Pinyin is generally great for typing (learn it!), but there’s not much it can do for you when you’re trying to type a character you don’t know how to pronounce. This has always been the case, until recently, when a few of the popular pinyin input methods have started adding a few new tricks.
Basically, you first type “u” (a letter no valid pinyin syllable begins with), and then you type out the common names of the character components. You can see it in action in the image (the apostrophes are inserted by the pinyin input method itself to show how pinyin syllables are interpreted).
More text-friendly breakdown of what the image shows:
[Side note: best English translation for the slang word 萌 “adorbs”??]
The bad news is that this doesn’t seem to work on Mac OS X or iOS. I hear from reliable source that it works on Sogou pinyin for PC and Google Pinyin (for PC). Does it work on Android devices running Google Pinyin?
Let me know in the comments if it works for you, and share some interesting examples of what works and what doesn’t work. Thanks!
This is my second “Year of the Horse” Chinese New Year in China, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: a certain chengyu (Chinese idiom, typically 4 characters long) gets thrown around like crazy in Chinese New Year’s greetings.
That chengyu is 马到成功.
There are a few interesting things about this chengyu, and some points worth exploring.
Is it worth knowing?
Like many learners, you may not want to junk up your brain space with too many useless chengyu. So is this one worth it? Well, it sure gets liberally tossed around at the beginning of the Year of the Horse, that’s for sure.
But aside from that, it’s not a terribly uncommon chengyu. I’ve learned it without trying just by living through one Year of the Horse CNY, and you probably can too, if you live in China or if you’re tuned into Chinese media for the holiday. Tons of repetition of this chengyu.
What does it mean, really?
The nice thing about 马到成功 is that its components are so easy:
– 马: horse (easy!)
– 到: to arrive (easy!)
– 成功: to succeed (not bad, intermediate-level vocab)
It’s all high-frequency vocabulary, so that’s great. What does it really mean, though? “Horse arrives, success!” Something is missing. Is there some mystical luck-horse that runs around providing success to all it encounters? Not exactly.
If you look up 马到成功 in a dictionary, you get something like this:
> win instant success
Or, more literally:
> win success immediately upon arrival
OK, so if you take 马到 to mean “instant,” than isn’t it just the same as 马上, “immediately?”
But it’s not. At Chinese New Year, the chengyu is used in New Year’s wishes to others. If you were wishing people “马上成功” it sounds like they’ve already started something, and you want them to succeed immediately (like really soon!). Wishing them 马到成功 is wishing a speedy success to whatever endeavor someone undertakes. That makes a lot more sense.
OK, but does that explain why it’s 马到? Not really. Fortunately Baidu has the answer (in Chinese, of course). The chengyu actually refers to ancient warfare, in which cavalry played an important role. If your cavalry could get there on time right as the battle began, you’d frequently be assured a swift victory. (There’s a more complicated story behind the chengyu which Baidu relates, but it’s related to cavalry.)
This isn’t to say that Chinese people have images of cavalry slaughtering their enemies as they wish their friends 马到成功. In fact, most Chinese people probably aren’t aware of the origin of the saying. If you Baidu image search it, you see a whole bunch of images of horses frolicking around, not an enemy soldier in sight.
Even though the 马到成功 literally means “swift success,” you can also use it by itself to wish someone success in the New Year. You don’t need to add 祝你 in the front for “I wish you” (even though it’s not wrong to say that).
A common greeting that won’t stretch any intermediate learner’s abilities is:
> 新年快乐，马到成功！ (Happy New Year, and swift successes!)
And with that, I wish everybody a 马到成功 in their Chinese studies!
I wasn’t expecting Star Wars to get in on the CNY festivities, but here it is:
The pun is (in traditional characters originally):
In simplified, that’s:
新年快乐 means “Happy New Year.” The pun replaces 新 (xin: “new”) with 星 (xing: “star”). The two are both first tone, and do sound very similar in Chinese (in fact, many native speakers don’t carefully distinguish between the “-n” and “-ng” finals of many syllables), and Star Wars in Chinese is 星球大战 (literally, “Star War(s)”).
Thanks, Jared, for bringing this video to my attention!
My daughter is now two years old, and she’s well on her way to simultaneously acquiring both English and Mandarin Chinese (with a little Shanghainese thrown in for good measure). We’re using the “One Parent One Language” approach, and it’s working pretty well.
I’ve taken a keen interest in my daughter’s vocabulary acquisition, but recently I’ve also been paying close attention to her grammar in both English and Chinese. Those that follow the debate regarding order of acquisition and whether or not a child’s natural acquisition should be closely mirrored by language learning materials should not be surprised to learn that her grammar pattern acquisition is all over the place. What I mean is that the grammar patterns she can or cannot use do not match well to what a beginner learner of Chinese should or shouldn’t be able to use after a year of study.
So what I’m going to do in this post is briefly comment on her mastery of some well-known grammar points, and also highlight some of the more surprising ones. I’ll be using the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s breakdown by level for reference (the order, low to high, is: A1, A2, B1, B2).
Grammar Points My Daughter Can Use
Measure word “ge“ (A1)
So she’s counting things the Chinese way, with 个. Picked this one up pretty quick, it seems.
“Er” and “liang” (A1)
I was wondering how quickly she’d master the use of 二 and 两, but she had it down easily, before she was two. (Obviously, she has no need for most of the fringe cases; she just needs to count stuff.) I know her waipo (maternal grandmother) practiced this one with her a lot.
Expressing possession (A1)
It took her a while to get the hang of 的 for possession, just as it took her a while to get the hand of “‘s” for possession in English. Neither is totally consistent (she sometimes forgets to use them), but she’s basically got them down.
Questions with “ne“ (A1)
When an adult learns Chinese, you learn the pattern “____ 在哪儿？” to ask where something is. My daughter totally skipped that, and uses 呢 exclusively to ask where things are. This is a use of 呢 you don’t normally learn as an adult student of Mandarin until a bit later, but there’s no arguing that it’s simpler! Kids like linguistic shortcuts.
“meiyou” as a Verb (A1)
She doesn’t know that 没 is a special adverb of negation used with 有. She just knows what 没有 means as a whole. And it works!
Negative commands with “bu yao“ (A1)
Yeah, two year olds can be a bit demanding and uncooperative. 不要 is a key tool in her arsenal of terribleness, and it’s one of the few Chinese words that she likes to use when she’s otherwise speaking English, as well.
Standard negation with “bu“ (A1)
Again, very useful when she wants to be contrary. She uses 不 pretty indiscriminately, putting it in front of verbs, verb phrases, and adjectives, but sometimes also nouns.
Expressing “with” with “gen” (A2)
I say she “knows” this, but she uses it exclusively with the verb 去, for talking about “going with (someone).” Again, it gets the job done!
Change of state with “le” (A2)
This is another one of those grammar points that she has a very limited mastery of, but makes good use of. She knows and uses the phrases “来了,” “走了,” and a few others. (Interestingly, she often uses “来了” as a substitute for the existential 有, meaning “there is.”)
“-wan” result complement (B1)
Obviously, she has no clue how to use complements. She learns phrases, and the phrase “吃完了” gets used a lot. (Her English equivalent for this is “finished” or “done,” not “finished eating” or “done eating.”)
Expressing the self-evident with “ma“ (B1) 嘛 (not 吗) is notoriously tricky for adults to get the hang of, but my daughter jumped right in and started using it early. Sometimes it feels like she’s not using it quite right, but clearly that doesn’t faze her. You’ll notice that any Chinese 3-year-old uses 嘛 pretty liberally, so it’s clearly something that kids pick up really quickly, and adult learners over-analyze.
Grammar Points My Daughter Cannot Use
Personal pronouns (A1)
This might seem surprising, but these ubiquitous, abstract words for expressing “I” (我), “you” (你), and “he/she/it” (他/她/它) are totally unnecessary in the beginning and ignored by kids for quite a while. My daughter is just know starting to use “I” and “我,” but she’s still just experimenting. (Previously, she used “baby” and her own name instead of “I.”)
“Can” with “hui” “neng” and “keyi” (A2)
Here’s something elementary learners spend quite a bit of time mastering, but my daughter has decided to shelve the use of modal verbs 会, 能, and 可以 altogether, for the time being. (She seems to be making some progress on English “can,” however.)
“Shi… de” construction (B1)
Yeah… doesn’t need 是……的, doesn’t use it. She hears this pattern in questions all the time, however. She’s slowly soaking up the input.
“Ba” Sentence (B1)
This one is notoriously difficult for adult learners, and kids avoid it for a while, too, as it turns out. My daughter definitely understands the structure, though, whether or not she even notices the presence of 把 in the sentences she understands. She never uses it.
“Bei” sentence (B1)
She definitely doesn’t use 被. No need for passive at all, and she doesn’t hear it much either, at this point. I’m sure linguists have studied at what point kids acquire passive constructions and why, but it’s clearly a lower linguistic priority for kids.
None of this is scientific; these are just casual observations. Watching my daughter simultaneously acquire two languages, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences between the way children and adults acquire languages. Whether or not there are neurological limits is still being debated, but it’s clear to me that there are differences, in practice.
What I’m seeing:
Kids can get by without pronouns. Without pronouns! How many adults could do that, even after being told they’re not high priority? I’ve personally observed quite a few people that try to start learning a language by translating the English of what they want to say, and their first question is frequently, “how do I say ‘I’?” You don’t need to start this way, but adults feel they need to.
My daughter was not at all tripped up by measure words, but after mastering numbers 1-10 in both languages she zoomed ahead with her Chinese numbers, while the irregular teens in English (“eleven,” “twelve,” “thirteen,” etc.) really slowed her down.
By putting utility above all else, my daughter frequently starts “using grammar patterns” before she understands how they work at all, simply by learning phrases. I don’t mean she doesn’t intellectually understand grammatical concepts (of course she doesn’t), I mean she doesn’t even know that she can put 完 on the end of other actions; she just knows how to say 吃完了 when she finished eating, because that’s all she needs from 完 at this point. The memorized phrase will be generalized into a “pattern” when it becomes necessary. This is actually a point that adults should really learn from: over-analysis frequently slows adults way down and delays meaningful communication. This is also the logic behind the approach to learning 了 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki; learning patterns in a gradual process is actually the best way to learn how to use 了. And it’s usually best to memorize a phrase you need first, then generalize later.
There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll stop now. Comments are welcome! I’m especially interested in hearing about relative order of grammar acquisition of my readers’ children.
If you follow me on Twitter you may have heard of Mandarin Companion already, but this is the first time I’m directly mentioning it on Sinosplice. I was waiting until all five of our Level 1 digital editions were released for both Amazon Kindle and iBooks, and now they are.
Mandarin Companion graded readers are for learners with 1-2 years of formal study under their belts (or the equivalent), looking for something longer and more interesting to read for pleasure, without having to constantly reference a dictionary.
Mandarin Companion’s Level 1 books assume a foundation of only 300 Chinese characters, and it’s 300 characters you will know if you’ve studied virtually any standard course.
To create this graded reader series, I’ve teamed up with a partner, Jared Turner, while also leveraging the tools and talent at AllSet Learning.
What are the titles?
We released five Level 1 stories in 2013, all based on western classics and adapted into Chinese stories (more on that in a future post). Here are the first five titles:
The Secret Garden:《秘密花园》 This was our first book, and it was an awesome choice. It’s an excellent story, free of complicated settings or plot twists. There are more characters in this story than in most of our other ones, but they all have easy (and very Chinese) names, and the story ends up feeling very Chinese itself, despite the British roots. (Just look at the cover!)
The Sixty-Year Dream:《六十年的梦》 You can’t tell from the name, but this graded reader is an adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. In adapting this and making it totally Chinese, we had a lot of issues to consider. The original work is about going to sleep as a colonist before the American revolution, and waking up afterward in a newly formed country. It’s a story about change. Well, what country knows change better than China? For maximum dramatic effect, we chose a 60-year time span, going from pre-Communist China to post-Mao China. The relevant Chinese history of the periods adds a lot of color to the story.
The Monkey’s Paw:《猴爪》 I remember reading this classic story as a kid, and it totally creeped me out. The first time you’re introduced to the idea of pre-determinism it kind of blows your mind, right? I initially had my doubts as to how well this story could be adapted into simple Chinese while preserving the feel, but we pulled it off pretty well, if I do say so myself.
The Country of the Blind:《盲人国》 This graded reader is based on a classic H.G. Wells story, and I actually blogged about it not long ago, in conjunction with China. (Now you know why I was thinking about the story so hard!) The text of the story doesn’t get into any of those details, really, though… I just wanted as close to an “adventure” story as we could do at the 300-character level (it really is a challenge), and this one fit the bill. The sci-fi connection was icing on the cake! This one is also notable because we altered the original ending just a little bit.
Sherlock Holmes and the Red-Headed League:《卷发公司的案子》 What if you adapted Sherlock Holmes to 1920’s Shanghai? Well, this what happens! This one was fun, because we had to research styles of the time to get the illustrations right, but actually none of that affected the text of the story itself. (But hey, details matter, right? Sherlock.. errr, 高明 would approve!) It was definitely a pleasure to create our own take on the world’s most famous sleuth.
I’m really proud of these books we’ve created, and I wish I had had material like this when I was just starting out on my journey of learning Chinese. You don’t have to wait until you can read a Chinese newspaper to enjoy reading Chinese, really.
Lists like this always feel a bit arbitrary to me, because while they’re almost always good recommendations, you’re always leaving some good stuff out for the sake of brevity or sticking to that succinct number.
Here are Sid’s 5 tips, and some articles of my own that complement them nicely:
Scrap the Foreign Alphabet. This advice seems a bit strange, coming from a language lover. Really what his point boils down, to, though, is not reading a foreign language through the filter of your native tongue. When it comes to Chinese, it means learning pinyin ASAP (and really learning it). Check out the Sinosplice Chinese Pronunciation Guide, the free AllSet Learning Pinyin iPad app, and also X is the Unknown.
Use the Buddy Formula. Sid specifically refers to “Best Language in Common,” which is an important point in one of my most popular posts: Language Power Struggles. I also like his reference to “Best Secret Language in Common.”
Remember, there are a million ways to learn a language right. The key, in the short-term, is to just get started, and for the mid- to long-term, to enjoy it. Why not do it in 2014?
I discovered this little gem of translation magic in my WeChat feed the other day under the title 中文远比英文美 (“Chinese is far more beautiful than English”). The poem quoted below is widely attributed to Shakespeare online, so the attribution is reasonable. (More on that later.)
I’ve tried to maintain a 4-line structure to make comparisons easier, but in a few cases it was inappropriate to break the Chinese poem structures, so I left them as is, since the 4-part structure is obvious anyway.
Original English Poem
> You say that you love rain, but you open your umbrella when it rains.
You say that you love the sun, but you find a shadow spot when the sun shines.
You say that you love the wind, but you close your windows when wind blows.
This is why I am afraid–you say that you love me too.
― William Shakespeare
普通版 (“Normal” Version)
This is the “normal” version, a straight translation of the English above into modern Chinese. (This is also the second most accessible version if you want to try reading the Chinese.)
文艺 literally means “literature and arts,” but these days it’s often closely associated with the phrase 文艺青年, a young person who pursues artistic beauty (especially of the literary nature), but may often come across pretentious to normal people.
You’ll immediately notice how difficult the following translation is compared to the first one; it’s chock-full of hard words.
女汉子 is difficult to translate, but 汉子 normally refers to a man. So 女汉子 refers to a “manly” woman, or more appropriately a “strong woman,” the type that takes no crap from nobody. “你有本事” (literally, “[if] you have the ability”) lends an air of direct challenge to the whole thing, kind of a “what are you gonna do about it?” feel.
This one, like the 吴语 version above, also seems tacked on, since the phrase 女汉子 is trendy these days.
OK, so here’s the thing… That “original” English poem was not by Shakespeare, and it’s actually a translation into English from Turkish. There’s a reason it doesn’t see too “Shakespearean” (especially in word choice). Below is the original word choice:
> Yağmuru seviyorum diyorsun, yağmur yağınca şemsiyeni açıyorsun…
Güneşi seviyorum diyorsun, güneş açınca gölgeye kaçıyorsun…
Rüzgarı seviyorum diyorsun, rüzgar çıkınca pencereni kapatıyorsun…
İşte,bunun için korkuyorum; Beni de sevdiğini söylüyorsun…
This little experiment certainly doesn’t prove any superiority or “pwnage,” and the English translation was clearly chosen because it matches existing Chinese poem forms, but… Chinese is still pretty awesome.
Bitcoin is a hot topic these days, and it seems to come up in all sorts of my interactions in Shanghai, from clients to friends to family. My initial thought was the oversimplification that “Chinese people like speculation,” and they’re getting tired of the super-expensive “bubble that just won’t burst” real estate option. [“Bitcoin” in Chinese is 比特币, by the way.]
Here’s a more informed answer to the question “What is Beijing’s rationale for promoting Bitcoin?” by Paul Denlinger on Quora:
There are several reasons for giving it higher visibility; most recently I’ve noticed that China Telecom, a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) is accepting bill payments in Bitcoin.
Here are some of the reasons:
China’s economy is too slanted to investment instead of relying on consumer-spending generated tax revenue. This means that there is too much untaxed cash sloshing around in the system;
Real estate prices are continuing to rise in the cities in spite of government efforts to dampen the price rise. Bitcoin offers a chance to take some excess cash out of the system, and thus dampen price inflation.
The party is going after corruption among Chinese officials. Even though the party needs to clean up, it needs to give its own members an exit plan, as too much prosecution would make the people think that the party is completely corrupt.
Since November 2008, the US Fed has been injecting liquidity into US banks at the rate of US$80B a month as part of the quantitative easing plan. This means that 4.8T has been injected into the global economy in the past five years. US banks have tightened their lending requirements, which means a lot of this hot money has made its way to China, where it is fueling inflation. This is in addition to US1-2T of cash in Hong Kong banks which has nowhere to go except China investments. Too much liquidity fuels inflation.
There has been a lot of talk about China dumping US treasuries if things got hot between the US and China. This is a dumb strategy. Instead, China needs to soak up a lot of the US$ liquidity, and promote the Chinese yuan as an international currency. By promoting the yuan, the US would have to raise interest rates to acquire US$ buyers, making the cost of the US$ higher for its issuer, the Fed.
A lot of the discussion about Bitcoin has centered on its not being widely accepted. This misses the mark. For two years before the euro was officially introduced as a currency in the EU, it was used for settling accounts among banks.
To a large extent, Bitcoin replaces banking services. If it is used among more individuals for settling accounts, it will have a valuable role. Right now, that is just beginning, since the amount of Bitcoin in circulation is just US$15B, which when compared with the other amounts mentioned above, is a very small amount.
Most Chinese buyers of Bitcoin are using it not as a spending currency, but to hide and protect their currency and asset savings. They only convert from Bitcoin to cash when needed.
Compared to banks and individuals who need to report large cash transactions, Bitcoin is anonymous. This makes it ideal for international currency movements. This trend is just beginning.
(I hate copying such a large chunk of the text instead of just linking to Quora, but Quora is pretty hostile to readers that aren’t accessing Quora in just the right way, so there you go.
In case you’re wondering how one should understand the phrase “爱 ♥ 回家” grammatically, 爱 is a noun here, so it means “love returns home” rather than “[someone] loves to return home.” Ah, Chinese grammar and its flexible parts of speech…
Here’s a Chinese public service poster that uses a pun to get its point across:
The big text reads:
> 你是要换， [Do you want to replace it,]
> 还是要患？ [or do you want a (safety) hazard?]
So the key here is that “huàn” can be both the verb 换, meaning “to replace,” as well as the noun 患, which means “hazard” (in the “safety hazard” sense). You often see it in the word 隐患, literally “hidden danger,” referring to potential safety hazards. (隐患 actually appears at the very bottom of the notice.)
What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:
The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.
I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.
“How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?”
> The truth is that no materials–textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever–are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.
> At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.
> For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the things you care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.
Definitely check out some of the answers if this topic interests you at all; there’s a lot of them, with lots of good points.
A lot of the answers are what you might expect, but I especially liked the response by Roddy of Chinese-Forums.com:
> I think I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?
> First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.
> It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条 [french fries], not the 土豆丝 [shredded potato] he was requesting.
Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.
But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle 了? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require nochengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?
Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.
The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.
The Four-Character Fetish
Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.
Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.
Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”
In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.
No Special Treatment
In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.
Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.
Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.
So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.
If you really lovechengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.
My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.
The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水，冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.
Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?
Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.
Photo by Feldore
Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.
She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.
Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?
More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.
> This course is intended for people who would like to learn how to read classical Chinese philosophy and history as expeditiously as possible. The professor is a specialist in early Chinese history. He is not a linguist, and offers no more discussion of grammatical particles and structures than is strictly necessary.
This may be true, but I find many of the grammatical explanations rather linguisticky. I don’t mind (and I’m sure they could be a lot more abstruse). I like how supplementary grammar examples given are short, to the point, and interesting.
Here’s an example:
> 而 ér
> This is one of the most common words in classical Chinese. It links phrases, not nouns. “And” or “but” is often a satisfactory translation. However, often the phrase preceding 而 is subordinate, so it should be translated as a participle indicating modification. Thus, in the first sentence of the Mencius, the King of Liáng says 不遠千里而來 “[You] came, not considering a thousand miles too far.” In such cases the first phrase describes a condition or background to the second, as in the English sentence “Peter, fully knowing the danger, entered the room.” In other cases the two phrases are co-ordinate, and the second phrase simply narrates what follows (from) the first.
This is also one of those little bits of classical Chinese that will help sophisticate your modern Chinese. We cover 而 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki in a number of patterns.
Another great example of classical Chinese common in written Chinese:
> 以 yĭ
> This character was originally a verb meaning “to take, to take up, to grab onto.” Thus “X 以 noun verb” would mean “X takes or grasps the noun and verbs,” hence “X uses noun to verb.” Thus 以口言 “speaks with the mouth (口 kŏu),” or 以心知 “knows with the heart/mind (心 xīn).”
> 以 also precedes verbs, in which case it usually acts as a conjunction meaning “in order to.” Thus 出門以見日 “to go out the door in order to see (見 jiàn) the sun,” 溫古以習之 “to review ancient times in order to become familiar with them.”
> One of the most common uses of 以 is in the phrase 以為 “to take and make, take and use as, take and regard as.” This phrase can also be divided to form 以 A 為 B, “to take A and make it into B, use it as B, regard it as B.” As the translations suggest, this action can be either physical—to take some object or substance and make it into something—or mental—to regard something as being something else. Thus 以木為門 “to take wood (木 mù) and make a gate,” 王以天下為家 “The king regards the whole world (天下 tiān xià) as his household (家 jiā),” 孔子以國為小 “Confucius considered the state to be small (小 xiăo),” 吾以為子不知之 “I thought that you didn’t know it.” This use of 以為, both as a unit and as separate words, is still common in modern Chinese.
Here’s another one for the “I can’t believe they named the product that” file (see also “Cat Crap Coffee“). This one has more of a cultural differences angle, with a little bit of translation difficulty thrown in for good measure.
There’s a brand of Chinese rice wine called 酒鬼酒. Here’s a picture of it:
酒 in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “white wine“).
A person who routinely drinks to excess is called a 酒鬼 in Chinese, which literally means “alcohol demon” or “alcohol devil” or “alcohol ghost,” depending on how you want to translate 鬼. It sounds pretty negative, but in fact, in Chinese culture this type of alcohol abuse is not nearly so stigmatized. Although the police forces of many regions in China have begun cracking down on drunk driving in recent years, alcoholism in China is not as closely linked in the public consciousness to vehicular manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, and the host of other evils as it often is in the west. In fact, regular heavy drinking is closely linked to some of China’s greatest poets, most famously 李白 (Li Bai).
Here’s 李白 getting his drink on:
So it’s more in the spirit of historical drunken poetry (as opposed to inebriated abusiveness) that this brand of Chinese rice wine is called 酒鬼酒.
Translating the brand name into English is a new challenge in itself, though. If you simply translate 酒鬼 as “alcoholic” and 酒 as “alcohol,” you get “Alcoholic Alcohol,” which sounds like it means “Alcohol that Contains Alcohol,” which is just plain dumb. In fact, you can’t use the word “alcoholic” as a modifier at all for that reason, so if you don’t want to ditch the noun “alcoholic” altogether you have to say something like “Alcohol for Alcoholics,” which sounds like some kind of horrible demented “charity” to my American ears.
So what else can you do? “Booze for Boozers” and “Wino Wine” are ridiculous. “Drunk Spirits”? I’m curious what a creative translator can come up with. (Pete? Brendan?)