Mr Bamboo proposes

The Dowager Empress disposes.

诚惶诚恐… When it comes to proposing schedules for exams, I know that I’m wasting my time. Whatever proposal I devise, I know that it’s not going to survive; and that’s exactly what happened today. Linda phoned me this morning to say that we weren’t going to have a meeting with the Dowager Empress; but after I got to school and had been planning the timetable for the IELTS exam, I got another phone call and was informed she now wanted a meeting on that very subject.

I assumed that we’d do our exams in the second-to-last week of term. I was sort of right, but first the IELTS exam was pushed into the start of the week. I reminded the Dowager Empress about the FCE exams, which were then scheduled for the end of the preceding week. There was also the matter of the FCE speaking exams and when we’d be doing those because the IELTS speaking exams will finish at the end on the 13th (of June; I keep having to specify the month, which is dumb because there’s only one month when we’ll be doing the exams). Then the IELTS exam got pushed back again, this time to the 16th and 17th because it was concluded that the students wouldn’t put much effort into it with their school exams being nigh.[1]

In the end, it looks like we’re going to have to spend a Saturday doing the FCE speaking exams because that’s all the time we’ll have for them. If you know what conducting a speaking exam is like, you’ll know how painful doing these things for several hours can be. Your concentration soon wavers and like their writing, the students all start sounding the same. You try to focus on the assessment criteria, but can’t really judge the appropriate band score and decide to give them marks on the basis of how much the stupidity of their answers annoyed you.

The next three weeks are not going to be a bunch of fun.

Later. They could be a great deal less fun. I found this afternoon that the Dowager Empress had possibly changed things a little further by turning the whole process into exams with Chinese characteristics, viz. all IELTS and FCE exams (excluding speaking) in three days, which is exactly how Chinese exams are conducted. I would prefer to keep the two types of exam separate (it’s neat, tidy and focused) and to spread the boredom of invigilation over several days instead of three rather more intense days of dullness. The re-revised schedule isn’t set in stone yet, but apart from minor adjustments, I rather suspect we’re going to be stuck with it.

1. I predict that the more brainless and lazy specimens in Senior 2 will probably give up when they find out just how much they have to get through in each of the modules of the IELTS exam.

Advantage for examiners in the writing exam: there’s only one topic in each task (thus students can’t choose the dullest, most unimaginative topic offered). Disadvantage for examiners in the writing exam: there’s only one topic in each task (because students will write the same answer every time).


Pronouncing “Chengdu”

More opacity in pinyin.

I note that someone came here looking for how to pronounce Chengdu, but landed on my recent and obliquely related post about pinyin. Wikipedia has a fairly tho­rough guide to pinyin. If you follow that and have the pinyin (including tone marks), then you can work out the pronunciation of words in Chinese. There’s also a site called 

As for Chengdu, I have, unsurprisingly, heard so many foreigners pronounce the name as


which is obvious, but inaccurate. 

In pinyin, e+nasal here represents a high-mid back unrounded vowel

(Probably s[c]hwa would be sufficient to represent this particular segment.) The nearest equivalent in English is the low-mid back unrounded vowel

Thus, if you want to approximate the Chinese pronunciation in English, rhyme the first syllable with lung.


In pinyin, Chengdu is, with tone marks, Chéngdū and pronounced


Although the d- of the second syllable is a plain, voiceless alveolar stop for which [d] in English is usually a reasonable substitute, I found that it resulted in some confusion possibly because in this environment [d] is fully voiced and may sound affricated to Chinese ears. I found that by replacing it with [ð] (e.g. the -th- in brother), which is phonetically a voiced dental stop in English, any confusion was obviated.

It’s possible that in some parts of China, the alveolar stops are dentals.

Ridiculous behavioural quizzes

Is it rational to answer them?

When I went to The Independent earlier this afternoon, I found an article How predictably irrational are you? It’s by some American academic called Dan Ariely, and is really a plug for some book of his. Anyway, with the article comes a pop quiz from which you can find out how rational you supposedly are.

I got 24, which allegedly makes me rational. My highest marks came in the fourth question because I decided that an apparently unknown guest who gives me £10 instead of a bottle of wine is unlikely to be a good friend[1]; and the ninth question because I preferred the pencil (which has a practical function) to the money (a mere 10p and thus a sum too pathetic to pilfer).

Obviously some hack at the The Indie had nothing better to do yesterday afternoon.

1. Actually, although some people might think that it’s worth making a friend of someone who’s willing to give you money for nothing, my inclination is that this person is, in fact, an idiot for such and act, and not someone I really want as a friend. Also, if they’re getting fussed about a bottle of wine, they’re too fastidious and indecisive to be someone I’m likely to get along with. On the contrary, I’d probably find someone like that to be rather annoying.

Yet another one

[20.08.14. The following extract is from an entry I posted on the 27th of May 2008, but because that was mostly about pinyin, I transferred this section to this post. The original entry is below.]

Some ill-informed observations with respect to Chengdu.

The current post-quake issue here is the risk posed by flooding when the lakes formed by landslides might rupture the earth damming them. It’s been reported that the army is trying to do something about this to prevent flooding from adding to a catastrophe that’s probably going to cost at least 80,000 lives.

I was having a look at my copy of 成都地图册 last night. There are a couple of maps at the front of the book which show the city and its surrounding districts, which include Dujiangyan. Although one’s a district map and the other’s a travel map, they both have detailed information about the river system. Basically, across this area, most of the waterways fan out from Dujiangyan. I don’t know whether any of the dams are up beyond the town, but if there are any and they were to burst, I suspect that the irrigation system across this part of Sichuan would absorb the water, and the risk of flooding here in Chengdu is fairly low. In other words, areas local to these bodies of water are in far greater danger.

Besides, the 锦江 would have to rise about three or four metres before it’d even start spilling over the banks locally, and the greater threat to Chengdu would be the loss of its water supply. At least here in town we’ve had none of the rain that was being forecast as a potential exacerbation, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been raining up in the hills.

Those earthquake rumours in full.

Class 6 banged on about the imminence of another quake this afternoon, to which I paid little attention. Anyway, we got out of class and heard that school was officially at an end because of some earthquake rumour. You’d think they might have the decency to close the school immediately after lunch, thus sparing me wasting my life on two classes who deserve not a minute of my time.

Anyway, the usual committee was sitting around at the gate to the compound when I got back here. I don’t have any details about the where or when of the quake. I wouldn’t be surprised if the answers were “some­where” and “some time”.

We did have a brief tremor yesterday, but the optimal word is “brevity”.

Meanwhile, I see Sharon Stone has annoyed the Chinese with some dumb remarks about the quake. From a rational perspective, she’s talking a bunch of bollocks. Earthquakes are just like other natural phenomena: they happen without the slightest regard for human affairs.

Landslide dams and flooding

Well, that’s your opinyin [sic!].

Pinyin (拼音) is the romanisation of Chinese that’s currently in common use. Many, but not all street signs have both Chinese characters and pinyin transcription, which is helpful to say the least. It’s not a particularly transparent system. For example, foreigners who don’t know pinyin will no doubt pronounce 四 “four”, 是 shì “be” and 戏 “play” as


respectively, whereas they’re actually (senza tone marks)


In pinyin, the pronunciation of -i depends on the initial. Once you know the principles, there’s no problem, but the system isn’t immediately transparent.

Recently, Danwei has been publishing a series of articles by Graham Earnshaw who was the Daily Telegraph’s man in Beijing from 1980 to 1984. The latest article, The March of Pinyin English, is about the promotion of pinyin as the system of romanisation for Chinese back in the early 80s.

I remember the days when Peking suddenly became Beijing, but had no idea that only the transcription had changed. The pronunciation remained the same and the way we pronounce Peking in English is inaccurate to say the least, although it must baffle the hell out of the Chinese to hear their capital called


as if the name is French (since when?), where


is a little nearer the mark. In other words, pinyin j- as j in English, although properly speaking, pinyin j- is a plain, voiceless palatal affricate [tç].

I’m also amused and irritated by DS9. In that, the runabouts are named after rivers, one of which is the Yangtze Kiang, which is pronounced


The Chinese is 扬子江 (yángzi jiāng)


I find, although I didn’t know this before, that 开洋 (kāiyáng), which is what the mangled pronunciation of “kiang” sounds like, means “dried, shelled shrimps”.

A scene from 19th century China…

Foreign missionary: I need to get to the Yangtze Kiang.
1st Chinese person: What did the foreigner say?
2nd Chinese person: No idea. I think he’s looking for a seafood rest­aur­ant.

But you can get this stuff

Texts in characters and pinyin.
Victor Mair has written an entry for Language Log about learning how to read Chinese. I know that a lot of people approach it as a spoken language only, and I’ve read about the same sort of approach being made to Japanese. I know that while Brian can speak some Chinese, his knowledge of Chinese characters is fairly weak. I agree with Mair about learning characters as part of words rather than as isolated entities (which is what I’ve tended to do). As he says,
The solution is actually rather simple.  In the first stage of learning Chinese, use romanization only. The big problem, then, is how to make the jump from reading and writing romanized texts to reading and writing character texts.  Do not despair!  There is a reasonable, effective way out of the romanization-character dilemma, viz., phonetically annotated character texts.  Phonetic annotation of characters is the bridge that crosses the divide between romanization and characters.
But slightly further along in the entry, he says
I can’t tell you how many times during the past three decades I have begged and pleaded with publishers and pedagogs in China to produce such materials for Chinese language learners utilizing pinyin.
Well, it does happen. I have a book called 中国古代神话故事 (Zhōngguó Gǔdài Shénhuà Gùshì) which has both characters and pinyin transcription. (There are ten books in two graded series which are obviously intended for beginners.) The only issue is that no attempt is made to indicate which characters constitute words. That series of books of short stories and idioms I read recently also has full pinyin transcription, as do my books of Tang and Song Dynasty poems. It’s not that difficult to find such materials.
The first time I can recall seeing Chinese characters dates back to the early 1970s when I saw them on a box of crayons. I believe I thought they were strange and mysterious things, and wondered what they said. Their meaning was clear because I could read "Made in China", but not their pronunciation. Later, I had a copy of the original TY Chinese which had some ghastly, ill-explained system of transcription (either Wade-Giles or something similar in awfulness) and traditional characters because it’d been published long before Simplified Characters even existed. I kept the section with characters, but disposed of the rest of the book which was, in truth, pretty dreadful. It’s still buried away somewhere among my possessions.
Thus before I even got to China, I knew a few characters. I knew that Simplified Characters were used on the Mainland, but felt rather disappointed to find that 車 had become 车.
I suppose the two initial spurs to learning a few characters were menus and shop signs. Knowing what’s on a menu is a practical skill that comes in handy in small 饭店 because you’re not going to get bilingual menus in such establishments. Even if you’re not sure exactly what you’re ordering, it helps if you’ve at least got an idea of one of the contents. While menus are practical, I wanted to know what shop signs said partly to know what the shop was selling and partly because it was frustrating not being able to read the signs in the first place. I’m less bothered by such issues these days because I can often read the bit that matters or can judge what sort of shop it is from the exterior.
As for learning characters, I suppose I look for patterns in their structure. For example, I can remember 恐 (kǒng) because I can break it down into three parts – 工, 凡 and 心 in that 2- over-1 configuration. Actually, I’ve never seen 凡 (fán) before, but it reminds me of 风/凤. But in truth, 恐 isn’t a character I’m going to remember in the long term because I’m not likely to see it often enough for it to get lodged in my mind. This means or trying to remember characters depends a little on knowing radicals and a little on knowing other characters or non-characters (common patterns that aren’t found independently in Chinese).
Ultimately, you just have to remember these things. Sometimes they stick without much bother; other times they go in one eye and out the other. It doesn’t really matter how complicated they are either. A simple character isn’t necessarily always easier to remember.

I was out at the time, I guess

The latest aftershock.

It wasn’t until I saw mail messages from my parents earlier this evening and checked the Beeb website (story) just before that I learnt there’d been another strong aftershock today. The article doesn’t say what time it hit, but if it happened this afternoon, I might’ve missed it because I was out and about. Not the first time that’s happened. Nor did I notice a sudden, inexplicable increase in the number of people outside.

Today’s trip took me back to the so-called European street (桐梓林北路 Tóngzǐlín Běilù). It may be posh and expensive, but the racket the tyres of cars make on the bricks that pave the road would be intolerable.

Once again, I saw several small clusters of tents remain set up on waste ground here and there. It’ll be two weeks tomorrow since the quake. It seems ages since it happened and yet when I think of the time – a mere two weeks – it seems all too recent, and perhaps I shouldn’t expect everyone to have returned home by now. Perhaps I should also not expect all the perceptible aftershocks to have decreased in strength or to have ceased altogether.

Quake damage at school

You missed a bit.
I spotted another couple of instances of quake damage at school this afternoon. One was really obvious, but I’ve been completely missing it every day; the other seems to have been missed by everyone. The first is the decoration that was on the ridge of the roof of the main gate. I noticed that it’d crumbled as I was leaving school this afternoon.
damage003 damage004
I think that when I took the picture from which the second image comes, I said to myself that I’d get a better one some time. Unless they replace the decoration, all I’ll be getting is the picture on the left.
I was going back into the main building via the south stairs when I spotted this lump of plaster sitting on a window sill just next to the door. The second picture shows where it came from. Luckily, because this is the unfashionable end of the building, it’s unlikely many people would’ve left that way when the quake struck.
damage001 damage002

Time for trivia

It was a day much like any other.

I’ve been informed that we’ve had a couple more aftershocks in the past twenty-four hours, but I haven’t noticed a thing. There were some people outside the school gate today selling cuddly toys probably to make money to help the victims of the quake, and we’ve had the occasional convoy of ambulances passing by. Work is continuing in the affected area, but the more time that passes, the less likely it is for survivors to be found in the rubble. The official death toll has now passed 50,000, and could be up to 80,000 since nearly 30,000 are still missing.

For most of us, life seems to be back to normal. There are some, though, who are still camping out in tents. I wonder how long it’ll be before they pack them away and head home.

It was Quincy’s turn to take the IELTS class for their IELTS lesson today, which meant that I was saddled with the GE class. Class 6 were actually all right mainly because the biggest nuisances in the class were absent. The curious thing is that we’ve suddenly got kids who are applying to go overseas, although they’ve never said anything to us and most have never treated our classes as if they’re an opportunity to experience real, live native speaker English. One of the kids in Class 6 has disappeared, but I’m not sure it’s quake-related. It wouldn’t be the first time that no one’s informed us of the departure of one of our little darlings.

Class 5 was another matter. For some reason, they were late. Linda had come up to observe the classes and told them off in Chinese, after which they were reasonably well-behaved. Actually, I was very tempted to grab one of the dimmer bulbs in the class who was talking while Linda was talking, bang his head against the desk until one of them broke, and then claim it was earthquake damage. It makes a difference when you can admonish them in Chinese. I could do it in English, but you may as well breathe irately for all the good a verbal tongue lashing would achieve.

Quincy has just about had enough of the GE halves of our classes. As long-term readers will be aware, it gets to a point where enough is enough and you can no longer maintain the pretence that the little buggers are behaving and working satisfactorily. Compared with kids I’ve taught elsewhere in the programme, the ones here are slightly less stupid than they are lazy, although obviously there’s the usual range of inclinations. Or disinclinations.

We consoled ourselves afterwards with some DVD shopping, although there’s not really much worth getting at the moment. Quincy said he didn’t buy anything he had any great desire to watch, which is a milestone I passed long ago in China. I did grab a copy of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which I haven’t seen since it finished. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s still watchable or whether it no longer has the same resonance it did for me back in the day. I’m going to have to wade through a lot of crap, though, because it wasn’t until the Dominion reared its ugly head that the series got into its stride.

And then it was off to Zoe’s for lunch, where I had a chicken burger with feta cheese. It was a fat burger out of which everything kept slipping. Unlike the other night when I was almost the only customer, the place was quite busy.

sadpowder Let’s finish this trivial post with some Chinglish. I spotted this sign when I was on my adventures on Sunday. Linda tells me that it’s meant to mean the food is so spicy that it makes you cry or, at least, tears stream from your eyes.

Words for “statue”

And the peculiarities of dictionaries.
I got thinking about the word for "statue" in Chinese at lunchtime and found three translations:
雕像 diāoxiàng
塑像 sùxiàng
铸像 zhùxiàng
The first would appear to be used of statues carved from stone; the second those sculpted from clay; and the third those cast from metal. The odd thing is that while 雕像 and 塑像 are mentioned in both the English and Chinese sections of my bilingual dictionaries, 铸像 is only to be found in the English section of them and doesn’t even get mentioned in my New Age dictionary. It gets a mere 48700 hits in Baidu compared with 7.88 million for 雕像 and 4.82 million for 塑像. Perhaps 铸像 are less common than the other types or perhaps there’s some other word for metal statues in the same way we might talk about "bronzes" in English.[1]
I’ve found such situations with other bilingual dictionaries I’ve owned in the past. I look up a word in English, but want to cross check it to make sure that I understand the sense correctly. Instead, I find no such term. And since most of the dictionaries I’ve owned tend to be the pocket variety, they often omit additional information which might inform that the word in question is actually literary or obsolete.
I also note that the pictorial dictionary omits any mention of statues at all, although the section on artifacts has 俑 yǒng which were grave goods.
1. Of course, the list omits one obvious material – wood –, but I can find no specific word for such an item.
Later. Via another source, I found the word 造像 zàoxiàng, which also means "statue". It’s in the Chinese section of my FLTRP dictionary, but in none of the others, including my big New Age dictionary. That, just to annoy me, yields 石膏像 shígāo xiàng "plastic statue", although 石膏 means "gypsum; plaster stone".