After spending the weekend with my family for the Chinese New Year, I got to thinking about some of the little quirks of the Chinese language. And being that I have at least one friend enrolled in the Chinese individual study course for next quarter, I thought I’d share some things you may or may not have known about me, the Chinese culture and the Chinese language.
My family is Taiwanese. It’s a tiny little island east of China. You will sometimes see it written as Taiwan, R.O.C. (Republic of China) or just Taiwan. It depends on who is writing it. Taiwan declared its independence from China in 1949 when the Nationalists fled mainland China after losing to the Communist Party. China, however, does not recognize said independence. It’s like if the U.S. and Britain never had the Revolutionary War. China still maintains that Taiwan is a part of China, and has even blocked Taiwan from having representation in the United Nations.
Taiwan was once settled by the Portuguese, hence its former name of Formosa. As was Japan, which lead to the very popular Japanese dish of tempura or deep-fried, battered vegetables and meat.
The region of China where the Taiwanese first came from was once settled by Arabs and Jews, and if you go back far enough in my family tree, you can actually find a Jewish and Arab ancestor. Taiwan also has its own group of indigenous, aboriginal peoples. The chanting track in the background of Enigma’s popular song, “Return To Innocence” was actually performed by the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan.
The Chinese language has one written form which can be written in either the traditional form or the now more popular simplified format. Mainland China uses the simplified format more often now, while Taiwan maintains use of the traditional format. It is said that you need to know approximately 3500 individual Chinese characters to read the newspaper.
The Chinese language is iconographic, meaning that each character and its meaning was originally depicted graphically. For instance, the character “guo” or country, originally was drawn to depict a wall around the region, a mouth to depict the people of the region, and a spear to defend them. The character for “person” looks like a person walking.
Although I can speak fluently, I never had a formal education aside from my Chinese school classes I attended on Sundays until the age of 10. Because of this, my vocabulary is somewhat limited and my sisters and I employ “Chinglish,” a mixture of Chinese and English where English words are substituted for those we don’t know in Mandarin. Listen in on one of my phone conversations sometimes. It is impressive, confusing and hilarious at the same time.
Also because of my lack of education in Chinese, I am also illiterate. I can recognize the characters in my name and a handful of other characters and of course numbers. A game I like to play when I’m in Taiwan is to see how many signs I can read in their entirety. My high score so far is: 1
Another game I like to play is reading the back of fortune cookies when they teach you words. I often can’t figure out the word by reading the pinyin, and can only do so when I like at the English translation. Then it makes sense. My boyfriend will read the pinyin on his fortune cookie aloud to me and I will try to figure out what he’s saying. Our little games are another instance where the Chinese language is impressive, confusing and hilarious at the same time.
Even though the Chinese language is written one way, it is spoken aloud and read differently depending on what dialect you are speaking. Mandarin Chinese is called “guo yu” or the language of the country, or “pu tong hua”, the ordinary language. Mandarin spoken in Beijing differs from Mandarin spoken in other parts of the country. Some of the most common dialects of Chinese are Shanghainese, Taiwanese and Cantonese.
To be continued! More to come!