Saturday, November 27, 2010


Touring Beijing, appendix 2: Language

Of course, you know that I couldn’t get away from the China stories without saying something about the language.

When I arrived, I knew none of the writing at all, and only two useful things to say: nǐ hǎo (你好, hello... literally, you good), and xiè xiè (谢谢, thank you). Nice things, but not sufficient for much.

By the time I left, I still didn’t know much more to say in conversation. But I learned some interesting things in general.

What surprised me the most, I think, is that I learned to read quite a few of the characters. For those who don’t know, each Chinese character represents one syllable... with multiple different characters representing the same syllable, with different meanings. Each syllable has a meaning in itself, and combinations of syllables can make words with meanings different from the component syllables. For example, 大, , means big/large. 学, xué, means science or learning. Together, 大学 means university.

A lot of Chinese is put together as concepts. Similar to big learning becoming university, we have the words for entrance and exit, 入口 and 出口, respectively. The second character, kǒu, means mouth, or, figuratively, opening. And so the words mean in opening and out opening.

Chinese for China is 中国, zhōng guó, meaning middle country, and you can see the character for middle or center in many other contexts, for shopping center, and such. And because Chinese doesn’t separate things into parts of speech in the same way we do, 国, guó, can mean nation or national, so you see it in phrases such as national museum.

It was easy, from looking at the names of the stops in the subway system, to figure out 北 (běi, north), 南 (nán, south), 东 (dōng, east), and 西 (xi, west). You see Beijing (北京, north capital) around all the time, of course, so that one’s easy. The others show up in many location names. And there are gates (门, mén) all over the city (Tiān’ānmén, for example, 天安门). It then becomes easy to read the Chinese name for one subway stop, in full: 北京大学东门, Beijing University east gate.

It came in very handy to have learnt the characters for the four directions: on Thursday of touring, I left the Jishuitan subway station and headed east, looking for the lakes (starting with Xi Hai, West Lake) to walk around. Not finding an entrance soon, I figured I needed to go a block or two south to find it, so I turned right. I soon saw the Xizhimen subway station, which I knew to be in the wrong place entirely: I had to be significantly south and west of where I thought I was — or else someone had moved the station.

Street signsLooking at the street signs, though, I could see that I was going west, not south, and that turning left at the intersection I was approaching would send me south. See the photo to the right (taken a few blocks later, after I’d gone south on Zhaodengyu Road and was about to turn east onto Ping’anli West Avenue), and note that, while the street names are written in English, the directional arrows have only the Chinese characters... which it was very nice to know just then.

I also learned more about the tones in spoken Chinese (though I didn’t learn to properly reproduce them). Apart from a neutral tone, there are four tones in spoken Mandarin, which is what makes it sound, to western ears, either sing-song or whiny, depending upon one’s perception. Imagine three pitches, high, medium, and low. The first tone, designated in Pinyin with a straight line over the vowel (ō), is a steady high pitch. Second tone, designated with an acute accent (ó) starts at medium and rises to high. Third tone, designated with a caron (ǒ), starts at medium, dips to low, then rises to high. And the fourth tone, shown by a grave accent (ò), starts at high and drops to low. The Pinyin markings mimic graphically the directions of the pitch changes.

The same syllable may have different meanings in written Chinese, depending upon the character used to represent it. But in spoken Chinese, the tone conveys different meanings. For example, 茶 means tea, and is spoken in the second tone, chá. 喳 is in the first tone, chā, and means twitter or chirp. In the third tone, 衩 (chǎ) means panties, and in the fourth tone, 诧 (chà) means surprised. As in, you would be surprised if you tried to order tea and chirped panties instead.

1 comment:

HRH said...

Thanks for sharing your trip with such fine granularity, I enjoyed them, in particular the language part.