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Studying Chinese
Observations on the Chinese Language and Culture

Sha Haiyan's corner
Chinese lessons
for the teacher.

Introduction to  Seeing Chinese Characters   hnz n. Chinese character

Please Note: if characters on these pages appear to be cut off,  it's because you are not using Internet Explorer as your browser.  For some reason Foxfire and some other browsers clip the graphics.

Also Note: If you don't see Chinese characters, but instead see question marks or little squares, it's because you haven't activated the Chinese that comes with your Windows operating system. Scroll down on this page to see how to do this.

A selection of stories which are the source of Chinese Idioms.  This has recently expanded to include classic Chinese poetry,  and stories about Chinese philosophers,  inventors, and artists. 

Most recent addition:  "Climb Crane Pavilion".  Click here to find out what this means.


Another Wonderful cross-lingual pun:  Happy Niu Year

I've mentioned before that I love a pun that requires a person to know two languages in order to get it.  Two such puns that are used in Chinese text messages are 88 (ba ba in Chinese,  which sounds like bye bye and so is used to end messages.)  and 3Q ( "sān Q" in Chinese, "thank you"). 

On New Years Eve we received a number of text messages wishing us a "Happy Niu Year".  "Niu" is pronounced roughly like "new",  but means ox or bull.  And this is the year of the bull.  Cute, huh?

Thoughts on Language

     In English we have words that seem to have been invented by a marketing department committee.  Take the word "kaleidoscope" for example.  What do the components of that word mean?  Obviously "scope" is something you look through,  like a microscope or a telescope.  But "kaleido"?  That sounds totally made up.

Here's what the net has to say about it:  http://www.4physics.com/phy_demo/kaleidoscope/kaleidoscope-0.html

The kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by Sir David Brewster, a Scottish physicist and Christian minister. The origin of the word kaleidoscope speaks to the splendid images. Kaleidoscope finds its roots in the Greek word kalos meaning "beautiful", the Indo-european eidos that means "form", and scope that is Greek for "to see".

Kaleidoscopes are made with two or more mirrors. Light reflecting between these mirrors produces multiple virtual images of stunning beauty.

     So there you have it.  I sure do love the Internet.  The word WAS totally made up for marketing purposes and, presumably because the toy was invented by a physicist,  the new name was intended to sound scientific,  hence the "scope" suffix.

     Last week I discovered the Chinese word for kaleidoscope - 万花筒 (wn huā tǒng) Which translates literally as "ten thousand flower tube".  Now,  isn't this a more evocative name than "kaleidoscope"?

     Teaching English has made me pay a lot more attention to language,  both the Chinese and my own.  Also this past week I bumped into the verb phrase "fully fathom",  and realized that this is from our English island nation marine heritage.  A fathom is a measure of distance,  specifically depth of water,  equal to six feet (1.8288 meters). If you fathom something,  you have come to appreciate its depth.  Another hidden metaphor in our language.
Of course,  once I started talking about units of measure,  I had to explain about feet and inches, since my students have grown up using the metric system.  Twelve inches to the foot, three feet to the yard,  six feet to the fathom,  sixteen and a half feet to the rod, twenty-two yards to the chain, four thousand eight hundred and forty square yards or forty three thousand five hundred and sixty square feet to the acre,  and five thousand two hundred and eighty feet or one thousand seven hundred and sixty yards to the mile are going to seem increasingly strange as the years pass.  Come to think of it,  they seem like very strange numbers already.  Strange numbers indeed.

     Then,  just last night during our Chinese lesson we bumped into another marine heritage relic, the word "leeway".  The lee is the downwind side of a sailboat.  If you have rocks to leeward,  you have no room to maneuver or tack against the wind.  But if you have leeway,  you have discretionary freedom of movement,  or as we now use the word as a metaphor,  of choice.

Cross Cultural Flying Cows

     When I was a child my father had a ready answer if one of us said something that sounded a bit farfetched or ridiculous.  He'd respond with, "And another cow flew by"   Imagine my delight when my friend 王汝龙  (Wang Ru Long) told me that there is a Chinese counterpart to this expression,  used whenever somebody is bragging.  One of the listeners might look up and ask "Why is the sky so dark?"  Everybody will laugh because this is recognized as the first line of a poem:





wishnme tiān zhme hēi? (Why sky so black?)
yīnwi yǒu ni zi fēi. (Because have cows at fly.)
wishnme ni zi tiān shng fēi?  (Why cows at sky up fly?)
yīnwi nǐ zi d shng chuī.  (Because you at ground on blow.)

I've wrestled with this translation into English and finally decided that the best thing to do is a literal word for word translation.  That gives a chance to see the Chinese language structure.  Here's what I'm told the verse actually means:

               Why is the sky so dark?
               Because the cows are flying.
               Why are the cows flying.
               Because you're down here blowing them up like balloons.

I take a real pleasure in finding artifacts within the Chinese culture that resonate so strongly with my own.

Double Language Puns, 88 and 3Q

I love the dual language puns that are becoming popular with the Chinese youth.  The Chinese for eight is ba,  so 88 becomes ba ba,  which sounds like bye bye.  A Chinese student might close off a mobile phone text message with 88.  Ba ba.  Bye bye.

The Chinese for 3 is san.  So 3Q becomes "san Q" = thank you.  There's something delightful about a pun that only works if you know and use two languages.

3Q for checking out my site. 88

After 911 Notice: (posted because of the Chinese aphorism)

I had a fairly extensive discussion of the 911 conspiracy theories on this site,  and ended up with egg all over my face.  Just to be really clear on this,  and to lay the subject to rest on this site at least,  I now believe that there has been no official or media cover-up of 911.  I believe that those who expand the conspiracy beyond Islamic fundamentalist extremist are wrong,  and in some cases willfully wrong.  As the Chinese saying goes:  三人成虎 (san ren cheng hu - Three people make a tiger. Meaning,  if three people say there's a tiger,  everybody is terrified of the tiger.)

My friend Simon Visits the Forbidden City:

Simon on Golden-River Bridge

In his email with the pictures, Simon also sent in the following little Chinese lesson:

 "Here is a Chinese phrase for you,  and I hope it can be useful. You can use it when you meet somebody for the first time.

jiǔ yǎngji yǎng  (I have heard of you for a long time.)

Which lead me to write back with the following: 
So this is repeating the same two words twice to give this meaning?  久仰,久仰  What is the literal meaning of the two words?
     I know I could look the two words up,  but it's more fun just to ask you.  And I'm training you to provide this kind of information when you send me a phrase.  So often my students tell me a phrase with a translation which has no relationship to the words in Chinese.  This makes it very hard to learn the words,  or to recognize them when I hear them in another context.  
     It's as if I told you that "Hold your horses" meant 等一忽儿 (děng yī hū er,  wait a short while).   It does,  but this doesn't help you learn what the words mean,  or what they might mean in another situation. Hold your horses also means:  "Be patient",  or "I'm coming (or doing it) as fast as I can." or "Don't rush me."  Or "Don't act without thinking." It all depending on context.

Not having heard from Simon I did look up , to find that it means "long time face upward, long time face upward",  so I guess this really does make it idiom.

The Chinese monster

      This evening in my Special Class I learned of a Chinese "animal" that can influence people's minds,  giving them delusions or making them act in dangerous and irrational ways.  One of my students,  Jack,  insisted that his grandmother,  his mother's mother,  had been a victim of such an attack until family members went outside the house and spotted the animal on the roof. 
     After they chased it away,  his grandmother recovered.  I asked what this animal looks like,  and was told it looks like a kind of wolf. They are called 黄鼠狼 (hung shǔ lng).  My students said that there are many of these animals in parts of China.  They promise me pictures and more information in coming emails.  So we may have a whole new legendary creature to discover here, folks,  a rival of the European werewolf perhaps.

Chinese lesson from Jin Bo at 2:00am

While chatting on MSN the other night (er,  morning) with my liaison here,  Jeremy, he slipped a little Chinese lesson into the conversation.  Interesting stuff.

cogling@hotmail.com says:

Here's a funny thing.  When you want to say "the thing grows long" in Chinese.  You just put the same character back-to-back.长长  These are homophones,  words that have the same character but two different pronunciations.  The first character is pronounced zhang, meaning grow.  The second character is pronounced chang, meaning long.



Before you decide that Chinese must be the toughest and most confusing language in the world,  consider the English phrase:  "The dove dove into the bushes."  Seems to me to be an example of the same thing.


The name "cogling",  by the way,  comes from Cognitive Linguistics,  Jeremy's major.  Jin Bo is another autodidact,  with a ravenous interest in eclectic subjects.  As a service to students,  he's putting excerpts from interesting English magazine articles and other publications up on his blog,  with Chinese translations and explanations. http://hi.baidu.com/memetics He just lent us the book version of "An Inconvenient Truth",  Al Gore's book, which cost him 200 yuan, ($26.09 U.S.), a high price for a book in China.  Thanks,  Jimmy Bob.

Party Tricks (originally posted December 12, 2007)

I am both left handed and left eyed.  (To quickly and easily test your eye dominance,  click here.)  I do just about everything left handed,  unless the tool or instrument makes that difficult,  in which case I am fairly ambidextrous.  For example,  I play guitar right handed and have never had a problem with Travis picking.  But I shoot a rifle or pistol left handed (which means that the shell casings from an automatic fly into my face),  use chopsticks left handed,  and write with my left hand.
     Some years ago I was talking on the telephone,  holding the receiver in my left hand,  and I started to doodle on the notepad beside the phone with the pen in my right hand.  I realized that it would have been very easy for me to learn to write with my right hand,  and with this realization came a rather shocking thought and a flood of emotion.  The thought was:  And then I'd be normal.  Up to that point I hadn't realized how much being left handed has made me feel like an oddball,  an outsider,  a weirdo.  I didn't even realize that I felt that way.  But all my life people have remarked on my left handedness,  and I suppose this is one of the things that made me feel....  different from everybody else.  (Please don't get the idea that this is still an issue with me.  I'm quite happy to be left handed,  and certainly don't mind feeling a bit.... special.  Okay,  I admit it.  I feel special. )
     When I came to China I saw that virtually all the Chinese write with their right hand.  They also use chopsticks in their right hand,  but I don't think this is as invariable as the writing.  Those Chinese who are naturally left handed were "corrected" in school,  just as I would have been if I had been born a few years earlier.  Writing Chinese characters with the right hand may be more important than for English,  because each stroke has an order and a direction,  especially when written with a brush.  But in any event,  all the Chinese seem to write right handed.  I decided that I would learn to write Chinese characters right handed as well.

     Now during our Chinese classes,  I work with a pen in both hands.  I write the Chinese characters with my right hand and the English with my left.  If I can someday learn to do both at the same time,  it will make a great party trick.

     I already have a party trick of this kind - I eat peanuts with chopsticks in each hand,  alternating to bring each peanut to my mouth.  It looks pretty silly,  but it got a good double-take from our waitress.  Certainly not as impressive as simultaneous writing would be.

Chinese Ducks say "Gā Gā" (originally posted April 30, 2008)

When I learned that Chinese ducks say "gā gā" instead of "quack",  I suddenly needed a duck and,  being the instant gratification type,  I needed a duck quick. Since I'm not a cartoonist myself,  I resorted to stealing and cloning Arthur from one of my favourite web comics,  "Sheldon",  by Dave Kellett.  
Please check it out:  http://www.sheldoncomics.com  Now I notice that the strip is marked copyright down at the bottom,  and stealing is a bad thing even if I do give Dave a plug on my site.  So I guess I'm off to ask permission and forgiveness.  If Dave objects,  I'll make my own duck,  but I can guarantee it will be inferior to Mr. Kellett's charming and whimsical creation.

And Dave Kellett was kind enough to say "Cool".

More Thoughts on learning a Language:  Mentalese

This was inspired by an email from one of my students,  asking what she should do when English words did not come to her mind as Chinese words.

Dear Jenny:

Thanks for writing, and for the kind words about my classes and website.

Jenny wrote...
But now ,I have met another problem that when I listen to English I can catch some English words and I am familiar with them even I can spell them, but I can't think their Chinese meanings at once.

My response:

     Do they have an English meaning for you? It sounds like you are trying to translate what you hear in English into Chinese. This is a mistake. Words have meanings that are separate from the language you are using.
     For example, in English I can call a vehicle we ride in a "car" or I can call it an "automobile". It doesn't matter which word I use, it's still what it is. And now if I call it a 汽车 qchē, it's still what it is. The thing hasn't changed, I've just found another word for it and that word happens to be Chinese. I don't need to translate 汽车 qchē into the English word "car" anymore than I would need to translate "automobile" into "car".

     This is what psycho-linguists (scientists who study how the brain creates language) like Stephen Pinker* call "mentalese",  the language the brain speaks before it converts an idea into a word.  In English we have many words for "horse" - pinto, stallion, gelding, thoroughbred, charger, mare, colt, steed, mount, bay, filly - and each one adds a quality to our understanding. You could use any of these words in the sentence "He jumped on his _______ and rode away in a cloud of dust." and your meaning would be instantly understood.  Each of these synonyms (words that mean the same thing as another word) translate into the mentalese concept of a "large four footed animal we can ride" 
     When we learn a language,  we should be trying to convert each word we learn directly into mentalese,  not into our mother tongue.  Of course,  starting with a conversion into our mother tongue is necessary,  unless we are being shown the concept directly.  But after we know what the word means,  we should try to strengthen it's meaning in "mentalese" and not go to the additional step of translating it into Chinese or English. 
     This is why it is helpful to point to actual objects,  like doors,  windows, trees, the road etc. as you name them in English,  and to do this as quickly as you can so that your brain has no time to convert the words into Chinese.  This also strengthens the translation into mentalese.

     If I have misunderstood your problem, and you are really telling me that the words have no meaning at all, neither in English nor in Chinese, then that is a different story. In that case you simply have to give the words meaning. The best way to do this is not to translate the word into Chinese, but to translate it into a mental picture of what it is. For example, I am reading a Chinese story right now and it includes the phrase 干农活了. Now, I can translate this into English as "did farm work" or I can try to get a picture in my mind of a farmer doing farm work. With the former, once I have translated the words into English I need to translate the English into mentalese.  With the latter, I give the phrase meaning. If I hear it, I never have to translate it in my head into English before I can understand it. It has a meaning. So if you are hearing English words and not understanding them, you need to find out what they mean and then use them over and over while trying to picture what they represent in your head, not trying to remember their Chinese equivalent.

     Of course this is easier said than done. But what I'm finding interesting is that when I really know a Chinese word, like 人, it just means what it means. It doesn't even feel like it's Chinese to me. It just feels like another word for "person". I understand it instantly. I don't need to translate it into English to understand it.

     Unfortunately I don't have a very large Chinese vocabulary yet, so this isn't happening with a lot of words. But as I learn words, and they really get fixed in my brain, I find I understand them instantly, with no translation required. That's what you need to get to with the English words you don't understand. How do you get there? By saying the word, associating it with a meaning, and visualizing what it means. Over and over.
     One thing you will find that helps with this is to try to give an emotional quality to the word. We remember words that have emotional associations more easily then words that have no emotion.  This is one reason why a parrot will often pick up taboo words.  Words that are heard spoken with great emotion are easier to remember. (Advertisers use this principle when they try to get you to have an emotional response to a commercial on television.)  I've just read an article about Crazy English,  and I think that program uses this principle too.

     The only way to get better at understanding English is to listen to it, run it through your mind, and try to give it meaning. It takes time.

>I'm not really goood at English and now I meet this problem ,so I feel distressed.Can you
> give me a hand ?I'm looking forward to your reply.Thank you very much.
I wish my Chinese was as good as your English. That would make me very happy. But every day I am making a little progress. And someday we will be able to communicate in Chinese.

Warmest regards

大大卫 Da Dawei

*I must thank our liaison here,  Jin Bo,  for introducing us to Stephen Pinker and psycholinguistics.


Puns and Mnemonics for Learning Chinese

Every once in a while I come up with a pun that really helps me remember Chinese words.  This is my latest.  The word yā can be represented with two different characters - 鸭 (yā - duck) or 压 (yā - press).  The latter is the first word in 压路机 (yā l jī - literally "press road machine",  a steam roller or road roller.)  So,  here's my 鸭路机 (yā l jī - duck road machine).

The 鸭路机 (yā l jī - duck road machine).

Okay,   Howard Tayler doesn't need to worry about competition from me.  But I will remember these four Chinese words,  and that's worth something.

More Chinese Puns

I'm not even going to try to explain this to my English speaking readers.  But hopefully my Chinese students will remember my 鸭路机 (yā l jī - duck road machine) and get my joke.

The 举猪机 (jǔ zhū jī- "Lift pig machine")

A construction crane is called a 起重机 ( qǐ zhng jī ) or a 举重机 (jǔ zhng jī ) both of which mean  "lift heavy machine".  We have recently read that fully one half of all the construction cranes in the world are at work in China.

My New Favourite Chinese Character (originally posted April 9,  2008)

Chinese characters become my favourite of the moment  for different reasons.  Sometimes it is because of their shape,  and sometimes it is because of the combination of meanings that go into making them.  My new favourite du jour is ( jiān ) the Chinese character meaning "point",  as in spear point.  It's the character for "small",  (xiǎo) above the character for "big", 大 (d).  Small over big = point.  Isn't that cute?

Chinese character xiǎo      

Chinese character d


xiǎo  (small)

 over d (big) gives us

......jiān (point)

Click here for more about seeing Chinese characters and how they work.

 Chinese Making Sense (originally posted June 2,  2008)

Here's another combination that makes sense.  The Chinese verb 暂停 (zn tng) meaning "suspend" is  made up of two characters.  暂 (zn) meaning "temporary" and 停 (tng) meaning "stop"  To temporarily stop something is to suspend it.

Chinese character zn "temporary" Chinese character tng "stop" Chinese character zn "temporary"Chinese character tng "stop"
zn "temporary" plus tng "stop" equals zn tng "suspend" (a temporary stop)

I like the way Chinese verbs are often combinations of other words.  Unlike English,  in which the word "suspend" only has it's meaning,  unless you are aware of Latin and Greek roots,  Chinese words like 暂停 (zn tng) seem to contain their own definition.   Also, I feel like I'm getting the bonus of learning three words at once.

Yet Another Chinese Pun

For my English readers: an outboard motor in Chinese is a 发动机    (fā dng jī - "deliver move machine").   But jī with the character above means "chicken".  Hence my latest mnemonic pun.

Appreciating Mosquitoes and the Critters That Eat 'em May 29,  2008

Sparkle sparkle little wenzi
On my dian wen pai*
Did you know it was the endzi
And that you would die?

Riding my bike to class this morning,  enjoying the cool clean air after yesterday's thunderstorm,  I got to thinking about the fact that there are very few mosquitoes around,  despite this campus being almost a swamp surrounded  and decussated by canals.  That got me to thinking about all the creatures that eat mosquitoes.

Here's a shortlist of creatures that eat mosquitoes:  frogs,  salamanders, geckos, dragon flies, swallows, spiders, and bats.  The dragonfly in particular is a favourite of mine because it eats mosquitoes when they,  and it,  are in the larval stage in water,  and then it follows them through their life cycle and eats them as adults.  But bats are also dear to my heart,  and of course swallows are one of the most beautiful of birds.  In Viet Nam we watched the little wall lizards snapping up mosquitoes under the porch light,  and I know whose side I'm on in that battle.  All of which lead me to thoughts about chemical companies and their solution to the mosquito problem -  kill 'em all with poison.
     You would think the connection is too obvious to miss.  If we poison all the mosquitoes,  then all the creatures that live on mosquitoes starve to death.  We develop an instant chemical dependency,  because the next year we have to poison the earth again and we've starved all our allies.  How did the chemical companies convince ANYBODY that this is a good idea.
     I remember a motor home trip with my family to Florida,  some years ago.  We were in a campsite,  about to eat lunch,  when a pickup truck came through.  It was carrying tanks of chemicals,  and blasting out stinky insecticide through shower nozzles.  The people who ran the campsite assured us that,  without the chemicals,  people would not be able to live in Florida.  And I'm sure it's true, now that they've starved all their mosquito eaters.  China is adopting so many western attitudes.  I'm sure the big chemical companies are doing their best to sell their dominate- nature-chemical-warfare paradigm in China. No doubt they too want a piece of "the huge China market" we keep hearing about. I just hope this is one import from the west that the Chinese are too smart to buy. 
     By the way,  the Reifel Reserve,  a bird sanctuary just south of Vancouver,  is all wetlands and swamp,  much like Florida.  It gets thousands of visitors every day in the summer,  and they aren't bothered by mosquitoes.  That's because of the swallow nesting boxes and bat houses that have been put up all over the reserve.  Ruth pointed out that this campus is close to mosquito free probably thanks to all the little fish that are getting fat on mosquito larvae in the canals .

*"electric mosquito racket",  a battery operated device for turning mosquito hunting into a sport.

Understandable Chinglish


     I can see how this kind of thing can happen.  In Chinese,  one of the meanings of 地 (d - earth,  land,  soil) is "earth",  but it's also the first part of the word 地板 (d bǎn - literally "earth board") meaning "floor".  Still,  with a foreign language department here,  and all the foreigners around,  I wonder why they don't run their translations past a native speaker before ordering hundreds of signs.  Unless perhaps this just came from a catalogue,  and is in hotel rooms all over China.
     Whatever the source,  I think Chinglish is part of the charm of this country,  and I hope the translations aren't corrected anytime soon.


有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎 (yǒu png zī yuǎn fāng li,b y l hū)  Have friends far distance come,  isn't that a pleasure.  Yes indeed.  



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