THE LONG MARCH
I’m currently a third-year university student in England, reading Chinese, and I recently returned from spending a year abroad in Nanjing, a city about 200 miles northwest of Shanghai, as part of my course. As anyone who has lived for a serious length of time in a country where the language you’re learning is spoken will testify, the difference between my linguistic capabilities—spoken and written—before and after was drastic. I’m now reasonably fluent in everyday Mandarin and both my pronunciation and my ear for tones (Chinese is a tonal language) have improved radically. The experience has also made me realize just how much there is to learn in Chinese—clearly a lifetime wouldn’t be excessive.
Before this trip, I’d been to China a couple of times—fleetingly in 2007, when I was working for my A-levels and needed some help deciding whether to take the plunge and study Chinese at university. Actually, as a test of whether I’d be able to get anywhere with the language it was pretty much a hopeless failure. Everything was hideously confusing, and at the beginning I couldn’t really communicate with anyone at all. After a few days I did get as far as being able to recognize the words for exit and road, the latter preceded by the name of the road. Undaunted by this unpromising start, I went back to China two years later during my gap year, to begin my long march along the winding road that is Chinese, returning again in 2010 for the aforementioned year abroad.
Most people know that written Chinese characters represent sounds or combinations of sounds that themselves represent actual words or concepts—words are not built up out of individual letters the way they are in western alphabets. What fewer might know is that over China’s incredibly long civilized history, the total number of characters created has reached around 80,000. Many of these, however, were often visually so complicated—made up of many characters put together—that they quickly became obsolete, since most ordinary people couldn’t cope with them; and many represented words that were obscure or died out or got changed for other reasons. As a matter of fact, one modern example of this is the Chinese word for email; originally, because the concept didn’t exist at all in Chinese but a word for it was urgently needed, the word was just a phonetic reproduction of the English word, created by putting together the characters that make the sounds “e,” “mei” and “r” to make “e-mei-r.” But since that isn’t a desirable state of affairs in Chinese, which seeks to put together characters that actually paint a picture of what a word represents, the word has now been completely changed and is made of the characters that together mean “electric letter.”
Radicals and extensions
Only between about 3,500 and 5,000 of the characters that have ever existed are used in the everyday language today. To go back to the first few words that I managed to master on that trip four years ago—and trying to give an idea of how they’re formed—the word for exit is made up of two characters (出口—pronounced chū kŏu), and its literal translation would be “exit mouth.” My second word, road, though it’s a very complicated character for a beginner to write, because it’s made up of many strokes (路—pronounced lù), is actually easy to recognize, because it’s distinctive and you see it everywhere you go.
As a matter of fact, one of the crucial parts of learning a language—looking up something you don’t know—carries its own difficulties for Europeans learning Chinese. If you know how a word is pronounced, it’s pretty easy—you can look it up in a dictionary that uses pinyin, the accepted transliteration into the Roman alphabet of Chinese sounds (the pinyin system took over about 30 years ago from the earlier Wade-Giles transliteration, which is why, for instance, Beijing used to be called “Peking” in the olden days). But if you’re just reading, so you don’t necessarily know how the word is spoken, what do you do? When you come across a character you’re not familiar with, you go to the dictionary and find the character. In order to do that, you first have to figure out what the radical—i.e., the root part of the word—is. It’s usually on the left, but, confusingly, not always. So if you’re looking up the radical in road (路), you’re going for the left-hand half of the word, which is the character that, if written on its own, means “foot,” written with seven strokes of the brush or pen; the extension, the part next to the radical (the right-hand half of the word) is added to it to make the complete word. You then look at the extension to count the number of brushstrokes it’s composed of, which turns out to be six; so under the foot radical section in the dictionary, you look for extension characters made up of six strokes. The extension in road means each. I think of each foot going in front of the other, along a road! It seems terribly complicated at first, but you get used to it.
Now, when I write in Chinese, I know how to put characters together to make a new word. For example, the verb persist is made up of two characters, the first meaning “firm” or “strong” (坚—pronounced jiān) and the second meaning “maintain” (持—pronounced chí). When I first started, I’d put the little square parts of the character in first, like this [ ], and then add squiggles and lines. The result was sad. Now I’m pretty good at it, and I can write characters in no time. 聪明的我！ That means “clever me.”
I could go on and on about the difficulties confronting European students of Chinese—I’ve always found usage of the verb to be a problem, for instance. Not because of its conjugations, because in Chinese there aren’t any in the sense that we have them in English or other Indo-European languages—the verb is just “be,” whoever is using it; when you want to put it in the future tense, you add the word that means “to come” to “be” so that you have “will be.” However, in Chinese you can say, for example, “He is the prime minister” (他是总理—pronounced tā (“he”) shì (“be”) zŏnglĭ (“prime minister”)), but you can’t say “The weather is cold.” In other words, nouns can “be,” but adjectives can’t. So when it’s chilly, you just say “Weather cold” (天气冷—tiānqì lěng). This isn’t a feature only of Chinese, actually—Russian, for instance, often leaves out “be” words in the present tense, so that you would say “She dead,” not “She is dead”—but it can still trip me up.
Another huge issue for Europeans learning Chinese is tones, and it’s so vast that I can only touch on it here. The same sound, said with different tones—the voice going upward or dropping down, for instance—can mean completely different things. And sometimes you can be misinterpreted if you get the intonation wrong. Once I thought I was saying “I am going to Shanghai,” but I got my tones wrong, and it came out as “I am going to hurt.” Both phrases use the sounds shang hai, but the tones for each sound quite different. I’m not sure what or who I was going to hurt, or whether I meant I was in pain!
Putting the shoe on the other foot, the Chinese can have as many problems with translating their words into English as we do in the other direction. We’ve all seen the hilariously mangled signs on sites like Engrish.com, and I can testify that they’re everywhere you go in China. Here are some of my best personal sightings: “Male Man,” for the gents’ toilet; “Special for Deformed,” for the disabled people’s toilet; “Carefully Slip,” featured in the bathroom in my digs; “Fall into Water Carefully,” a warning sign next to a river; “Be Dangerous” (instead of “Danger”), and then my favourite, “No Tossing”!