language


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!)


Free Chinese Christmas Songs to Spice Up the Holidays

05

Dec 2019

Free Chinese Christmas Songs to Spice Up the Holidays

Chinese Christmas Songs with Santa

It’s Christmastime again, and time to remind everyone that Sinosplice still has some awesome familiar Christmas songs in Chinese. This year I’m posting a selection of the MP3 files online in streamable format, so be sure you’re viewing the original post on Sinosplice.com if you’d like to play the songs without having to download everything.

All right, here we goooo…

Jingle Bells in Chinese

This is version 1 from the album (Mandarin Chinese):

Jingle Bells (1)

Jingle Bells in Hakka (Hokkien) Dialect

This song is not part of the album because it is NOT Mandarin Chinese. It’s Hakka. (This one is going to have very limited use for most students; it’s just sort of a novelty for most of us.)

Hakka Jingle Bells

Santa Claus is Coming to Town in Chinese

This one is a kids’ version, version 2, also from the album (Mandarin Chinese):

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (2)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas in Chinese

This song is especially beginner-friendly for learners of Mandarin Chinese (that chorus!):

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Silent Night in Chinese

This one is a Christian classic, of course, version 2 from the album (Mandarin Chinese):

Silent Night (2)

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing in Chinese

Another Christian classic, church choir style (Mandarin Chinese):

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Download Christmas Songs (zipfile)

If you want to just grab them all, here you go:

The Sinosplice Chinese Christmas Song Album (~40 MB)
+ Lyrics PDFs (1.2 MB)

Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to these songs, but no one has minded this form of digital distribution (in the name of education) since 2006, so… Merry Christmas?

MP3 Track Listing

  1. Jingle Bells
  2. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  3. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
  4. Silent Night
  5. The First Noel
  6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  7. What Child Is This
  8. Joy to the World
  9. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
  10. Jingle Bells
  11. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
  12. Silent Night
  13. Joy to the World

Merry Christmas everybody… 圣诞快乐!


While we’re on the subject of Christmas and Chinese, AllSet Learning (my company) is doing a special offer with our 1-on-1 online Chinese classes. 3 lessons (one hour each) is a great quantity to try it out or gift to a loved one!


Parsing “Xue Xi Qiang Guo” for the Deeper Meaning

21

Nov 2019

Parsing “Xue Xi Qiang Guo” for the Deeper Meaning

A recent topic of conversation among friends in Shanghai is the new app “Xue Xi Qiang Guo.” It’s a news hub for state-sponsored news and commentary, as well as a way to show devotion to the Chinese Communist Party by studying what’s in the app and proving mastery through quizzes. In this way you can get points which can earn you nominal rewards, and it also ties into China’s “social credit” system. (For more info on Xue Xi Qiang Guo, you can check out its official site as well as the Wikipedia’s article.)

What I want to talk about today is the name: 学习强国. If you plug that into Google Translate, Wenlin, or Pleco, you get a similar two-word breakdown: 学习 强国 (xuéxí qiángguó). You’ll note that English news coverage of the app (including Wikipedia) all write the name in pinyin as two words: “Xuexi Qiangguo.”

Xuexi Qiangguo in Google Translate

But this is Chinese, where clear word boundaries are not provided, and that is not the only breakdown. It’s not even the one that occurs first to most native speakers of Chinese.

1. Xuexi Qiangguo

OK, so 学习 is a given. it means “study,” and it’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of the app. No problem there. The word 强国, meaning “powerful country,” however, is not so common. The overall interpretation here seems to be “learn from the powerful country (China),” which seems plausible, but it’s just not what occurs to Chinese users first. So let’s drop the 强国 parsing (which, unfortunately, seems to be the norm in English language coverage of the app) and see what else we can get.

2. Xuexi Qiang Guo

Classical Chinese was remarkably flexible, most words consisting of individual characters that can serve as various parts of speech in different contexts (noun, verb, and adjective fluidity being common). This trend carries over to modern times for certain words, and is one of them. So while used by itself is most often used to mean “strong” in modern Mandarin, in certain contexts, can also mean “strength” or “strengthen.” So from there, we can get the two-word phrase 强 国 (qiáng guó), “strengthen the country.”

Since the word 学习 (meaning “study”) can also be a noun or a verb, you might translate the full app name literally as something like “Studying Strengthens the Country,” “Study Strengthens the Country,” or even “Study to Strengthen the Country.” This interpretation would likely be the official meaning of the name if you asked the CCP.

Breakdown of interpretations of "Xue Xi Qiang Guo"

3. Xue Xi Qiang Guo

There’s one other unofficial, sly interpretation which goes unnoticed by few Chinese these days. The word 学习 can also be broken down into two separate words. Since the first character, , can mean “study” on its own, and the second character, , is also the surname of Xi Jinping (president of China), you can also interpret 学 习 as the phrase “xué Xí,” which means “study Xi” or “learn from Xi.” A quick look at the content of the app shows that this interpretation is, indeed, fully grounded in reality. In fact, some are calling the app the “Little Red Book” of the modern age.

In this parsing, the final meanining of 学 习 强 国 would be “Studying Xi Strengthens the Country.” Since cause-effect relationships are often implied in Mandarin, you could also make that a command: “Study Xi to Strengthen the Country.”

Pretty clever name. It is indeed an age of 学 习 (xué Xí). Now there’s an app for that: Xue Xi Qiang Guo.


Nov. 25, 2019 Update: Dr. Victor Mair shared with me his take on this app, which he wrote on Language Log way back in May of this year. I would have linked to it originally if I had been aware of it: The CCP’s Learning / Learning Xi (Thought) app


13

Nov 2019

The Bagel Gets No Respect in China

I love bagels. So I have to say: the bagel has gotten a bum deal in China. It starts with the name.

sad bagel

The Chinese Name for “Bagel” is 贝果

Now, of course 贝果 (bèiguǒ) is a simple transliteration for the English word “bagel.” But there are good transliterations, and there are bad ones.

In this case, the character means “shell” (like in “shellfish”) and appears in words like 扇贝 (scallop) and 贝壳 (clamshell).

The character means “fruit” or “nut” and appears in words like 水果 (fruit), 苹果 (apple), 坚果 (nut), or 开心果 (pistachio nut).

So with regards to the food-related characters used in the Chinese name for 贝果… that’s 0 for 2 on the food groups! Could this name possibly be confusing?

Knowing that bagels are not well-known among Chinese people, I tested my co-workers. I asked them if they’d ever had a 贝果. They said no. I asked them if they knew what it was. They weren’t sure, but guessed it was some kind of nut.

On the upside (sort of?), I’ve noticed that my pinyin input method (Mac) is giving me the option of a bagel emoji as I type 贝果, and it has cream cheese on it! so maybe not all hope is lost for the bagel in China…

bagel emoji in Chinese

And that’s all I have for you today from the world of hard-hitting bagel journalism in Shanghai.


05

Nov 2019

The Crosswalk Posts Have Eyes (update)

Just a few days after my last blog post about New Crosswalk Signals, More Surveillance in Shanghai, one of my friends spotted one of the new crosswalk displays doing its thing:

crosswalk-post-photo

So what are we seeing here? Photos of a guy crossing the street illegally, with a close-up headshot (taken from the same video surveillance). The Chinese text 涉嫌违法 repeats several times, and means “suspected of breaking the law.” Note also that rather than using facial recognition and searching the guy’s face in the database, then showing his official ID photo, what we’re seeing is just a cropped headshot from the video footage. No official IDing of the “suspect.”

This is not to say that none of that is possible; it almost certainly is (and already happening all the time). It’s just that the “citizen-facing” display screens are still in a restrained testing mode. Until all the bugs are worked out, people aren’t going to be receiving automatic tickets for crossing the street illegally at crosswalks across Shanghai… yet.

But obviously, our faces are getting scanned even more often than before now, and with additional scans there’s additional data to improve the facial recognition accuracy.


16

Oct 2019

AllSet Learning Has a New Look

I’m pleased to announce that AllSet Learning‘s main website has had a significant makeover. The previous website was built in 2010, and while it worked well enough, these days it was looking more and more like it was built in 2010. No longer!

New AllSite Learning Website (2019)

We’re still doing the VIP hyper-personalized services that we’ve always done (both offline in Shanghai and online), but we also offer some very cool “themed courses” now. They’re real-time online 1-on-1 lessons, focused on a particular topic, but designed to encourage lots of discussion and speaking practice.

Thanks for taking a look at the new site!


11

Oct 2019

Weighing Elephants and Difficulty

I recently posted a bit about my daughter’s Chinese first grade Chinese language (语文) textbook. I haven’t found the time to dig deeper yet, but I couldn’t help but notice this story from her second grade textbook (and sorry, these photos are not pretty…):

cao chaong 1
cao chaong 2

The story of 曹冲 (Cao Chong) devising a way to weigh an elephant is a classic story in China. I wasn’t aware until now that (apparently) second grade is the time for a Chinese child to learn it, if she hasn’t already.

What struck me as interesting about this story is that the very same story is the subject of an Upper Intermediate ChinesePod lesson from 2011: How to Weigh an Elephant (hosted by Jenny Zhu and me). Much of the vocabulary is the same, and the difficulty level is roughly equal.

So… in this particular case, a second grade reading for Chinese kids matches up with an upper intermediate lesson for foreign learners. I’m still exploring the ways that first and second language acquisition differ, in terms of relevant topics, vocabulary, grammar, etc., but this one really jumped out at me.


30

Sep 2019

New MacBook, Chinese-r Keyboard This Time

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting lately is that I’ve been struggling with the recovery of a broken MacBook Pro. It was of the (2016) first generation Touchpad line, and, quite frankly, it hasn’t been a great machine. I haven’t lost all faith in Apple hardware yet, but I’ve lost faith in this particular model. I’ve switched back to a MacBook Air. (My old MacBook Air from 2011 still runs like a champ after just a battery replacement a while back, but it’s hard drive is a bit small for today’s standards.)

Anyway, this time it made the most sense to buy the computer in China. You pay significantly more (roughly 1000 RMB) when you buy a MacBook in China as opposed to the US or Japan. What do you get for the extra money?

Well, not much, but you do get a keyboard that looks like this!

MacBook Air Chinese keyboard

It’s actually quite nice to have those Chinese punctuation marks on the keys. (There are a few that I don’t use often and always forget where they are, frequently resulting in a ridiculous trial-and-error key-pecking hunt.) Also, this computer natively repurposes Caps Lock as the “language toggle key” (labeled “中/英”). This is awesome! I didn’t realize how much I was missing.

(Worth 1000 RMB? OK, yeah, that’s a stretch…)

Only problem now is that when I add in a third language (Japanese), the toggle doesn’t work for that one. Anyone out there know the particulars of this specific customization? I need to look into it some more…



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