language


28

May 2020

Biang Check

I’ve noted before that my daughter (now 8yo) was a fan of the character “biang” (an unofficial character used to write the name of a kind of noodle in northwestern China). We’ve also pointed out to her that it’s frequently not printed out (just as it’s not in the text of this article) because computers can’t handle it. But it’s been a while since we thought or talked about the character “biang.”

Then recently my wife spotted this use of “biang” in the wild and shared it with our daughter:

biangbiang-1

Her immediate response was, “they wrote it wrong. It’s missing a 立刀旁 ().”

Aaaand, she was right:

biangbiang-2

We’ve created a monster!

P.S. Technically, there’s probably no true “standard of correctness” for this character, but the one she originally learned (same as the image above, but using simplified components 长 and 马) seems to be the most widely accepted version.


26

May 2020

Wan Hui, the Anhui Character Party

The name of this restaurant is Wan Hui: 皖荟. It’s a pun on the word 晚会, which is sort of like “evening party” (or dinner).

wan-hui-1

stands for Anhui Province, and is also one of the “8 great” types of Chinese cuisine. here calls to mind the word 荟萃, a flowery word for “assembly.”

This restaurant in Shanghai’s Changning Raffles City ( 长宁来福士广场) is not mind-blowing, but it’s still pretty special. Cool atmosphere.

I like these character fragment decorations on the walls:

wan-hui-2

The dry ice and purple lights are a cool contrast to the traditional Anhui-style walls:

wan-hui-3

As for the food, ummm, it’s OK, I guess? I’m not much of a 吃货 (foodie).


13

May 2020

Dashan Explains His Chinese Name

In my last article on How to Choose a Chinese Name: 4 Approaches, I used the example of Mark Rowswell, AKA 大山 (Dàshān). Mark and I have a history of correspondence, so I decided to get in touch by email and get his take. He provided quite a lot of background info (much more than I was expecting), so I thought it would be good to share.

Dashan and me in Shanghai
Ah, we were so young back then…

The following is our exchange, starting with his reply.

Mark (大山) wrote:

许大山 [Xǔ Dàshān] was the character name, but I dropped the surname when I took 大山 [Dàshān] as a stage name and then eventually as my all-purpose Chinese name. At that point I completely stopped using the name I had been given in Chinese class at university.

I never use a surname with 大山, as I think of it like “Sting” or something.  It’s a standalone name by itself.  And I always spell it as one word in Pinyin, which should be the convention for given names.  It’s not correct to write it as Da Shan, as some people insist, because “Da” is not the surname.  I notice you did spell it as “Dashan” in the article (but you did get “Rowswell” wrong, ha ha). [Since fixed!]

For “official use” it’s actually kind of arbitrary. My legal name is only what appears on my birth certificate, passport, etc. and that’s only in English. The Chinese name has no legal standing.  But of course various Chinese organizations sometimes insist on using a Chinese name for official purposes.  In that case, sometimes they take 大山, other times they insist on using 马克·罗斯维尔 [Mǎkè Luósīwéi’ěr].  I don’t really care, it’s just paperwork, so I let them use whatever they want.  I just think it’s arbitrary because neither name is actually a legally registered name, and how you transliterate into Chinese can be quite flexible.  I mean, there is a standard, official translation for “Mark” as 马克 [Mǎkè], but what is the official translation of “Rowswell”?  There is none, so you can only follow general guidelines to come up with something like 罗斯维尔 [Luósīwéi’ěr].

Nowadays, when people use something like 啊啊啊啊啊啊啊啊 [Ā’ā’ā’ā’ā’ā’ā’ā] as their name, even with breaking convention by not having a surname 大山 is pretty conservative in comparison, ha ha

I replied:

大山 like “Sting”… Ha ha, that’s kind of hilarious.

I’m a stickler for proper pinyin most of the time, but I’m surprised I got your English surname wrong. Sorry! It was a typo and has been fixed.
Anyway, I had no idea that “official Chinese names” were so arbitrary. But that’s true of so many things in China… It all comes down to how local officials interpret and carry out the directives from above.

I’d like to run a correction/update on my blog. Would you mind if I quoted your reply in this email? Few westerners have as much China experience as you!

And Mark (大山) replied:

Yeah, I’m kinda dating myself with the old “Sting” reference, and of course Dashan was always way cooler than Sting, but it seemed to be the easiest example.

I’m OK if you want to quote this reply.  It’s all pretty basic stuff.  The main reason “Dashan” stuck as a stage name is that it’s super easy to remember, and it has the added joke factor of implying the slang phrase 侃大山 [kǎn dàshān], which was particularly popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  I think a third angle is that it’s a typical peasant name, which is strange for a foreigner.  Because the Chinese names we are given when we start studying Chinese are usually very proper and cultured, even kind of poetic, or else they are a strict transliteration, it just seems funny when a foreigner takes a simple peasant name.  That was part of the joke of the original skit, and the main reason the name stuck.  I grew to like it because it’s down-to-earth and people find it relatable, so it matches the public image I was trying to portray.

Mark touches on a quite a few of the issues I brought up on my original post on Chinese names, so I figured this could serve as an interesting case study of sorts.


06

May 2020

How to Choose a Chinese Name: 4 Approaches

Should learners of Chinese have a Chinese name? That’s a good question, but it’s not one that I’ll be answering in this article. Assuming that you feel you need a Chinese name, there are several approaches that you can take, depending on your preferences and your needs.

Foreign Name Transliteration

Transliteration means representing the sounds of one language as closely as possible, using the sounds of another language. My last name, “Pasden,” has been transliterated into Chinese as something like “Pa-si-dun.” Names converted into Chinese in this way have a distinctly foreign feel, and there’s essentially a set of “transliteration characters” used for the full text conversion. When a Chinese person sees a transliterated name of this sort written in characters, she immediately knows it’s a foreigner’s name, and she also knows to disregard any meanings the characters might have originally had. It’s just a string of sounds.

This is the type of name you get if you don’t speak any Chinese and are only accepting a Chinese name because you have to. For example, if you’re applying for a work permit in China, they will ask your Chinese name. If you don’t have one, the government worker will do a basic transliteration and use that.

Examples of this kind of name include:

  • 路德维希·范·贝多芬 (Lùdéwéixī Fàn Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven
  • 阿尔伯特·爱因斯坦 (Ā’ěrbótè Àiyīnsītǎn) Albert Einstein
  • 贾斯汀·汀布莱克 (Jiǎsītīng Tīngbùláikè) Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake learns his Chinese name

You’ll notice that this approach also results in the longest possible Chinese names. If your Chinese friends or co-workers actually have to use a name like one of the above, they’ll quickly shorten your name or give you a Chinese nickname.

Which brings us to the next approach…

Chinese Nickname

This approach is undoubtedly the most fun. Many Chinese people love to bestow cute Chinese nicknames on foreigners, and you’ll find that lots of singers and Hollywood actors have well-known Chinese nicknames (because no one wants to use those long, unwieldy transliterated foreign names).

As a non-Chinese, you’re going to have a very hard time coming up with anything clever on your own. These frequently develop organically as a natural result of interactions with Chinese friends, and if you like a nickname you hear, you can claim it as your own. (Just be sure you know what it means!)

Some examples of this type:

  • 郭一口 (Guō Yīkǒu)
  • 铁蛋儿 (Tiě Dànr)
  • 大山 (Dàshān) — this one is less “fun” or silly; it actually came from the name of a character in Mark Rowswell’s first performance

Chinese Familiar Name

If a nickname is too informal or silly for your needs, but you’re not ready to go “full native” with a Chinese name, you might consider just choosing a Chinese surname, and then using the “familiar address” form built into Chinese culture which involves Chinese surnames.

This method usually uses 小 (xiǎo) or 老 (lǎo), plus a surname. This approach has the advantage of being fully culturally Chinese while still being easy, and not requiring full commitment to a Chinese name. This can actually be a good way to “get started” with your Chinese name: choose a Chinese surname, then add a 小 (or possible 老) before it. You can figure out the rest of your Chinese name later, after you’ve “tried out” the surname for a while.

Examples:

  • 小潘 (Xiǎo Pān) — this is what my own Chinese name started as
  • 老马 (Lǎo Mǎ) — this one sort of doubles as a nickname, since it literally means “old horse”
  • 小江 (Xiǎo Jiāng)

Note that this is not a formal name, so I doubt you could use it for official registration purposes. Because it’s a Chinese form of address, don’t be too surprised if the Chinese official responds with a “that’s not an official name.”

Native-like Chinese Name

This is what most learners want: a name that sounds like a Chinese person’s name, and is not readily distinguishable from a native speaker’s name. Ideally, it also has a connection to one’s original name.

Some learners opt for a Chinese name that sounds as close as possible to their real English name while still sounding native Chinese. This doesn’t work well for all names, and when done poorly, can even sound like a semi-transliteration.

Other learners are satisfied with a few token similarities (begins with the same letter, for example) and just go with something “more Chinese” that they like. (This is what I did myself.)

It’s worth nothing that you don’t have to represent both your surname and your given name in a set way. I’ve seen lots of creativity in the way that people choose their names, including the following:

  1. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s surname only
  2. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s given name only
  3. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that swaps the typical surname/given name order, e.g. choosing 周 (Zhōu) as a surname to represent “Joe,” and then choosing a given name that sounds kind of like Joe’s surname.
  4. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that in no way relates to your English name, or does so in a subtle way related to meaning
  5. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that integrates with Chinese in-laws, e.g. taking your Chinese spouse’s family surname

I’m not going to give lots of examples of these, because the whole point is that this kind of name sounds like a Chinese person’s name. So you might as well look at a list of native Chinese names.

One thing you need to take into account is the feel of the Chinese name, and you’re definitely going to need to ask a lot of native Chinese speakers how they feel about your Chinese name. Keep in mind that no single opinion represents all of the Chinese-speaking world, and expect a bit of conflicting information! Some feedback you might get is that the name sounds “too revolutionary” or “too traditional” or “too literary” or “too foreign” or even just 不好听 (bù hǎotīng: sounds bad!).

Get help from native speakers. (This is not something you can do entirely on your own.) Get lots of feedback. Find a name you love.

Special Mention: Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org and now Editor in Chief of SupChina, has a Chinese name which delights nearly everyone who hears it, but doesn’t fit neatly into any of the four approaches I’ve outlined above. His name is:

  • 金玉米 (Jīn Yùmǐ) literally, “Gold Corn”

金 (Jīn) is a legit Chinese surname, but the use of the word 玉米 (yùmǐ) seems to fall into nickname territory, although it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that an actual native Chinese person could have this as their name. (I’ve heard some pretty bizarre real Chinese names in my time in China.) I think this name would be accepted by Chinese officials as a formal name.

The point here is: there’s room for creativity! My four approaches should be useful for a lot of people, but there’s definitely wiggle room for you to get creative and go your own way.

Podcast Discussion

I discuss this issue on the latest issue of You Can Learn Chinese podcast with my Mandarin Companion partner, Jared Turner. You can tune in here:


29

Apr 2020

Jiong Ma with Russian Characteristics

This an old poster I never got around to posting before:

囧妈 (Jiǒng Mā)

What makes the movie title unique is that it incorporates Cyrillic letters into its Chinese characters. I’d never seen this kind of thing before, so I liked it. I’m no expert on Russian, but I can recognize Д and Э in there!

Anyway, the movie is called 囧妈 in Chinese, Lost in Russia in English. It’s part of a “Jiong series” of comedies which I won’t go into but are easy to find.


21

Apr 2020

Tone Pairs Online Audio Update

My Tone Pairs Drills have been online here at Sinosplice since 2006. I’ve been advocating this type of practice for quite a while, and my work with individual clients at AllSet Learning has continued to prove that tone pair practice really works.

Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills

Some time ago, the online audio for the Tone Pair Drills ran into trouble (although the downloadable content has always worked the same as ever). Well, those pages have all gotten an overhaul, and are working great now. You can play each word individually on the site, and view the words as simplified characters, traditional characters, or pinyin only.

Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills

Give them a try! They’re free, so you have nothing to lose, and much better pronunciation to gain.


14

Apr 2020

The Door Door

Well, this one’s a little on the nose:

"Men" (Door)
Photo taken in Shanghai by John Pasden

The character there is 門 (mén), a traditional character. It is written 门 in simplified Chinese. It means “door” or “gate.”

I’m curious what the story is behind this door. And why no 窗 (chuāng) windows??


01

Apr 2020

Challenges to Character Understanding

I recently read this post on Hacking Chinese: 5 levels of understanding Chinese characters: Superficial forms to deep structure and it really struck a chord with me. It reminds me a little of my own “5 Stages To Learning Chinese,” but it highlights some really great issues related to character learning which I’d like to dig into.

I’ll first do a quick summary of the author Olle’s 5 stages, but in my own words:

  1. Chineseasy Mode: Fully arbitrary character-image associations
  2. Lazy Heisig Mode: Systematic arbitrary character-image associations
  3. Diligent Heisig Mode: Systematic character-image associations, with substitutions
  4. OCD Heisig Mode: Systematic complete character-image associations
  5. Scholar Mode: Straight-up character origin research

Apologies to Olle, in that I may be misrepresenting his 5 stages a little bit in order to make a few points, but I believe that our groupings are mostly similar, and in any case, I am piggybacking on his article.

Chineasy Mode

This is not a compliment. I’m not a fan of Shao Lan’s Chineasy, at least not for any serious student of Chinese. Chineasy is fine as a fun “Chinese Characters Lite” if you have no intention of becoming literate in Chinese. (See also Dr. Victor Mair’s thoughts on it.)

The problem with it is that it’s not a system. It’s just Chinese character dress-up. You can’t memorize thousands of Chinese characters without a system. It’s how the Chinese themselves do it, and it’s how learners need to do it.

The question, then, becomes: how complicated of a system does this need to be?

Lazy Heisig Mode

I’ve written a little bit before about James Heisig and his books Remembering the Kanji (for Chinese characters in Japanese) and Remembering the Hanzi (for Chinese characters in Chinese).

Heisig’s work was an absolute breakthrough in the 1980’s. It was a breath of fresh air at a time when no one seemed to understand that practical language learning and scholarly language study of Asian languages did not have to be the same thing.

Heisig had the gall to “blasphemously” suggest that some systematically recurring character components could be assigned arbitrary meanings that the learner made up himself in order to concoct little mnemonic stories help him remember the correct meanings of the full characters.

If the “arbitrary” part is applied in moderation, this is definitely an improvement over the previous level, becomes you’re bringing a system into it. You’re recognizing that many character components are clear and easy to remember, plus they repeat a lot across different characters, and there’s a good reason for it. For the ones that aren’t clear or easy to be remember, you have a plan B. It’s a pragmatic system.

The problem here is that not every component has an obvious meaning, and if you start assigning many of your own un-scholarly meanings when you only know 50 characters, you’re not going to fully realize until you get to 500 characters that you really shouldn’t have chosen that meaning for that particular character component. But to change it now means changing a bunch of stories you had memorized. Yeah… it can be messy.

Diligent Heisig Mode

So if you were “lazy” before because you didn’t care what most components actually mean (historically), you’re “diligent” now in that you at least try to match the character components you are learning systematically to some kind of historical meaning.

You’re also actually paying attention to the difference between semantic (meaning) components and phonetic (sound) components. The extra time and effort spent here will really pay off when you make it to the advanced levels of your Chinese studies.

Keep in mind, however, that sometimes the “historically accurate” character breakdowns are simply not helpful or not practical (see “Scholar-Only Examples” below). In cases like these, even the “diligent” student may need to make a call in favor of his own sanity. He may need to “make something up” from time to time, but he tries not to. (In any case, the characters he punts on are likely the same ones literate native speakers have no clue about either.)

OCD Heisig Mode

But what if having a rough idea of semantic and phonetic component roles is not enough? What if you have to know the role of every character component for every character?

Well, I’d say that you may be a bit OCD… Or maybe that’s just your personal interest.

In either case, you’re probably spending far more time on your system than you need to. (What’s more important: your system, or reading Chinese?)

I won’t say too much about this.

Scholar Mode

Some learners really want to know the ins and outs of every character. And that’s cool. Clearly they have an interest that goes beyond the average learner’s.

But is this how far a learner needs to go? No. Recommending other learners go this route reminds me of a conversation I had with my 9th grade algebra teacher:

Me: Can we use a sheet of formulas for the test?
Teacher: No.
Me: *crestfallen* So we have to memorize them all.
Teacher: Well, I didn’t say that…
Me: *hope in my eyes* What do you mean?
Teacher: Well, if you understand the principles behind the formulas, you don’t need to memorize them when you can simply derive them yourself whenever you forget them…
Me: *hopes shattered*

These two people are not living in the same world.

Assessing the 5

Like Olle, I’d put myself in group 3, and it’s what I recommend that most clients do. As an elementary learner I was once in “Lazy Heisig Mode,” but I eventually realized my “system” was a bit of a mess, and I did the extra work to get to “Diligent Heisig Mode.” It’s a good place to be.

I’d say the 5 levels apply to most people like this:

  1. Chineasy Mode: Tourists only! You’re not a serious learner, and that’s OK.
  2. Lazy Heisig Mode: You’re not fully committed, and that’s OK too. If you decide to “go all the way” with Chinese, you can still upgrade later.
  3. Diligent Heisig Mode: You’re committed, and you don’t want to waste time forgetting and relearning. You’re building a strong foundation for the long road ahead.
  4. OCD Heisig Mode: I’m not sure you really exist? But anyway, if you do… you do you.
  5. Scholar Mode: The world needs scholars! Thank you for your hard work. (Just remember that not everyone aspires to be at your level.)

Scholar-Only Examples

You may not understand why it’s difficult and messy to learn the correct origins of all the characters you learn. I felt the same way once. I was all, “hey, I like language. I can handle it.”

OK, fair enough. I have some examples for you. No, you will not see the characters 山 or 月 or 好 or 明 or even 上 and 下. Those are the ones used to prove the opposing argument. Let’s look at a very simple beginner-level sentence.

你是我的朋友。 (Nǐ shì wǒ de péngyou.)

This is a first-semester Chinese sentence which means “You are my friend.” Easy vocabulary, easy grammar. Now let’s look at the characters.

If you’re a serious student of Chinese, you probably know about the Outliers Chinese Dictionary for Pleco. Here are the entries for those characters:

你 (nǐ):

Outlier Dictionary Lookup

是 (shì):

Outlier Dictionary Lookup

我 (wǒ):

Outlier Dictionary Lookup

的 (de):

Not in my Outliers Dictionary. This explanation is from Wenlin:

In ancient times 的 meant ‘white’. Therefore 白 bái ‘white’ is a component in 的 (white: bright: clear: precise: bull’s-eye). 勺 sháo (‘spoon’) is phonetic: ancient 勺 *tsiak (modern sháo) sounded like ancient 的 *tiek (modern dì).

朋 (péng):

Outlier Dictionary Lookup

友 (you):

Outlier Dictionary Lookup

Holy crap. Don’t try to tell me that’s not a nightmare. It might be OK, if these were some cherry-picked exceptions, but they’re not, really. There are quite a few more common characters like this, although most characters are easier to make sense of when you break them down.

Try looking up the characters in this simple sentence if you want more trouble: 你不要说话! (Nǐ bùyào shuōhuà!)

Conclusions

The unfortunate truth is that many super-common characters have historical origins that are elusive to beginners, to put it nicely.

This is not the end of the world, though! If you’re in “Diligent Heisig Mode,” this is how you approach the “你是我的朋友” sentence above:

  • 你: OK, the “person” radical is meaningful. That’s something! I’ll just have to deal with the right side somehow, since the character origin is useless to me.
  • 是: All right, we have a “sun” (which I know!) and another component. This is a challenge, but it’s such a super-common word, that I can accept brute-forcing it into my memory somehow.
  • 我: Yikes, a similar situation to 是, but with a much crazier form. Fortunately, there are not many of these.
  • 的: Two clear components, and this is the #1 most common character in the whole language. So yeah… my memory can make an allowance for this one.
  • 朋: OK, now we’re getting somewhere. A doubled-up component meaning “friend.” I can work with that.
  • 友: Recognizable components. OK.

It gets easier, but there are a few speed bumps in the beginning. It’s for this reason that it can be very useful to not force yourself down that etymology rabbit hole for every new character you learn.

Most characters are composed of a sound component and a meaning component (they are called phono-semantic compounds), but the examples above are not so helpful in that way (even if some of them technically have a sound component). In any case, in order to “break into” the system and get it working for you, you have to do the work to learn the character component parts. Then the magic can start.

In conclusion: learn your character components (but not necessarily their full origins), and stay diligent. Your future Chinese literate self will thank you.


P.S. All my clients at AllSet Learning are strongly encouraged to become literate in Chinese using an approach similar to what I’ve discussed above. Feel free to get in touch.

P.P.S. I also discussed the Heisig method with my co-host Jared in our podcast, You Can Learn Chinese.


24

Mar 2020

Boring Bangongshi: the Chinese Office Comic for Learners

So the team here at AllSet Learning has created a new thing! It’s an office-centric comic strip giving learners little bite-sized chunks of office language, and it’s called Boring 办公室 (Bàngōngshì). It was not originally intended to be COVID-19-focused, but it kind of turned out that way (for now).

Here’s the intro:

And here’s a taste of the comics:

You can click through each comic to get the full text of the dialog, grammar links, editor commentary, etc.

We just launched it, and there are plenty more comics in the pipeline.

So, please: share, discuss, criticize! If you read it, don’t find it funny, but keep reading, that is a win! We’re just trying to create material that learners don’t mind reading, at a level slightly higher than what’s more widely available (but still not too high).

Boring 办公室 (Bàngōngshì).


19

Mar 2020

In Money We Trust

"In Money We Trust"

Pretty sure this is unironic?

The name of the shop is 钱店, literally “Money Shop.” This is one of those cases where traditional characters (錢店) are used in mainland China for stylistic effect.

This is a clothing and accessories shop near Zhongshan Park in Shanghai.


17

Mar 2020

Unwarranted N-Word: Crimes of Song Lyric Translation into Chinese

I’ve been using QQ Music for years already. It’s one tenth of the cost of Spotify, and it has almost all of the songs I want to listen to (plus no VPN required!). It has English lyrics for most of its songs, and sometimes even Chinese translations of those English lyrics.

I’m quite the reader of song lyrics, and sometimes QQ Music lets me down in weird ways. The first way is just bad translation. Song lyrics are a translation challenge no matter what, and I’m forgiving, but sometimes the translations into Chinese are just plain bad.

The Used

Do you remember that emo band called The Used? Here’s a YouTube video to refresh your memory:

Anyway, what do you think this band’s Chinese name is? Translated literally, it would be something ridiculous like 被利用着. Nope. This is it:

The-Used
Mentioning crying right in the opening lines of the song… that’s emo for ya!

习惯乐队. 习惯 as in “customs” or “habits,” and 乐队 as in “band.” The word 习惯 also means “to get used to” (doing something), so some translator got the words right, but badly misunderstood the meaning of the band’s name. I guess he was thinking the band’s name meant something like “Getting Used to It”?? No idea.

This kind of translation mistake is fairly common on QQ Music, but not common enough that it bothers me too much.

Perplexing Use of the N-Word

This next mistake, concerning Steven Cooper’s song “Born to Do,” really had me confused, though:

Born-to-do
Suspicious use of the N-word

I randomly came across this song on QQ Music, and my kids liked it. I did a quick lyrics scan, and didn’t notice any bad words, so we listened to it. It wasn’t until after listening to this song several times that I read the lyrics carefully and discovered the N-word.

I was pretty shocked, because this is a Christian rapper. WHY did he feel the need to use that word (just once) in this song?? It didn’t make any sense.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the lyric itself didn’t make any sense, and not just because of a bad transcription:

Locked in this room off through the night
Trying write
Every second of my life in this mic
It’s been a fight just to get them to
Listen and pay your attention watching
Until my n****s are bleeding

Wait, what? Who’s bleeding and why? It’s a song about how hard he tries to improve his skills at rapping because it’s what he was “born to do.” This particular part of the song is about writing.

So yes, the “n-word” here should have been “knuckles.”

How could such an offensive mistake happen? I’m sure a Christian rapper with clean lyrics takes care not to drop gratuitous N-bombs in his song lyrics.

The best I can guess is that the lyrics are transcribed by machine, not be a person. It’s kind of weird that a computer would identify the N-word. I mean, you can’t have it popping up randomly in Celine Dion songs or Disney lyrics, right? But maybe if a song is classified as rap, then the “ban use of the N-word” toggle is switched off.

Here’s how that section should have gone:

Locked in this room all through the night
Trying to write
Every second of my life in this mic
It’s been a fight just to get them to
Listen and pay attention watching
Until my knuckles are bleeding

There’s one final strange thing happening here, though… Although the English lyrics contain the N-word, the Chinese lyrics contain a translation of the word for “knuckles”: 指关节.

…and now I am totally at a loss to explain this!


06

Mar 2020

Hubei Automobile Profiling?

Just another sign of the effect the coronavirus has on people:

Hubei-license-plate
Photo taken by my co-worker

The Chinese reads:

本车近一年
未去过湖北

The English translation is:

This car has not been to
Hubei for close to a year

The character 鄂 (È) on the license plate is the one-character abbreviation for Hubei.

I do wonder if there’s a story behind the owner of this car putting that sign up. What did his panicked compatriots do?


Related: Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


27

Feb 2020

Combatting the Coronavirus with Punny Propaganda

Three exhibits from the streets of Shanghai, each replacing one “yi” character of a chengyu (typically 4-character idiom) with the character 疫 (yì), which means “epidemic”:

yi-yan-jiu-ding

‘疫’言九鼎 is a pun on 一言九鼎 (yīyánjiǔdǐng). The original idiom refers to solemn statements, and the poster exhorts people to be honest (about their true health).

duan-zhang-qu-yi

断章取‘疫’ is a pun on 断章取义 (duànzhāngqǔyì). The original idiom refers to quoting out of context, and the poster warns people not to spread unsubstantiated rumors about the epidemic (you could end up in prison for as long as 7 years if you do!).

ren-zhi-yi-jin

仁至‘疫’尽 is a pun on 仁至义尽 (rénzhìyìjìn). The original idiom refers to fulfillment of moral obligations, and this poster implores people to remain compassionate while battling the epidemic.

In all fairness, “yi” is one of the most common readings for characters in Mandarin Chinese, so choosing that one to focus on with the puns really made things easier.


Related: Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


11

Feb 2020

Japanese Pronunciation Challenges (totally different from Mandarin Chinese)

A while back I wrote about how learning Chinese compares to learning Japanese, difficulty-wise. It’s generated a lot of interest, but one point which many readers may not have fully understood was why the Japanese “pronunciation difficulty” line rises towards the end. Refer to the graph here:

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

So… What makes it more difficult when you study long enough? This is what I originally wrote:

Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).

Recently I discovered YouTuber Dogen. He’s got a bunch of really great videos on advanced Japanese pronunciation, and this once does a great job of summing up and illustrating the 4 main types of Japanese pitch accent:

Got it?

I don’t know about you, but I never studied Japanese pitch accent in depth as a student. Not as a beginner, and not as an intermediate to advanced student. I remember I learned what it was, but it was never given a lot of emphasis. It really does seem to be something you typically tackle once you’ve confirmed that you’re a super serious learner, and “just making myself understood” isn’t enough anymore.

This contrasts with Chinese, where the 4 tones are thrown in your face from the beginning (there is no escape), followed closely by the tone change rules.

Interestingly, when Chinese learners in China study Japanese in school, they do learn pitch accent from the get-go, and the result is much more native-like pronunciation from a much earlier stage. I’ve witnessed this, and it’s impressive. Freeing up learners from the burden of kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese) means that time and effort can be placed elsewhere. (Similarly, Chinese learners tend to be a bit weak on the non-character syllabaries of Japanese: hiragana and katakana, over-relying on their character recognition advantage to get them through reading.)


07

Feb 2020

Chinese Nicknames for the Novel Coronavirus

After sharing the vocabulary about the coronavirus, I got a good question on LinkedIn about a shorter Chinese name for the virus. There are two 4-character names commonly used in Chinese:

  • 新冠肺炎 (xīn guān fèiyán) lit. “New corona pneumonia”
  • 武汉肺炎 (Wǔhàn fèiyán) lit. “Wuhan pneumonia”

I’m thinking about writing about the name a bit more, since there are so many variations. (Not the most exciting topic, I know, but it’s just so omnipresent these days…)

Novel Coronavirus Nickname in Chinese

The Unavoidable Novel Coronavirus Vocabulary

04

Feb 2020

The Unavoidable Novel Coronavirus Vocabulary

When I returned with my family from Japan over the past weekend, China had changed. The spread of the coronavirus and the extensive efforts to shut it down had turned Shanghai into a ghost town. The topic absolutely dominates WeChat (and we all live in WeChat over here), whether it’s in one’s “Moments” (feed) or in various WeChat group chats, whether in English or in Chinese.

So my co-workers and I at AllSet Learning got to work creating a series of vocabulary lists to help learners of Chinese deal with this unavoidable topic. The lists are separated by level, so whether you’re only elementary or are already upper intermediate, there’s a list here for you! Do not try to study all the lists (unless you’re already upper intermediate and you’re just filling in little gaps).

Here are the lists in image form (easier to share), but there’s a PDF link at the bottom as well.

Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


09

Jan 2020

Happy New… uhh… Year?

A reader shared this image with me:

Happy New Year

Can you read the Chinese? It’s supposed to say 新年快乐.

I can get the 新年 easily, and then I can make out the , but the … the top sort of works, but the bottom just… huh??

It’s fun to see stylizations that don’t work sometimes, too.

P.S. The “translation” I used for the title of this post is sort of a translation of the hard-to-read Chinese. It doesn’t totally work, though, because the “year” part of the Chinese is easy to read; it’s the “happy” part that isn’t. But I didn’t like the sound of “Something New Year,” so here we are! Anyone got a better idea for a translation?


31

Dec 2019

New RMB Coins in 2019

I think it really says something that it wasn’t until the last week of 2019 that I even noticed that there are new 1-RMB coins in circulation (I knew about the bills).

RMB-coins-1

What does it say? Well, with mobile payments becoming the new norm in China (at least in big cities), a lot of us just don’t handle much cash anymore (especially coins).

My family just recently visited me in Shanghai, and it was rather surprising for them how “cash-less” meant “mobile payments only,” and foreign credit cards remained largely unusable. The easiest way to get money, by far, was to withdraw RMB in cash from ATMs using American debit cards. (Adding a foreign credit card to AliPay is still early and somewhat unverified.)

RMB-coins-2

What I don’t understand about these RMB coins, though, is the size. Why make them smaller?? It seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I guess it saves on metal, and with fewer and fewer coins actually being used every day, maybe it’s finally the right time…


26

Dec 2019

“Baby Yoda” in Chinese

You’re watching The Mandalorian right? It’s the only thing we Star Wars fans have to be happy about in 2019!

Anyway, the breakout hit of the series is no secret: it’s “Baby Yoda” (not his real name).

The Chinese market is famously unimpressed with the entire Star Wars franchise, but just like everyone else, the Chinese love a cute character. So Baby Yoda’s gotta be popular in China too, right? Wellll… kinda. But anyway, we’re talking about how to say “Baby Yoda” in Chinese.

You might be tempted to go straight for the direct translation. Remembering that generic titles (like 老师) typically come come after the “namey” part of the name, you get “Yoda Baby,” or 尤达婴儿. And this name indeed does appear online (currently 216k hits on Baidu).

The Chinese-ier (and cuter) version of the name uses the slangier 宝宝 for “baby,” though, giving us the more natural translation of: 尤达宝宝 (currently 924k hits on Baidu).

So there you have it!

Yoda Baobao (尤达宝宝)

A few other vocabulary tidbits related to the show:

  • 星球大战 (Xīngqiú Dàzhàn) Star Wars
  • 曼达洛人 (Màndáluò Rén) The Mandalorian
  • 原力 (Yuánlì) the Force
  • 尤达 (Yóudá) Yoda
  • 尤达宝宝 (Yóudá Bǎobao) Baby Yoda
  • 曼达洛人 (Màndáluò rén) Mando
  • 波巴·费特 (Bōbā Fèitè) Boba Fett

12

Dec 2019

TA: Pinyin with a Purpose

Mastery of pinyin is important for every beginner learner of Mandarin Chinese. This much is widely agreed upon (although not always thoroughly executed). But what about adult native speakers of Chinese? Aside from using pinyin to type, or maybe occasionally to look up an obscure character which they can guess the reading for, there’s not much use for pinyin in their literate lives, right?

Well, you’re mostly right. Pinyin is mostly supplanted by characters among the literate Chinese population. But there is one small exception: TA.

TA-1
TA-2

These Shanghai Metro ads are entirely in Chinese except for the “TA.” This phenomenon is fairly common in advertising in China, although these are definitely the best examples I’ve seen because not only are they incredibly clear and highly visible, but they also actually include the meaning of the pinyin “TA” in characters underneath. In case you can’t see clearly, what it says under “TA” is:

他 / 她

So the point of using “TA” instead of characters is that it leaves the gender unassigned, so that the hypothetical person referred to in the ad can be male or female in the minds of the consumers. I’ve noticed that it is typically written in all caps, as well.

This is, in essence, doing what pinyin does best: providing the sound while leaving the meaning in question. This is something that Chinese characters are often not especially well-suited for, particularly in this case.

(Ironically, the character 他 was not always a “male pronoun” but it kind of evolved that way, and only in the 20th century. Now to escape that corner 他 has been boxed into, the new generation is turning to pinyin.)


For a more scholarly take, be sure to read Victor Mair’s article on Language Log: The degendering of the third person pronoun in Mandarin (Dr. Mair always gets to these topics first!)



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