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July 6, 2008

Unwanted Characters
(A Mystery in Four Parts)

Part 1

On a mild fall day, I sped on my $35 Bdah-brand bike through narrow Gulou Xi Street, with its low-slung tile-roofed hutong homes lining both sides of the street. Though I was speeding dangerously fast down a Chinese street, I managed to notice a consternating character taunting me from the side of the street.

If nerdiness is not defined by having interest enough to make note of Chinese characters you don’t recognize while you’re speeding dangerously down a Chinese street shared by cars, bikes, pedestrians, buses, horses, and carts, then meditating on that same character for the remaining 10 kilometers of the bike ride should be more than enough to qualify. During the rest of the urban kilometers between me and my ancient Chinese lesson, the image of this character scrawled in dark spray paint on a house so dilapidated it looked as though it were about to cough and fall over kept its form in my mind.

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Back in Guangzhou, my Chinese ability so astounded my students that I was often asked what the secret to learning language was. As far as I can tell, the secret involves the nerdy persistence to bring a dictionary wherever you go and to care enough to decode everything you see, from greasy menus to safety signs on buses.

Over a year into this battle plan, I was startled to see such a simple character that I couldn’t recognize. By this point, most characters I couldn’t recognize were so complicated that they hinted at their own useless erudition. So to see a character so simple was a challenge—an embarrassing gap in my Chinese equivalent to not recognizing a word as simple as also.

I arrived at school and sat down on the dirty tile hallway in the Fourth Classroom Building, home of the humanities department. I immediately scrawled the character from memory into my $200 electronic Chinese dictionary—the very dictionary whose advertisements had promised me the ability to “zhi tianxia,” to know everything under heaven. The screen now hiccuped, processing my scribbled handwriting, and the character’s entry came up blank.

It was the first thing not encompassed under my dictionary’s promised heaven.


Part 2

Ask my 20-year-old classmates at Beijing’s Language and Culture University, or any young Chinese person at that, and chances are they’ll say Chinese language reform stopped with Mao’s massive simplification movement in the 1950’s. But if they’d ask their parents, they’d find out the fate of Chinese characters bounced much more radically than thought.

Staying true to my penny-pinching, corner-the-nearest-Chinese-person plan to studying Chinese, I took my mystery character to my classmates in ancient Chinese.

Na zhi shi ge cuobie zi,” I was told—just a “wrong character.” A “wrong character” in English would be something like ‘tyihv,’ a word miswritten so badly that you cannot tell out of context what the writer could have possibly meant.

Thinking that there must be more behind this mysterious character, I persisted and asked two college-educated Chinese friends. “Cuobie zi,” I was told again.

Exasperated, I turned to Dr. Luo, my professor of ancient Chinese whose encyclopedic knowledge encompasses the roots of nearly all commonly used Chinese characters.

The answer, it turns out, lies in the childhood education of my classmates’ parents. In late 1977, about the time when most of my classmates’ parents were in middle school, the Communist government published a second round of simplified characters (er jian zi 二简字), which unleashed several hundred new simplified characters to replace more complex characters. Soon, the nation’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, was being printed in the new characters. Textbooks were changed and a generation of children grew up learning these second-round characters. The sweeping changes brought—says the Baidu encyclopedia entry—confusion and “chaos” into society.


Part 3

The characters unleashed confusion. Some newspapers and books were now being published in the new characters, while other editors and publishers continued to print books and newspapers in the older characters. Even ethnic Chinese countries like Singapore that had followed the mainland during previous reforms, decided to part ways and adopt a “wait and see” strategy for the new round of characters.

Yet despite the confusion, most of the second-round characters were just as logical as the first round of simplified characters. Just like the first round characters still in use today, some of the second round characters simply replaced complicated characters with ones that already existed. This created confusion at times, blending characters with different meanings into each other, like “dance” (舞) which was combined with the character for “noon” (午), making “stage” look like “afternoon platform” (午台) as seen on this propaganda poster:

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Other characters were created anew, often combining existing characters, as in the new character for ‘road’ to replace ‘道’:

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These changes still seem sensible today, as with the character to replace “cai” 菜, food:

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The original character consists of a “flower top” (艹) suggesting the character has to do with plants and a phonetic bottom (采) from the character for ‘pick’ or ‘pluck,’ which is pronounced “cai” as well. In this round of simplification, the bottom 7 strokes are replaced with the 3 strokes of 才, also pronounced “cai.”

The plan was criticized by scholars and much of the public at large, but it turns out this controversial change was only a small conservative portion of the larger plan. The official plan contains a wildly more radical second half that was never implemented. In the more radical plan, some characters were changed to be more sensical, like the character for ‘house’ (家) which originally pictured a pig (豕) underneath a roof but was then changed to have a person (人) under the roof:

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The most radical section of changes-never-implemented called for some characters to be based on their cursive form, as though someone were scribbling the characters without lifting pen from paper. This cursification would have changed “高” into the unrecognizable:
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Although the movement was new, some characters actually existed long before, having been known before as “vulgar simplifications.” Under the new proclamation, of course, the characters were officially no longer “vulgar,” even though some Chinese today see the second-round characters as just that.

“I don’t like the second-round characters,” a Beijing friend of mine told me when I pulled up the list of the discarded characters. “They don’t have that flesh-and-blood feeling. They don’t feel full.”


Part 4

Amid so much confusion and opposition, the new characters were officially rescinded in the mid 80’s. A new government decree famously resolved that future change should, “from now on keep a cautious bearing.”

Yet trying to get rid of characters once they’ve been released has proven harder than imagined. Many of the characters survive today, turning parking lots from “停车场” into “仃车场” and eggs for sale in local markets from “鸡蛋” into “chicken dawn: 鸡旦.”

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Beijing residents are used to seeing the occasional traditional character scrawled on the sign of bike repairmen (修車) and in the names of restaurants (餐廳), but the second-round characters can be even more mystifying. Oddly enough, some hand-painted signs now contain all three types of characters—traditional, simplified, and second-round simplified. The result is a strange mixture, as with this public-safety message in Kaifeng, Henan, urging citizens to attack crime and construct a harmonious Kaifeng:

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Here, 7 months and an overnight train ride later, the same mysterious character that had set off my entire quest was staring right back at me. This time, I stared back with the confidence of certainty. The character was 建: to build, construct. “Build a harmonious Kaifeng.”

The sign back on Gulou Xi Street was declaring the sorry-looking house an “illegal building,” soon to be destroyed. I imagine the person who scrawled the character was a worker, perhaps a male migrant construction worker in his forties or fifties whose education had stopped before the new characters were given up.

The original mystery had taken me several days, a series of text messages, and a handful of interrogation sessions to solve. To prove that the key to learning foreign languages was the bookish persistence to decode anonymous signs on the side of the road took me 7 months.

November 8, 2008

An Idiot's Guide to Making a Chinese Spelling Error (and spreading terror in the process)

“Chinese doesn’t have spelling errors,” people tell me. Fine. Spelling involves letters, and Chinese characters do not have letters.

Characters and alphabets certainly make for different systems, but most modern Chinese spelling errors are based on mistakes in sound representations, so I prefer “spelling.”

That said, what follows is everything you need to know to make a spelling error in Chinese.

Chatting about the American presidential candidates, a Chinese friend of mine said that McCain, despite his age, still fought hard in the election, so that “其实我听尊敬他的.” (qishi wo ting zunjing ta de, “actually, I quite respect him”)

The spelling error is in the character “听” (ting, to listen) which should be ‘挺’ (quite).

The most important law underlying Chinese spelling errors is that the sound of the mistyped character should be the same as the correct character.

This sort of mistake would never happen on pen and paper because the two characters look nothing alike and share no shred of common meaning. Instead, pen-and-paper mistakes look different.

Of course, when using pen and paper, Chinese people can and do miss a stroke, write a dash in the wrong direction, or write a completely different or non-existent character.

I inadvertently invented a new character when I helped my cousin Nikki post flyers searching for the owner of the homeless cat she had scooped up in the apartment building. I darkened the strokes, rolling my pen back and forth over each stroke to make it easier to read, and I wrote the following character after “Found: One small …”

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I dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s (figuratively), taking care that one of my first real tests of Chinese handwriting in real life would end in success. In my concentration, I managed to bloop the most important character, ‘cat,’ blending it with the character for ‘hunt.’ And because of my one extra horizontal line, I spread the terrifying specter of some mysterious hunting cat loose in the building, frightening people across the 28 floors of the apartment complex.

I later learned that old women went around asking exactly what animal had been found in the apartment complex. My mistake was particularly scary because the left side of the character is an animal radical—which lets the reader know the character is an animal or has to do with animals—and is shared with characters for animals like lions and wolves.

But the sound-based spelling errors like my friend’s error about John McCain are easier to make, not requiring even basic drawing skills.

Chinese is full of homophones, a fact made worse by having a consistent romanization system that, unlike in the English words ‘where’ and ‘wear,’ has no way to orthographically differentiate homonyms.

Thus, typing Chinese characters is a hunt-and-peck adventure. First, you type the pinyin, for example, ‘ji’ and up comes a steep list of characters that match the pronunciation: 级季饥记己给…

To complete the spelling error, all you have to do is select the wrong one, as my friend did. Often times the computer can anticipate which character should come next, but the system is not perfect, and errors are common.

Chinese, like English, also has its share of common errors resulting from grammatical traps. Where English has ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ and ‘its’ and ‘it’s,’ Chinese has three grammatical particles all pronounced ‘de’ (‘的,’ ‘of,’ ‘地,’ ‘what comes before me is hereby an adjective,’ and ‘得,’ ‘the preceding verb is to such an extent that:’) and two words ‘必需’ and ‘必须’ that both mean ‘need,’ but, for no good reason, one can be used with verbs and the other with adverbs. These easily lead to confusion and errors from the abound.

So now everyone’s equipped to make all the Chinese spelling errors their heart desires, just be careful not to terrorize an apartment complex in the process.

November 14, 2008

Farting and My New Favorite Ancient Chinese Passage

Crudeness and Ancient Culture, Part 1

“Thy mother is swine” is not a phrase I expected to come across when I decided to study ancient Chinese. Living in America, my impression of East Asian culture was one of timidity and nervousness to offend. After all, my Japanese roommate at the University of Michigan went so far as to claim that Japanese had no way to say “fart” as a part of his attempt to avoid teaching me such a dirty word.

Even more than modern culture, ancient Chinese is full of modest expressions like “my small-person viewpoint” and “thy just gentleman,” making ancient Chinese as unlikely a source of potty-mouth filth as a Mormon Sunday school.

Thus, it’s easy to imagine my surprise when I read in my ancient Chinese book from the Warring States Record (战国策):

“叱嗟!而母婢也!”

Roughly: “Zounds! Thy mother is a slave girl!”

It turns out that even ancient Chinese has its share curses and unpleasantries. This insult is even funnier in Chinese because the shout is one that you would never hear today, “Chì jiē”; because the “your” in “your mother” is now a grammatical particle (通假字?) that could never be used today as ‘you,’ giving it an overformal, ancient feel; and because the modal particle, the character that expresses the mood of the sentence, ‘’ (也) is only used in ancient and formal Chinese, adding to the formal flavor.

The insult is also surprisingly consistent with modern Chinese, where references to mothers still constitute some of the worst insults. In fact, simply saying ‘mother’s’ (妈的) without reference to exactly whose mother or anything about her is roughly equivalent to ‘damn!’

English curse words, like Chinese curse words, also like to make claims on others’ mothers, but one major difference in Chinese and English swearing lies in fart references.

Chinese cursing often revolves around farting, as in the phrases ‘guǎn nǐ pì shì’ (管你屁事, ‘Go handle your fart affairs’ or ‘Go to hell’) or, less severe, ‘fàng pì ba nǐ’ (放屁吧你, ‘You’re farting!’ or ‘Nonsense!’). I can think of no equivalent fart references in English.

In studying ancient Chinese, I’ve learned a lot of new grammar and vocabulary, but it’s been most interesting to discover that even ancient Chinese culture has potty mouths. I still raise my eyebrows at statements as timid as “I disagree with you, sire,” exclaiming to my tutor, “He’s so direct!!”

I have yet to stumble across any curse words emanating from Confucius or Mencius’s mouths, nor do I expect to, but this time around I’ll make sure to keep an open mind.

November 16, 2008

My New Favorite Chinese Character

Crudeness and Ancient Culture, Part 2

I remember distinctly a certain friend of a friend who had decided to study Chinese because it would be easy: they’re all pictures, so it should be easy to learn!

The error of naivety in that thought is pretty obvious; there are few or perhaps no Chinese characters that look enough like what they represent as to be obvious. Among some of the candidates for characters that actually do resemble what they represent are ‘火’ for ‘fire,’ ‘川’ for ‘river,’ and ‘口’ for ‘mouth.’

There are more that resemble the objects only after someone tells you what it’s supposed to be and after you agree to squint a little bit. I think ‘牛’ for ‘cow’ fits the bill, as does ‘目’ for ‘eye.’ Anyone seeing these characters for the first time would surely be at a loss as to their meaning, but if you know what they’re supposed to represent, then you can sort of see it.

If your goal is to study Chinese characters that actually resemble objects, then your only option is to study jiǎgǔwén (甲骨文), literally “turtle shell characters” or some of the oldest characters known, that were carved into turtle shells and used in divination rites.

A look at jiǎgǔwén characters reveals (1) that jiǎgǔwén characters actually kind of look like what they’re supposed to represent and (2) that jiǎgǔwén characters are surprisingly filthy.

When I was shown the character below by my ancient Chinese tutor, I was as surprised as when I read an ancient Chinese insult on another’s mother.

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The character on the left (1) is the jiǎgǔwén character for ‘shit,’ now written as shown on the right (3) (屎).

This character blows me away. It’s so clearly a person relieving himself or herself depicted in the most direct, crude way possible. Over time, the dots under the person’s rear end morphed into the character for ‘rice’ (米), whereas the person turned into ‘尸’ which means ‘corpse’ and in other characters represents a person, although it looks nothing like a person.

‘屎’ is a great example because its changes are representative of the changes to a lot of characters:

  1. First, it moved from resembling quite closely its original meaning to looking little or nothing like what it represents.

  2. A piece of the character was consolidated and standardized into another character, with the dots representing excrement changing into one of a select number of characters. This is a large reason for why characters often no longer resemble what they represent. Chinese is not like an open easel, instead there is only a limited number of acceptable strokes as shapes. Probably because the dots representing excrement didn’t show up in other characters, whereas the character for ‘rice’ came up more often.

  3. Finally, a piece represents the sound of the character, although I suspect in this case it was only incidental. That is, the “尸” is pronounced ‘shi,’ just as “屎.” Chinese characters often contain phonetic elements like this to help with pronunciation. In this case, though, the phonetic element also has to do with the meaning, and its origin was most likely not due to its use as a phonetic element.

Any discussion of awesome ancient characters would not be complete without the number one to shi’s number two, pee:

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This character “尿” again proves that jiǎgǔwén characters do actually look like what they represent. And that they don’t shy away from filth.

January 30, 2009

Where do characters for abstract ideas come from?

The story behind 象形 or pictorial characters is simple. ‘木’ (mu) is a picture of a tree and means ‘wood’; ‘火’ (huo) looks like a burning fire and means ‘fire’; even ‘牛,’ (niu) which is supposed to mean ‘cow’ can look a little like an aerial view of a cow if you use your imagination and squint more than a little bit.

But these are all characters that represent real, solid objects that we’ve all seen before. So what happens when you have to create a picture for an abstract or logical connection like ‘if,’ ‘because,’ or ‘is’?

According to Xi Shuo Hanzi (细说汉字), a reference I’ve used before, the story behind ‘yin’ (因), ‘because,’ is intriguing and illustrative of one of the ways we can get a character for abstract concepts.

(If ‘yin’ shows up as a little box on your computer, click here to see a crude reproduction of the character by yours truly.)

Yin’ started as a pictorial character, whereby the ‘大’ in the middle was a person and the ‘口’ around the little person was a mat. At that time, the character meant, simply, ‘mat.’ The beginning is simple enough: a picture drawn of a concrete object.

Over time, ‘yin’ came to mean ‘to rest against,’ and eventually to ‘lean on,’ and ‘rely on.’ Since ‘because’ is similar to ‘lean on’ and ‘rely on,’ the character was “borrowed” to mean ‘because.’

In my mind, I picture an object with a cartoonlike sign reading “Event A” propped up against a rolled up mat. When the mat vanishes in a poof of smoke, Event A falls down—it cannot exist. When you think about it—perhaps in a less cartoonish sort of way—‘because’ is a lot like ‘leaning on a mat.’

In the end, as the use of ‘yin’ changed over time, the original meaning of ‘mat’ and ‘lean on’ were lost. To use it thus nowadays would be as surprising as informing the Chinese comrade next to you of the character’s origins (you can speak Chinese?), which now only scholars and nerds are aware of.

February 18, 2009

Where do characters for abstract ideas come from?

Installment II

As I posted previously, characters for simple things like ‘sun’ (日) and ‘wood’ (木) are easy to explain, but characters for abstract ideas are much more challenging and intriguing.

‘为’ (wei) alternately ‘for,’ ‘because,’ ‘is,’ and ‘why’ fits the bill nicely. First, take a look at the evolution of the character:

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The character as we see it now (far right) looks nothing like it’s predecessors. That’s merely because it’s the simplified character. (I’d like to thank the Communist Party personally for saving me from all of those unnecessary strokes, especially for a character so common.)

According to 细说汉字, ‘wei’ started out as a pictograph for using an elephant to do labor (far left). If you squint, you can see the top portion is a hand while the leftovers are an elephant with head up and feet to the right.

Over time, the hand-and-elephant underwent changes. First, changes were subtle; the elephant flipped over and decided to face left (2). But over the years, the character somehow managed to become simultaneously more complicated and farther removed from actually looking like a hand and an elephant.

As the character changed, so did the meaning. ‘Wei’ originally meant ‘do’ or ‘carry out,’ which is still present in combinations like the word for behavior (行为). From there, a myriad of meanings acquired over time through either “borrowing” or extension of meaning, so that now just about common English word can be translated as ‘wei’: for, is, because, why, by, and on.

I, for one, think we should bring back the original ‘to use an elephant to labor’ meaning. I can’t tell you how many times the situation comes up in my Beijing life and I just struggle for a quick and easy word for the elephant labor I’m doing.

At the very least, I can take solace in knowing that ‘wei’ represents the culture and the world at the time when characters were created and how a modern language runs on these age-old inputs. I’ll think of that the next time I say ‘why.’ (Or ‘what’ or ‘is’ or ‘for’ or ‘by’ or…)

February 26, 2009

Where do characters for abstract ideas come from?

Installment III

This article is part of a series investigating how Chinese solved the problem of creating characters for abstract ideas like why, what, and how using a pictorial system better suited for earth (土), wind (风), and fire (火).

While Chinese has no word for ‘yes,’ ‘no’ (不) is one of the most basic and most common words in the language, although its roots are anything but common. Below is the development of ‘no’:

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Oddly enough, ‘no’ started out as a picture of a flower pot. Its form has changed little over thousands of years so that it still somewhat resembles a three-legged flower stand, although its original meaning has vanished.

Although it started out as a pictorial character, ‘bu’ is now a jiajiezi—a character “borrowed” for its sound and used for an entirely different meaning. The process of borrowing characters is often explained through analogy where we suppose we first create a word for ‘eye,’ say ‘目’ and then we borrow this character for the similarly pronounced ‘I.’

This supplies one answer for how abstract characters were created: they weren’t. They were borrowed from the pool of non-abstract characters. ‘No’ is distinct from ‘because,’ another abstract character that has origins in a concrete object. Whereas ‘because’ (因) was used for the conceptual relation between ‘rest upon’ and ‘because,’ ‘no’ was simply borrowed for the sound—that is unless you can think up some relationship between flower pots and ‘no.’

False etymologies for ‘no’ abound, such as the erroneous etymology provided by the venerated Shuowen Jiezi, a second-century Chinese dictionary—sort of like a 1,600-year-early Webster’s Dictionary. Shuowen claims ‘no’ was originally a picture of a bird flying into the sky. (“不鸟飞上翔不下来也”)

Nowadays, the character ‘柎’ has taken over the original meaning of flower pot, although the fact that it’s buried under 73 rows of different characters also pronounced ‘fu’ in my computer input software is evidence of how uncommon ‘柎’ is. In fact, I’d bet most Chinese today would ‘flower pot’ even know what ‘柎’ means.

April 26, 2009

Why my Name Means "Condom"

English is insanely popular in China, benefitting me by creating a huge market for employing my native English. Unfortunately, English abbreviations are probably even more popular, with the unfortunate consequence that my initials mean ‘condom’ in Chinese.

In China, I’ve bought T-shirts from shop attendants who know not small, medium, or large, but ask me whether I’d like an “s,” “m,” or “l.” The printed Chinese language is incapable of netspeak tht omts vwls lk ths, but the English emails I receive from my Chinese landlord omit vowels as though typing them were as expensive as buying them on Wheel of Fortune.

English abbreviations are so popular that they’re not just used for English. Many Chinese people are so shy about using the Chinese characters for vulgar words that they mostly use their English abbreviations.

Thus, when I watched a downloaded episode of South Park with Chinese subtitles parodying Mel Gibson, I found the translations of the curse words as interesting as the translation of the jokes requiring cultural background. In scene after scene, English abbreviations flashed underneath the crude cartoons: tmd, nnd, sb.

The abbreviations use the first letter of the Pinyin romanization of each character. Thus, (Chinese readers excuse the obscenity) one of the strongest curses, ‘他妈的’ ta made becomes the ubiquitous ‘tmd,’ and so on.

Chinese netizens who are too shy to write the less-than-scientific names for body parts even extend the abbreviations to words that are not actually curse words. That makes male genitalia into “jj,” an abbreviation of ‘jiji’ or “chicken chicken” 鸡鸡 (don’t ask me why a female animal is used to refer to a male body part).

All of this I had learned in my time so far in China. But I was confused when a Chinese friend referred yesterday to how I always avoided using both of my initials when I sign my emails.

“I avoid it? No, it’s normal just to abbreviate our first names, like I do: T.”

“You mean you weren’t trying to avoid signing your emails ‘condom’?”

“My name means ‘condom’!?”

As it turns out, “tt” is an abbreviation of taotao (套套), literally “sheath sheath” or “condom.”

Before I came to China, my Chinese teacher conferred upon me a Chinese name that meant “loves to talk endlessly” without my knowledge, dooming me to endless explanations of my absurd name. Little did my parents know that when they decided to go for a transliterated t in my initials, they were dooming me to perpetually remind my Chinese friends of birth control devices.

July 2, 2009

Why it's actually faster to type in Chinese (and how it may make you a pervert)

Keyboards were made for English; the thought of a keyboard of Chinese characters is enough to make your head spin. Yet Chinese can actually be faster to type than English. A friendly phrase like, say, ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ can explain how.

There’s no way around it in English. Typing ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ takes 22 key strokes (not including hitting the SHIFT key).

Using an old fashioned pen, it takes 28 strokes to draw the Chinese characters ‘毛主席万岁.’

Yet in Chinese this phrase takes 5 strokes and a tap on the space key. Simply typing ‘mzxws’ brings up each of the 5 characters and 28 strokes in an instant. The mysterious magic sesame spell of letters is simply the first letter of the pinyin for each word ‘Mao Zhuxi wan sui.’

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Using free downloadable Chinese language software from Google or Baidu, anyone can bring up thousands of commonly spoken words and phrases in an instant.

To choose another example at random, typing up ‘The State Council of the People’s of Republic of China’ takes only 6 strokes (Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo Guowuyuan 中华人民共和国国务院) z’hrmg. That’s 54 strokes in English.

There are, of course, limits. Many phrases are missing from the program. The slogan standing in huge characters to the right of Mao’s portrait at Tian’anmen, “Long live the great unity of the world’s people” is nowhere to be found in my program, which instead brings up “世界人民的条件我是,” “The conditions of the people of the world I am.”

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Similarly spelled words can bring up long lists to scroll through as well. The commonly used ‘wx’ brings up a staggering numbered list, including ‘I want’ (我想); ‘dangerous’ (危险); ‘smile’ (微笑); ‘limitless’ (无限); and literally hundreds of others.

Upon second glance, “Long live Chairman Mao’s” ‘mzxws’ can also bring up ‘麻醉学万岁’ or “Long live anesthesiology!”

These overlaps make typing in Chinese like catching a ride with an impatient Beijing taxi driver: pleasingly fast, but possibly disastrous.

A Chinese friend recounted to me how her friend got burned by the program. During her conversation with her male friend, he wanted to say something like, “Sure, ok.” A natural way to say for a Beijinger to say this is:

xing a,’ (行啊) which loosely means, “That works [particle expressing agreement or compliance].”

So he typed in ‘xa’ and sent the two characters through cyberspace.

The characters ‘xing ai’ (性爱) popped up on my friend’s screen. There sat the computer’s rendition: “Sexual love.”

As fate would have it, after receiving the mistaken message, she took the time to go to the bathroom, leaving the MSN chat screen idling unattended. Messages popped up on the screen:

No, no, no! Don’t misunderstand me.

I meant “sure thing,” not that.

Trust me, I wouldn’t mean that.

Don’t tell anyone, ok?

Ok?

Where are you? Why aren’t you responding??

Please, don’t tell anyone. I’m not kidding.

Where are you?

It was a mistake.

We’re just friends! You know me.

Soon, his profuse apologies, explanations, and retractions were enough to stem the misunderstanding, but not the hilarity, embarrassment, and, I’m guessing, hurt pride.

“Sexual love” is enough to convince me that typing Chinese can be an amazing shortcut, as long as it doesn’t bring a prison sentence.

July 20, 2009

The Cutest Character Ever

When I was 12, I bought a bonsai tree in a green ceramic pot and spent hours laboring over the pot with black paint and a brush trying to reproduce the cool Chinese character I had found on the internet. I had no idea what the character meant, but I wanted it on the pot because it felt cool.

An hour later, my 12-year-old self came out with a droopy-looking character—which I scrubbed off the pot—and a realization that I knew very little about this mysterious language.

Over a decade later, I can now understand lectures on ancient poetry and read newspapers, yet my feelings toward characters haven’t developed past the kindergarten stage that most Chinese friends say my hand-written characters are stuck at.

Yet a tip from a fellow PiA member did lead me to uncover more about how Chinese people feel about characters. A fellow PiA member told me his favorite character was . “It just looks cool,” he said. After I heard him say it, I started to think the character was pretty cool-looking; if you look at it in the right way, it kind of looks like a sword sitting on a bomber jet.

Yet when I ran this character by my Chinese friends, they didn’t like it. “It’s unstable. It’s too tall. It looks like it’s going to fall over,” one friend said.

I was blown away by the fact that my Chinese friends were all using an aesthetic standard that hadn’t even occurred to me (and that conflicted with the one I had been using). This revelation led me to suspect that Chinese people have an entire set aesthetic feelings towards the characters they’ve grown up with and that these feelings are different from people who haven’t grown up with the language. This could be why masterful calligraphy still looks like scribbles to me, well into my time in China.

So I will relinquish myself from any judgments of the high aesthetics of Chinese characters. However, I will declare that I have found the cutest Chinese character (click on the character to see my crude Paint recreation):

(ceng)

Foreigners often have different feelings toward Chinese characters—and I’ve yet to run into any Chinese person who has come up with as bizarre an interpretation of this character—but it seems pretty obvious to me that this characters is a cute little bug. It’s got two slanted ears on top, two big eyes, and a boxy little body. The boxy-ness on the bottom makes it look it has stripes, just like a cartoon bee:
bee.jpg

Who cares that it means “once,” as in “I once saw Michael Jackson live in concert”? My Chinese friends must mistake me for a lover-of-the-past because I can’t help but smile when I read about things that “once” happened or when I read text messages about what my friends have “once” done. I know what the real meaning is, but I can’t I challenge anyone to show me a character cuter than this one.

Of course, a nod must be made to the world’s second cutest character:

员 (yuan)

This one means exactly what it looks like: person (or employee, crew, etc.). And it looks like a person starting the robot dance while the gun goes off for a 50-yard dash to the side.

July 23, 2009

See Spot Run: China's Simple Confusion

As a Luddite-prone American, I’m used to seeing technology as opposed to pure art. Yet Chinese society has no Luddites, and art has is coming of age along with cell phones. The result is that mass audiences have gone so far as to ador a movie about cell phones, called “Cell Phone,” in which a significant part of the dialogue and plot information is conveyed through phone calls and text messages displayed on screen.

Contrary to its text-message image, “Cell Phone” is actually a thought-provoking debate about issues of trust and fidelity in modern Chinese society. As interesting as the social commentary is, I find myself spending more time thinking about one line from the movie and a phrase that I hear just about every month from taxi drivers: “Chinese is the world’s hardest language, eh?”

This idea is popular in China and perhaps other parts of the world, but I see it as propping up the talking-dog phenomenon and the notion that outsiders are almost inherently unable to master Chinese. So I like to disagree whenever my taxi drivers claim that their language is impossibly hard.

Of course, Chinese is a hard language. But the main salvo in my argument is the fact that Chinese grammar is impossibly simple. If mastering English tenses, Spanish subjunctive, Russian cases, and French irregular verbs is like trying to repair a new-fangled computer-run Toyota, mastering Chinese grammar is like repairing a nuts-and-bolts 1960’s Camaro.

Yet Chinese grammar can be so simple, so streamlined that it becomes simply confusing. A sentence from “Cell Phone” demonstrated this clearly and confusingly:

Nǐ zài wǒ zǒu!

你在我走!

In the scene, a young female teacher yells at the famous actor Ge You, saying literally, “You are [here] I go!”

I paused the screen and asked my Chinese friend for assistance. I learned that, translated more fully, the woman’s sentence means, “If you’re going to be here, then I’m leaving!”

What is left out is all of the logical connectors: ‘if’ and ‘then.’ This is a peculiarity of Chinese grammar that students can’t solve by carrying around conjugation tables and memorizing charts of verbs. Rather, this peculiarity is a good indication that Chinese is a receiver-oriented language, where crucial information lies in what’s not said.

Instead of spending time filling my mind with conjugation tables, I spend my time constantly deleting my English grammar from my Chinese text messages. Chinese does have words like ‘if’ and ‘therefore’; you can fix tenses to verbs in Chinese; but the trick in sounding authentically Chinese is to avoid the urge to do so. I take as proof the fact that I was laughed at recently by a Chinese friend for putting too many le’s to indicate tense in a text message. I had used one.

“I knew that was written by a foreigner,” my friend told me later, chuckling.

I might as well have been chewing on a fortune cookie, since I was writing laowai Chinese. To avoid sounding like a foreigner, I suggest avoiding le, yào, rúguǒ, and jiù. In other words, avoid tense and logical connectors like the plague.

Ever since I was corrected by my friend, whenever I’m tempted to put in tense and connecting words into my Chinese text messages, I think simply: you write you strange.