reduplicated relations

In Mandarin Chinese, reduplication is a very common feature. Its function is to create an informal, less direct or more cute version of a word with the same meaning. For example, 謝謝 xièxie, “thanks”, is a reduplicated xiè. However, when it comes to naming your relations, it could well be that these apparently reduplicated words came first and then got shortened, just like English “ma” and ‎“pa” are short versions of ‎“mama” and ‎“papa”.

Now mama, papa, baba, dada etc. are babble words, something that babies all over the world tend to produce without thinking about their parents and other relatives. (How on earth Finns got to use äiti and isä, is anyone’s guess. Here’s my own guess: Finnish is derived from Elvish, not the other way round, and elvish babies never babble.)

What I find interesting about Mandarin is that there are different babble words for different kinds of brothers, sisters, uncles and grandparents. Which is logical, if you think of it. For example, an older brother and a younger brother often have nothing in common. Calling them simply “brothers” is just silly.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. 爸爸 bàba dad, papa ‎“dad”
simpl.
trad. 媽媽 māma mom, mum, mama ‎“mum”
simpl. 妈妈
trad. 哥哥 gēge older brother ‎“elder brother”
simpl.
trad. 弟弟 dìdi younger brother ‎“younger brother”
simpl.
trad. 姐姐 jiějie older sister ‎“elder sister, young lady”
simpl.
trad. 妹妹 mèimei younger sister ‎“younger sister”
simpl.
trad. 舅舅 jiùjiu mother’s brother, uncle ‎“mother’s brother, uncle”
simpl.
trad. 叔叔 shūshu father’s younger brother, uncle ‎“father’s younger brother, uncle”
simpl.
trad. 奶奶 nǎinai paternal grandmother, gramma, granny ‎“milk; woman’s breasts”
simpl.
trad. 爺爺 yéye father’s father, paternal grandfather, granddad ‎“father, grandfather”
simpl. 爷爷
trad. 寶寶 bǎobǎo baby ‎“treasure, precious”
simpl. 宝宝

es chino básico

When we hear or read something incomprehensible, we say “it’s all Greek to me”. Naturally, Greeks would use different expression. In Greek, German, Dutch, French, Portuguese and many other European languages, they say “it’s all Chinese to me”. Spanish go one step further: es chino básico, “it’s basic Chinese” (implying that you probably should forget about mastering intermediate-level Chinese). But you know what? We all know a bit of Chinese. Here are ten or twelve Chinese words that you should be familiar already, even if you didn’t realise that until now.

chá: tea. Turkish çay and Russian чай are the variation on this theme. In Min Nan, the same word is pronounced as ; thanks to the Dutch East India Company, this plant and drink is known in Europe as tea. 烏龍茶 / 乌龙茶, wūlóng chá, literally “black dragon tea”, is oolong tea.

dào: a word of many meanings, among them “word”, “method”, “path”, “road”, “way”. Tao (or Dao), “The Way”, is a central concept of Taoism.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

點心

點心 / 点心 diǎnxīn (“to refresh one’s heart”, from / 点 “to light, to kindle” and “heart”): snack, light refreshment, better known in its Cantonese pronunciation, dim sum. It is customary to serve it with 茶.

風水

風水 / 风水 fēngshuǐ (from fēng “wind” and shuǐ “water”): feng shui, the art and philosophical system of harmonising everyone with the surrounding environment.

功夫

功夫 gōngfu: another word with a variety of meanings, such as “time”, “effort”, “achievement”, “art”, “skill”. In the West, kung fu is mainly used to refer to Chinese martial arts, also called 武術 / 武术 wǔshù.

荔枝

荔枝 lìzhī: lychee, Litchi chinensis. Once the delicacy at the Chinese Imperial Court, nowadays it is available in supermarkets all over the world.

麻將

麻將 / 麻将 májiàng (from 麻雀 máquè, “sparrow”): the game of mahjong, believed to be developed by nobody else but that bird lover, Confucius.

人參

人參 / 人参 rénshēn (from “man” and / 参 “root”): ginseng, so called thanks to the human-like shape of its root.

颱風

颱風 / 台风 táifēng (“big wind”): typhoon.

太極拳

太極拳 / 太极拳 tàijíquán (from 太極 / 太极 “Great Ultimate” and “fist”): the martial art and exercise system t’ai chi ch’uan. The symbol for tàijí, , is called 太極圖 / 太极图 tàijítú.

陰陽

陰陽 / 阴阳 (from / 阴, yīn “dark” and / 阳, yáng “light”): yin and yang.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

chinese ceremonies for beginners

The Russian expression без китайских церемоний (literally, without Chinese ceremonies) can be translated as “without formalities”, “simply”, “casually”, or even “bluntly”. Chinese ceremonies in question can be expanded as “tedious and unnecessary conventions; excessive display of politeness; meaningless etiquette”. In his short story Китайская церемония (1924), Mikhail Zoshchenko humorously refers to the habit of shaking hands as a Chinese ceremony, even though Chinese have nothing to do with it.

Chinese, however, see nothing wrong in being excessively polite. The more excuse mes, can I asks and pleases, the better. Instead of rather blunt 你好吗 “How are you?” (literally “You good?”), you are more likely to hear 你吃饭了没, “Have you eaten rice yet?” — because if you did, things cannot be too bad. Interestingly, the polite response to 谢谢 “thank you” is 不客气 , literally “don’t be polite”. If you are at all interested in learning Chinese, you could do worse than start with a few polite expressions.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. qǐng Please
simpl.
trad. 請問 qǐngwèn Excuse me 請 / 请 “please” + 問 / 问 “ask”
simpl. 请问
trad. 抱歉 bàoqiàn (I’m) sorry 抱 “to carry” + 歉 “apology”
simpl.
trad. 謝謝 xièxie Thank you; thanks
simpl. 谢谢
trad. 不客氣 bù kèqi You’re welcome 不 “not” + 客氣 / 客气 “polite”; literally “don’t be (so) polite”
simpl. 不客气
trad. 您好 nín hǎo Hello (formal, said to a single person) 您 “you” (formal) + 好 “good”
simpl.
trad. 你好 nǐ hǎo Hello (informal, said to a single person) 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good”
simpl.
trad. 你們好 nǐmen hǎo Hello (said to a group of people) 你們 / 你们 “you” (plural) + 好 “good”
simpl. 你们好
trad. 你好嗎? nǐ hǎo ma? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good” + 嗎 / 吗 (question tag); literally “you good?”
simpl. 你好吗?
trad. 你吃飯了沒? nǐ chīfàn le méi? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 吃 “to eat” + 飯 / 饭 “cooked rice” + 了 (perfective aspect tag) + 沒 / 沒 “have not”; literally “have you eaten cooked rice?”
simpl. 你吃饭了没?
trad. 早安 zǎo ān Good morning 早 “early” + 安 “peace”
simpl.
trad. 晚安 wǎn ān Good evening; good night 晚 “late” + 安 “peace”
simpl.
trad. 再見 zàijiàn Goodbye; see you later 再 “again” + 見 / 见 “to see / to meet”
simpl. 再见

the magic of translation

«Ba-er-za-ke». Traduit en Chinois, le nom de l’auteur français formait un mot de quatre idéogrammes. Quelle magie que la traduction! Soudain, la lourdeur des deux premières syllabes, la résonance guerrière et agressive dotée de ringardise de ce nom disparaissaient. Ces quatre caractères, très élégants, dont chacun se composait de peu de traits, s’assemblaient pour former une beauté inhabituelle, de laquelle émanait une saveur exotique, sensuelle, généreuse comme le parfum envoûtant d’un alcool conservé depuis des siècles dans une cave.

Dai Sijie, Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise

巴尔扎克

‘Ba-er-zar-ke’. Translated into Chinese, the name of the French author comprised four ideograms. The magic of translation! The ponderousness of the two syllables as well as the belligerent, somewhat old-fashioned ring of the name were quite gone, now that the four characters — very elegant, each composed of just a few strokes — banded together to create an unusual beauty, redolent with an exotic fragrance as sensual as the perfume wreathing a wine stored for centuries in a cellar.

interplay between language and thought

Although there is no correlation between writing and speech in Chinese, how we speak does affect our way of thinking. Each language builds a fence around those who speak it from birth, imprisoning our thought within its vocabulary (and grammar) unless we find a way out. Freedom is achieved by becoming familiar with a second language. This new knowledge enables us to view our first language objectively from without, creating fresh insight while further enhancing the interplay between language and thought.

Because of the diversity of each nation’s history and culture, it is debatable whether there is any such thing as a universal code of logic. Concepts are expressed by words. If certain words are absent in a second language, the exact meaning of a particular concept expressed in the vocabulary of the first language may also be non-existent in the second, ‘foreign’ country and may not hold the same relevance there.

Watching the Tree

Chinese logic is not based on subject—predicate relationships but on correlative duality. Neither subject nor predicate is necessary in a Chinese sentence. Instead of saying, ‘Milk is white, but coal is not white’, we Chinese say, ‘White milk, black coal’. On many occasions, the subject is omitted altogether. In Chinese, we cannot say, ‘It snows’. Instead, we say, ‘Drop snow’.

By dispensing with the subject, Chinese thought takes a different path. Attention is concentrated not on the nature of the ‘thing in itself’ (Kant’s ‘das Ding an sich’) but on the total relational pattern of things in general.

Two words with opposite meanings are seldom placed together side by side in English. In contrast, we Chinese frequently use antonyms to represent a concept. Some common examples are:

Opposing words Meaning Concept represented
jìntuì 退 advance/retreat movement
shàngxià above/below; up/down all about, whole body
kāiguān open/close light switch
chéngbài success/failure outcome, result
xiǎo big/small size
chángduǎn long/short situation
duōshǎo much/little how much or what
mǎimài buy/sell business or trade
bái black/white morality
Adeline Yen Mah, Watching The Tree

just some words

As I was walking through Liverpool’s Chinatown, I saw a gentleman writing Chinese characters on a pavement with brush and water. I made a little video of his writing. I have no slightest idea what it’s all about, but then and there I thought I was witnessing an essence of pure art.

Beautiful water words, quickly disappearing.