Tag: Chinese study


Jan 2007

The Chinese Voices Project

Clavis Sinica is a piece of software similar to Wenlin. It helps you read Chinese by giving you definitions of words when you hover over them. I don’t use Clavis Sinica; in my research I’ve found that it’s pretty widely regarded as an “OK” tool but inferior to Wenlin in the quality of its dictionary.

But now Clavis Sinica is offering some very useful resources on its website: the Chinese Voices Project. In the page’s own words:

> Welcome to Chinese Voices, a collection of short, original Chinese mini-essays with accompanying audio for intermediate and advanced students of Chinese language and culture. All of the selections are written by savvy young Beijingers and are read in their own voices. The topics have been selected to help provide insights and perspectives you can’t get from language textbooks, the New York Times, or the China Daily.

I have to say, I don’t think any of the current offerings go beyond the intermediate level, but it’s still pretty cool. They’re all a very manageable length. I wasn’t able to listen to all the audio (the internet is still really slow here until they fix those stupid cables), but I like that there’s a variety of speakers (well, supposed to be — right now it’s mainly one guy and one girl doing the recordings). There are currently 10 offerings:

– Tutoring for the College Entrance Exam
– If You Love Me
– Addressing Beijing’s Traffic Snarl
– Yuanmingyuan: The Film
– Reclaiming the Mother Tongue
– Going Home for the Holiday?
– Beijing Opera Artists
– Christmas Eve Birthday
– No Answer is Also an Answer
– Walking in the Snow

Check it out.

Via the ChinesePod Forums.


Dec 2006

Mandarin Tone Tricks

I recently got an e-mail from Albert Wolfe, the guy behind Laowai Chinese. In the blog Albert shares his experiences learning the Chinese language. He has lots of great observations that I recommend any beginner take a look at.

What especially caught my attention was a recent post on tones. This is because Albert has employed some of the same tone mnemonics that I myself devised and relied on once upon a time.

Albert writes:

> Once you learn how to say each tone, then associate some emotion with each one. For example, here’s my own personification and characteristics for each tone:

> 1. 1st tone = transcendent, helpful, simplicity.
I love words that have the first tone because of their simplicity and how easy they are to sing out and pronounce correctly.

> 2. 2nd tone = insecure, unsure, questioning.
I sympathize with words that have the second tone because I’ve been unsure and insecure myself. I don’t blame them for sounding like questions.

> 3. 3rd tone = mischievous, mean-spirited, illusive, like a bird you’re trying to watch but he dives into the water and pops up where you aren’t looking.
I hate words with the third tone. They take more work and more time to pronounce. They change depending on the words near them. They seem to exist only to make my life more difficult.

> 4. 4th tone = angry, demanding, impatient.
I also like words that have the fourth tone because I can shout them out. These words give me a chance to vent. Usually, as a default, if I don’t know the tone of a word, I’ve found I’ll say it as a fourth tone involuntarily.



Oct 2006

New Feature: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills (box cover)

It’s been a while since I’ve added significant non-blog content to Sinosplice, but I’ve just completed something that could be really useful to learners of Mandarin Chinese. That something is Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills.

I actually began this project all the way back in 2003. I put my ideas together into a rough form and some friends (including John B, Brendan, Greg, and Alf) helped me test them out. They gave me good positive feedback, but I felt the whole thing still needed a fair amount of work. I didn’t find the time and inspiration to finally put in that necessary work until this month, almost three years later. I spent a good chunk of my October holiday working on it, and quite a few nights over the past few weeks.

The main idea behind these drills is that learning tones of individual characters is not enough. Learning tone combinations is the key. Mastering those combinations necessarily involves extensive practice with tone pairs. A mastery of tone pairs will lead to significant progress with any number and combination of tones in succession. Although I was not fully cognizant of the exact process at the time, I believe it was this method which lead to my own successes in correctly producing tones of Mandarin Chinese in succession.

This concept is not exactly unique. In the past few years I have even noticed several other websites take the “tone pair” angle. I think where the other websites fall short is:

1. The words chosen are random words, both in terms of part of speech as well as level of difficulty.
2. There is no clear method for how to use the tone pairs to improve one’s tones.
3. There is no clear connection between the tone pairs and actual speech.
4. They often rely too heavily on visuals (tone marks) to teach the tone combinations.

I tackled these problems in several ways.

1. I focused on adjectives, which are both highly likely to be useful in elementary conversation, as well as plentiful in almost all tone combinations at the elementary level.
2. I developed a clear method which progressively increases in difficulty, and, in the later stages of the method, can also be used by intermediate learners looking to improve their tones. (That method is provided in pinyin, simplified characters, and traditional characters.)
3. Following the method progressively will eventually result in practicing useful, grammatical sentences.
4. I included audio files for all the words in the drill, both in simple clickable online versions, as well as in downloadable MP3 versions with playlists for drilling and quizzing.

I also licensed the method using a Creative Commons license, encouraging others to build on it.

The method I developed is labeled as a “drill.” As such, there is definitely plenty of room for it to be built on using a Chinese teacher’s experience and a little creativity. I should also stress that the drill was designed to be practiced with a native speaker Chinese tutor, but I still believe it can be useful even without the guidance of a tutor.

I welcome your feedback. I do expect to update and improve this feature over time.


Sep 2006



Chineseblast screenshot

While surfing Chinese-forums.com, I discovered a promising new website for learners of Mandarin Chinese: Chineseblast (“collaborative learning engine for Chinese”). The site revolves around users’ “projects” (which usually means translation projects). The community contributes to projects both in adding and editing the translations themselves, as well as in adding comments and questions.

It very much reminds me of manga/anime fans’ community efforts at translating Japanese, but in the case of Chineseblast, the content translated isn’t so concentrated on one theme. Furthermore, different forms of media are covered by the projects:

1. Text Lessons – often similar to textbook offerings, but with audio (example: Joining the Revolution)
2. Video – often hosted on YouTube (example: Taiwanese soap opera)
3. Podcast – native Chinese shows (example: Princess Remy)

I like the variety — variety of content, of media, of language. You get audio and video, you get Mandarin and Cantonese, you get Taiwanese Mandarin and mainland Mandarin, you get traditional and simplified characters. I also like the way the video pages are designed, allowing you to scroll through the script as you watch a video. The small, gray literal translations above the more natural translations are also a nice touch.

It seems that most of the content is aimed at intermediate-level users. If that’s you, check it out.


Sep 2006

Church Boy Badtones

On ChinesePod we recently did a podcast lesson about being misunderstood because of incorrect tones, and then getting corrected (in Chinese). It prompted quite a few comments, including this amusing little anecdote in a comment from lostinasia:

> The only time I can recall when I had a substitution problem like this was asking for sauce (jiang4 [酱]) and instead saying ginger (jiang1 [姜]). (Ginger wasn’t totally out of place with the hot pot, but I still wished I’d received the sauce). Oh, and for the longest time at tea stands I asked for “jiao4 tang2″ [教堂] (=church) tea instead of “jiao1 tang2″ [焦糖] (=caramel) tea. They understood me, given the context, but when I finally got it right they commented that for weeks they’d been enjoying my mistake, and I’d become known as “Church Boy”, or something like that. But there are countless other times when people simply haven’t understood me, and my tones are surely a big part of that.

Oh yes, I’ve certainly been there.


Jun 2006

Lazy Friday Links

I’ve written a few articles elsewhere lately (mostly for ChinesePod), so rather than write real new content this Friday, I will take the lazy way out and link to some things I’ve already written.

When to Learn Hanzi?
(on CPod)
Could it possibly be that studying Chinese characters full-on from the very beginning is not the best way to go?

2. Talking to Oneself Productively (on CPod Praxis)
It’s not exactly a revolutionary new method, but talking to myself has helped me to learn Chinese.

3. On Google’s Evilness (on iDrone)
Light-hearted speculation on Google’s current and hypothetical migration toward evil (with regards to China).


Apr 2006

April Chinese Links

The links have been piling up lately, and I thought I’d share a few related to China and studying Chinese.

1. Slate seems to think ChinesePod is pretty damn cool: Learning to Flirt in Chinese. Slate doesn’t really mention anything academic, but I’m working on that.

2. ChinesePod is not the only Chinese podcast game in town… there’s also Mandarin Chinese with Serge Melnyk. You compare.

3. A list of “Core Simplified Characters.” Great reference for anyone who’s trying to learn traditional after learning simplified or vice versa.

4. You’ve probably seen Pīnyīn.info, but have you seen the blog Pīnyīn News? Good stuff.

5. Sinosplice commenter Annie has also put together a 4 Part Pinyin Tutorial. Each part has an instructional MP3, a text in PDF format, and a drill MP3. Also check out Pinyin Practice, which offers lots of online drills.

6. The Ohio5 ViewPoints Series will give beginners practice listening to Chinese through Quicktime video clips. Actually seeing the various speakers’ faces as they talk helps.

7. Condensed China: Chinese History for Beginners. China does really need to cut down on its history.

8. The most common Chinese characters in order of frequency. More than just a list, it actually gives character readings, meanings, and examples.

9. Just in case you ever need a list of 10-500 random Chinese names in traditional characters, there’s the Chinese Name Generator. Oh, but they all have three characters, and it won’t tell you how to pronounce them or what they mean. I can’t think of any possible use for this thing (except for maybe adding fake Chinese names to the credits of your homemade kung fu movie?), but there it is. (Also, don’t miss the pseudonym generator or the lucky company name generator.)

10. The zdt (Zhongwen Development Tool) is an easy to use, open-source Mandarin Chinese flashcard application. Supports simplified and traditional characters, lets you add characters as you browse, and has optional Adso database support (120,000 entries).

Many of these links were found through del.icio.us: http://del.icio.us/tag/mandarin.


Apr 2006

The Best Chinese Textbooks

So now that I’m working on the academic side of ChinesePod one of the first things I want to do is start expanding the Chinese pedagogy resource library. There are all kinds of great resources out there, but what I want to focus on first is the more complete sets intended for formal education. I want to collect the best Chinese textbooks.

When I first began studying Chinese at University of Florida in 1998, we used a series by Yale the first year (I’m not sure which textbook it was, exactly). I don’t remember being overly impressed with it. The second year the Chinese program switched over to Integrated Chinese, which I liked a lot better. Unfortunately, I only had room in my schedule for one semester of second year Chinese. After arriving in China, I was even more impressed with Integrated Chinese because I discovered that everything in the textbook was immediately useful. That is really saying a lot. [See also my full review of Integrated Chinese (Level 2).]

My only other formal Chinese instruction happened in 2003, when I attended “advanced” (upper intermediate, really) classes at Zhejiang University of Technology for one semester in preparation for the HSK. The textbooks I used for that were pretty forgettable.

Bottom line: I haven’t had very much experience with Chinese textbooks, but now I need to know which ones are good. I mean the ones that start from the beginning and go all the way through to intermediate or advanced level.

I stopped by Chinese Forums, which is always a good place to start for academic Chinese questions. People there seemed to like Chinese Made Easier (Shaanxi Normal University Press) and New Practical Chinese Reader (Beijing Language & Culture University Press). A Chinese Forums member named kudra even posted a list of 25 texts used in American universities’ Chinese programs. Seriously useful stuff.

Still, I would really like to hear from my readers. I know that many of you have far more experience formally studying Chinese than I do. Which Chinese textbooks are the best?


Apr 2006

ChinesePod and me

ChinesePod has been generating buzz online for some time among those of us who are interested in new methods of studying Mandarin Chinese, and yet you haven’t heard a peep out of me about it (OK, maybe one peep). There’s a reason, so let me explain.

When I first discovered ChinesePod months ago, I thought, “that’s kinda cool, but a podcast a day? Let’s see how long they can keep that up.” Well, they did keep it up, and the buzz grew.

Then I got an offer to join the ChinesePod affiliate program (a form of advertising that pays only when people sign up). I was interested, but I also didn’t want to throw my support behind ChinesePod just yet. I already had Google ads in my archives, but because those are targeted to content, you’re not actually endorsing any particular product. With ChinesePod it would be different, so I wanted to be sure I really liked the product. I wasn’t personally interested in the content because the intermediate lessons were too easy and there were no advanced lessons then. I was a little too busy to check out the service at that point.

Well, at about the time ChinesePod started producing advanced lessons, they also contacted me and asked if I would be interested in working with them. It sounded like a cool opportunity, so I met up with ChinesePod for a chat. I was quickly sold.

The product as it stands now naturally has its shortcomings, but the team is well aware and is working hard to improve it. Virtually all my initial criticisms of the site are already being dealt with, and in fresh, innovative ways. Furthermore, the company is so open to criticism and feedback it’s scary. It even cares about theoretical linguistic foundations. I know I sound like a cheesey commercial, but the ChinesePod team and plan just impressed me that much.

Anyway, now that I have joined the ChinesePod team and will play a part in influencing its development, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t fully support it. It’s good stuff, and rapidly getting better.

So, yeah. ChinesePod and me.


Apr 2006

Chinese Number Tool

A little while back I recommended that Mark of the blog Doubting to shuō make an online number conversion tool similar to his Pinyin Tone Tool and Cantonese Tone Tool. Well, Mark has done it. These are the kinds of conversions it can do:

Input Output
五千八百 5800
兩百五十 250
三百萬 3000000
三百万 3000000
7十 70
九億 900000000
九亿 900000000
6.25亿 625000000
1500万 15000000
五億三千九百二十萬四千四百四十一 539204441
壹仟叄佰柒拾捌 1378

Note that the Chinese Number Tool handles simplified, traditional, and even 大写. The tool can also optionally insert commas in the output. See Mark’s blog entry about it for further explanation. Nicely done, Mark!


Mar 2006

Mandarin Tone Changes

I recently got an e-mail from a beginner regarding tones in Mandarin:

> I was searching the web to find an answer with no luck. I read what you wrote about Debating “You’re Welcome” and I’m hoping you can help me.

> I keep finding different sources giving different tones for “bu keqi”. In Chinese for Dummies bu has a rising tone and keqi both have falling syllables. Another book gave a falling tone to bu, a flat tone to ke, and a rising tone to qi. Many websites tell me that I have the right words, but they don’t give the tones at all.

> If you have an extra minute, I’d also love to know the tones on the variants you wrote, or a good source to look them up at.

I realized that the author of the e-mail was confused because there is a rule in Mandarin Chinese that when when 不 precedes a 4th tone, it becomes second tone. Most textbooks will expect you to always remember this after they teach it, and will still mark 不 as 4th tone even though it should be read as 2nd tone. Some textbooks, however, mark 不 as 2nd tone when it should be read as 2nd tone. I can see how that could be very confusing to a new learner.

In responding, I wanted to include a link to a site which clearly outlined all the tones changes (AKA tone sandhi) that occur in Mandarin. I was disappointed that Wikipedia didn’t seem to have one. Eventually I found the rules outlined clearly in the Change of Tone section of a site called InstantSpeak Chinese.

I had never explicity learned Rule 3, regarding the “half third tone,” but when I thought about it, I realized it was true and that I even follow it. I guess I unconsciously acquired it.

Anyway, because I found them somewhat hard to find online, I’m going to reproduce the main tone rules here (leaving out the “half third tone” one) and add some examples to flesh them out a bit.

Mandarin Tone Sandhi

1. When there are two 3rd tones in a row, the first one becomes 2nd tone. Examples: 你好 (nǐ + hǎo = ní hǎo), 很好 (hěn + hǎo = hén hǎo), 好懂 (hǎo + dǒng = háo dǒng).

2. 不 is 4th tone except when followed by another 4th tone, when it becomes second tone. Examples: 不对 (bù + duì = bú duì), 不去 (bù + qù = bú qù), 不错 (bù + cuò = bú cuò).

3. 一 is 1st tone when alone, 2nd tone when followed by a 4th tone, and 4th tone when followed by any other tone. Examples: 一个 (yī + gè = yí gè), 一次 (yī + cì = yí cì), 一半 (yī + bàn = yí bàn), 一般 (yī + bān = yì bān), 一毛 (yī + máo = yì máo), 一会儿 (yī + huǐr = yì huǐr).

Again, it’s important for beginners to memorize these rules because textbooks will often not remind you. They usually provide words’ original tones before tone sandhi.

Related: my Chinese blog entry about lots of third tones strung together


Mar 2006

Vocabulary Lists Are Back!

A long time ago I made a page for names of different types of alchohol in Chinese. At the time, I had grand visions of lots of atypical and interesting vocabulary lists (i.e. no list of “countries” or “animals” or “fruits” in Chinese). That project stalled. For a long time.

Well, it’s back: Sinosplice Vocabulary Lists. Right now there are only three, but that number will expand. I’ve already started working on some new ones. (I also gladly accept additions to existing lists or new list ideas.)

One of the new ones is Chinese Onomatopeia. I compiled this list myself, and I haven’t found a similar list anywhere else on the internet. So get it here first, until other people copy it! (Better yet, link to it and give me some Google rank love.)

Onomatopeia are fun. My dad taught me a love for animal noises in foreign languages, but there are more than just animal noises in the list. Here are some wacky questions you can answer by browsing the list:

1. What noise in Chinese sounds like the name of a cheese in English?
2. How many of the 52 Chinese onomatopeia in the list are identical to the corresponding English onomatopeia? (Hint: not many!)
3. What bird makes the same noise as a frog?
4. What Chinese onomatopeia are missing? (Hint: this is a trick question to which I do not know the answer!)

The other new list is Cartoon Character Names. Kastner helped me out by compiling this one. I still owe him for that. (Thanks, man!)

Your conversational Chinese may be pretty decent, but you can likely stand to take it up a notch or two by adding the Chinese names of the Transformers, He-Man, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to your vocabulary. Yes, you need this. (Did I mention it impresses the ladies?)

With the exception of the original alcohol list, I have been using AdsoVocab to generate the lists. The auto pinyin completion saved me a lot of time. I recommend you check it out if you have not seen it already.

I would love to add stuff like this to my site all the time, but the sad, ironic truth is that I very rarely have time for this kind of thing anymore because I’m going to grad school so that maybe I can get paid to do something like this down the road. Anyway, enjoy! I’ll be out of grad school in 2007.


Dec 2005

My Chengyu Top Ten

I was talking to John B recently about his latest project: chengu.info. It involves chengyu (成语), those special (usually) four-character Chinese idioms. It got me to thinking about the study of chengyu and their relevance to Chinese study. I’m of the opinion that chengyu study is not crucial at the early stages, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to pick a few up early, either. I view chengyu as sort of the icing on the Chinese ability cake. Yeah, they’re nice and all, but you better have the cake to put the icing on!

Anyway, I decided to put together a list of what I consider the “top ten chengyu.” My top ten is determined by what I think a beginner/intermediate student is most likely to hear in conversation in China. I consider these ten the most useful, and the easiest to use.

Top Ten Chengyu

1. 乱七八糟 – be in a mess. This one is so common that I hardly even think of it as a chengyu. It’s used all the time, particularly for physical states of disorder. If your room is messy, you can say it’s 乱七八糟. If the road is being repaired, it’s gonna be 乱七八糟. I once even heard a Chinese person say that someone “长得乱七八糟” (looks like a mess). Learn this chengyu right away.

2. 入乡随俗 – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. This one is extremely useful because as a foreigner in China, it applies to so many aspects of your life. Plus, it’s really easy to use because it’s basically a sentence by itself. You can use it as an explanation for why you use chopsticks, or why you prefer to speak in Chinese, or why you ride a bike everywhere in China. You will almost always get an appreciative grin from this explanation.

3. 胡说八道 – talk nonsense. This is another one you hear so often that it barely feels like a chengyu. It’s also really easy to use. When someone is trying to make some absolutely ridiculous point that you will not stand for, you can just blurt out, “胡说八道!” Or you can directly tell someone to cut the crap by telling them “别胡说八道!” Simple.

4. 不可思议 – inconceivable. I’m not sure if this was the translation used for all those lines in The Princess Bride, but it very well could have been. The one is used quite often, and can also be used as an exclamation all by itself.

5. 莫名其妙 – be baffled (usually used as a criticism). This one can be used in several ways. It can be used as a semi-independent sentence: “我不知道他在想什么。莫名其妙!” (I don’t know what he’s thinking. Crazy!). It can be used like an adjective: “莫名其妙的女人” (a baffling woman). It can be used as a complement, as in Wenlin’s example: “我被问得莫名其妙” (I was baffled by the question).

6. 半途而废 – give up halfway. This second half of the list is decidedly less useful than the first half, but still well worth learning. This one is pretty straightforward. You use it like a verb: “我不想半途而废” (I don’t want to give up halfway). You could also use it to accuse someone: “你总是半途而废!” (you never finish what you start!).

7. 一塌糊涂in a total mess. This one is very similar to 乱七八糟 (#1), but it’s less common and usually more abstract in nature. It also tends to emphasize that the mess is the result of some other action. So you see a lot of uses like: “弄得一塌糊涂” (make a total mess of it).

8. 万事如意 – may all your wishes come true. Yeah, this may sound mighty cheesey to Westerner, but it’s said quite a bit in China — especially at Chinese New Year. It’s easy to use… it can be a sentence in itself, or you can add two characters to the front: “祝你万事如意!”

9. 一路平安 – have a safe trip. This one should be used on trips of considerable distance (i.e. not for a 10 minute bus ride), but you’ll find it quite useful. This is not the only way to express this sentiment (there’s also 一路顺风, for example), but it’s the easiest for the beginner to learn. You can use it as a sentence in itself, or add two characters to the front: “祝你一路平安!”

10. 能者多劳 – the capable should do more work. This one is not extremely common, but it’s so useful that I had to include it. You use this sentence to justify making someone do more/extra work, while flattering them at the same time. It’s great! You can also use it to comfort yourself when someone is pushing more work on you and you can’t get out of it.

I’d be interested to hear what chengyu readers think should be included in a top ten. Remember, my criteria are: (1) used in spoken conversation, (2) useful for foreigners, and (3) easy to use.


Dec 2005

Foreigners Blogging in Chinese

The phenomenon of foreigners blogging in Chinese was once extremely rare. I remember when I started back in early 2003 there didn’t seem to be anyone else doing it. Then Alaric came along and blogged in Chinese with dedication (something I’ve never pulled off). He has gained quite an online following. Then came Todd, offering Chinese readers similar dedication and a different point of view. Another very noteworthy blogger is Carlo. His written Chinese is superb. A friend of mine has even started up his own: 帅土包子曰.

I fully expect the number of foreigners blogging to continue to grow. There’s a name for these blogs: CSL (Chinese as a Second Language) blogs. Now, they have even made it into their own page on the China Blog List. Bloggers represented in the list come from Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

If you read Chinese, check out the CBL CSL list (RSS feed to come). If you’re studying Chinese, these bloggers just might inspire you.

A big thanks goes to Todd, who collected about half of the links in the list.


Dec 2005

Laowai Delusions of Fluency

Kakis, a regular commenter on Talk Talk China, recently left this one:

> I always love to speak Chinese to laowais, in fact, I am really good at teaching, be it language or Engineering stuff.a lot of laowais like the way I teach them how to pronounce ’si & shi; zhan & zhang; lan & nan;….’. But the thing is, laowais like to show off their Chinese whenever they are in the meeting or some conferences. they think their Chinese is already up to a standard whereby they can involve some serious discussions. but the fact is, they suck. They can speak some basic Chinese pretty well, some even have Beijing accent. but the truth is they are really far far away from being professional.

This is so true. I’m not trying to trash talk other foreigners’ Chinese; I’m talking about myself. It’s easy for me to say that I’m “fluent” in Mandarin because I’ve got the pronunciation down pretty well and basic conversation is a piece of cake. But when the discussion gets abstract or intellectual, I fumble. I’m reminded of this fact repeatedly in grad school. It’s usually not so difficult to follow the conversation, but to actually make a contribution on par intellectually with my classmates is no easy task!

I remember a while back my girlfriend once said to me, “when I talk to you, I don’t feel like I’m talking to a foreigner. I feel like I’m talking to a Chinese person. But it’s an uncultured (没有文化的) Chinese person!” I feel this is mainly due to my lack of sophisticated vocabulary, which I blame on years of self-study and taking a practical approach to language learning.

I know I’m not the only student of Chinese facing this issue. I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but I think that it’s important to stay humble. It takes a lot of hard work to become “conversationally fluent.” I know. But it’s still a long, hard road from conversationally fluent to “educated fluent.” Kidding yourself about your Chinese level doesn’t get you anything but awkward pseudo-intellectual conversations.


Nov 2005

Shanghainese Study Materials

I was recently asked to help someone find some study materials (books, tapes, CDs, etc.) for Shanghainese. Clearly, Shanghai is a good place to look, but I soon discovered that finding good materials was not as simple as going to a big bookstore in Shanghai. To assemble a rather complete collection of materials I had to visit seven bookstores in Shanghai. What is strange is that almost every bookstore had one or two books on Shanghainese, but almost every store’s books were different! For that reason I can’t be sure that there aren’t still some good ones out there, but I think I got most of them.

This will probably only be helpful to students of Shanghainese in Shanghai, but the following is a list of materials I found. I have not used these materials, nor am I fluent in Shanghainese (although I do understand quite a bit), but I think I understand a thing or two about what makes a good language textbook, so I have made a few key observations about each book. Note that the three books which I deemed the best got their own reviews elsewhere on Sinosplice. (Chinese Textbook Reviews now has a small section on Shanghainese.)



Sep 2005

Taxis and Rain

Yesterday as I rode in a taxi through Xujiahui I was glad that I was not one of the many people trying in vain to hail a cab. It can be extremely hard to find a taxi when it rains. Sometimes it’s completely impossible.

A thought struck me, so I asked the driver:

> Me: Master*, do you like rainy days better or non-rainy days better? On rainy days you get more business, right?

> Driver: With traffic like this, the rain doesn’t do that much for business. I can only get a few fares anyway, with all the traffic I have to sit in.

> Me: Well what about rainy days when the traffic isn’t bad?

> Driver: The traffic’s bad even when it doesn’t rain. When it rains it’s even worse.

> Me: Well what about late at night when it rains?

> Driver: Yeah, I guess business is a little better than usual then.

> * In China, drivers (and many other blue collar workers) are addressed as shifu, which is the same way students address their kung fu masters. I always get a little kick out of calling a taxi driver or a plumber a word that can be translated as “master.”

The typhoon is upon us here in Shanghai. What an auspicious sign for my first week of classes. This week I don’t actually have my first class until Thursday, though.


Sep 2005

Chengyu for Superpowers

A reader of mine is working on her thesis, and she needs help. She’s looking for chengyu or other Chinese quotes to add some flavor. She needs your help ASAP! Leave your suggestions in the comments.

The thesis is basically about where China stands in relation to superpower status. So the first half of the thesis involves discovering what exactly a superpower is, and how the concept of superpower changes in relation to contemporary world order. And the second part is applying the conclusions of the first part to China and seeing how it fares. I’ve divided it into 5 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, so to be able to use chengyu or other phrases/quotes I need to have one for each. This is the breakdown of chapters:

1. Introduction. In this section I point out that a lot of what is written about China these days as a rising superpower is vague, inaccurate or in some cases alarmist. I explain my basic justification for the thesis, which is to see where China stands in relation to what a superpower is. So I’d like to put something at the start that would suggest that things are not always what they seem, something about the problem of exaggeration etc.

2. What is a superpower? In this chapter I present the development of world power from the inception of the term superpower in 1944 up to the present day, and use this to chart how the concept of superpower has changed. Then I discuss a few theories about the current world order, and on the basis of that decide what forms of power a state must possess in order to be a superpower. These are grouped into military power, economic power, political power, and domestic cohesion, which is the basis for the next four chapters. The only things I can think to use at the start of this chapter are 水落石出 or 画龙点睛. Of these the first is probably better, but I’m sure there’s others out there about power or strength, and the importance of power.

3. Military power. I assess the military development and capabilities of China, including also its natural sources of power: population, natural resources, geography. I thought Mao Zedong’s quote that 抢杆子面出政权 would be good here, but any suggestions are welcome. I read an English translation of a quote by Sun Tzu from the Art of War about how the acme of skill is not to win 100 battles, the acme of skill is to defeat the enemy 100 times without fighting. I’ve tried to find it in Chinese, but the Chinese version I found (on zhongwen.com) didn’t seem to have the
same connotations.

4. Economic power. I look at the growth of the Chinese economy, and how that gives them international power. There’s also a bit about the importance of indigenous technology, and a sound industrial base, as well as something on the impact of multi-national corporations. I found a quote by Deng Xiaoping encouraging people to push ahead with market socialism: 无论黑猫白猫,抓到老鼠就是好猫. But again, any suggestions of chengyu about money, the power of money etc are very welcome.

5. Political power. This is discussion of China’s political role at an international level, including its overwhelmingly realist approach to international relations, its involvement in regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and ASEAN, its leading role in the 6-party talks about North Korea etc. A major point of this chapter is that a superpower is only a superpower if it is recognised and treated as such by the rest of the world. And I have no ideas in relation to a
suitable chengyu about the power of politics.

6. Domestic Cohesion. In this chapter I argue that states cannot project power on an international level if they are not stable at a domestic level. So I look at China, especially with reference to the income divide that is building between the wealthier coastal provinces and the inland provinces, the common occurrences of civil disturbances/protests in recent years, and the problem of uniting a nation when market socialism goes against the tenets of communism. These are contrasted with rising nationalist sentiment as a way of uniting the state, and the attempts by the leadership to slow growth in the eastern and southern provinces while fostering growth inland, so as to counteract the growing inequality. I’m sure there are lots of phrases in the general style of an apple looking lovely on the outside but not necessarily on the inside, or some such sentiment. The only one I know is 驴粪蛋表面光 – although I like it a lot, it’s probably a bit cheeky!

7. Conclusion. A general summing up, my basic conclusion being that although China has or is developing great military power, is an increasingly central economy in the world, and is more and more being treated as a political power, it probably does not yet have these types of power to an adequate extent to merit it being labelled a superpower. And its main challenge in coming years will be to maintain domestic stability. I suppose 画龙点睛 would probably do here, although something to do more with looking at everything as a whole would probably be better.


Sep 2005

My Textbook on Dialects

As I understand it, the universtity, in conjunction with the Party, assigns approved textbooks to all courses. Students must buy these books. Then, when it comes to actually teaching the course, the professors choose how much those official textbook choices are used and how much other materials the professors personally select are used. The book I was so busy studying for a while, Modern Chinese (现代汉语, 上海教育出版社), is one of the ones chosen by the Party. That can make for interesting reading sometimes.

Here’s my slapdash translation of a paragraph on dialects in China (pp. 8-9):

> In order to adapt to the needs of socialist construction and promote the function of language in society, we must actively support the common language of China’s ethnic groups — we must rapidly popularize Mandarin Chinese. “Mandarin serves the people as a whole, whereas dialects serve only the people of a particular region. The spread of Mandarin does not mean the deliberate extinction of [other] dialects. Rather, it entails a gradual reduction in scope of the [other] dialects’ usage, in keeping with the objective requirements for the advancement of society. [Other] dialects can — and inevitably will — coexist with Mandarin in the long run. However, Mandarin’s scope of usage must be continually expanded, and Mandarin must be used as much as possible for public occasions and written materials. We must correct the narrow-minded views of those who do not accept Mandarin, are not willing to listen to Mandarin, or do not even allow their children to speak Mandarin. We must correct published materials — literature in particular — in which the misuse of [other] dialects appears.” We should correctly recognize the relevance of dialects as a form of communication within an ethnic minority while consciously promoting the development of the common language, reducing the influence of [other] dialects, and not only actively using Mandarin oneself, but also doing one’s best to spread the use of Mandarin.

The quote within the passage comes from a 1955 article in the People’s Daily entitled “For the Advancement of Language Reform, Promote Mandarin and Strive for the Standardization of the Chinese Language.”

So basically, the government doesn’t want to squash the other dialects, it just wants to reduce their role to insignificance while Mandarin dominates all. Apparently that doesn’t count as squashing them.

I have the feeling that the typical Shanghainese person would just laugh at a passage like this. Every now and then I hear that Shanghainese is in danger, but it seems pretty healthy to me.

One interesting issue raised by translating this passage had to do with the Chinese words 普通话 (Mandarin) and 方言 (dialect). In normal Chinese usage, Mandarin is pretty much never referred to as a dialect, even though by linguistic definition it could fairly be called a “standard dialect.” Yes, dialects can be standard or nonstandard, but they’re still dialects — variations of a larger linguistic group (of course, whether or not the different dialects/topolects of Chinese are actually separate languages altogether is a whole different can of worms). Yet in this passage, “dialects” were continually referred to, and the implication was “not Mandarin” and “inferior.” This linguistic bullying may not seem very strange, but keep in mind that the above passage came from a university’s core linguistics text! Ah, but it’s a Party-approved book… not so surprising after all.

Related: “Dialects” in China


Aug 2005

Kingsoft on Chips

I don’t think I’ve ever written about it before, but it’s such a valuable resource that I really should. Every student of Chinese (intermediate or higher) should be aware of the Kingsoft Online Dictionary.

The dictionary itself is not that special… If you put in an English word, it returns some possible Chinese translations. If you put in a Chinese word (in characters), it returns possible English translations, which are linked to those words’ Chinese definitions. Naturally, it is completely Chinese user-oriented, so there is no pinyin or notes explaining the differences between the Chinese words. I pretty much never use that dictionary.

What I do use often is the 短句 (“Short Sentences”) function. You can either enter a word in the dictionary first and then click on 短句, or you can click on 短句 and then enter a word.

For example, recently I encountered the word 芯片 at the video game store. I could tell by context that it meant “chip” (as in “computer chip”). The shop’s PS2’s came installed with a mod chip (直读芯片 or 米赛亚芯片) as well as an “anti-frying” chip (防烧芯片).

Later I wanted to explore the word 芯片 a bit more, so I looked it up with Kingsoft’s 短句 function. It returned 10 sentences using the word 芯片. The simplest sentence was first:

> 芯片是计算机中最贵重的部分。

> The chip is the most valuable part in the computer.

The most complex sentence was last:

> 硅元素与计算机的关系如此密切以至于大多数人可能更容易将它与加利福尼亚的硅谷而不是元素周期表联系起来。但是随着高速运算超越芯片和机器的局限将试管、承物玻璃片、溶液甚至脱氧核糖核酸(DNA)等生物化学和遗传学工具包括在内,这种想法可能很快就要做出根本性的修正了。

> The element silicon is so closely identified with computers that most people would be likely to associate it more readily with California’s high – tech valley than with the periodic table.But such thinking may soon have to be radically revised,as high – speed computation moves beyond chips and machines to include the tools of biochemistry and genetics:test tubes,slides,solutions,even DNA. [punctuation/spacing errors theirs]

Definitely a useful tool, but I should note that Kingsoft is very much a fallible source of information. I’ve been using its products for almost five years, and sometimes it comes up with some bizarre meanings/translations. Example: when I put “chip” into the 短句 function, these two were at the end of the list:

> What carpenter,such chip.

> 什么木匠,出什么活。

> Such carpenter,such chip.

> 什么木匠出什么活。

What’s going on here? Possibilities:

– Kingsoft is more down with the latest slang than me.
– Kingsoft has some seriously outdated expressions in its database.
– Kingsoft has taken upon itself to be a creative force in the evolution of the English language.

I’m not sure which it is.

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