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Simple Words on the Difficult Chinese Language

Chinese calligraphy © Marco Zuppone / Public Domain / Unsplash

"The greatest wealth of a people is its language" Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov

Chinese is the first language in the world in terms of the number of native language speakers, which together makes up 1.3 billion people, about 17% of the world's population. The Chinese language consists of regional groups, based on phonetic developments, of which the main three are:

普通话 pǔ tōng huà: spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of the phonology of Standard Chinese. Almost 836 million people worldwide speak it and on Figure 1 it’s marked in light brown color.

粤语 yuè yǔ: Cantonese, marked in pink color on the map below, is spoken by 71 million people worldwide and mostly used in Southern China, particularly in Hong Kong and the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

闽语 mǐn yǔ: the name Min is derived from the Min River in Fujian, and is also the abbreviated name of Fujian Province. It is spoken by 60 million people worldwide and mostly used in Taiwan and Fujian. In Figure 1 it is marked in light grey color.

A more detailed classification is given below (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Map of Chinese Dialect Groups. Source: Cao Zhiyun, 2008.

It is said that a well-educated Chinese reader knows between 4,000 and 6,000 words, while reading a newspaper requires knowledge of about 3,000 characters. It is believed that in order to successfully pass HSK 6 (the highest level of the standardized Chinese language proficiency exam for non-native speakers of Chinese), you need to know up to 5,000 words or 2,633 characters, to have good mental health, unbending willpower and shed seven sweats coupled with tons of tears.

The Chinese language writing system is based on logograms, and it looks artistic in many ways. Closely intertwined with history, lifestyle and outlook on life, each character harbors a hidden meaning and story. For example, let’s examine the word “man” (男 nán): the upper part (田 tián) means field, the lower part (力 ) means strength. Since China has been an agrarian country for a long time and the man was the main force in rice fields, the character designation for a man is strength in the field or field strength. Another example is the word “security” (安 ān). The lower part (女 ) means “girl/woman”, and the upper part represents a roof over the woman's head. By combining these two meanings, it turns out that security is a woman in the house. Not less interesting is another character: 孱 (càn), which means “impotent, fragile” (Figure 2). The upper part of the character illustrates an angry adult running after three children (子 zi), who are running away in horror with their arms outstretched. In this situation, children are powerless over an angry adult.

Figure 2: Evolution of the Chinese character 孱. Own development.

With good imagination, historical knowledge and keen eyes, Chinese is, without a doubt, an interesting language to learn, and spoken Chinese is more than fun! It is a vast combination of historical events, mixed with foreign words and new slang made up of word pronunciations. For example, the idiom “说 曹操 曹操 就 到” (Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo jiù dào) – “say Cao Cao and he will appear” or in common usage, “speak of the devil”, also has a historical background. During the Han Dynasty, someone recommended General Cao Cao to Emperor Han Xian to ensure imperial security. The moment they were about to call him, Cao Cao himself came to visit the emperor, which gave rise to this idiom. Also widely used is the idiom “纨 绔 子弟” (wán kù zǐ dì), which means “spoiled son of rich parents”. The idiom’s literal translation would be “a son in silk pants”, since in ancient times only very wealthy Chinese could afford this luxury.

As for foreign words, in 2018, the word C 位, meaning the leader of a group or the most important position, became famous on the Internet. In this case, “C” represents a loan from the English word “center”, and 位 (wèi) means “position, place”.

The usage of numbers in Chinese forums and chats is worth mentioning separately. Each number has its own meaning, which is obtained by playing with the pronunciation of words. One of the most famous examples is the number 520 (wǔ èr yī). This also means “I love you”, as it is consonant with 我 爱 你 (wǒ ài nǐ), which means “I love you” in Mandarin. From this example, you can understand that the number 5 is used to mean “I”; 2 means “love” and 0 means “you”. But don’t think that everything is so simple: by this logic, you could think that 505 (wǔ líng wǔ) means “I am a complete zero”, but no: 505 stands for “SOS”, since 5 looks like the English letter “S”, and 0 is, you guessed it, similar to the letter “O”.

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. The pronunciation is hard, it has too many characters, and it is impossible to understand anything from the prescription of a Chinese doctor. But at the same time, it is a very beautiful language from an aesthetic point of view, where each character has its own small, but interesting story. If you discard all the stereotypes about Chinese language complexity, then you will soon see its beauty through the prism of Chinese history and culture.

Sugarmaa Purevkhuu, was born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. She obtained her master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of International Business and Economics in 2016 and is currently pursuing her PhD degree at the same university. Interested in languages, she is also managing laowai.idioms – an instagram account, which posts Chinese idioms/slangs with explanations in five languages. You can also find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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