Photo by @biesnecker:
The original character is, of course, 多 (“more”).
(Specifically, “50% more more.”)
Photo by @biesnecker:
The original character is, of course, 多 (“more”).
(Specifically, “50% more more.”)
Please excuse a short rant.
Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.
I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).
So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.
(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)
Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!
So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.
(You’ll need at least an Intermediate level of Chinese to know the words, but even a high elementary-level student should have learned most of the characters, in theory.)
OK, to prevent anyone from getting too frustrated, here’s the Chinese:
I’m looking forward to seeing more Chinese creativity at the Power Station of Art.
I just discovered this really cool “perspective effect” on Behance:
This is sort of similar to the Chinese/English ambigrams I’ve written about before.
A new project called SVG Hanzi (SVG 漢字/SVG 汉子) allows anyone to piece together an image of a character by specifying its structure and component parts. Very cool!
From the site:
> SVG Hanzi is a web service that can be used to obtain a picture of any Chinese character in SVG format.
> It is only necessary to visit a link that looks like http://svghanzi.appspot.com/[Character Code].
> Character Code here should consist of an Ideographic Description Character ⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻ or △
(Those weird symbols above represent the main structural patterns of Chinese characters, such as ⿰ for 知, ⿺ for 道, etc. △ is used to denote structures like 品 or 鑫.)
In case it’s not clear, this tool allows you to construct a character by just sticking a string of symbols and characters into a URL, which is then output as an SVG image.
Some examples (click through to view the resulting SVG character output in a pumped-up font size):
Those are all actual characters, of course. I quickly realized that this tool can be used to contract the character creations I love so much (and used to do the hard way, in Photoshop):
Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):
This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.
Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.
ChinesePod Jenny was telling me that she read about a story told by the CEO of C-trip (携程). C-trip was trying to make a Weibo post about “independent travel” (i.e. not travel with a tour group). In China, this kind of travel is called 自由行. 自由 means “free” (as in freedom), and 行 is an abbreviation of 旅行, which means “travel.”
Well the word for “freedom” tripped the censorship filter, and the post was rejected.
So they figured that they could alter the word 自由 by using the character 游 instead of 由. 游 is a part of 旅游, another word for “travel.” That way you get 自游行 instead of 自由行. Identical pronunciation, and the meaning still comes across pretty clearly.
The post was rejected again, for having tripped the filter.
The reason is that they had unintentionally created the word 游行, which is the Chinese word for “demonstration” (as in the protest kind).
Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, Chinese people find this kind of story quite amusing. There’s not much you can do about the current situation but grin and bear it. One does wonder how much longer this particular charade will carry on, though…[I don’t have a link to the original article; please share it if you have it!]
“No sugar” or “sugar-free” in Chinese is 无糖. The character 无, in its simplified form (not 無), is not particularly difficult to write. It’s barely more complex than “#.” The character for “sugar,” however, is a different story: 糖. Kind of complex.
So if you’re working in a coffee shop and have to quickly mark coffee cups with a label that means “no sugar,” what are you going to use? Are you going to bother to write 无糖 over and over? Here’s what an employee at Knight Coffee writes:
So “无t” instead of “无糖.” (You can often see similar things going on if you can get a peek at the way that restaurant servers write down food orders by hand.)
Modern Chinese people grow up being equally familiar with the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters. Writing by hand is becoming less and important, and writing characters is sometimes seen as a burden. Typing on a computer can make it easier to type out complex characters (because you’re not actually writing out all the strokes anymore), and yet young Chinese people on the internet are mixing the Latin alphabet into Chinese quite liberally.
It does make you wonder how quickly we’re going to start seeing fundamental changes to the way Chinese people write. All languages change over time, although the written language often resists change much longer. But there’s a new catalyst in the equation this time: the internet.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of creativity centered on characters. I recently discovered these signs browsing photos on WeChat. (I’ll post the Chinese characters below the photos if you want to give yourself the challenge of reading them on your own.)
The characters on the sign above are: 时光机 (“time machine”).
The characters on the two signs above are: 锅炉房 (“boiler room”).
I got a great tip from my friend Will Stevenson yesterday. Apparently iOS6 not only added text-to-speech support for new languages, but also enabled the ability to recognize and read out Chinese, even when the phone is in English language mode, and even when the text is a mix of Chinese and English.
Here’s an example of “Speak” enabled for a Chinese spam text:
Here’s an example of “Speak” for a note which includes both English and Chinese (I’m not sure why there’s a choice of reading in either 中文 or English; either one does the same thing):
For text messages, iOS treats each SMS text as one big block of text, and it won’t highlight individual words as it reads them (even though it reads them all). For other types of text, though, in apps like the Notes app, it will highlight each character as it reads it out:
[Side note: here’s what the note was about. I took notice of it because it’s a fairly rare example of mixing simplified and traditional Chinese characters in print. It was done to put the 心 (heart) back into the character for love, since the simplified version 爱 quite literally takes the “heart” (心) out of (traditional) “love” (愛).]
Anyway, since you’re likely here to get your iOS6 device speaking Chinese, here’s how you do it.
First, go to Settings > General > Accessibility (Accessibility is near the bottom of all the stuff in “General.” Just a little hard to find. Naturally.)
Right at the top, you’ll see an Accessibility section called “Vision.” There you’ll see an item called “Speak Selection.” Touch on that. On the next screen, turn it ON. You can also turn no “Highlight Words” here too (why not?). You probably don’t want to mess with the speaking rate. It gets way too fast pretty quickly.
Here’s the really cool thing, though. There’s a “Dialects” section. (And no, I’m not going into the “what is a dialect, really? discussion here!) In there, you can not only choose the dialect for English and other languages, but also for Chinese! At the bottom of the “Dialects” section, under 中文, you can choose mainland Mandarin (中国), Cantonese (廣東話), and Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣). Not sure why they chose two regions and a language/dialect/topolect as the choices. But anyway, fun stuff!
Why does this matter? Well, my friend Will discovered it by accident as he was going through the somewhat tedious routine of copying a text so that he could then paste it into Pleco‘s pasteboard reader. He tried playing the text, and much to his surprise, he could hear the Chinese (whereas in the past, on iOS5, the text-to-speech converter would just skip over all Chinese). In this particular example, after having the Chinese read to him, he didn’t need to look it up after all.
Because a lot of the challenge of Chinese is simply recognizing the characters for the words you already know, text-to-speech can be extremely convenient. Will’s reaction was, “now that I have this feature, I’m going to be using Pleco a lot less now!”
Interesting. Let me know if you think this new feature changes how you learn Chinese on your phone, or if it’s just no big deal to you.
Inevitably, students of Chinese characters will ask, at some point, “why do we have to learn stroke order? What difference does it make?”
It’s a good question. This is the answer:
(The message reads 好无聊. “So bored.”)
This is what Chinese characters start to look like as the strokes flow together. And it’s not just about calligraphy and an appreciation of ancient culture; I discovered the image above through Tencent’s WeChat (the iPhone app).
I’ve heard some good things about a program for school kids called Better Chinese. Like many modern Chinese learning programs, Better Chinese is also on the iPad learning bandwagon. This screenshot from the website features the app:
Yikes! How’d they get a kid from the late 70’s to pose with that iPad, and why didn’t they tell him not to use a pen with that touchscreen?
I’m sure we’ll all figure out how to learn Chinese using these touchscreen tablets sooner or later…
Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”
No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.
Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.
Today, however, I’d like to introduce a tool of a different sort. One that operates on the “primitive and ignorant” level of the “wall of characters.” It’s a “bomb” in a more literal (but digital) sense of the word, a toy called fontBomb.
I’ve found that applying fontBomb to the “wall of characters” is surprisingly satisfying, in the same way that smashing glass can be satisfying, and looks cool to boot. Here’s a video I made (sorry, YouTube only):
FontBomb is easy to use and apply to any page of text. Happy bombing!
A friend of a friend recently opened a restaurant in Shanghai called 斗味.
That’s 斗 as in 斗争 (struggle) or 决斗 (duel), and 味 as in 味道 (scent, taste) or 口味 (flavor).
After dinner the other night, a friend was jokingly telling me that the name could be read 二十味 or 二十口未(口味). Ah, characterplay is always welcome… This particular example reminded me of Lin Danda (a timeless classic in character ambiguity).
斗味 is pretty good, and has very reasonable lunch specials, if you live way out on the west side of Shanghai. (It has a Dianping page, but is too new to have any reviews, apparently.)
A while back I did a post on the simple characters around you. I’ve been slowly collecting some other simple signs. Here are three more.
In simplified Chinese, 面 can mian either “noodle” or “face.” 面对面 means “face to face,” hence the obvious pun. (Note: in traditional Chinese, the “noodle” character is written 麵.)
The other characters are 重庆, the city of Chongqing.
大大小小 can means “big and small,” and can refer to both “all ages” as well as “all sizes.” Makes sense for a clothing store!
市西中学 is sort of on the west side of the downtown Shanghai area (near Jing’an Temple, across the street from the AllSet Learning office). It’s one of the best middle schools in Shanghai. (I guess you don’t need a fancy name with obscure characters to be elite.)
The hard-working guys at Skritter have been working on an iPhone app for quite a while. They put up a nice launch page, made a really cool video, and then… proceeded to “keep us in suspense” for a really long time. Well, the wait is finally over! Even though I’ve been helping to test the new app prior to the official release, I waited until I got word from Skritter that the app has been officially approved before writing this review. The app is real!
I’ve mentioned before that I feel the iPad has real potential for Chinese writing practice. I’ve always liked Skritter, but when Skritter first came out, I had already put in my writing time (the old-fashioned way), and I wasn’t really interested in using a mouse or a writing tablet to practice characters. It did strike me as a cool way for a new generation of learners to write, however.
With an iPad, though, it’s different. The iPhone is a little small, in my opinion, when my writing utensils are as big and fat as my fingers. That’s why I’m more excited about Skritter on an iPad than on an iPhone, and I actually tested the app exclusively on my iPad rather than my iPhone. (To be clear, Skritter has only released an iPhone version so far, so I was just running an iPhone app at 2X on my iPad.)
How is it? Although I’m not crazy about every aspect of the design, the app got one thing very right: writing is very smooth. And for this app, writing is the right thing to get right. (I’m pretty sure that makes sense.) They could have invested more into slick iOS interface design, but they chose instead to make the actual writing functionality of the app work really well. Good call.
I’ve only got screenshots here, but the “virtual ink” feels very liquid as you write, like it’s really seeping out of your fingertips. When you hold your finger down and make slower strokes, you can see the extra ink “flowing” out and sinking into the “paper.” I like it.
Here are a few screenshots of me fluidly writing my name (and then the ink fading). Meanwhile the Skritter robot wants none of my narcissistic tomfoolery, and reminds me in blue what I’m supposed to be writing.
Here’s me writing the character 安. (And no, the Skritter robot doesn’t like strokes to be that connected, but hey, it made a cool screenshot.)
Here’s some crazy unacceptable strokes just straight-up exploding, and then a screen for tone recall:
Here’s some word lists and a settings screen:
Finally–and this is a feature that kind of took me by surprise, because I’m a Skritter fan but not a regular user, so I was unaware of this feature before I discovered it–here’s a shot of Skritter’s Pleco integration. When you’re writing a word, you can click on the “info” button on top right, and then click on the Pleco button. That opens up Pleco, with the word already looked up. Pretty sweet! And there’s a button at the bottom of the Pleco screen which can take you right back to Skritter when you’re done.
Bottom line: very cool app. Yes, the free app requires a Skritter subscription to support it, so it’s not the cheapest option for writing practice. (But if you’re such a cheapskate, what are you doing with an iPhone, anyway?)
You can get the app here.
P.S. It wasn’t until after I had written this review that I bothered to ask Nick of Skritter why the styles in the video and in the app I tested were so different, so only then did I learn that you can change the theme of the app. I gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern Chinese.
Here’s the difference between the two:
Apparently a lot of people prefer the traditional “inky” style to the modern “flashy” style. Interesting.
P.P.S. If you’re interested in learning Chinese, though, make sure you’ve learned your pinyin first. AllSet Pinyin for the iPad can help with that.
When I started studying Chinese at the University of Florida in 1998, we were allowed to choose to learn to write either traditional or simplified characters, but once we chose one set, we weren’t allowed to mix them together. Apparently the creator of this sign (spotted on 武夷路 in Shanghai) is not so restricted:
The text (as is):
The text in simplified characters:
The text in traditional characters:
If you carefully examine those characters, they should all make sense except maybe for this one: 仃 (停). It was part of the second round of simplified Chinese characters which was rescinded. (It still remains dear to the hearts of many “no parking” sign makers all over China, however.)
There’s more on 仃 at Sinoglot.
> It’s not something you can commit to words, really, it’s something you have to feel. Should you choose to play the game – and I really hope you do – your trek through the ruins will be a very personal experience, the impact of which only you will truly understand. It won’t change your life, but it just might change your thoughts about what videogames can accomplish.
The review above is fairly typical. The word “magical” tends to come up a lot in other reviews. Clearly, the game is extremely well designed, and people are duly impressed. But at the heart of the design is a fascinating mashup of Chinese, Islamic, and even Tibetan design elements. I was a bit disappointed that I’ve so far been unable to find any in-depth coverage of the design inspiration for this game. My original impression was something like: aliens + mosques + 8-bit + Chinese characters + Lhasa.
It’s probably the alien glyphs that impressed me the most. They have an 8-bit style, and the (sort of Moroccan?) desert setting guides your mind to the idea of Arabic calligraphy, but the style of the characters themselves tends more toward over-grown Hebrew letters. Each glyph has a clear four-part internal structure to it, though, which feels like a nod to the structure of Chinese characters. Later on in the game, you end up in a temple level, where the glyphs are covering the walls in a neat grid, and it definitely felt like some of the places I’ve been in China.
The game Journey is a rather obvious metaphor for life, but the mix of religious themes is striking too. Mosque elements are blatant in the beginning, and snowy mountain monasteries at the end, but the single culture woven throughout the game is consistent, and there are ongoing themes of meditation and murals of spiritual significance. No “religion” is ever mentioned (in fact, the glyphs and beautiful music are the only “language” that appear in the game), but the intensely personal nature of the quest and the white-clad enlightened ones returning to help the new pilgrims (a game mechanic built into the game’s trophies) feels very Buddhist.
The makers of Journey wanted to do something different with Journey by innovating around the emotional response a game could evoke. In this way, games can appeal to wider audiences, and perhaps even come closer to “art.” But Journey is a worthwhile experience for anyone interested in Middle Eastern or East Asian culture, especially from a design perspective. The writing system alone is worth admiring. If you have access to a PS3, check this game out.
The style of the character “租” (meaning “rent” as in “for ~”) below really jumped out at me when I saw it in a store window:
Amazing how good a simple sign can look when the handwriting looks good…
Recently an AllSet Learning client came to me with an interesting problem: he was seeing strange, slightly “off” variations of characters in his ChinesePod lesson, “Adjusting the Temperature.” Once upon a time I studied Japanese, so I could recognize the characters he was seeing as Japanese variants:
The really strange thing was that he was experiencing the exact same issue on both his 2010 MacBook and on his iPad 2. In troubleshooting this problem, I discovered that my client was running both an older version of iOS (4.x) as well as an older version of Mac OS (Leopard). I was experiencing neither on my 2008 MacBook (running Snow Leopard) or on my iPad 2 (iOS 5.x). But his system had all the required fonts, and switching browsers from Safari to others did nothing to solve the problem. So I concluded it was simply a system configuration problem.
Here’s the fix. On the iPad, go into Settings > General > International (you might need to scroll down for that last one). You might see something like this:
Note that in the order pictured above, Japanese (日本語) is above simplified Chinese (简体中文) in the list. This is crucial! That means that if English fonts are not found for the characters on a given page, the system is going to match characters to Japanese fonts next.
So to fix this issue, Chinese should be above Japanese. The thing is, there’s no obvious way to change the order. The only way I found to do it is to switch the system language to Chinese, then switch back to English. [Warning: your entire iOS system interface will switch to Chinese when you do this; make sure you can read the Chinese, or you know where the menu position for this settings page is before you switch!]
Switching to Chinese makes the Chinese jump to the top of the list, then switching back to English makes English jump back above that, leaving Japanese below Chinese.
You should see something like this when you’re done:
The exact some issue applies to Mac OS X system preferences. Go to: System Preferences… > Language & Text > Language.
This time, though, there’s an easier way to rearrange the order. Simply click and drag:
Notice the little message on the right about when the changes will take effect.
In the grand scheme of things, not really. It’s actually good to have some tolerance for font variations. But the detail-oriented may find this particular issue quite maddening. It’s good to have a simple way to fix it.
So why didn’t I have the issue, and he did? Well, I had at some point tried switching the system language to Chinese, on both my MacBook and on my iPad, but I later switched them back to English. So without even trying to, I had taught my system to prefer Chinese over Japanese. The problem appears when English is the only language ever used, and the system doesn’t know what to give preference to. In my client’s case, you would think that adding a Chinese input method might clue in the system, but apparently Apple isn’t quite that on the ball yet.
Nicki Minaj has one of the more interesting Chinese tattoos out there. It’s not particularly pretty (it was clearly not the ink work of a Chinese calligrapher!), but the traditional characters are
correct mostly correct and legible. The tattoo:
It means “God is with you.”
The tattoo uses traditional Chinese characters:
Here’s the simplified character version (it only differs by one character):
> Shàngdì yǔ nǐ cháng zài
The grammar, though, seems a little strange to me. The sentence I’m used to hearing (at Catholic churches in China) is:
同在 is just a fancy way to say “to be with.” So what’s up with 常在? You’re probably used to 常 taking on the meaning of “often,” “frequent,” or “usually,” as in 常常, 经常, 通常, 平常, etc. “God is usually with you” certainly doesn’t seem like the most confidence-insiring blessing.
Here, though, 常 is used more to refer to a “normal,” unchanging, continuous state. So although neither this sentence nor the Catholic version is everyday Chinese, they both make sense.
When I asked my wife for her impressions on Nicki Minaj’s tattoo, she made the following comments:
– Those characters look like they were written by a poorly-educated elementary school student.
– She should have chosen simplified characters; less ink is less pain.
– Foreigners’ Chinese character tattoos are like our stupid English t-shirts. But at least we can take off the t-shirts whenever we want.