitely the one you want to start with, though, for many reasons. X is the unknown. First solve for “x,” and “q” and “j” are within your grasp.

Why X?

There are a number of reasons to start with “x.” First of all, it’s a prominent feature of the Chinese word almost everyone learns right after “nihao” (你好). Yes, the word is “xiexie” (谢谢), the Chinese word for “thank you.”

Second, the “x” consonant contains the basic feature you need to build on to learn “q” and then “j.” Just as solving for x in the algebra equations above allows you to solve for y with a simple operation, the same is true for pinyin “x” and then “q.” Allow me to explain.

The True Nature of X, Q, and J

If you’ve studied phonetics at all, you learn IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). The main idea behind IPA is that as nearly as possible, every unique sound is represented by a unique symbol. So one good way to know if a sound in a foreign language is really equivalent to a sound in English is to check their respective IPA notations.

In English, for example, the “sh” sound isn’t actually an “s” sound plus an “h” sound. We just write it as “sh.” In reality, it’s a sound different from all the other sounds in the English language. It gets its own IPA symbol: ʃ. Makes sense, right? Now, a lot of new learners to Chinese think that pinyin “x” is the same as English’s “sh.” If that were true, the IPA symbols for the two sounds would be the same. But they’re not.

IPA for x, q, j

If there is any doubt that the pinyin “x,” “q,” and “j” sounds are foreign for speakers of English, you can look up the IPA for the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t freak out, now. The alien symbols representing pinyin’s “x,” “j,” and “q,” are, respectively, ɕ, tɕʰ, and tɕ.

Now take a look at those three consonant sounds again: ɕ, tɕʰ, tɕ. The common element is ɕ. That’s the “x” sound. This sound does not exist in English; “x” is the unknown. But the addition of the other sounds, which are not foreign to English speakers, will result in the “q” and “j” sounds.

So, once again, master that “x” sound, and you can unlock the other two. It’s practically “buy one get two free,” but you definitely have to pay for the “x,” and you may need to struggle a bit. [More info on producing this sound here.]

It’s worth it, though. Before long you’ll leave “syeh-syeh” behind and utter “xièxie” perfectly. Just solve for “x” first.


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