More On Learning Chinese

So today I finished my intensive Chinese class, which I celebrated by drinking lots of 啤酒 (and silently toasting the heroic oppositionistas struggling against UK bourgeois state tyranny). Here is my third set of observations.

1. Most other languages now look really easy, especially Spanish which I’ve long planned to learn but never really found myself sufficiently motivated to do so. The time it takes to memorize one Hanzi is probably sufficient to memorize 5-10 Spanish words.

2. Speaking of Hanzi, this test estimates that I know about 700-800 of them. This puts me about half-way to becoming a barely literate Chinese peasant. Or, in foreign language acquisition terms, either a high Low Intermediate or a very low High Intermediate.

3. There’s an extremely useful I found called Remembering the Hanzi. As I already figured out for myself, the most effective way to do so is to memorize stories specific to Hanzi (the more graphic, funny and/or obscene the better). This book provides stories and templates for stories for the 1500 most frequent Hanzi. Now that formal classes have ended I’ll probably be systematically working through it.

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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.

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Learning Chinese


li-riverSeeing as I’m known as a “Sino-triumphalist” anyway why not go the full nine yards and learn the language? That is what I’m doing (c. 300-500 汉字 to date) and here are my thoughts so far.

1. Tones. In stark contrast to every major European language, Chinese pronunciation is based on tones. Four of them: one that stays high, one that rises high, one that dips then rises high, and one that falls sharply (there’s also a neutral tone). Very confusing at first, though I’m sure Vietnamese is worse.

2. Hanzi. The written language is based on hieroglyphs, each of which represent an idea or concept that can either stand alone or be combined to form a word. Some of these can be pretty inventive, e.g. a computer 电脑 is composed of the characters for electricity and brain; or to take an older example, a conscience 良心 is literally a “good heart.” A panda is a “big bear-cat” (大熊猫).

The characters themselves can be full of meaning. E.g. the heart (心) plays a big role in many related concepts, such as interesting, lit. “has meaning” (有意思) or “read aloud” presumably with ‘all your heart’ (念).

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Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System?

One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

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