Questions and Answers on Chinese

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Q: I'm in the investment business and I have often hear people say that the meaning of "opportunity" is built into the word for "crisis" in Chinese. Nowthat I've taken up Chinese, I wonder what that word is in Chinese. Could youhelp?

A: Sure. The word is wei-ji, where wei means "danger" or "risk", as inweixian, and ji means "opportunity", as in jihui. I wish I could show youthe characters here.

Q: There is a plural suffix xie used after zhe (this) and na (that) to formthe plurals zhexie (these) and naxie (those), but I often see the singularzhe and na used on their own with a plural reference. I wonder why xie isnot used.

A: First of all, xie is not a plural suffix. It is used after yi (one) anddemonstrative pronouns zhe (this), na (that, fourth tone) and na (which,third tone) to indicate an indeterminate or unspecified amount such as yixie(some, a few), naxie (those) and naxie (which ones). Second, zhe and na arenot singular (note that Chinese does not make a distinction in number innouns). They can be used with both singular and plural reference. If whatthey refer to is specific, xie cannot be used, for example: zhe san ben shu(these three books) and na wu ge ren (those five people).

Q: I have registered for the character class that starts next week, couldyou tell me if we are going to learn Mandarin characters?

A: There is no such a thing as Mandarin characters. You are going to learnChinese characters. This has to do with the differentiation between theterms Mandarin and Chinese. I believe I talked about the difference in oneof our earlier issues, but since people are still asking questions about it,let me spend some time addressing this question. Mandarin is one of thevocal representations of Chinese. Other vocal representations includeShanghai dialect, Fujian dialect, Guangdong dialect (Cantonese) and manyothers. Chinese, on the other hand, is an abstract amalgam. Be prepared forthis surprise: no one in the entire world speaks Chinese, just as no one inthe entire world speaks English. Each one of us speaks a variety of Chineseor English, which may be called Brooklyn English or John's English. All thevarieties of Chinese or English that we speak constitute the abstractChinese or English. The famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who isoften referred to as the father of modern linguistics, once developed a very interesting formula in his Cours de linguistique generale (a must for any linguistics student) to explain this phenomenon. The forumula is 1 + 1 + 1 +1 ... = 1, where 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ... means one variety of language, onevariety of language, etc. and 1 to the right of the equation means theabstract language such as Chinese and English. Now to come back to yourquestion, the answer is Mandarin is only spoken. There is no distinction ofMandarin or Cantonese or any other dialect in the written form, which canonly be called Chinese.

Q: You mentioned a few issues earlier that there is not much differencebetween the Chinese on the mainland and the Chinese in Taiwan, with theimplication that there are still some differences between them. Other thansimplified and traditional characters, are there other differences such asthose between British English and American English?

A: Yes, there are, but it may take a treatise to explore them. Let me justpoint out the main difference, which is the writing style. Taiwanese Chineseis more "flowery" and slightly more "archaic" than Mainland Chinese. Thisseems to be in keeping with the general trend that the "immigrant" (for lackof a better term) language is usually more conservative than the homelanguage. It's been years since I taught English, but I still remember thatthere are more features of Shakespearean English retained in AmericanEnglish than in British English for geopolitical reasons. Once the immigrantlanguage goes overseas, it is difficult for it to keep up with changes andinnovation with the home language, particularly when there are geographicand political barriers. When mainland Chinese read writings from Taiwan,they often get the sense that they are reading something written fifty oreven a hundred years ago. Another observation of mine is that in terms oftolerance, it is usually the speakers of the immigrant language that areintolerant of the speakers of the home language. I'm not sure if this isuniversally true, but this seems to be the case for China. The flowery andslightly archaic Taiwanese Chinese can be readily accepted by people on the mainland, but the Mainland Chinese is often frowned upon by Taiwanese. Iwould think a mainland Chinese will have a hard time writing commercials inthe mainland style in Taiwan. There are also people who attribute thisresponse to the political feelings that groups of people speaking twovarieties of the same language harbor towards each other. According to them,Taiwanese people harbor more negative political feelings towards theirmainland cousins than the other way round. The correlation between politicalfeelings and attitudes towards the use of language would be an interestingstudy in itself.

Q: I need your help. Do you know software that allows me to put zhuyin (yisheng, er sheng, san sheng, si sheng) on the Pinyin? I need them badly forour new online lesson.

A: There are several such programs, but the one that I'm familiar with, anduse is  a program called Pin Tone Extra. It allows you to put diacritic marks on pinyin. You can purchase the program from Cheng & Tsui Company in Boston at 617-988-2401. It is inexpensive ($25) and fairly easy to use. Youfirst use numbers 1-4 to indicate the corresponding tones and then, by theclick of a button, all the numbers are converted into tone marks.

Q: I am an expectant mother who is interested in selecting a Chinese name for my baby boy (due July 2000). Are there naming experts or books you mightrecommend? Any guidance would be very much appreciated.

A: Congratulations and thank you for coming to us. There are naming expertsout there, but I don't think they would agree on a particular name for yourchild. This is largely a matter of personal taste and preference. However Ican recommend a book which may be of some help to you. This book is calledBest Chinese Names: Your Guide to Auspicious Names. The book is sold for$16.95. It is available through China Books & Periodicals. You can place anorder by calling 415-282-2994 or email at Its websiteis

Q: How long ago did the Pinyin system of Chinese come in? I am currentlylearning Mandarin and when I want to chat on the ZhongWen website I have touse PinYin. Just wondering on how old it is.

A: Pinyin was developed in mainland China in 1958 with the purpose ofintroducing standard pronunciation of Mandarin to school children. Thissystem has been adopted worldwide since the late 1970s.

Q: My name is Debi and I moderate a bulletin board on ChinaSprout( <>). I just received acouple of e-mail questions that I think you can answer faster than I coulddo the research, so I am appealing to you for help!  Here are the questions:<<I think you may be able to answer a question my friend and I have aboutlearning Chinese. He is looking for an English/Chinese Electronic TalkingDictionary. Can you tell us which is the best one to buy?We are also looking for computer programs that can translateEnglish/Chinese. Do you know of any?>>

A: Wish you had attended the Chinese Software Workshop in March. Now let meanswer your questions:1. There are a number of hand-held talking dictionaries. One is called Bestaand the other one is called Gold Dictionary (Jinzidian). Both of them enableyou to enter an English word and get the Chinese equivalent withpronunciation. But they are quite pricey. The price range is $200-300,depending on the particular model.2. There are also a number of computer software programs that can translateEnglish into Chinese, but all of them require the use of a platform tochange the code. In other words, you need two programs to perform thefunction: a platform such as Twinbridge, Chinese Star or Richwin, and atranslation software. A popular translation software is TransWhiz, whichcosts about $200. Twinbridge costs about $170. A less expensive platform isUniway, which costs about $100. There are a number of portable translationdevices, but they are limited in their capacity. If you need to know whereyou can purchase these items, let me know.By the way, the Chinese Software Workshop will be on again this fall. Be onyour lookout for the announcement.Also, you can post your questions about Chinese at chinasprout's site: n+Chinese+Language&number=12And I'll be happy to answer your questions there.

Q: Hi! I am planning to join FCC (Families with Children from China) as I have recently adopted my daughter from Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province.   Iwould like to teach her about her heritage, and had hoped she could learnher birthplace's language.  She is just learning to speak English now--she'sjust 20 months old.  But I understand this is the best time for a person tolearn a new language.I have two questions:*What Chinese language should she learn?  I believe Mandarin is mostpopular, but Cantonese is probably the language of her birth area.*Where are there places close to me that teach these languages to smallchildren?  I live in Bergen County New Jersey (northern NJ) and work in FortLee.  Although New York City is not too far, I would not be able to commute in and out during the evenings.

A: Your child should definitely learn Mandarin, which is spoken by over 900million or 75% of the Chinese people, but understood by 95% of thepopulation. Cantonese is spoken by less than 5% of the population. Mandarinhas become an administrative and official medium. It is used on television,in radio broadcasts, and in movies. More importantly, it has been promotedto the language of instruction in primary and secondary schools in China. Ofall the dialects in China, Mandarin is chosen as the standard because of thesheer number of its speakers. With a multitude of mutually unintelligible dialects, there is a need for a lingua franca through which speakers ofvarious dialects can communicate. If you speak Mandarin, chances are you maynot understand people who speak a different dialect, but they may understandyou.To answer your second question, we offer a variety of Chinese classes atChina Institute, but it would be too far for you to travel here.Unfortunately I don't know any school that offers Chinese classes near whereyou live. I suggest that you contact FCC. You may also want to attend theFCC Cultural Day this coming Saturday and I'm sure you can get informationthere.

Q: I'm going to the China Institute's benefit evening next week. I saw onthe invitation three Chinese characters: quan jia fu. I understand that itis the name of a dish, but I'd like to know if it has another meaning. Bythe way, will there be quan jia fu on the menu next week?

A: Literally, these three characters mean "whole", "family" and"happiness/fortune". It is generally used to refer to the joyful reunion ofthe family during Chinese New Year or other festive occasions when allfamily members get together. If you hear the expression "quan jia fuzhaopian (photo)", you will know that it is a family photo. If one member ismissing, it is not quan jia fu. This is how the dish you have in mind cameto be named. This dish is a mixed meat and vegetable stew, resembling afamily reunion. I'm not sure if the English word "hotchpotch" has the rightconnotation for this dish, but it is a favorite treat during Chinese NewYear. Try it next time you visit a Chinese restaurant.I have an inkling that quan jia fu will be on the table next week, but I'mnot quite sure because I'm not involved in planning this event. Let's waitand see.

Q: I am a 24 year old Chinese-American whose primarily language is English.I am trying desperately to learn Mandarin. I have a full time job so theonly time I have is after work. I took a quarter of mandarin at UC Davis butother than that I haven't been able to take any classes. My parents bothspeak mandarin and my mom is trying to teach me now. The only problem is I'mnot sure she knows what she's doing.I started out with some beginner's books and I wrote out the characters butthis didn't help my conversation. My mother told me to just start speakingto her without any help from books. So I am trying to speak to her and writedown everything I learn in pinyin. But this process seems so long and I feel like I do not know enough words to speak to her. All of this is very frustrating. Do you recommend this type of learning? Do you have any suggestions which would help me improve my speaking skills?

A: It is quite daunting to try to accomplish several things at the sametime, particularly when you can't devote a substantial amount of time toyour study. So you need to prioritize. Since you don't get much help withpronunciation from the characters (you may at an advanced stage), you mayhave to separate the learning of the characters and conversation skillssomewhat. If your primary purpose is conversation, I suggest that you firstget a good conversation textbook that is communicatively- rather thangrammar-based. Ideally you should attend a class, but if that is not an option, you should practice with your mother as much as possible. While practicing, make a list of useful words and expressions around a topic suchas shopping and eating. You can do it either in pinyin or characters.Another good idea is to use a software program. A program called Easy TalkChinese will enable you to learn 36 topics and 146 sub-topics for business,home, travel and more. The program includes lessons on 2000 sentences and adictionary. You can hear the correct pronunciation and record/playback yourvoice as well. What is particularly good about the program is that you cantype in your sentences and the program will display the Chinese equivalentwith pronunciation. You will also see pinyin and characters at the same time.

Q: I saw the following ad:"GSSI is looking for qualified, dedicated, professional Chinese translatorsfor software localization projects.   Please note: We consider Simplified andTraditional Chinese two different languages and NO translator will beconsidered for translation into both target languages, so please indicatewhich is your native language."I didn't know that the difference between traditional characters andsimplified characters were so great as to constitute two languages. Couldyou comment on that?

A: Two languages? Maybe this is a good argument for two countries. Nothingcould be further from the truth. If the advertiser doesn't know anythingabout Chinese, it is excusable. However it is inexcusable if he knowssomething about Chinese. The divide is not so great as to constituteinsurmountable barriers, much less than two languages. Now let me give you alittle bit background to simplified characters and traditional characters.If you take a look at any older Chinese dictionary or book, you will findmany characters are very complex in structure, consisting of up to or evenmore than twenty strokes. They are complicated to write and difficult toremember. This was one of the major factors that contributed to illiteracywidespread up to the mid-twentieth century in China. In response to thepressing need to simplify the writing system, the Chinese government adopted about 2500 simplified characters in the fifties. The most common form of simplification is the reduction of strokes in certain characters andassignment of a component to stand for the original character. Althoughfavorably received, simplified characters also created new problems. Sincethe decision to simplify characters was unilaterally made by PRC, people inTaiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas communities have been experiencingdifficulty reading materials from mainland China. People in mainland usuallyhave less trouble than people in Taiwan because they are exposed to bothversions. All the Chinese newspapers in the U.S. are printed in traditionalcharacters, but I have yet to hear from a single person from PRC who saysthat he or she has trouble reading the papers. The story is different frompeople in Taiwan. They do have trouble reading simplified characters becausethey are not exposed to this version in Taiwan. However computer technologyhas made this a non-issue. With almost all the Chinese wordprocessingprograms, you can easily convert traditional characters to simplifiedcharacters or vice versa with a click of a button.

Q: I'm finding that Mandarin's way of creating new words from old words isquite interesting. For example: hao + xiang (good+appearance) = 'seems'.Does this imply that "haoxian" has some residual of  'being good' in itsmodern meaning? Is anything known historically about how these sorts ofwords were put together. Often combining seems go to from more concrete to amore abstract meaning. Probably most languages have this mechanism but itsseems to be clearer and more prevalent in Chinese than in other languages.

A: (by Wang Hailong) HAO is a prefix, it has a lot of meanings as a functionmarker. For example, it indicates characteristics of the stative verbs as in"haochi" (delicious), "haokan" (good-looking), etc. In haohuida (it is easyto answer),  zhe ge zi haoxue  (this character is easy to learn),   HAO means "easy". In hao duo (many), hao jiu (a long time),  hao ji ge (a good numberof),  HAO indicates time being and emphasis. In hao leng (so cold), hao piaoliang (so beautiful), hao mianshou (so familiar), haoxiang (seem), HAO emphasizes the degree of the following word. In colloquial usage ofhaoxiang, the meaning "seems" is not related with "good+appearance".

Q: I have a question about tone changes involving the third tone. Ourtextbook says that when a third tone is followed by a third tone, it becomesthe second tone, and when a third tone is followed by a first tone, secondtone, fourth tone and neutral tone, it becomes a half third tone. So when dowe use the third tone?

A: The third tone is never pronounced the third tone unless it appears atthe end of a sense group or a sentence or when you deliberately read thewords slowly. The reason for the tone changes (technically called tonesandhi) has to do with the "least-effort principle" in linguistics. What itbasically means is that people tend to exert the least effort in utteringtheir languages. Who wants to belabor himself or herself when usinglanguage? The third tone in Mandarin consists of two parts: a falling parand a rising part, which is time-consuming. For this reason, the third toneis never pronounced the third when followed by another tone. We are more atleisure at the end of a sense group or at the end of a sentence, so we cantake our time and pronounce the third tone in full.

Q: I have trouble getting the third tone right. Is there a trick to get it right?

A: Absolutely! First of all, there is a range of acceptability for the thirdtone, and this range lies towards the bottom of your pitch range. So thetrick is try to start low when you utter a third tone word. If you start toohigh, it would be difficult for you to maneuver that bend.  If you stillhave trouble, try to lower your chin when you pronounce third tone words.

Q: When I was studying Chinese at college, I was told by our teacher thatzai should be dropped if it appeared at the beginning of a sentence, but Ihave also seen instances where zai is not dropped even when it appears atthe beginning of a sentence. Is there a rule we can go by?

A: Zai is usually left out when it appears at the beginning of an existential or presentational sentence. The key word here is existential or presentational. An existential or presentational sentence is a sentence like "there is a book on the table" and "there are five people in my family". Theequivalent structure in Chinese is (zai) Place + you + sth., e.g. Beijingyou hen duo daxue (there are many universities in Beijing); wo jia you wukou ren (there are five people in my family. Zai is almost always dropped inthese sentences. By leaving out zai, you (there be) sounds like you (tohave). However zai is not to be left out if it appears at the beginning of a non-existential sentence such as: zai Zhongguo, xiaoxuesheng dou yao xuepinyin (in China, all the students in elementary schools are required tolearn pinyin).

Q: The possessive marker de is sometimes used between an adjective and anoun. Could you explain why de is needed after an adjective, whichapparently does not indicate a possessive relationship?

A: When used after an adjective, de is not a possessive marker. Please seethe section on the most frequently used Chinese word below for a detailedexplanation.

Q: Would you please recommend a good English to Chinese dictionary. The onesI've seen  (for example at 13 Elizabeth Street) are for native Chinesespeakers. They give various Chinese translations of each English word, butthe discussion of what word to use and when and how to use it, is absent ormostly in Chinese, not in English. For example in translation of the word'drink', I found 'he' and 'yin' (transitive and intransitive verbs) and'yinjiu' hejiu (intransitive). There's no information about the differencesbetween the 4 words and usage (I do recall your discussion about 'jiu' inclass, but there's nothing like that in the dictionaries I saw). I guess I'mlooking for some book, which is more than a simple dictionary, it would alsogive a guide to usage or something like that. Is there any such book?

A: Regarding your question about dictionaries, my suggestion is that at thisstage, get a simplest possible dictionary, preferably a dictionary that onlysupplies one sense/meaning to each word. This is because too many meaningsand extensions given to a word will be more confusing than helping. Thesimple dictionaries usually list the meanings that are in common use. Whenyou are more advanced, you can then use a more sophisticated dictionary. Ifyou agree to this approach, I suggest that you get this one: ConciseEnglish-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary by Oxford University. It ispocket size, sold for about $10 at B&N. As for the difference between "he"and "yin", "he" is in common use, whereas "yin" is archaic or writtenChinese. Few people will say yinjiu in daily conversation.

Q: On a recent trip to China, I heard many people pronounce ze (this) forzhe. Is ze a variant form of zhe?

A: No. I bet that the people you referred to are from the southern part ofChina. In that part of the country, particularly in the Guangdong area,people substitute z, c, s for zh, ch, shi. So you will hear people sayzongguo, ci and laosi for zhongguo (China), chi (eat) and laoshi (teacher).A lot of Cantonese speakers have trouble with these three sounds when theyspeak Mandarin. If you are Cantonese speaking and have trouble getting the sounds right, make a conscious effort to raise your tongue when youpronounce them. Zh, ch, and sh are technically called palatal sounds, but ifthe term doesn't mean anything to you, these sounds are familiarly called "tongue-raising sounds."

Q: I'm doing a language exchange with a native speaker of Chinese, which wasarranged through China Institute. In teaching her English, I noticed thatshe consistently made some mistakes despite my efforts to correct, whichmakes me think that she may be under the influence of Chinese when shespeaks English. Without going into specifics of my observations, can youshed some light on some common mistakes made by Chinese students when theylearn English?

A: What you described is called "mother-tongue interference", a term oftenused in the TEFL circle. TEFL stands for Teaching English as a ForeignLanguage. Students' mistakes derive from a number of sources, but one of themajor sources is mother-tongue interference. Offhand, I can cite the following:Chinese speakers of English often use "he" for "she", because there is nogender distinction between "he" and "she" in Chinese in pronunciation. Theyare both pronounced ta. By the way, the word for "it" is also pronounced ta.The only way to tell the gender is either by the context or through writing.Although they are pronounced the same, they are all written different.The word kai in Chinese has a number of meanings. It can mean "open" as inopen the door, "turn on" as in turn on the TV, and "operate" as in operate acar. So Chinese students of English tend to say open the light when theyshould say turn on the light.Zuihao is a familiar expression used in Chinese to indicate a friendlysuggestion, as in women wanshang qu kan dianying, ni zuihao zao dianr lai(We are going to the movies tonight. It would be better if you could arrivea little earlier), but the term is usually translated in Chinese dictionaries of English as "had better". "Had better" in English carrieswith it a threatening tone, with the implication of "do it, or else ..."Unaware of this connotation, Chinese students often use "had better" whenthey offer what they believe friendly advice. So don't be offended when youhear the expression used next time. Tell them the correct usage.

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(Source: China Institute e-Newsletter by Yong He)


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