The final post in our weekly series on the ten most important languages for the UK’s future, as identified by the British Council’s Languages for the Future report, is about Mandarin Chinese. Here, the British Council’s Asmaa Ibrahim explains the characters, tonal differences, and sound similarities that make the language so fascinating.
Chinese characters are numerous and beautiful
Learning Chinese is not as hard as you might think. Chinese grammar is surprisingly straightforward, with none of the tenses, plurals, cases or genders that can make learning European languages difficult.
The most intimidating, but also potentially most fun and rewarding aspect of learning the language, is mastering how to write. Chinese script is made up of a system of symbols, or characters. These characters are visually beautiful and often poetic, and can give the learner a useful insight into the Chinese mind. However, unlike an alphabet, which represents only sounds, each Chinese character has a unique meaning.
It started with pictures. The earliest Chinese characters were what we call pictographs. Many of these are still in use today in simplified, stylised forms, such as 火 [huǒ] (fire) ,山 [shān] (mountain), and 日 [rì] (sun). Although it may be difficult to see at first glance how the character 日 resembles the sun, we can see how it has evolved over time into its present form by looking at the more ancient form, which was a circle with a dot in the centre. That evolved to an oval with a horizontal line through the centre, and ultimately developed into the present day character 日.
The sheer number of characters can be overwhelming for a new learner — there are more than 20,000 of them, and some large dictionaries have more than 50,000 characters — so you should be prepared for a long learning journey. To read a Chinese newspaper, you’ll need to memorise more than 3,000 characters. A university-educated Chinese person will normally know between 6,000 and 8,000 characters.
This might seem like a huge challenge. But knowing how to read and write Chinese characters has benefits that extend beyond being able to communicate in Mandarin Chinese. It will also help you pick up written Japanese more quickly, since Japanese uses a large number of characters with exactly the same meaning, although the pronunciation and grammar are completely different.
Different tones indicate different meanings
Mandarin is a tonal language, which means the pitch or intonation in which a sound is spoken affects the meaning. For example, if you say tāng with a high tone it means ‘soup’, but táng with a rising tone means ‘sugar’. In Mandarin Chinese, there are four basic pitched tones and a fifth neutral (toneless) tone.
The official transcription system for learning how to pronounce Chinese tones is the Pinyin alphabet, which was developed in China at the end of the 1950s. This phonetic system transcribes the Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet, and includes marks above the vowels to indicate tone.
You can tell which tone to give a syllable from the diacritic marks above the vowels in pinyin, as below:
First: dā – high and level
Second: dá – starts medium in tone, then rises to the top
Third: dǎ – starts low, dips to the bottom, then rises toward the top
Fourth: dà – starts at the top, then falls sharp and strong to the bottom
Neutral: da – flat, with no emphasis.
In Chinese, if you get the intonation of a word wrong, you might end up saying the wrong thing. For example, ‘wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ’, means ’I want to ask you’. Simple enough! But if you were to say ‘wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ’, it would mean ’I want to kiss you’!
Unlike English, Mandarin Chinese doesn’t conjugate verbs by tense
Western languages such as English have several ways to express tense. The most common are verb conjunctions which change the form of the verb, depending on the time frame. For example, the English verb ‘eat’ can be changed to ‘ate’ for past actions, and ‘eating’ for current actions.
In contrast, Mandarin Chinese does not have any verb conjugations, nor subject-verb agreement. All verbs have just one single form. For example, the verb 吃 (chī – to eat), can be used for the past, present, and future. Despite this, there are other ways to express tense in Mandarin Chinese. The simplest way is to simply state the time expressions as part of the sentence, as in the example below, where they are highlighted in bold:
Wǒ zuótiān zài shítáng chīfàn le.
Yesterday, I ate in the canteen.
Once the timeframe is established, it is understood and can be omitted from the rest of the conversation. There are other ways to express time and tense — this is just one of them.
This sometimes leads to misunderstandings: when talking to a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, Westerners may get confused with the lack of continuous precision. But this confusion arises from the comparison between English (and other Western languages) and Mandarin Chinese. Once a timeframe has been established in Mandarin Chinese, there is no longer any need for precision, so sentences can be constructed in simple forms without verb endings or other qualifiers.
No plural nouns and pronouns, and no comparative or superlative adjectives
There is no plural form for nouns and pronouns. To form a plural, you just add certain characters (e.g. 们, mén). For example, ‘I learn Chinese’ – 我学中文；’We learn Chinese’ – 我们学中文
There is also no comparative or superlative form for adjectives (as in English, when ‘small’ becomes ‘smaller’, ‘smallest’), so you don’t need to worry about changing the adjective in those instances. To express those concepts, you just use additional characters.
For example: small – 小的；smaller – 较小的
Some Chinese phrases don’t translate directly into English
In Chinese, if you want to ask someone ‘how’s it going?’ or ‘how are you?’, you would say 你吃饭了吗？or Nǐ chīfàn le ma? This means literally, ‘have you eaten?’
The Chinese equivalent of the polite French phrase ‘bon appétit’ or its English equivalent, ‘enjoy your meal’ is 慢慢吃。or Màn man chī, meaning literally ‘eat slowly’.
And if you wanted to say goodbye to somebody as they left your house, or a hotel or restaurant, you would say 慢走。or Màn zǒu. The equivalent phrase in English is ‘take care’ or ‘have a good day’, but its literal meaning is ‘walk slowly’.
The meaning of names in Chinese is very important
Looking at Chinese names is a good way to highlight the way Chinese language and culture are intertwined. In societies such as China, where family and relationships with the community are more important than the individual, the family name is said first. People are identifying with the values that they were taught as a child, prior to identifying who they are individually.
Chinese people also place great emphasis on titles. For example, if your Chinese teacher is a Mrs Wang, you should call her by her title Wang Lǎoshī, meaning Teacher Wang. Doctors are Yīshēng and masters of other crafts are Shīfu. More commonly, you’ll hear Xiānsheng (Mr) and Nǚshì (Ms) after people’s surnames.
Because Chinese uses characters rather than an alphabet, names cannot be directly translated from English to Chinese. However, you can choose Chinese characters that approximate the English pronunciation. Chinese names generally have three characters. The surname, which is usually one character, comes first. Next are one or two characters which are chosen by the parents (or the grandparents in traditional Chinese culture). Therefore, Wei (伟) of the Zhang (张) family is called ‘Zhang Wei’ and not ‘Wei Zhang’.
There are relatively few Chinese surnames: ‘Wang’ (王) is the most common Chinese surname, shared by about 130 million Chinese (or 9.9 per cent of China’s population). The next most common are: Li (李), Zhang (张/張) and Liu (刘/劉).
However, given names can theoretically include any of the Chinese language’s 100,000 characters and contain almost any meaning. It is not uncommon for Chinese children to be given names of common events and popular slogans, such as ‘Defend China’, ‘Build the Nation’ and ‘Space Travel’. There are 290,798 registered ‘Civilizations’, and more than 4,000 Chinese children are named Aoyun, meaning ‘Olympic Games’, according to Chinese officials in charge of identity cards.
Choosing a Chinese name depends on various factors
Perhaps the most important factor when choosing a name in Chinese culture is the meaning. There are thousands of characters and any different combination of them can yield completely different meanings. For example, if you told a Chinese person that ‘kind, graceful, pleasant and happy’ is the kind of personality you would wish for your son or daughter, and wanted their name to reflect that, she’d say: “Well, according to these four qualities I could get hundreds of combinations.”
Many characters are pronounced the same, but have different meanings
The second thing Chinese parents take into account is pronunciation. Chinese has a lot of homophones. These are characters that are written differently, but pronounced the same way (something like ‘new’ and ‘knew’ in English). This can lead to a lot of weird pronunciations, despite the characters looking good in written form. Say that a man’s family name is 楊 (Yáng) and his parents give him a one character name 偉 (Wěi). His name 楊偉 would literally mean ‘Great Yang’. However, the pronunciation of 楊偉 is exactly the same as 陽痿 (yángwěi) which means ‘impotence’. So before you decide your baby’s name, not only do you have to consider the meaning of the characters, but you also have to check the pronunciation of the whole name, and make sure that there are no odd homophones that could cause embarrassment to your child in the future.
Chinese names are also related to cultural beliefs
Some Chinese people believe that the number of strokes used to draw the characters in a name can affect the good fortune of a person. So once you have finished picking characters and made sure the name has a good meaning and no weird homophones, you then have to check the stroke number, to make sure it’s a lucky one.
To deal with all these considerations, some people consult fortune tellers to help pick a suitable name for their child. This is based on the belief that the time you’re born affects your destiny or 八字 (bāzì), commonly translated as Four Pillars of Destiny in English. Bazi is calculated based on your year, month, day and hour of birth. It’s a very old system that was developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Certain bazi go well with certain names, so people would often go to fortune tellers for advice.
This can lead to a lot of people having the same name. A friend once told me that in her generation, the most popular name for girls was 怡君 (Yi-chun). She once wanted to help her classmate to check her national exam scores online, and started to search for her friend’s name 陳怡君 (Chen Yi-chun). Guess what? She got hundreds of results, and couldn’t figure out which one was her classmate. That’s because 怡君 was the most popular girl’s name at that time and 陳 (Chen) is already the most common family name in Taiwan. It was a bit like someone from the UK searching for a Jane Smith. They call these common names ‘day market names’, because if you go to a market and call one of these names, several people would turn around.
Some people who receive these more common names end up choosing another name for themselves when they grow up. The Chinese script has thousands of characters, and many Chinese people prefer unique and special names. In 2007, a Chinese couple seeking a distinctive name for their child settled on the e-mail ‘at’ symbol (@), saying that it sounded like ‘love him’ to speakers of Mandarin.
The names of countries in Chinese also have interesting meanings
The Chinese name for ‘China’ is ‘Zhong Guo’, which translates as ‘Central Nation’ or ‘Middle Kingdom’, reflecting their ancient world view that China was at the centre of the world. Zhong Guo, which is still used today, was first used almost 3,000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (1066-771 BC).
Chinese names for other countries were mostly derived by phonetically translating the Western names into similar-sounding Chinese characters, with some interesting results. Some Chinese names are flattering, such as America (美国 Mei Guo or ‘Beautiful Country’) and England (英 国, Ying Guo or ‘Hero Country’). Some names are translated literally or descriptively, including Iceland (Bing Dao or ‘Ice Island’) and Montenegro (Hei Shan or ‘Black Mountain’). The Chinese name for Japan (Ri Ben, 日本) is similar to the meaning of the Japanese name for the country, ‘Nippon’, which means the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ (as shown on the Japanese flag by the symbol of a red sun).
In Chinese, the sound of words may have positive or negative associations
The number eight is the luckiest Chinese number because it sounds like the word for ‘wealth’. 88 is considered particularly lucky because it symbolised the ‘double happiness’ characters. By contrast, the number four is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word for ‘death’. Many numbered product lines skip the four: e.g., Nokia cell phones (there is no series beginning with a 4). In Hong Kong, some high-rise residential buildings omit all floor numbers with a ‘four’, including 14, 24, 34 and all 40–49 floors.
Certain gifts are also traditionally avoided because of unfortunate homophony. For example, you’d be unlikely to receive pears (梨, lí) as a present in China, because they sound like separation (离, lí). And giving a clock (送钟, sòng zhōng) is taboo, especially to elderly people, as it sounds like the phrase meaning to attend another’s funeral (送终, sòng zhōng).
There are also lots of traditions associated with Chinese New Year, known in China as Spring Festival, that are derived from puns on Mandarin words. For example, the phrase Nián nián yǒu yú - 年年有余, meaning ‘there will be an abundance every year’ sounds the same as 年年有鱼 or ‘there will be fish every year’. As a result, fish is eaten and used as common decoration during Chinese New Year. And the first meal of the new year traditionally includes lettuce, (生菜, shēngcài) because the word sounds very similar to ‘生財’ (shēng cái), meaning ‘to make money’.
Homophony affects the way Chinese speakers text and write online, too
Just like English speakers, Mandarin Chinese speakers often shorten words and phrases when sending text messages or chatting online. Some conventional abbreviations for commonly used words are based on letter or number combinations that look the same as certain Chinese characters.
For example, the number 88 looks very similar to 白白 ‘báibái’, which is pronounced similarly to 拜拜 ‘bàibài’, the Chinese loan word for ‘bye-bye’. This is reinforced by the similar pronunciation of the word for eight as ‘bā.’ It has therefore become a common way of saying ‘see you later’ when leaving a conversation in a text message exchange. Another example is 3Q ( pronounced /sæn kʰju/) . The number 3 is pronounced as ‘sān’ in Mandarin, so this combination sounds like ‘thank you’ (/θæŋk.ju/) and is used as such.