Chinese is one of the oldest written languages in the world. While there
are many different spoken languages and dialects in China, there is only
one written language. (The same written symbol is pronounced differently
in different dialects, although it has the same meaning.)
This was an important element in keeping a very diverse country unified.
Centuries ago the only way people from different regions in China could
communicate was through the written language, which we know as classical
Chinese (wen yan, or gu wen). Classical Chinese was, and is, used for
scholarly works and literature. Many of the words and phrases used in
classical Chinese are not meant to be spoken and would have no meaning
if spoken because they do not correspond to speech. This is somewhat
like the difference between spoken English and the English used in scholarly
journals, or in literature. As in all languages, a person does not write
exactly as one speaks. For much of Chinese history the written language
was known only by scholar-officials, who were members of the educated
class. To be a member of the scholar-elite was quite an honor since very
few people were educated.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese have developed
what is known as standard Mandarin or normal Chinese (baihua),
which is the spoken form of the written language. The dialect chosen
by the government to be the spoken language in China comes from the area
of Beijing which is populated by the Han people, the largest ethnic group
in China. There are other dialects in China which amount to different
spoken languages such as Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fukinese. (Locate on
the map the area of Guangdong — also known as Canton Shanghai — and
Fujian.) A person speaking Mandarin cannot communicate with a person
speaking Cantonese. When foreigners learn Chinese they generally learn
standard Mandarin, also called Han yu (meaning language of the
Han), or Zhongguo hua (Chinese language). Sometimes it is also
referred to as Guo yu (national language).
Pronouncing Chinese: The Tones
Note to teacher: In the following text the tones will
be indicated by the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 in brackets — , , ,
 — appearing after the Chinese words rather than the symbols — ¯,
/, V, \ — which are often placed over the words, as these latter are
difficult to format.
Chinese is a tonal language. Cantonese, for example, has nine, but Mandarin
has four tones. The first tone  ( ¯ ) is a high pitched tone
like a hum, or like me in the following sentence: "Who would like
to go outside? MEEE!" The second tone  (the rising tone / ) is
similar in English to the rising of the voice at the end of a question,
or a greeting: "Hello. Who is it?" "Is that your bicycle?" The
third tone  (dipping tone V ) sounds like the head master in the play "Oliver" as
Oliver approached to ask for more porridge: head down, but looking over
his spectacles he says "yes…?" The "yes" comes
from deep in his throat. The fourth tone  (the falling tone \ ) similar
to a command: "sit!" "no!" Try to pronounce each
tone using your head to indicate the direction of the sound. The dramatics
of your head rising and falling, either slowly or quickly, will demonstrate
what is meant by the tonal quality of the language.
|First tone :
||Move your head slowly from left to right saying "ma" continuously.
|Second tone :
||Look down at your left side and slowly move your head upwards and
to the right as you say "ma" as if in a question, so that
your head ends up tilted back with your nose pointing to the ceiling
over your right shoulder.
|Third tone :
||Slowly drop your chin to your chest while saying "ma"
continuously deep in your throat.
|Fourth tone :
||Look up and a little to the left, and then say "ma" as
you drop your head down and to the right quickly as if to say no!
Congratulations! You've just said four words in Chinese: "" ,
mother; "" ,
a questions word; "" ,
horse; and "" ,
to scold. Imagine how embarrassing it could be to say a word with the
incorrect tone. This is one of the reasons Chinese is considered a very
difficult language. The other reason has to do with writing Chinese.
Writing Chinese: The Characters
Chinese symbols are called characters. Each character contains
a radical or a sign which indicates meaning, and a phonetic which
suggests how the character is to be pronounced. Chinese is a pictographic
language in that its earliest renderings were pictures. The written language
has evolved from its earlier pictorial roots to a standardized form.
In addition, it has also been simplified in the PRC. In 1956,
the communist government in China, in an effort to raise the literacy
rate and make it easier for the central government to communicate with
everyone, reduced the number of strokes it takes to write Chinese characters
by almost half in some cases. This means that in the traditional or complex
form, a simplified character such as 机 looks
like this 機.
The traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In
addition to simplifying the written language, the government also introduced
a romanization system called pinyin to teach the Chinese people
how to render their language in roman letters. The romanization used
in this essay is from the pinyin system of romanization. There are other
systems still in use such as Wade-Giles, which pre-dates pinyin and it
still used in Taiwan. (See the pronunciation
guide, above, for a comparison of the two systems.) Most of the official
documents and all of the newspapers produced in the PRC use the simplified
characters, but journals, newspapers, and books produced in Taiwan or
Hong Kong use the complex characters.
Not all ideas can be written in simple pictures, so the Chinese have
developed other symbols to represent ideas, and sometimes combine them
to create new ideas. For example, the concept of "good" is
expressed in the character 好, "hao".
This character is the picture of a kneeling woman 女 and
a child 子.
Woman and child together means good. Similarly, the character for pen
is 筆. It is made up of the character for bamboo 竹, and
the character for hair 毛. In ancient China, pens or writing brushes
were often made of bamboo with animal hair attached (like a modern paint
brush). Today, the specific character for a calligraphy writing brush
is ("maobi") 毛筆, the
word for hair or fur and the word for pen. Often, two characters meaning
different things are put together to create a new meaning. Take the word
for crisis, 危机, "weiji" (or 危機) It contains the character 危 "wei" which means danger, and
the character 机 "ji", which means opportunity, or crucial point.
A crisis presents a moment of opportunity as well as great danger. A
language reflects the understanding that culture has of itself and influences
how people in that culture think. The following essay demonstrates the
way characters may be put together to form different words, and how different
meanings can have the same sound, but different tones.
|"Qing" 青 means blue or green,
young, or green grass. In general, 青 has a positive connotation in Chinese.
But put together with other characters, 青 has different meanings.
|青 + 天 = blue sky. "Tian" 天 means
|青 + 春l = youthfulness. "Chun" 春 means
springtime. Literally it is a picture of planted fields nurtured by the sun 日.
|Now, if we add different radicals to the character
青, (remember, radicals give meaning), we will get a new meaning. For
example, add the radical for sun 日. The new character, qing 晴
(note change of tone), means fine, or clear. So then...
|... means clear, sunny day.
|Next we'll add the radical for speech 言, "yan," (a
picture of a mouth reading lines or words). Now qing 請 (again,
note tone change), means to request, to ask for, or to say "please." So
|... means play the host or give a dinner party. "Ke" 客 means
guest. Literally, to invite guests to come under your roof 宀.
|... means pay respects to, or wish someone good health. "An" 安 means
peaceful, tranquil, secure, and in good health. Literally, woman 女 under
a roof 宀.
|Now, if we add the radical for water, written
either氵or 水, we get qing 清, which means unmixed,
clarified, pure, or cleaned up. Thus...
|... means clear water.
|... means pure, stainless. "Bai" 白 means white.
|... means delicate fragrance. "Xiang" 香 means
fragrant; literally the smell of ripe rice 禾 in the sun 日.
|Finally if we add the heart radical, which
is written忄or 心, we get qing 情, which means feelings, affection,
favor, or kindness. So ...
|... means tender regards, or good will. "Yi" 意
means idea or intention.
|... means sweethearts. "Ren" 人 is the character
|As you may have noticed, 青 and 清 have
the same tone, as do 晴 and 情. Therefore,
the meaning of the spoken word would have to come from the context of the conversation
since they sound the same.
As you may have guessed, mastering Chinese takes many years, but unlike English,
Chinese grammar is simple. A big difference is that in Chinese one does not conjugate
verbs to show tense. Instead, a time word is used to indicate that the action is
in the past, present, or future. Also, because Chinese is a monosyllabic language,
(each character having only one syllable like no, see, air, sing), it is easier
to learn to speak than many other languages. (Compare names like Beijing or Taipei
to Philadelphia or Mississippi!) While the Chinese language consists of over 50,000
characters, one need only know 3,000 to 5,000 to read newspapers and books. It
is said that for a person to become a real scholar of Chinese (and know all 50,000
characters), he or she would have to study nothing but Chinese for ten years. The
written language is very difficult, but writing beautiful Chinese characters is
an art encompassing in its simplicity, symmetry, and variety. It is also fun.
Unit Consultant: Catherine H. Keyser
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