Friday, October 30, 2009

Fragrant Hills, but very crowded

Last weekend, I visited a well known site outside Beijing called 香山 (Xiang Shan), or the "fragrant hills", as it is usually called in English. I was invited to go by a Chinese student who I am doing a "language exchange" with, and her three roommates.

The place in question is a natural park just outside Beijing, on my campus's side of the city. It consists of hills covered by forests and dotted with traditional buildings and relics. The highest peak, Xianglu, is 557 meters high. The park is particularly popular in the autumn, when the numerous maple leaves turn red, covering the place in red. I find that the Chinese have a very strong cultural tendency to appreciate flowers, leaves and plants, and this is the kind of thing which reallly warms their heart. Chinese students often ask me what particular flowers or trees are called in English, and of course more often than not I don't know the answer.

Anyway, we went to the park on an october saturday with lovely weather, exactly on the same day that the entire rest of Beijing had the same idea. Given Beijing's huge population, if you go to a famous site exactly at the time of year when it is most popular, and on a weekend with nice weather, you are bound to find it is packed. Naively I thought the park must have space for everyone, soo it wouldn't be a problem. However, even getting to the place proved to be a major issue. We planned to take a bus, but the bus which takes you to the park was so full that it was impossible to even get near it, let alone get inside. Even though it passed by at a frequency of about every 10 minutes, we immediately saw that it was useless even trying to get in. We decided to go by taxi, but the only taxi driver we managed to stop refused to go, saying that there would be too many cars around the park, and it would take him too long to get back out. We spent ages, literally ages, trying to stop another taxi, but every single one was engaged, even though in Beijing there are usually free taxis available all over the place. Perhaps everyone else had the same idea. In the end we decided to take what is known as a "black car", in other words an illegal taxi. The only problem is that in a normal taxi it would have cost us about 10 or 15 yuan for the trip, while in a black taxi it cost 10 yuan per person (about 1 euro actually, but all the same...). What's more, even the driver of the illegal taxi refused to go to the entrance of the park, saying that there would be too many other cars, and left us somewhere which was a 20 minute walk away from the park. Of course, the road to the park was jam-packed with other Beijingers going to get their share of fresh air. At the entrance, we had to struggle through an absurd mass of people to buy a ticket. Only undergraduate students are given discounted tickets, not post-grads, so I had to pay the full price. However, the girls I was with (who are also doing a master) had fake undergraduate student cards which you can apparently buy for 10 yuan outside my campus. I must do that sometime.

Anyway by the time I got inside, I was already quite tired, and it was already much later than we planned. We decided to give up going up the highest hill in the park, which is what most people do, and just walk around the base of the hills. Wherever we went it was full of people, on the paths, on the grass, on the rocks, etc.... however, we managed to relax a bit and have a nice picnic on the grass. Of course, the Chinese girls I was with were very excited about the red leaves, although personally I must say that I found the traditional Chinese buildings much more interesting than the leaves. Getting back home was of course also a feat. The queues at the bus station next to the park were unbelievable. However, in the end we made it back to out campus.

It is after days like this that one really appreciates the wisdom of the one-child policy, and almost wishes they would enforce it more strictly!
(The photo is of the crowds waiting to catch the bus to get back home)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The typical mistakes the Chinese make when speaking English

When Chinese people speak English, there are some specific mistakes which nearly all of them tend to make, and some specific English words and expressions which they all tend to mis-use or else overuse like mad. Most of the mistakes which the Chinese typically make when speaking English are connected to particular features of the Chinese language, and now that I am learning Chinese I am beginning to understand the reasons behind some of the most frequent mistakes.

Anyway, here are some mistakes and mis-uses which I have encountered again and again in the English spoken by Chinese people, especially university students:

1) This one is a constant: mixing up "he" and "she" (or "him" and "her", "his", and "hers"). This is a mistake which virtually all the Chinese people who can speak English make, even ones who know English very well. The reason is obvious: in Chinese, he and she are both pronounced exactly the same way, in other words "ta" with the first tone. However, they are actually written slightly differently: 他 means "he" and 她 means "she". All the same, in Chinese minds there obviously isn't the idea of distinguishing between he and she while speaking, and this is clearly very difficult to overcome.

2) Getting adjectives and nouns mixed up. How many times have I heard things like "He is a very patience person", "my assignment is very emergency", "the professor is very humour", "Chinese adverts are not very creativity" etc...

3)Mis-using the word "play": the first time a Chinese adult asks you if you want to meet and "play together" some day, it can be a bit disconcerting. Using the word "play" to refer to adults hanging out or going out together is common, and a bit comical at first.

4) Mis-using the word "let": in Chinese there is a single word, 让 ("rang") which means both "let" and "ask", as in "I will ask my friend to come out" (not as in "to ask someone where the station is"). As a result, the Chinese tend to use the word "let" to mean ask, for instance: "I will let my friend to come out with us on tuesday" or "I will let her to do me this favour".

5) The constant overuse of some particular English words, first and foremost "hometown" and "delicious". This is not really a mistake, but it does allow you to spot a Chinese person a mile off. In China the food is never good, it is always "delicious", and no one ever goes back to their village, town or city for the holidays, they always go back to their "hometown". The word hometown is apparently taken by the Chinese to be the translation of the Chinese word 家乡 (jia xiang). Sometimes they even think that the word doesn't only refer to towns or cities, but can also refer to regions or countries, so for instance a Chinese classmate once asked me: "is England your hometown?". The word is so ubiquitous that I even use it myself when talking to Chinese people.

This is just a short list, the first examples which came to my mind, but I'm sure that anyone who has taught English in China would have many more to add.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ten things I like about China

Ten things I like about China:

1) the general exoticity of it all.

2) being able to walk around the streets at night and feel perfectly safe.

3) the fact that the Chinese don't have a culture of going to the beach (I don't like to either).

4) the modest and unconfrontational attitude which is built into the Chinese psyche.

5) the fact that most people don't practice an organized religion.

6) people staring at me on the street. It's nice to be in the center of the attention without doing anything to deserve it.

7) the fact that people have absolutely no strong preconceived opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or any other divisive issue in the West.

8) the food of course. Especially the fact that almost all the foods I don't like, for instance chocolate, tomato and cheese, are relatively rare.

9) the fact that the girls are so girly. No swearing, getting drunk, smoking, etc.... because it's not girlish. And yet that doesn't mean that they are all stuck in old-fashioned ideas about gender roles and sexual issues.

10) how the Chinese go out of their way to help foreigners, to an extent which is sometimes so extreme it's almost embarassing. It's also very convenient if you happen to be a foreigner.

11) the weather of Beijing (I'm kidding this time).

I won't list 10 things I don't like about China, for fear of causing offence, but when it comes to Beijing, the weather, crowded public transport and the days with scarce visibility (because of a combination of the pollution and the weather) would spring to mind. Not to mention the tofu they sell on the streets which stinks so much you have to keep at least 10 meters away. And the internet issue.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

the Chinese writing system

What is the Chinese alphabet? Can it rightly be viewed as an extremely uneconomical phonetic alphabet, or as a pictorial one?

Some linguists have claimed that the Chinese alphabet is in fact not a pictorial writing system in which every character represents a concept, as it is often assumed, but rather a phonetic one, in which every character represents a sound. In this case, it would certainly have to be the most extraordinarily uneconomical phonetic alphabet in the world, since it contains thousands of characters, while most phonetic alphabets get away with 20-30 letters! It is estimated that the average educated Chinese person knows about 6000-7000 characters, and at least 3000 or 4000 are used in ordinary life.

Now that I have been learning Chinese for a while, and got a grasp of the basic structure of the language, I would say that it is basically a mixture of the two.

On the one hand every character does indeed represent a certain syllabic sound. For instance every Chinese person knows that the character 巴 is always pronounced "ba" with the first tone, or that 马 is pronounced "ma" with the third tone, regardless of the meaning. This is how foreign names are transliterated into Chinese. For instance, the Chinese name for Barak Obama is 巴拉克 奥巴马, pronounced ba-la-ke ao-ba-ma. The fact that the last character in Obama's name actually means horse is completely irrelevant. There are a few characters which can be pronounced in two different ways according to the meaning, for instance 得 is pronounced "de" with the second tone in some cases or "dei" with the third tone in some others, depending on the meaning. However such cases are quite rare. Most characters always maintain the same pronunciation. From this point of view, the writing system could be regarded as a phonetic syllabical system, with each character representing a syllable.

At this point, the question would be why thousands and thousands of characters are necessary. After all, only a few hundred syllables exist in Mandarin Chinese. Of course, every syllable can be pronounced with any one of four different tones, multiplying the number of possible sounds by four, but this still wouldn't explain the huge number of characters. The answer lies in the fact that there are large numbers of characters which are all pronounced in exactly the same way. For example the four characters 往, 网, 辋, and 罔 are all pronounced precisely the same, in other words "wang" with the third tone. However, the first one means "towards", the second one means "net", the third one means "a circle that is connected to the spokes on a wheel", and the last one means "to deceive".

It is hard to maintain that the Chinese alphabet is purely phonetic when confronted with this. Which other alphabet has numerous different letters which are pronounced in exactly the same way? At the same time, it would be wrong to view the Chinese writing system as it is popularly viewed in the West, in other words as a system akin to the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, in which every character is a picture representing a word in its own right. The fact is that most Chinese words are actually made up of a combination of two characters. Many of the characters only have a vague or general meaning when on their own, and only acquire precise meanings when they are combined with another character. It is also misleading to think of the Chinese characters as "pictures". When Chinese writing first developed a few millenia ago most of the characters really may have been highly stylized pictures of what they were supposed to represent, but by now there is usually no obvious relationship between the shape of a character and its meaning. However there are some characters which have maintained and obvious pictorial resemblance to the concept they represent, for instance 伞, which means umbrella, or 门 which means door. It must also be said that many Chinese characters were simplified after the revolution in 1949, so as to make the alphabet easier to learn for the people. However, the traditional forms of the characters, although more complicated, often had a more obvious resemblance to the concept they represented.

An interesting question is why a great civilization such as the Chinese one has never adopted a straightforward phonetic alphabet with a few dozen letters, just like virtually all other advanced societies have done centuries ago.

Part of the answer may lie in the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language. Like I mentioned, there are large numbers of characters in Chinese which are pronounced in exactly the same way, but have different meanings. The Chinese do not think of them as being the same word, since the characters are different. If Chinese were written with a normal phonetic system, all of these words would be written in exactly the same way, introducing an element of ambiguity. On the other hand, perhaps that wouldn't be such a great problem. After all, when the Chinese speak, they seem to be able to distinguish between the different homonyms on the basis of the context. Another factor is the tonal system. When Chinese is transliterated to the European alphabet with the Pinyin system, a special accent needs to be put on every word so as to distinguish the tone. However, one would think that historically the Chinese could have developed special letters to represent the four tones without any trouble. Perhaps the real reason for the failure to develop a phonetic writing system is the relative phonetic poverty of Chinese, which actually has a rather limited number of combinations of sounds in comparison to most languages. If the language were written phonetically, it would look rather boring and repetitive, as it does when it is written in Pinyin. The characters instead make it extremely varied and interesting.

Whatever the reason, the Chinese characters have survived for thousands of years, and they are obviously too engrained in the culture to make it possible to do away with them. The system is certainly inefficient and difficult to learn in comparison to other writing systems, however it is obviously possible to use it for the purposes of a modern society, as the Chinese have been doing cheerfully for decades. It may take Chinese children years and years to learn to read and write, but in the end they do. After all, learning a few thousand symbols is not beyond the abilities of the human brain. Even I can now recognize hundreds and hundreds of characters after being in China one year, without even studying Chinese full time. True, learning to write the characters by heart is much harder than learning to recognize them, but nowadays computers allow you to write Chinese by writing the words in Pinyin and only having to recognize the characters on the screen. It is true that apparently even well educated Chinese people sometimes have trouble remembering how to write some of the less common characters by hand, but it could be answered that English spelling is so illogical that even well educated native speakers of English make spelling mistakes. And the fact that the Chinese have not crossed over to using the pinyin system for most purposes, despite its availability, testifies to the resilience and practicality of their traditional writing system.