I’m not a history buff. I recognize it’s important to study history, and that no educated person should be ignorant of history. So while I do read about Chinese history, I don’t do it a lot. But every time I do pick up a Chinese history book, one of the things that drives me crazy about books on this topic is that so often there are no Chinese characters given for important names. (Or characters are given, but no pinyin.) Is this so hard?
China Simplified has a new book out called History Flashback. It’s a fun read, beautifully illustrated, and it’s actually pretty short! How does one condense “5000 years” of Chinese history into only 200 pages? Well, it’s possible. And although the book does a pretty good job of providing characters and pinyin for the Chinese names and other words mentioned, it seemed like a good starting point for a list of “essential Chinese history terms.”
So using this book as a starting point, my company AllSet Learning teamed up with China Simplified to create this handy list of 100 Chinese History Keywords. It’s a free PDF; no signup needed. Just download.
China had its Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节) last week, and that meant a three-day national holiday from Thursday, April 5 to Saturday, April 7 this year. (And then we were all supposed to work on Sunday to “make up for” one of those days off.)
The Chinese name for “Tomb Sweeping Day,” 清明节, is a little opaque. Both the characters 清 and 明 are pretty easy, but what do they mean together? “Pure Bright Festival?” Huh? And what does that have to do with sweeping a tomb?
I’m more interested in the tomb sweeping tradition. A day when the whole family, young and old, goes to visits the grave sites of their ancestors. What a great time to tell stories about these people, and to ensure that this aspect of Chinese culture stays alive and well.
The thing is, in Shanghai at least, I don’t see or hear about much activity surrounding actually visiting the graves of family members to 扫墓 (sweep the tombs), or at least not on 清明节 itself. What gives? Do people simply not care anymore?
I’ve spoken with a number of friends and family members on this topic, and this is what I’m hearing:
I used to go with my family when I was young, but now that I’m grown up in working in Shanghai (far away from my hometown), I don’t go anymore.
My mother goes for the whole family and sweeps the tombs.
My mother goes for the whole family, but not on the holiday; there’s too much traffic on the roads. She goes a week in advance.
In Beijing the locals all go.
Here are a few Chinese posts online, showing that there is some uncertainty out there among the younger people:
Probably one of the most significant events that impacted how this holiday is observed was its being suppressed in the past as “superstition” or overly traditional and backward. It’s only been officially recognized by the government again since 2008, so the holiday has needed time to make a comeback. At the same time, when people live across the country from where their ancestors are buried, it’s not realistic to visit a far-off tomb over a 3-day holiday.
I think one thing that put this holiday in perspective for me was thinking about how Americans observe Memorial Day. Sure, some people make a point of honoring the fallen soldiers, but a lot of people just enjoy a day off and have a barbecue. I like to think that the Chinese take Tomb Sweeping Day a little more seriously, though. It’s about family, after all.
For those of you in China, did you notice many of your young-ish friends making a point to go tomb sweeping this year?
While perhaps not the cleverest characterplay, I like this treatment of the character 城, which means “city” (as in 城市), or sometimes “wall” (as in 长城). The phrase 不夜城 (literally, “not night city”) is similar to “the city that never sleeps.”
The text is:
龍之梦购物公园 新食代 不夜城 千人自助餐盛宴
Note: The way that “Cloud Nine Mall” (龍之梦) is written breaks the “golden rule” that I learned in Chinese 101: Either write entirely in simplified characters or write entirely in traditional characters. Never mix the two. The simplified dragon character 龙 is written using the traditional 龍. “食代” is a pun on 时代.
Children with Down syndrome (唐氏综合征) are rarely seen in China, but it’s becoming more common. Still, I was surprised to see this ad in the Shanghai subway last year:
The ad is spreading the idea that those with Down syndrome can still do some kinds of work and deserve our consideration.
The word 喜憨儿 is not a common one. It apparently comes from Taiwan, and is used to affectionately refer to people affected with Down syndrome, while hinting at the condition.
This year I spotted this other billboard in the subway:
The ad is advocating paying attention to migrant workers’ health.
流动人口 refers to the “migrant worker population” in big Chinese cities like Shanghai. Their jobs are hard, their pay is low, they have little job security and few benefits (if any), and on top of that, they’re discriminated against. The Chinese word more often used to refer to these people is 农民工. In Florida we have “migrant workers” (usually Mexican), but in the Chinese case, these workers are actual Chinese citizens.
Over Christmas in Florida, my dad gave my son (then not quite three years old) a set of wooden blocks. What’s interesting is that these were Chinese character blocks, featuring both Chinese characters and their stroke orders. And these were made in the USA! (Must have been one of the few toys my kids got for Christmas that wasn’t made in China, and it was a set of Chinese character blocks.)
We couldn’t fit such a heavy toy in our luggage on the trip back, so my dad shipped them over for us: Chinese blocks, made in the USA, shipped from the USA to China. Irony level up!
These are apparently “Uncle Goose” brand wooden blocks, but the ones we have look different from what’s on Amazon. I like ours better… they look like these, and have a map of China on the back, as well as a cool dragon and stuff.
My daughter is 6 years old now, and aside from yearly trips to Florida, she’s grown up entirely in Shanghai. Her school is a Chinese school, not an international or bilingual school, when means that I’ve had to make extra efforts if I want her to grow up bilingual. I’ve always practiced “One Parent One Language” (“OPOL”), meaning that I never speak to my daughter in Chinese, even though I’m observing her acquisition of both Chinese and English with keen interest.
Since she’s grown up in Shanghai and attends a school where Mandarin is spoken most of the time, it’s safe to assume that my daughter’s Chinese language skills are going to be a bit more dominant. For example, I get the feeling that she’s mastering irregular verbs a bit more slowly than American kids might. I’m not worried about it; her accent is fine, and she sounds like an American 6-year-old most of the time. I’ve certainly never felt she was making mistakes that Chinese learners of English might make. …until recently.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my daughter confuses the words “make” and “let” in her English. This is a mistake frequently made by Chinese learners of English. In Chinese, 让 has both meanings, and context makes the rest clear. In English, if you don’t get these words straight, your English sounds quite weird (and non-native). So I definitely took notice when my daughter said things like:
*”She was really mean, and let me cry.”
*”He always lets me laugh.”
*”What you said let me angry.”
In every case, the word “make” should be used, and the word “let” is used instead. (I’ve never observed the confusion going in the other direction.) She’s generally receptive to corrections of her English (she catches on pretty quickly when I correct her on her usage of irregular verbs, for example), but this one has been a bit more stubborn.
I’m curious: do any monolingual (or at least not growing up in China) English-speaking kids make this mistake? Or is it something particular to this situation? I expect it will works its way out in time, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing happens with my son (who is now 3).
You hear a lot about the “work-life balance,” and what I want to discuss here is similar, but related to Chinese learning, of course. I’m drawing upon my own experience, as well as the experience of hundreds of clients at AllSet Learning, most of whom are learning Chinese for work-related reasons. Since most of my clients live and work in China, we’re talking about a natural second language learning situation (learning while immersed in the target language environment). Theoretically, at least, they could be using Chinese for their work, in some capacity.
Hence the term “work-Chinese balance.” If you live and work in China, how much do you use Chinese on the job? The answer could range from not using a word of Chinese ever (this is quite common for expat executives working for multinational corporations in Shanghai, for example) to using Chinese all day every day as part of the job.
It should come as no surprise that regularly using Chinese on the job results in much faster learning. Combine that with a practical, customized course of study focused on their work content, and progress can be extremely rapid. This is what I strive to help each of my clients achieve.
Can I have some Venn diagrams with that?
Time to Venn it up! Before getting into my own personal situation, let me just lay out some possible scenarios.
For many of my clients, they can use some Chinese on the job. The challenge is to use their Chinese more effectively, and to expand the scope of work which can be performed in Chinese. So it’s common to have this kind of situation, where some Chinese is used at work, but a lot of Chinese practice happens outside of the work place, and a lot of work is performed in English (or at least, not Chinese):
Worst case scenario is where the client doesn’t use Chinese for work at all, and maybe doesn’t practice much outside of work either (sizes are not meant to be exactly proportional here):
It’s also possible that a client could ONLY use Chinese at work, but only for part of the job:
The opposite would be rarer: the client basically lives in Chinese, and that includes work. (Someone in a situation like this probably already has quite advanced Chinese. This situation would be more common for, say, an immigrant to the USA learning English than an expat in China learning Chinese.)
My Own Work-Chinese Evolution
I thought it would be interesting to chart my own work-Chinese evolution, since I’ve succeeded in gradually integrating Chinese into my career more and more over the years, and it helped me get my Chinese up to a high level. Let’s take a look…
When I first arrived in China I taught English in Hangzhou. I didn’t use any Chinese for my job, but I actually didn’t work a lot of hours every week, so I spent a ton of time studying and practicing Chinese in my free time.
After moving to Shanghai in 2004 I worked for a company called Melody. I was building on my English teaching experience, but starting to work Chinese into my job. This was an exciting time, and I made full use of the opportunities. My Chinese improved a lot, and I even had to speak Chinese on stage, in front of hundreds of teachers, for pronunciation training. A little pressure can be good!
I had to work hard to get into a Chinese grad school program in applied linguistics, and once I did it, I switched to a part-time job doing translation. This was good reading comprehension practice for me, but since I was producing written English and not speaking Chinese, I don’t consider it full “work immersion,” and for the purposes of this article I’m more concerned with speaking. You could also say that my grad school coursework was my full-time “job” at the time (I was on a student visa), and for that, I was fully immersed in Chinese. I got more listening and reading practice than anything, but it was still beneficial to my development, especially in sophisticating my vocabulary and upgrading my academic reading comprehension to adult-level.
Next came my 7+ year stint at ChinesePod. This was a lot of fun, and although I used a fair amount of English to communicate with upper management and other non-Chinese staff, I was also immersed in Chinese for most of my work. I got to geek out discussing linguistic issues on a regular basis. I was able to really flesh out my knowledge of Chinese, making it much more detailed. As a non-native speaker in the industry of teaching Chinese, the constant and long-term incrementing of my metalinguistic knowledge of Mandarin was super useful. I also got to have fun directing the creation of tons of lessons, which had its own learning benefits (frequently cultural).
Finally, I arrive at my current job at AllSet Learning. As a consultant, I’m in frequent contact with my clients, including face to face meetings, and most of that is in English. I also manage all the development of resources like the Chinese Grammar Wiki in English. But a ton of my work is spent working with Chinese teachers and other staff in Chinese. This also includes tasks like teacher training.
As the boss, I actually have control of what I do and what I use Chinese for. I made a choice early on for all office communications to be in Chinese, and I continue to benefit from this (you really never stop learning, as long as you keep paying attention). I even talk to our non-Chinese interns in Chinese! (OK, we do also have some English meetings outside the office.)
If you’re living and working in China, definitely give some thought to your own work-Chinese balance. It could make all the difference.
If you’re learning Chinese outside of China, all is not lost. This isn’t the only path, but it can be the most straightforward. (On the other hand, if you did something radical and got a job in China, then you could pursue something like this, and you wouldn’t be the first to be so “crazy.”)
This ad made me wonder: cultural differences aside, is the bandwagon effect stronger in China because there’s a larger population? Similarly, is the bandwagon effect more powerful when used in advertising in China?
The ad reads:
200 million Chinese people use Miss Fresh
The brand name is 每日优鲜, which could be translated to something like “Daily Excellent Fresh.” But then they called themselves “Miss Fresh” in English, so that’s the name I used.
I was pleased to be contacted recently by Katie, the author of a new blog related to learning Chinese called Panda Toes. She’s based in Beijing, and has already gotten through the hardest parts of learning Mandarin, so she’s interested in sharing tips to help build reading fluency.
Your first thought might be, “to get better at reading Chinese, don’t I just need to read more Chinese?” Well, yes. No one’s going to argue with that logic. But even putting aside the crucial question of what a learner should read on her own, there are some techniques that can make the whole process less painful and more productive.
I really like how in her first article, The Art of Reading Chinese (as a non-native speaker), Katie gives a lot of emphasis to recognizing names (both Chinese and foreign). This point absolutely deserves a lot of attention, and it’s something I remember being tripped up by repeatedly, back in the day. (My time in the news translation trenches did me a lot of good in that regard, but it was most definitely not fun work.)
To add to Katie’s point, I’d like to emphasize it is most definitely worth your time to spend a bit more time learning Chinese names and their structure. While you shouldn’t make a big flashcard deck and memorize ALL THE NAMES, you should be gradually gaining familiarity with common names and common name structures. But how does one do this?
Learn your Chinese friends’ names. Really learn them. Every character, every tone. Ask why they were named that, and ask if it’s an unusual name, or a “typical Chinese name.” If their name contains certain characters that almost exclusively appear in people’s names, identify those as such. This learning is reinforced by your personal relationship with the person; this same knowledge-gathering would not be as effective on a group of random Chinese people.
Learn some famous Chinese names. Again, be selective. These should be names that have some meaning for you. If you like talking about politics, then learn politicians’ names. Same goes for Chinese movie stars, singers, directors, etc. You can gradually expand this list over time. As you do, make note of patterns. For example, the name 章子怡 (Zhang Ziyi). Did you know that there’s a “A子B” naming pattern? Almost all Chinese people will be familiar with it, and sooner or later you need to be too.
You need to know the super common Chinese surnames (again, learn them over time), but you also need to know that some super common words or characters can also be surnames. It really through me for a loop the first time I ran into surnames like 文, 水, 米, 左, or even 门.
Ask your Chinese friends what they think of other people’s names. This is especially easy to do when you’re trying to come up with your own Chinese name, or naming a baby, but it’s also something you can do anytime. Getting Chinese friends’ takes on other Chinese names will really enrich your understanding of names, and you’ll probably be surprised by how widely opinions will vary. Just remember that no matter how much you respect a person, no single person’s opinion is “correct.”
Good luck in building your reading fluency. I’m glad to see Panda Toes is live, and I’ll be contributing to this discussion more in the future. Most of my work these days in reading is with lower levels, editing Mandarin Companion graded readers, but my more advanced clients at AllSet Learning are always looking for interesting new reading content, so I’m always looking at new material for that too.
At AllSet Learning we’re working hard on the follow-up volumes. If you’ve ever been an editor of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, use the U.S. Apple App/iBooks Store, and are interested in a promotional iBooks version, send me an email. If you’re looking forward to our forthcoming B1 and/or B2 volumes, and you’ve noticed any kinds of problems or shortcomings with the current B1/B2 content on the web version of the wiki, also send me an email. We need all the help we can get, and we’d be happy to thank wiki users for significant contributions with a promotional copy of those iBooks versions as well. (Apple allows publishers to share a limited number of free promo ebooks, but Kindle does not.)
I recently attended a parent-teacher meeting at my daughter’s Chinese kindergarten. There were a number of speakers, including the principal, the head English teacher, and a highly-regarded senior Shanghainese pediatrician named Dr. Xu. His topic was, “why is my child getting sick so often?”
This seemed like a fairly simplistic topic to me, and the doctor droned on way too long, but I amused myself for part of the Powerpoint presentation by studying the bacteria names. Take for example, this guy:
It’s an image of staphylococcus bacteria. The Chinese name? 葡萄球菌 (literally: grape-ball-bacteria). Yep, I see it. Nice. But before you get all “Chinese is so cute,” it turns out that the word staphylococcus means the same thing in Greek. (This was like my hippopotamus / 河马 “river horse” revelation all over again!)
But the most interesting part of Dr. Xu’s talk for me was the Q&A part at the end, and one of the parents asked about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). I’ll paraphrase the doctor’s reply below:
In my view, there are only two times when you should use TCM. The first is when you go to the [non-TCM] doctor and he can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. In this case, TCM is fine. It can’t hurt!
The second is when you go to the [non-TCM] doctor and he tells you that there’s nothing wrong with your body, that it’s all in your head. If you really have to take something, then take TCM, because again, it can’t hurt!
I wasn’t expecting this response to an all-Chinese audience, and it got a few chuckles from the audience. I wonder if western medicine is more popular than TCM when it comes to treating children partly because western medicine gets results faster.
I’ve teamed up with Chinese Buddy on a new song, and this time the grammar point is a very basic one related to saying “have” (有) and “don’t have” (没有). Besides Chinese language, it seems that our collaborations revolve around anti-materialism and food (last time was stinky tofu).
Anyway check it out, and show it to any kids you know learning Mandarin:
In Shanghai’s Changning Raffles City (长宁来福士) mall, there’s a new bookstore called Yan Ji You (言几又). Does that name strike you as weird? It should. It’s a weird name. 言 is used as a word by itself mostly just in classical Chinese, but then the use of 几 (grammar points here) and 又 (grammar points here) also don’t make sense. What’s going on?
It’s not obvious, but the name as a deconstruction of the character 设, as in 设计, the word for “design.” When you break down the character 设, you can break it into “left-right” structure (⿰) first, giving you 讠 and 殳. Then 殳 can be further broken down as a top-bottom structure (⿱), giving you 讠, 几, 又. But 讠 (the “speech radical”) is just a simplified stand-in for 言, and 言 looks way better as a stand-alone character anyway, so the end result is 言几又.
Fans of free language-learning app Duolingo have been waiting for a Mandarin Chinese course ever since Duolingo launched, way back in 2012. In the meantime, many languages with much less demand have been added, including Greek, Hungarian, Esperanto, and even High Valyrian. Could it be that tackling Chinese took a bit more thought then other languages (some find it challenging)?
In the meantime, a few Chinese companies have stepped in to fill the gap. The first was ChineseSkill, which unabashedly mimicked Duolingo’s method with its own app. It proved quite popular.
A few years later, HelloChinese came along, bringing various new features and innovations to the method. Then ChineseSkill and HelloChinese became engaged in a feature war which, one could argue, greatly benefited the users of the apps. HelloChinese (led by my former ChinesePod co-worker Vera) gained quite a following in the process, proving that a spunky little startup can totally take on a well-funded traditional company.
And now Duolingo has finally decided to join the game. It makes me wonder what will happen to the other two apps. Will they immediately fade into obscurity? Will they innovate more furiously, only to be copied by Duolingo? Will they evolve into something else entirely? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, it’s a good time to be a user of Duolingo-like apps if you’re trying to learn Chinese.
I haven’t tried out the Duolingo Chinese course myself yet (or any Duolingo course, for that matter, since testing out the platform with French, years ago). I’m not a huge fan of the method, although I recognize it has value, particularly for building vocabulary in an addictive way. It’s just not a “complete method,” as it may want you to believe. But hey, it’s definitely high quality, and free.
Has anyone out there started the Mandarin Chinese course? What do you think?
Update: Duolingo does indeed seem to have updated its platform to cover the challenges of learning tones and learning Chinese characters. See Duolingo’s blog post on the Chinese course for more details.
I want to share a WeChat account I’ve found interesting called 罗辑思维 (a little play on what sounds like “Logical Thinking,” since the host’s surname is Luo). It’s not a podcast about formal logic; the topic is all kinds of useful ideas and thoughts on modern society, with a healthy sprinkling of issues related to entrepreneurship. It’s well-suited to advanced learners, and it has the following key advantages:
Every audio post is only 60 seconds long (called 罗胖60秒). No “listening marathons” here.
Every audio post has a nicely organized transcript (numbered points!) just below it.
Yes, there is some salesy content, but the main topics are still interesting and the sales messages are short and easy to ignore.
罗胖‘s voice is clear and he is easy to listen to.
His material is a good example of Chinese content marketing, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s so hard to find material this is both interesting (to non-Chinese) and short, and this is one of the best resources I’ve found. (Please let me know what you think of it in the comments!)
I personally find all 8 of his most recent topics quite interesting, so here they are (no filtering needed):
Here are a few screenshots of those:
To find the WeChat account, just search for “罗辑思维” on WeChat. [Note: you’ll still find it if you search for “逻辑思维.”] There are also videos on YouTube and Youku.
Spotted this sign on 老外街 (“Laowai Street”) on Hongmei Road (虹梅路).
First of all, “xu” in pinyin is how you spell the word for “SHHH” (the “shushing” sound) in Chinese. It even has a character: 嘘.
Second, the translation “don’t be too noisy still get happy” is understandable, I guess, but let’s look at the original Chinese:
声音小一点 一样HIGH 得起来
So 声音小一点 refers to one’s voice being a little quieter. The “if” part and the “you” subject are implied.
The 一样means “the same,” but here it’s more naturally translated as “equally” or “just as.”
The “HIGH” in Chinese is not (usually) some kind of drug-induced state, but rather the “natural high” of just getting all excited and having a blast. There could be some drinking involved (think karaoke), but the emphasis is on the fun had.
The interesting thing here is that the word “HIGH” in Chinese is translated as “happy” in the English version. In fact, a co-worker of mine told me that she used to assume that the Chinese word “high” (sometimes written as “嗨“) was derived from the English word “happy” (a direct translation of 开心), rather than the English word “high.” (Who knows!)
Being a little quieter,
you can still have
just as much fun.
Not as much fun, though, right? (XU!)
Nov. 13, 2017 Update: a friend wanted more explanation of the complement thing, so here it is, copied over from Facebook comments:
Question: The example in the Chinese Grammar Wiki makes sense: 早上 五点 出发 ， 孩子们 起 得 来 吗 ？… but that is 起得来 not 起起来！
Answer: In that example, 起 is a verb, and 来 is the direction complement. You insert 得 between the two to make it into a potential complement, adding the meaning of “can.” 起得来 = can get up.
The same is true for HIGH, only the complement is 起来 (in this case, 起 is not the verb). So that’s how you get HIGH得起来. (This one is harder to translate literally, though… “can get high” would be literal, but misleading (no drugs!).) “Can have a blast” is closer to the meaning, but you lose more of the V+起来 literal translation. “Can get happy” maybe, if you don’t mind a little Chinglish!)
In the blog entry, I linked to one grammar point on uses of 起来, and another on potential complements. It’s the combination of the two that you need to understand to fully get this. It’s a little tricky!
“I see” is a children’s dance studio in Shanghai. Here’s the logo:
Can you read the Chinese name? Hint: the first character is not just 火. (It’ll be much easier if you’re already familiar with the Chinese names of some popular fairytales. Or even if you’re familiar with the Chinese names of Disney animated classics.)
In this case, we’re dealing with the name 灰姑娘, literally, “ashes girl,” which is the Chinese name for “Cinderella.”
Confession time! I think it wasn’t until I learned the Chinese name for Cinderella that I even realized that the “Cinder” part of “Cinderella” was a reference to ashes rather than being kind of like a cross between “Cindy” and “Stella” with a random “er” thrown in for style.
According to Wikipedia, the “cinder” part “has to do with the fact that servants… were usually soiled with ash at that time, because of their cleaning work and also because they had to live in cold basements so they usually tried to get warm by sitting close to the fireplace.”
Anyway, it might be easy to miss that the dancer in the logo next to the 火 character is part of the larger character 灰.