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Introduction to Seeing Chinese Characters
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
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 (wàn huā tǒng) Which translates literally as "ten thousand flower tube". Now, isn't this a more evocative name than "kaleidoscope"?
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
If you fathom something,
you have come to appreciate its depth. Another hidden metaphor
in our language.
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:
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:
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.
Not having heard from Simon I did look up 久 仰, 久 仰 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lù jī - literally "press road machine", a steam roller or road roller.) So, here's my 鸭路机 (yā lù 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.
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 lù jī - duck road machine) and get my joke.
A construction crane is called a 起重机 ( qǐ zhòng jī ) or a 举重机 (jǔ zhòng 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
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 尖 ( jiān ) the Chinese character meaning "point", as in spear point. It's the character for "small", 小 (xiǎo) above the character for "big", 大 (dà). Small over big = point. Isn't that cute?
Click here for more about seeing Chinese characters and how they work.
Sense (originally posted
Here's another combination that makes sense. The Chinese verb 暂停 (zàn tíng) meaning "suspend" is made up of two characters. 暂 (zàn) meaning "temporary" and 停 (tíng) meaning "stop" To temporarily stop something is to suspend it.
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 (zàn tíng) 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
Appreciating Mosquitoes and the Critters That Eat 'em May 29, 2008
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.
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.
*"electric mosquito racket", a battery operated device for turning mosquito hunting into a sport.
see how this kind of thing can happen. In Chinese, one of the
meanings of 地 (dì - earth, land, soil) is "earth", but it's
also the first part of the word 地板 (dì 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.
有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎 (yǒu péng zī yuǎn fāng lái，bú yì lè hū) Have friends far distance come, isn't that a pleasure. Yes indeed.
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