Updates On Learning Chinese

It’s been a few weeks since my last post on learning Chinese, so here is new info for anyone interested.

1. In case you missed a late update to the original post: “Because of the simplicity of the grammar, Chinese often feels like slang to speakers used to more formalized languages; i.e. slang such as ebonics. A good example is Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn (好久不见), which literally means “Long time no see.” Apparently it made its way into Anglo slang through Chinese immigrants in San Francisco…”

2. Many Chinese province names are amazingly literal. For instance, Shandong (山东) means “east of the mountains”; Hebei (河北) and Henan (河南) mean north and south of the river, respectively, while Hubei (湖北) and Hunan (湖南) mean north and south of the lake; Guangxi (广西) and Guangdong (广东) refer to west and east widths, respectively; Yunnan (云南) has connotations of south clouds; and the island province of Hainan (海南) means south sea. Likewise for cities. Xi’an (西安) is the western peace; Shanghai 上海 means “on the sea” (sort of like Приморье?); and, of course, the various jing’s denote capitals. So Beijing (北京) is the north capital, Nanjing (南京) is the south capital, and Dongjing (东京) – otherwise known as Tokyo – is the east capital. The very name of the country is literally the “Middle Kingdom” (中国).

3. A friend (and 同学) recently told me that when he was traveling in China this past year, he came across a group of schoolchildren on the train out on a school excursion. They were eager to practice their English and they spoke surprisingly well. This wasn’t Beijing or Shanghai, but a relatively rural backwater. This anecdote supports the contention made on this blog that human capital in the youngest Chinese generations is at least as rich if not more so than in the West – what percentage of Americans can fluently speak a second language? – and as such this guarantees the country’s rapid future development.

It is a very studious and test-based culture. You can see this on a recent BBC series on the Chinese school system. Many foreign critics, as well as many Chinese themselves, argue that the focus on group and rote learning undermines individual creativity and stunts individual development. (That is partly why so many aspire to send their children to Western universities like Oxford or Princeton). To an extent they have a point; certainly, given the rapidly diminishing returns to studying more than an hour or two per day (as the brain can only absorb so much), spending all day in the classroom or library is very ineffective, almost idiotic even. That said I would argue that even that system is still superior to what passes for education in many schools in Latin America, where it seems little gets done or taught (see PISA scores); and increasingly, in many Western countries (where the focus on individual creativity and self-esteem has reached such ridiculous levels that they directly get in the way of learning basic facts and skills).

4. Western (and Russian) conceptions of time envisage it as going from left to right. The Chinese envisage it going from top to bottom; for instance, next week is literally “below” or “downwards” week. This is more accurate, reflecting the law of increasing entropy.

5. Just for yalensis. 😉 This poem is a good illustration of why alphabetising the language really is a bad idea.


Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

6. At least in the US, many Chinese restaurants have different names in English and Chinese. For instance, the “Great China” restaurant in Berkeley is actually called “Bountiful Harvest Year” (丰年) in Chinese. Westerners and legal documents know it as “Great China”; the local Chinese community knows it by its Chinese name.

According to street wisdom, in some cases this discrepancy arises out of the desire to avoid paying taxes. Competition is stiff, profit margins are low, and any advantage helps. Once the IRS latches on to a restaurant, it changes its English name and reconstitutes, while its Chinese-name “brand” remains intact. (Obviously, in no sense am I implying that “Great China”, which is a famous and long-established institution, engages in this practice. It is mostly small eateries in America’s Chinatowns).

7. Just as Westerners think of the Confucian cultures as “Asian”, “The East”, “East Asia”, with little accounting for differences between Vietnamese and Koreans – let alone Fujianese and Manchurians – so do many Chinese bracket in Italians and Americans and Swedes as belonging to a monolithic “West.” This can come across in language. For instance, the entirety of what we think of as “modern” medicine is known as “Western medicine” (西医) whereas traditional Chinese remedies relying more on acupuncture, herbs, etc. is “central medicine” (中医).

8. The Chinese name for San Francisco is literally Old Gold Mountain (旧金山).

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