Living with Dead Hearts: Language

By now I hope you’ve heard of Living with Dead Hearts, a documentary project spearheaded by Charlie Custer of ChinaGeeks which aims to spread awareness of a very serious social problem in China:

Each year, as many as 70,000 children are kidnapped in China. They are not held for ransom; rather, they are sold. The lucky ones are sold into new families who raise them like adopted children; others are sold into slave labor, marriage, prostitution, and lives on the street. Most children who are kidnapped will never see their parents again.

Living with Dead Hearts follows several parents whose children have been kidnapped as they struggle to track down their kids and to make sense of what has happened to them. Along the way, the film also looks at the experience of kidnapping and growing up in a strange family from the child’s perspective and examines the lives of street children.

Aside from helping get the word out about this project, I’d like to offer a few comments for students of Chinese, since many readers of this blog fall into that category. From a language learning perspective, there are some things you want to be aware of before watching even the trailer for this documentary:

  1. Many of the people in the documentary speak in heavily accented Mandarin, if not full-on “dialect” (read “topolect,” which might as well be a separate language, in many cases). If you’re a learner trying to use Chinese movies as study material, this is not a film to beat yourself up about for not understanding; most Chinese native speakers will be unable to understand some of the people in this movie without the aid of subtitles.

    Dialect is sometimes used as a literary device; unfortunately, in this film it’s simply a cruel reality: the victims interviewed are often from the countryside and can do little to fight back or get help.

  2. The word 拐卖 means “to abduct and sell,” the verb for what we commonly refer to as “human trafficking.” It’s not a verb you normally hear much. In the trailer below, you hear the grown-up 拐卖 victim use the term.
  3. The Chinese word in the background behind the title “Living with Dead Hearts” is 躯壳. Although not an everyday term, this is one of those words that has a definite “correct” reading in the dictionary (“qūqiào”), but don’t be surprised if some of your Chinese friends read it as “qūké.”

    The meaning of the word is “body; outer form” (not including the soul). My New Age Chinese-English Dictionary provides an appropriate sample sentence:

    失去精神,就成了没有灵魂的~。 Once the spirit is lost, what is left is only the body without the soul.

The trailer is below. If you haven’t watched it yet, please do.


Related Links:

Camus on China

Albert-Camus-1958

Albert Camus was my favorite of the authors we read in high school; The Stranger (局外人》 in Chinese) was my favorite book. Recently I was reading some of Camus’s famous quotes, and I was struck by how applicable many of them are now to modern China:

“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”

“Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny.”

“The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”

“The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” [Uh oh…]

“Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”

“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”

“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”

“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”

“Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.”

“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”

“It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” [Many, many Chinese people I know would whole-heartedly agree with this statement.]

“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”

“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”

In my experience, Albert Camus (阿尔贝·加缪) is not very well-known in China.

Sources: BrainyQuote, Wikiquote

On the Limits of Ni Hao

After my last post on 你好吗, which I consider “a greeting on training wheels,” I received an email from a reader about the non-interrogative, even more widely used greeting 你好. Brad’s email (slightly edited):

I drove to a friend’s house [in Qingdao] to pick him up for supper. My friend doesn’t speak English and I’ve only known him for a few weeks. When he got into the car I greeted him with “你好!” (paying careful attention to not say “你好吗?” ha ha). To my complete surprise, he turned to me and said “You know Brad, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, and I’m not saying this to be critical of your Chinese, but I think we’ve now moved beyond having to say 你好.”

I think I had a dumb look on my face and didn’t know what to say… nor did I know exactly what he meant. I asked him “What should I say? I don’t think I understand.”

He said that 你好 is hardly ever used by people who know each other well, and it’s fine and dandy to use it between people who know there’s a formal barrier between them (age, acquaintance, colleague, stranger, superior, etc.), but that he considered me a close enough friend to no longer be at the 你好 stage.

To me, this sounded exactly like the French “vous” vs. “tu” or Spanish Ud. vs. Uds. Again, I asked him what I should then say in such a context. His answer — say nothing! I said that’s impossible… I must have to say something like 最近很忙吗? or even 吃饭了没有? He said I could if I wanted, but it should sound sincere instead of just an insincere verbal gap-filler (I’ve actually heard that line a few times from colleagues who have stopped me dead in my tracks for saying something perceived to be an unnecessary “insincerity” like “you’re wearing a nice sweater today.” I now longer give compliments unless it’s pertinent to the situation, and you know what? Neither does anyone else!).

I asked him then what he would say, and he just gave me that “E”* grunt noise that might be the closest thing to a brief, low toned and quick “hey” in English, the same kind used to acknowledge someone you know while on the fly when passing them in the hall at work. He then said I could get right to the point after the grunt.

Shocked! That was my reaction. But even more shocked by the fact that I now can’t recall any “friends” ever addressing themselves with 你好 when we meet as a group. It’s always that E!*, followed by “name”, and then something straight to the point. Even my colleagues (who are friendly with each other, but not friends) don’t say 你好 to each other.

I know there might be a North-South divide on some of these issues (my southwestern friends all said for them 味儿大一点 meant more 辣的,the Northern friends thought it meant 加香, and the deep Southerners didn’t know what it meant), but I’m wondering if you ran into this simplest of linguistic mysteries in Shanghai?

Read the rest of this entry »

13: a micro-play about this crazy society

Not long ago, my wife and I went to see a Chinese version of the classic play 12 Angry Men. Over the October holiday we decided to go see another play (comedy this time), and what better play to follow 12 Angry Men than a new independent “micro-play” (微话剧) called “Thirteen” (拾叁, which is 大写 for “十三“)?

We ended up really enjoying the 90-odd minute performance. It was created by a group which calls itself “Why Not” in English, and 歪脑 (a transliteration into Chinese which means something like “skewed brain”). The whole play was performed by only three talented young actors:

歪脑 Actors

歪脑 Actors

The promotional poster for the play we saw:

"13 Society" poster

Here’s my partial translation of the micro-play’s description, taken from the introduction on the Why Not website:

Micro-play “Thirteen” (Society)

Keywords for “Thirteen”

comedy, lives of the people, current events, micro-play, improv, interactive, experiential

History of “Thirteen”

Shísān: shortened form of the classic Shanghainese slang “shísān diǎn” (thirteen o’clock). “Shísān diǎn” was originally a transliteration of the English word “society,” a pejorative term used in the last century for those who closely followed the trends of the times and obsessed over socializing. Later it was extended to refer to people or things which are “not normal, fun, funny,” and can often have a positive connotation.

English “society” could refer to the whole of society, a club, or social life.

The micro-play “Thirteen,” makes use of the “funny, spoof” meanings, but puts more emphasis on the “society, lives of the people” aspects.

Tagline for “Thirteen”

Use the “thirteen” attitude to view this era, which 1.3 billion (13亿) people are experiencing together!

Content Outline of “Thirteen”

This is the funniest era. It is also the evilest era.

Here, total luxury and homelessness coexist, Lamborghinis and tractors coexist; here, food prices and rocket ships soar, as do oil and Maotai. Here, there are both Li Gang and Li Chengpeng; there are both Guo Guangchang, and also Guo Meimei. There are the Olympics and the World Expo, as well as the Red Cross. Here, both “China’s Got Talent” and “China’s Sick People” are on every day, while both the country’s GDP and the water levels in its flooded cities are rapidly rising…. Here, what follows hope is disappointment, but following disappointment, a new hope may spring up yet again….

As it happens, we’re living in just this confluence of events. But without all these events we witness; this play could not exist.

Whether you’re worried about the stock prices (as disappointing as the Chinese soccer team), or our food quality (as unreliable as the new bullet trains), or, like the Forbidden City, you just can’t hold onto what you treasure most, to tell you the truth, we can’t solve a single one of these issues. But there is one thing we can do: as these dog days make faces at us, we can at least find an opportunity to make some faces back. This opportunity is in “Thirteen.”

So come on, take 90 minutes of time, 1000 square meters of space, audience and actors, stage and backstage, laughs and curses, pretenders and morons, and let’s all make faces back, and at each other.

Content and Segments (these may change at any time; this is a Chinese characteristic, if you know what we mean):

[I left these “segments” out, because they didn’t seem to reflect what I saw, as the site warns. Here are the segments we saw, in my own words:]

  • Teacher and student skit
  • A crackdown on street vendors skit
  • A “I won’t stay with you if you can’t provide for all my material needs” modern woman skit
  • A series of interview skits
  • A kung fu monk skit
  • A doctor seeing patients skit (including a very racy but cleverly acted scene where a prostitute brought in a customer who had OD’d on Viagra and collapsed)
  • A visit from Cecilia Cheung (张柏芝) skit

This play was quite challenging to follow, because not only was it performed with rapid-fire delivery, but it also referenced a lot of current events, with internet culture thrown in too. There were references to both the Wenzhou bullet train wreck as well as Shanghai’s recent subway accident, for example. Plenty of social commentary.

I enjoyed all three actors, but 苏永豪‘s was especially memorable (pictured above; the guy in glasses). He played so many roles, including several hilarious cross-dressing ones and a number of accents, and he was very funny in all of them. He was also really good in the impromptu audience interaction parts. A real pro performer.

Anyway, if you’re up for the challenge of trying to follow a modern Chinese play, this one probably isn’t an easy one to start with, but it’s definitely an interesting one. It had a fair amount of slapstick and action, too, which would keep you engaged even if you don’t follow a lot of what’s said. At 120 RMB per ticket (here), it’s not cheap, but it’s a much better entertainment investment than Transformers 3!

A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

Me: Hi, how’s it going?

Student: [confused] Going?

Me: Hello, how are you?

Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.

China Daily Show is great

Maybe I don’t read the right blogs, but it seems like China Daily Show isn’t getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This China-centric Onion-style “news” site is hilarious. It describes itself like this:

China Daily Show is not affiliated with China Daily or The Daily Show and is intended for humorous purposes only. All events, characters, names and places featured are products of the authors’ imaginations, or are used fictitiously.

Here are some recent headlines to get you started:

My Favorite Shanghai Busker

There are a lot of buskers in Shanghai. I’m not sure how most people feel about them. I certainly don’t mind the blind guys playing erhu, or the guitarists in the park. But rarely do I actually really like their performances. I enjoy hearing this guy every time I catch him on the stairs of Exit 2 at the Zhongshan Park Line 2 subway station:

The Violinist Busker

He plays piano music on his boombox, and then accompanies it on his (amplified) violin. It sounds really good! I’ve heard mostly classical pieces by him. He’s playing Pachelbel’s Canon here.

His sign reads:

妻乳腺癌
儿上大学
功德无量
谢谢

In English, it’s something like:

Wife has breast cancer
Son in college
Your kindness will be rewarded
Thank you

Note: I took liberties with the 功德无量 line, which comes from Buddhism, and is translated as “boundless beneficence” in the ABC dictionary.

Ode to a Paper Dictionary

The Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary is a solid dictionary. It’s a great compromise between “comprehensive” and “portable,” and it’s the one I had with me in my early days in Hangzhou, when I had to look up every other word that I heard. I started with the “handy pocket-sized” version, but I quickly realized that even though it was half the size, it was still a little brick of paper I had to slug around, and the characters were just way too small at that size. So I used the medium-size brick of paper comfortably for years.

I still have that dictionary, although it’s showing its age. Over the years, I have had to use packing tape to reinforce its edges and spine, but at least I managed to do that before it started totally falling apart. Here’s what it looks like now:

IMG_0010

IMG_0011

Slightly worn, you might say.

When I used this dictionary regularly, I used to highlight words, phrases, and sentences that popped out at me as being useful or somehow study-worthy. What’s great is that I can still browse the dictionary now and see what I once highlighted. Sure, nothing is dated; there is no metadata. But it’s enlightening and amusing to flip through this paper record of my progress.

A little sample:

  • 避免 to avoid
  • 关心 be concerned about
  • 关于 about; on; with regard to; concerning
  • 上当 be taken in
  • 下流 obscene; dirty
  • 大海捞针 look for a needle in a haystack [I’m pretty sure I never ever had a chance to use this, even if I managed to memorize it briefly]

You get the idea.

But the point of this post is not to recommend a great dictionary. I used that dictionary every day for a very important period in my life, and it facilitated all sorts of conversations on a regular basis (yes, I was one of those annoying students that would occasionally put a conversation on hold if there was a word I felt I just really needed to know right away). And yet, I don’t recommend that dictionary much at all. Nowadays I regularly recommend Pleco (and sometimes Wenlin) to AllSet Learning clients, but not paper dictionaries.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons…

  • Most people don’t want to carry around a heavy book, but they take their cell phones everywhere
  • Most people find looking up words in a paper dictionary quite a hassle
  • Electronic dictionaries are so fast, and with one more touch you’ve saved the word as well for later reference

I remember when I first came to China, lots of people were using mini hand-held electronic dictionaries. They were great, except that (1) they rarely provided pinyin for English-Chinese lookups, and (2) they had short dictionary entries with very few sample sentences. Well, those days are over. The day has finally arrived, and entries are now bursting with information, while internet connectivity offers potentially limitless sample sentences.

So why am I still a little sad? Well, there’s definitely something to be said for idly flipping through those pages made of paper. I’m not sure why dictionary serendipity of the eyes-to-paper variety feels more special than dictionary serendipity of the search-and-related-data variety, but it does. And looking at that old battered paper dictionary, its mere existence does feel meaningful. I beat the crap out of that thing with my learning, and then did just enough work to keep it on life support. And now I neglect it, relegating it to a bathroom book, while computer-based dictionaries serve my daily needs.

We had some good times, paper dictionary. It’s not you, it’s me. But relationships change.

On Moon Cake Economics

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, a day late. I managed to get out of eating moon cakes this year. (Whew! My moon cake eating contest days are behind me…)

Photos of Shanghai residents lining up to buy moon cakes (月饼), rain or shine (but always with umbrellas), from Jing’an Temple in the month leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival:

Jing'an Temple Moon Cake Sales

Jing'an Temple Moon Cake Sales

I’m not going to say much on economics, but this whole “moon cake economy” thing strikes me as quite interesting. While in a taxi the other night, a guest on a radio talk show made some interesting points:

  1. The value of moon cake coupons has exceeded the value of the moon cakes themselves.

  2. Some people eat moon cakes, but a lot of people just pass them around, gifting and regifting. (The actual quote was: “买的不吃,吃的不买,” literally, “those who buy them, don’t eat them, and those who eat them don’t buy them.”)

  3. As the moon cake economy evolves, more and more products are being used as substitutes, such as ice cream moon cakes, soft mochi moon cakes, non-traditional cake as moon cakes, etc.

It’ll be interesting to see where this tradition goes in the next ten years. Will the Chinese try hard to preserve it as is, or will they morph into into something else?


Related links:

Chinese Characters for Servers

My friend Juan recently brought this amusing use of Chinese characters to my attention:

The characters used are:

  • 目: mù
  • 鈕 (simplified: 钮): niǔ
  • 器: qì
  • 明: míng
  • 員 (simplified: 员): yuán
  • 管: guǎn
  • 自: zì
  • 開 (simplified: 开): kāi
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