Tag Archives: Chinese characters

The Chinese Characters Dictation Competition Is a Test Few Could Pass – WSJ.com

The Chinese Characters Dictation Competition Is a Test Few Could Pass – WSJ.com.

Linda and I watched this programme when we were in Shanghai as a bunch of (junior?) middle school students were tortured with various characters.

The particular word for “toad” given on the page is not in my big dictionary. That gives 癞哈蟆 (làiháma; with 癞虾蟆 given as a variant), but when I type the characters in, I get 癞蛤蟆, which, ignoring the final character, is the expected word in the programme.

This very much looks like a matter of contrary orthography so that the word which is given in the programme is no more correct than any of the others. The first character, 癞, means “leprosy” while 蛤 means “clam”, and 虾 (here pronounced há) appears to be a bound morpheme in this case, otherwise being xiā, the word for “shrimp”, which is much more familiar to me.

It’s a pity that I don’t have an etymological dictionary of Chinese because I’m also wondering whether this word has been borrowed from another language.


So the foreigner really did make a mistake

The quirks of the imperial mafia.

Well, as we all know, Gu Kailai got away with murder as the punters ex­pected she probably would. Much as I deplore the culture of whacking people in this country, it would seem that premeditated murder should have got Gu dragged off to some distant field and her brains splattered all over it. As for the defence, I’d assume that Neil Heywood as an Old China Hand would’ve known better than to threaten anyone in Bo Xilai’s family. Will we ever know the truth or come close to it?

Meanwhile all those fat little Asian babies continue their infantile squab­bles about some rocks in the South China Sea. It seems to me that none of them have any clear and unequivocal claim to this particular piece of water since, I expect, they will’ve all been criss-crossing it for centuries.

I’ve been reading stories about some foreigner in Zhengzhou nearly caus­ing a riot by allegedly slapping and spitting on some Chinese woman for bumping into his car. No details about the man himself, but foreigners driving cars here are relatively rare, and in all my time in the Empire, I can only recall ever having seen one, which was in Tiananmen Square in Bei­jing not too long after I arrived. As for his behaviour, if he did indeed assault the woman, he was asking for trouble.

According to the LA Times, there have been changes to the requirements for tourist visas for China. The one which has me scratching my head is the “letter of invitation”, which, the article says, should come from a duly authorised tourism unit. It sounds like the Empire is trying to force tourists to go on package tours rather than just turn up and wander about where they please: more stage management to keep people away from the warts? It would appear to make it difficult for foreigners principally coming here to visit family members or friends. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the im­ple­mentation of these new rules and regulations is haphazard, though. Back in 2005, the Chinese Embassy in London proved to be a monstrous pain in the arse for me because they were still working on the old system after a new one had been introduced.

I know what I’ve been saying

Well, I’ve been saying it wrong.

Having spent many occasions trundling into Beijing on the 938 from Tongzhou (通州) during my first three years in the Empire, I got rather familiar with the character 贸 (mào), which means “trade, commerce, exchange of goods”, because I’d get off the bus outside 国贸 and switch to the Metro. The stop there was actually hugely long and more like a roadside bus station. When it was really busy, there would be several thousand people there all charging for the buses and suffering the consequences of the usual lack of consideration for each other. There were the vendors alongside the stops all announcing, “闻报, 闻报! 北京闻报!”, and I eventually realised these were the cries of the newspaper sellers. I can still hear the voice of the old woman who would sit outside the entrance to the Metro station quite clearly in my mind.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m here in Wuxi. I can remember 贸, and roughly what it looks like. I’ve always associated it with something commercial, and when I encountered the Far Eastern Department Store, I saw 贸 again in the title. As it turns out, I misread the character. The name of the place is 远东百货, and it is this final character which I’ve been muddling up with 贸, not just in Wuxi, but everywhere in the Empire for the past nine years.

百货 (bǎihuò) means “general merchandise”, and it would explain why 百贸 is not a collocation when I type it out.


6:11 out

2:45 in.

I bought myself a stopwatch the other day because I was curious how long it takes me to get from one place to another round here so that I can then calculate my average speed. From outside this building, it took me 6:11 to get to the 红豆 Building, including stops (two sets of lights) and various impediments. From the 红豆 Building, it took me 2:45 to get back to the lane to the side gate because I wasn’t delayed crossing the road and because I’m able to go through the intersections on the return leg without needing to worry about the lights.

That’s about 915m, which means I was doing an average of 5.54m/sec (about 20kph), which is a little slow for me.

I see the lane that runs between the 红豆 Building and the Knightsbridge Department Store is called 道长巷 (Dào Cháng Xiàng) and the one it intersects, where the Provençal restaurant is, is called 永定巷 (Yǒng Dìng Xiàng). There’s an old building there next to the Knightsbridge Department Store, which has somehow survived. Where it faces onto 县前街, there are shops, but round behind there’s a door in a wall. I’d guess from the names of the alleys (the former means “the Way [is] long”, and the latter means “eternal calm”) that it is (or was) a Daoist temple.

I’ve also learnt something else. I’ve seen the character 定 a fair few times, but because of it’s similarity to 走 (zǒu) “walk, go follow”, I’ve assumed that it had something to do with walking and was probably pronounced in the same way. Of course, it’s more proof (which I don’t need) that Chinese characters are utterly opaque.

Thus I conclude that buying a stopwatch is ultimately educational because I’ve learnt of the existence (I think) of an old Daoist temple and the actual meaning and pronunciation of a character I’ve long assumed to have guessed the meaning of.

Not all learning is good, though. I’ve learnt that you can search WordPress to a point (it sometimes does odd things), but you can’t even get onto the Tags page. I wonder which bunch of drooling halfwits I can blame for always finding some way ruining the Internet just that little bit more and making life in this prison even worse. Bastards.

I’m so clever, oh so clever

And will no doubt do something really dumb in the not too distant future.

pìtī "grebe"In his latest translation, Chris was having problems with a couple of bird names. One he managed to identify as a Northern Eagle Owl, but the other was being more troublesome because the characters weren’t showing up. I couldn’t find the creature in my big dictionary, but my character dictionary yielded the answer: the bird in question is a pìtī grebe. 

I was having no problems seeing the characters, but I was having problems finding them in the CJK character set. They weren’t to be found in charmap under the option of simplified Chinese by pinyin or under Chinese characters by radical. I checked using Babelmap and then started poking around in the Extension B block, which I knew to be quite extensive. Not having had any luck there, I turned my attention to the Extension A block, and there they were right next to each other. Their Unicode hex numbers are x4d18 (䴘) and x4d19 (䴙). 

If you’ll forgive me for saying so, 䴘 seems to be a rare bird and is probably a bound morpheme because my character dictionary pointed me straight to the first character. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that while people know what a pìtī is, they night not know the characters for it.

I must admit that since I have no idea what a grebe looks like, one could bite me on the arse and I’d be none the wiser of the identity of the culprit. My Concise Dictionary of English Etymology gives “F. grèbe, of unkn. orig.” Skeat, on the other hand, claims that it comes from Breton krib comb, kriben a tuft of feathers on a bird’s head, but I’ll assume his information is antiquated.

Characters as emoticons

Mr Unhappy Face.

I haven’t been to Sinosplice for some time, but I found this interesting entry (source article here) about the character 囧 (jiǒng) which originally meant “bright”, but is used to mean “sad and frustrated”. That seems quite apt after the past couple of days.

The character itself seems to have been rescued from obscurity. My big dictionary has 炯 “bright; shining”, but lists it as literary. My character dictionary includes 冏 (also literary), which is not included in the set of simplified characters.

Meanwhile, when I was heading home yesterday, I noticed a bus which had something like “Chengdu like automobile” across the side. My eyes flicked to the Chinese to see whether that might be a little more enlightening, but I noted instead that that included 来克 (láikè). I must keep an eye out for this particular advertisement, but assume that 来克 is probably meant to be read as English “like”.

The temperature’s dropping

It’s not even stopping.

This has to be the coldest day I’ve experienced in Hong Kong.If you breathe a little hard, you can see your breath. I was thinking when I went out this afternoon that I should’ve worn my gloves as well. All right, so that’s a little extreme, but it’s not far off being the sort of temperature at which you’d be wanting to wear gloves.

In unrelated news, there was an article on the back page of yesterday’s SCMP about the UN switching to simplified characters for Chinese. That small part of the Chinese-speaking world that still commonly uses traditional characters are all upset. Simplified characters are used by a far larger number of people than traditional ones, and they’re solely confined to the Mainland these days. Of course, the UN’s decision to switch doesn’t prevent people in Hong Kong or Taiwan from continuing to use traditional characters.

There have been a few times when the subs on DVDs I’ve shown have traditional characters. I’ve asked my pupils if they have any problems understanding them, but they don’t even although they are the nth gener­ation to have been taught simplified ones. Sometimes the simplified char­acter is probably obvious, and other times it can be determined from con­text. There might be a few occasions when it might not be obvious, but I don’t think traditional characters on the Mainland probably pose a sig­ni­fic­ant obstacle to the younger generation.

However, this is the modern language I’m talking about. I wonder how much Chinese from 500 or 1000 years ago, simplified characters or not, is genuinely intelligible without explanatory footnotes. Your average speaker of English would not be able to understand a text from 1008 and one from 1508 would only be partially comprehensible, although it might seem to be modern English – of a sort.

On the back page of today’s SCMP, there’s an article about that perennial pain in the posterior, Internet censorship in China. It says

Many, in fact, seem only vaguely aware that China’s internet universe is carefully pruned, and even among those who know, most hardly seem to care.

Those of you who are regular readers will recall that I and others have made the observation that Internet censorship in China is a bigger nuisance for foreigners than it is for the Chinese. And it’s not that we give that much of a damn about all those things that get Nanny hot and sweaty [I assume you aren’t referring to sex toys. –ed.], but rather that much that’s irrelevant to China gets blocked in the process (e.g. blogspot and other blog providers; harmless sites such as Omniglot).

That’s what you are

And you weren’t what I thought you were.

As I’ve mentioned in past entries, I’ll often keep seeing the same character over and over again. While I was in Hong Kong, the character in question was 會 (会) huì “may, can”. The verb expresses possibility (明天会下雨 It may rain tomorrow) or ability based on knowledge (她会说中文 She can speak Chinese).

I kept seeing 锺 “concentrate” or 鐘 “bell; clock” (钟) zhōng. I think I mostly saw the latter, but I think on the sign above the shop opposite the lane from Alison’s place it had 鐘山.


But probably for the wrong reasons.

While we’re talking about linguistics, I’m reminded of a chance discovery just recently. I was talking to Linda about 隶书 (lìshū) style writing. Linda, as I think I observed in an earlier entry, pronounced lì as dì, which I took to be the Sichuan pronunciation. But I was going through the Chinese characters in charmap and found that 隶 is also listed with the set of characters pronounced di. None of my dictionaries mentions dì as an alternative pronunciation for 隶.

I should also mention this post by Matt Schiavenza (care of bezdomny ex patria), a former teacher in our programme who is now studying Chinese. I note in particular the observation that if you know 3,000 characters you can read a newspaper. I know about 300 characters and like Matt I can, on occasion, read all the characters in a sentence yet not make sense of what I’m reading. That may be in part because I only know the prototypical sense of the character, and in part because I know, say, 新, 眼, and 儿, but I don’t know that 新眼儿 (xīnyǎnr) means variously “heart; mind” or “intention” or “intelligence”. I’d be wondering what all this “new eye(s)” business was about because that’s how I’d read these characters.

In other words, you’re better off learning 3,000 words. I have a book called 500 Basic Chinese Characters A Speedy Elementary Course which I bought from the Foreign Languages Bookshop in Beijing a few years ago. Yes, it gives you 500 characters, but it also gives you lists of words in which they’re used. For example

  • 新 (xīn) new; newly (adj./adv.)
  • 新房 (xīnfáng) n. wedding room
  • 新婚 (xīnhūn) n. newly-married (surely an adjective: e.g. 新婚夫妇 “newly-married couple”; the book is riddled with these sorts of errors.)
  • 新居 (xīnjū) n. new residence
  • 新郎 (xīnláng) n. groom
  • 新年 (xīnnián) n. New Year
  • 新娘 (xīnniáng) n. bride
  • 新闻 (xīnwén) n. news
  • 新鲜 (xīnxiān) adj. fresh
  • 重新 (chóngxīn) adv. again; anew
  • 创新 (chuàngxīn) v. create
  • 革新 (géxīn) v. reform
  • 清新 (qīngxīn) adj. fresh; pure and fresh
  • 新加坡 (Xīnjiāpō) n. Singapore

In other words, that’s the sort of list I should be learning rather than just individual characters. On the other hand, it still suffers from de­con­text­ual­isation. 新鲜 and 清新 might both mean “fresh”, but what’s the domain of their usage? Could I say 新鲜的鱼 and 清新的鱼, or would one merely elicit giggles? (I suspect the latter if these words aren’t freely inter­changeable. A fresh fish is one thing, but a fresh face is another. Again, the book raises quite a lot of questions like these.)

Don’t tell me. You’re, um…

Forgettable character No. 978.

There are some characters which seem instantly forgettable. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, the only trace of it that remains in your memory is that you’ve seen it before. It might’ve been five minutes ago, but it’s gone.

My current nemesis is 求 (qiú) “ask, beg”, which I keep seeing and keep instantly forgetting. I think the problem is that it’s like 球 (qiú) “ball”, which I do know, although rather fear that I’m about to start doubting that I know it at all because the two are so similar.

On the other hand, I walked into the kitchen yesterday or the day before and realised that I could read the name of the washing-up liquid, which is called 采奇 (cǎiqí). What word that’s meant to be (i.e., it’s a foreign word), I can’t tell. The Chinese is literally “pick strange”. A Google search actually gets 5 million hits for this collocation, although it’ll always be followed by some other word. I noticed quite a number of instances of 采奇石, which seem to take you to sites about odd-shaped rocks.

27.07.07 求 has a friend, 课 (kè) “class, lesson”, who keeps appearing and who I keep forgetting.

07.06.14. Seven years later and I still can’t remember this character. It’s found in quite a wide range of words such as 求爱 [qiú’ài] (vb) “court (a girl)”, 求婚 [qiúhūn] and 求亲 [qiúqīn] (vb) “propose marriage”, and 求救 [qiújiù] and 求人 [qiúrén] (vb) “ask for help”.