When I returned with my family from Japan over the past weekend, China had changed. The spread of the coronavirus and the extensive efforts to shut it down had turned Shanghai into a ghost town. The topic absolutely dominates WeChat (and we all live in WeChat over here), whether it’s in one’s “Moments” (feed) or in various WeChat group chats, whether in English or in Chinese.
So my co-workers and I at AllSet Learning got to work creating a series of vocabulary lists to help learners of Chinese deal with this unavoidable topic. The lists are separated by level, so whether you’re only elementary or are already upper intermediate, there’s a list here for you! Do not try to study all the lists (unless you’re already upper intermediate and you’re just filling in little gaps).
Here are the lists in image form (easier to share), but there’s a PDF link at the bottom as well.
A recent topic of conversation among friends in Shanghai is the new app “Xue Xi Qiang Guo.” It’s a news hub for state-sponsored news and commentary, as well as a way to show devotion to the Chinese Communist Party by studying what’s in the app and proving mastery through quizzes. In this way you can get points which can earn you nominal rewards, and it also ties into China’s “social credit” system. (For more info on Xue Xi Qiang Guo, you can check out its official site as well as the Wikipedia’s article.)
What I want to talk about today is the name: 学习强国. If you plug that into Google Translate, Wenlin, or Pleco, you get a similar two-word breakdown: 学习 强国 (xuéxí qiángguó). You’ll note that English news coverage of the app (including Wikipedia) all write the name in pinyin as two words: “Xuexi Qiangguo.”
But this is Chinese, where clear word boundaries are not provided, and that is not the only breakdown. It’s not even the one that occurs first to most native speakers of Chinese.
1. Xuexi Qiangguo
OK, so 学习 is a given. it means “study,” and it’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of the app. No problem there. The word 强国, meaning “powerful country,” however, is not so common. The overall interpretation here seems to be “learn from the powerful country (China),” which seems plausible, but it’s just not what occurs to Chinese users first. So let’s drop the 强国 parsing (which, unfortunately, seems to be the norm in English language coverage of the app) and see what else we can get.
2. Xuexi Qiang Guo
Classical Chinese was remarkably flexible, most words consisting of individual characters that can serve as various parts of speech in different contexts (noun, verb, and adjective fluidity being common). This trend carries over to modern times for certain words, and 强 is one of them. So while 强 used by itself is most often used to mean “strong” in modern Mandarin, in certain contexts, 强 can also mean “strength” or “strengthen.” So from there, we can get the two-word phrase 强 国 (qiáng guó), “strengthen the country.”
Since the word 学习 (meaning “study”) can also be a noun or a verb, you might translate the full app name literally as something like “Studying Strengthens the Country,” “Study Strengthens the Country,” or even “Study to Strengthen the Country.” This interpretation would likely be the official meaning of the name if you asked the CCP.
3. Xue Xi Qiang Guo
There’s one other unofficial, sly interpretation which goes unnoticed by few Chinese these days. The word 学习 can also be broken down into two separate words. Since the first character, 学, can mean “study” on its own, and the second character, 习, is also the surname of Xi Jinping (president of China), you can also interpret 学 习 as the phrase “xué Xí,” which means “study Xi” or “learn from Xi.” A quick look at the content of the app shows that this interpretation is, indeed, fully grounded in reality. In fact, some are calling the app the “Little Red Book” of the modern age.
In this parsing, the final meanining of 学 习 强 国 would be “Studying Xi Strengthens the Country.” Since cause-effect relationships are often implied in Mandarin, you could also make that a command: “Study Xi to Strengthen the Country.”
Pretty clever name. It is indeed an age of 学 习 (xué Xí). Now there’s an app for that: Xue Xi Qiang Guo.
Nov. 25, 2019 Update: Dr. Victor Mair shared with me his take on this app, which he wrote on Language Log way back in May of this year. I would have linked to it originally if I had been aware of it: The CCP’s Learning / Learning Xi (Thought) app
This picture was taken from my office building (18th floor):
It’s a crew of delivery guys which have become an extremely common site in big Chinese cities. The yellow uniforms belong to 美团 (Meituan), while the chief competitor, 饿了么 (Ele.me) decks its delivery guys out in light blue.
I’m no expert, but I would assume they do these daily morning meetings as the only time these “co-workers” are even together in the same place. The rest of the day they’re on and off their scooters all over the city, speeding from restaurant, to home, to restaurant, to home….
I was struck by the use of the word 怕 on this package:
Literally, “afraid of being dropped” and “afraid of being crushed.” I’m more used to seeing 易碎 on boxes: literally “easily broken” or “fragile.” This struck me as interesting because neither the box nor its contents actually fears anything. It doesn’t feel like an anthropomorphic usage, so it’s got to be an abstraction of the human “fear” emotion.
When I thought about it some more and talked about it with some AllSet Learning teachers, I realized it’s not just a matter of the two kinds of fear “human fear” and “abstracted fear”; there’s actually a whole range of usage with this 怕:
怕冷 (pà lěng) to be sensitive to the cold (lit. “to be afraid of cold”)
怕热 (pà rè) to be sensitive to heat (lit. “to be afraid of heat”)
怕辣 (pà là) to be sensitive to spiciness (lit. “to fear spicy”)
怕生 (pà shēng) to be afraid of strangers (lit. “fear the unfamiliar”)
怕黑 (pà hēi) to be afraid of the dark
怕死 (pà sǐ) to be afraid of death
怕高 (pà gāo) to be afraid of heights
怕人 (pà rén) to be shy around people (usu. describing a child), to be afraid of people (usu. describing an animal)
怕水 (pà shuǐ) to be afraid of water (usu. because one cannot swim)
Are they just degrees of the same emotion? Or are they totally different usages? It can be difficult to separate shades of meaning, especially for native speakers. This is what the field of semantics deals with.
To me, learning how other languages construct words and phrases in both familiar and utterly unfamiliar ways is one of the major joys of learning a language.
The word is 扣子, meaning “button” (the kind you sew onto clothing). In Chinese, the kind of button you press is a totally different word, and even has the verb for “to press” as the first character: 按钮. (When you think about it, it seems kind of dumb that we use “button” for both of those things in English. Sure, you can say “push-button” in English, but it still feels to me like whoever decided to use the word “button” for the new kind that you press wasn’t super bright…)
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.
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.
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.
There’s a word 嘎 (“ga”) in Shanghainese (and other Wu fangyan) that just means “really” or “very.” Because it’s not standard Mandarin, you don’t see it written a whole lot, but I noticed it in two different ads in Shanghai recently (and one even has pinyin!):
噶便宜 – really cheap
Also, extra points for:
最WOW – “WOW-est”
嘎实惠 – really a good deal
(And yes, if you want to try using this adverb, you are quite likely to amuse your Chinese friends.)
UPDATE: Commenter Lin and reader Danny point out something I glossed over in the original post: the first ad uses the character 噶, and the second ad uses 嘎. Both are “gā” in this context. So what’s the difference? Well, the short answer is that since this is not a standard word (both characters can be found in the authoritative 现代汉语词典 dictionary, but neither list this meaning), there is no “officially correct” character for it. In my experience, however, 嘎 is more widely used, and it’s also the one my computer’s pinyin input prompts first.
I spotted a punny McDonalds ad in the subway yesterday that might not be obvious to a lot of learners:
The ad presupposes knowledge of the word 充电宝, which is a pretty recent word, and isn’t in a lot of dictionaries yet. 充电 means “to recharge” (electricity, but sometimes metaphorically as well). 宝 means “treasure” and is also used in the common word for “baby” (宝宝), but here it just means “thing.” 充电器 already means “charger” (for electronics), but the difference here is that a 充电宝 is a battery that can be carried with you and used to recharge you smartphone. These portable chargers seem to be way more popular in China than the battery-extending cases (Mophie and the like) I’ve seen a number of Americans use.
OK, so back to the pun. It’s focused on the “bǎo” part of 充电宝 (portable charger). It uses the character 饱, meaning “full”. It creates the sense that a meal at McDonalds is a “recharging fill” (not “full recharge”).
This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.
Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?
A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”
Q: What? Why?
A: I’m glad you asked…
1. Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
2. Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
3. Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
4. You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.
Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.
But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.
I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).
Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)
Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.
唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)
OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:
The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)
If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.
I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:
The following photo was snapped in a subway. It’s a public service announcement (or “propaganda poster,” if you prefer) that reminds passengers to be polite. I thought it was kind of interesting to take note of what expressions were chosen to illustrate politeness.
Here are the words, with pinyin and English translations, and a few observations of my own:
This clearly polite word is nevertheless just a little awkward for foreigners trying to speak polite Chinese, because it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as “please” is in English.
没关系: it doesn’t matter
The nice response to “I’m sorry.”
This word is a bit old-fashioned. It’s also modern slang for a gay person.
您请坐: please sit
您 is the polite form of 你, plus you have the 请 in there. You might say this if you were being super polite to an elderly passenger while giving up your seat. (您 is also more common in northern China.)
谢谢: thank you
Can’t go wrong with “thank you!”
您 is the polite form of 你, so this is the politer form of 你好. (It also poses a translation problem… Maybe you come close if you use “hi” for 你好 and “hello” for 您好? The difference is still bigger in Chinese, though.) The expression 您好 also reminds me of customer service reps.
不客气: you’re welcome
Literally, “don’t be polite.”
I never really thought of this as polite, exactly, but I guess it’s better than taking leave without a word?
You’ve probably heard of analysis paralysis, but where does it come into Chinese studies? Studying a language is fairly straightforward, right? I’m referring not to being overly analytical about grammar, but rather about vocabulary. How can one be overly analytical about vocabulary? This is something that technology has made easy in recent years.
Most of my AllSet Learning clients use Pleco or Anki to review vocabulary. Both have built-in SRS flashcard functionality, so doing occasional reviews pretty much solves that problem, right? Well, maybe… SRS drawbacks aside, certain personality types like to take a more active role in the vocabulary categorization process. Yes, categorization. That’s the trap.
You see, when you save a word to your flashcard system, you can also categorize it. Where did this vocabulary come from? What type of vocabulary is it? How high priority is it? You can go as deep down this rabbit hole as you want. And you can spend a lot more time organizing and re-organizing your flashcards than actually reviewing them.
So typically when a client comes to me with “flashcard organization problems,” the way forward is pretty clear: it’s time for some serious vocab axing. The situation can be as bad as physical packrat (or even hoarder) tendencies, except with vocabulary data instead of old newspapers or whatever. In most cases, the learner is much better off chucking the majority of this carefully collected information. Usually the most exquisitely categorized lexical items are the least useful. Reducing everything to one “high priority” list is the way to go. This really is all you need, and you get back all that time you used to waste endlessly organizing words (without actually learning them).
For those that are seriously attached to their accumulated lexical data, technology offers a solution: you can back it up! Back up the data, dump it somewhere, and keep your active word list as simple, focused, and clutter-free as possible. (Chances are you’ll never go looking for that backup.)
If this problem sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of the bookshelf problem. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we humans can be motivated to do something related to learning a language, but actually pour the majority of our efforts into useless activities? The worst, part, of course, is that even a meticulously curated collection of lists which are somehow regularly reviewed don’t guarantee any kind of conversational ability. But then actually talking to people is a bit too random for the analytical brain to handle.
The solution is simple, though: less organizing, more talking. A more bare-bones vocabulary list will help you move in that direction. If you’re a vocabulary hoarder, I strongly urge you to reconsider your approach.
We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)
Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.
Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:
1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.
2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.
3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)
But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.”
So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.
So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):
1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
3. Housekeeper Ayi
4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi
If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.
My daughter learned her first Chinese character at around the age of two, when she was obsessed with fire safety. That character was 火 (fire). Now, at age two and a half, she’s voluntarily learning lots more characters. The 火 as her starting point reminded me of something: there are a lot of cool words in Chinese that start with the character 火!
So here’s my list of relatively beginner-friendly nouns that start with the character 火, some literal character-by-character renderings for fun, and the English translations of the words.
I can remember that learning words like these were an enormous part of the charm of just starting to learn Chinese. “Fire mountain”? “Fire arrow” for “rocket”? Awesome. It’s nice to get away from languages that just keep recycling Greek and Latin roots and dig into a language that mostly just uses itself as its own lexical building blocks.
Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.
But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle 了? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require nochengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?
Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.
The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.
The Four-Character Fetish
Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.
Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.
Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”
In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.
No Special Treatment
In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.
Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.
Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.
So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.
If you really lovechengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.
My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.
The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水，冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.
Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?
Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.
Photo by Feldore
Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.
She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.
Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?
More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.