Happy Birthday “Beijing”

No, today is not the birthday of the founding of Beijing. That happened too far back in history to be able to pinpoint a date. Recorded history goes back around 4000 years and Peking Man dates back more than 200,000 years.

Qing Tombs

So why wish “Beijing” a “Happy Birthday?”

Well, because it was 36 years ago that the Chinese government decreed that henceforth all Chinese words written in English should use the Pinyin Romanization system instead of the Wade-Giles or Yale systems.

Peking became Beijing.

Canton became Guangzhou.

Mao Tse-tung became Mao Ze-dong.

Chou En-lai became Zhou En-lai.

36 years ago today, the Wall Street Journal published an article announcing and explaining these changes to its confused readers. Here’s how journalist Barry Kramer reported it:

“Foreigners reading about China in their own language may soon be scratching their heads over references to Chinese personalities such as Mao Ze-dong and Jiang Qing, or places such as Zhongqing and Beijing. Beijing’s State Council has taken another step toward simplification of China’s cumbersome written language by ordering that all publications printed in China in English, French, German,  Spanish, and other Roman-alphabet languages use only a standard phonetic transliteration system, called Pinyin, to spell names and places.”

You can read the entire Wall Street Journal article on the Today in WSJ History page here.

I wrote about the difference between Peking and Beijing (spelling, of course) in post back in 2010, explaining that the characters didn’t change, only the approved romanization of the characters:

The more complicated (and accurate) response is that in Chinese it didn’t really change. Before the 1970’s the name of the city in characters was 北京, and those characters are still the name of the city today. What changed in the 1970’s was the official pronunciation of those two characters.

The character 北 means ‘north’ or ‘northern.’ The character 京 means capital, so the two characters together mean ‘northern capital.’ The problem lies in the pronunciation of those two characters. In the dialect of northern China (around Beijing) they are pronounced bei and jing. In Cantonese (the dialect of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong) they are pronounced pe and king. Since written Chinese is ideographic, two people who speak different dialects can look at one character and both will know what means, even though they would pronounce them differently. This is the case with Beijing.

So as I said at the beginning, Happy Birthday “Beijing!”

Related Posts:

Beijing or Peking?

Imagine Learning Chinese without Pinyin


English Words Borrowed from Chinese

This is a pop quiz — what common English words are borrowed from Chinese? The answer may surprise you.

How about kowtow, gung ho, and ketchup? Or typhoon. Or “long time no see.”

Even though English is a language that compulsively borrows from other languages, we don’t have too many borrowed from English.

A post on the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog last week delved into the question of why not:

“Linguists note that the heyday for linguistic absorption from China occurred before 1950, as can be seen in the spellings of certain loaner words—kowtow, gung ho, ketchup—many derived from non-Mandarin Chinese languages such as Cantonese.


Though there are other Chinese terms that are well-known in English, such as bok choy or chow mien, as the Economist’s Johnson language blog has pointed out, ‘[English-speaking countries] borrowed the foods, and their Chinese names merely hitched a ride into English.’ The same could be true of another—by now—commonly known Chinese term, feng shui.”

The post then asked its readers to identify Chinese words that could (or should) be imported by English. Below are my top five suggestions:

1. Ding (订). This is a great word that means to reserve or book or settle something. It can be used in multiple contexts — buying tickets, reserving a table at a restaurant, or arranging a time to meet a friend. It’s one of those words that foreigners in China sprinkle into their English discourse. “Did you ding a table?” “Did you ding the ticket?” And then there’s the great phrase, “jiu zhenme ding le.” (It’s settled, then!)

2. mafan (麻烦). This is another catch-all word that means hassle, annoyance, or all-around pain in the neck. Anything that fits into those categories can be described as mafan. It can also take on political overtones — people don’t want to “have mafan” from the government, that is get into trouble with the authorities.

3. mashang (马上). This means immediately, or presently, conveying the idea that something is about to happen. It literally means “on the horse.”

4. couhe (凑合). This word means to “make do.” When things can’t be perfect, then you just couhe couhe. When you don’t have all the exact ingredients or materials, you improvise — couhe. When you have to change your plans at the last minute, you couhe couhe.

5. bu wenming (不文明). The most common translation of this term is civilized or uncivilized. To suggest that someone is bu wenming is to suggest that he or she is rude, or uncouth — without manners.

So, dear Chinese speaking readers….leave a comment and tell me which Chinese words would YOU like to see make their way into English.


On the Horse

I’ve been meaning to write about this for awhile, and there’s no better time than today, the first day of the Year of the Horse!

One of my favorite Chinese expressions is mashang (马上), which can be translated as “immediately,” or “right away.” It is used to convey that something is about to happen.

Q:Ni shenme shihou lai?  (When will you be here?)

A. Mashang!  (Soon!)

Or, waiting to see someone in an office….

Qing zuo. Ta mashang lai.  (Please have a seat. He will be with you shortly.)

What’s fun about this expression is that it is made of up two characters (ma and shang). Ma means horse and shang means on. So a literal translation would be “on the horse.”

Q: When will you be here?  A: I’m on the horse.

Please have a seat. He’s on the horse!

As you can imagine, the puns on this first day of the Year of the Horse are coming fast and furious, with New Years greetings making use of this phrase to indicate the imminent arrival of wealth and good fortune.

Nothing illustrates this more brilliantly than this funny video flying around the Chinese Inter-webs: Minions 2014 Chinese New Year / Year of the Horse! (I couldn’t stop laughing!)

(If you receive this post by email, click here to watch the video.)

Here’s a rough translation: 

Horse, horse horse….the Year of the Horse is here!

You’ll get whatever you want.

It’s coming right away.

In the Year of the Horse, you’ll get money, a house, everything!

The Year of the Horse is here!

We Wish You  Happy New Year.

Men, women, old, and young are all happy.

Mashang kuaile! (Happiness is on the horse!!!)

And if I’m ever late to an appointment with you, remember, “I’m on the horse!”



Talking in Numbers

Chinese is a homonym-rich language. Because it only has 400+ phonemes (spoken syllables), pretty much every word sounds like another word.  It can be extremely confusing; but at the same time it allows for some linguistic creativity, like talking in numbers, as illustrated by this fantastic video clip titled “How to Speak with Numbers in Chinese.” (click on the link if you receive this in an email and can’t see the video player)

(Alert: there is one bad word — but not too bad)

I used to work with a school official named Liu Qifa. We just called him 678 (liu qi ba).

Related posts:

I Want to Eat! I Want to Eat! (how MacDonald’s in China uses talking in numbers for advertising)

What Does Ju Mean? 



Fun with Chinese Adverbs

You have probably never used the word ‘fun’ and ‘adverb’ in the same sentence, but that is most likely because you have not read hundreds and hundreds of pages of translated academic and political articles.

I have recently been doing just that, doing the English editing of translated academic and political resources. What it really involves is taking an article from “Chinglish” into English; from English that sounds like its been translated into something that (hopefully) sounds like it was written in English.

In the course of this work I have found myself chuckling at how the Chinese language uses adverbs. It is never enough to understand. One must ‘correctly understand.’

You don’t reduce something. You ‘maximally reduce’ it.


Herewith are some of my favorite adverb+verb combinations (so far):

  • discretionally inherit
  • comprehensively control
  • maximally avoid
  • constantly innovate
  • cautiously plan
  • constantly explore
  • spontaneously report (as opposed to spontaneously combust)
  • resolutely adhere
  • comprehensively implement
  • actively strengthen
  • earnestly invite
  • resolutely fight
  • comprehensively demonstrate
  • earnestly return

Of course, it’s a mix-and-match game. As far as I can tell, you can pretty much use any adverb with any verb.

Go ahead, give it a try.

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Since I’ve been in China for 28 years, and speak Chinese reasonably well, I am often asked 2 questions (by foreigners), neither of which have easy answers.

One is “are you fluent?”

My response is usually “fluent enough to get myself into and out of trouble.”

The second question is even harder: “how long did it take you to learn Chinese?” It’s a tough question, because it assumes that the words “learn” and “Chinese” are easily defined. Unfortunately they are not.

I usually respond that even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese,

When I do training/orientation sessions for newcomers to China, I get a generic version of that question, namely “how long does it take to learn Chinese.” This question is rooted in their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn Chinese, something I love about newbies. Most have visions of becoming functional (if not fluent) in a relatively short period of time.

The trick in responding to such a question is to do it in a way that doesn’t put a damper on all that enthusiasm, yet helps them be realistic about the immensity of the task.

One way to help set realistic expectations (and measure progress) is to use foreign language proficiency guidelines. For English speakers (in the US), there are two major sets of guidelines. One set is produced by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL Guidelines). The other set is produced by the Interagency Language Roundtable, and is used by the Foreign Service Institute, the arm of the US State Department that trains diplomats. It is also commonly referred to as the FSI scale.

The FSI Scale divides foreign language proficiency into 5 different levels, each with a sub-level (1+, 2+, etc). The five are identified as follows: 1 = elementary proficiency; 2 = limited working proficiency; 3 = professional working proficiency; 4 = full professional proficiency; and 5 = native or bilingual proficiency.

To help learners set realistic language learning goals, the FSI also classifies foreign languages according to how difficult they are for English speakers to learn. These charts (courtesy of SIL) indicate how long it normally takes for learners to reach the different FSI levels for different language groups. The three different lines on the charts represent learners with different aptitudes.

You Chinese language learners know where this is going, don’t you?

In other words a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach  limited working proficiency level (2).

Again, I don’t post these to discourage any one learning Chinese but to help you set realistic expectations and goals.

Where ever you are in your language learning, I say JIAYOU! (加油)

What other methods do you have of setting realistic goals and measuring your progress?

Reminder: I have a subscription drive going on this week. If you would like to receive a free copy of my book “Survival Chinese Lessons” subscribe to this blog, then leave a comment letting me know that you have subscribed. This offer expires the end of the day (where ever you are) on October 13.

Language Week at Outside-In

I’ve decided to blog around a theme this week, namely the Chinese language and language learning. Each day there will be a new post related to that theme.

At the same time I am launching a subscription drive, complete with a “lucky draw.” New subscribers and/or those who recommend new subscribers will be entered to win a free copy of my book, “Survival Chinese Lessons.”

To enter the ‘lucky draw” you will need to either subscribe to this blog or recommend someone to subscribe. You can do so by entering your email in the “subscribe to updates by email” section on the right, or by subscribing to the RSS feed. If you subscribe to receive it by email, a verification email will be sent to you.  You will need to click on the link provided in that email in order to activate your subscription. Be sure to check your spam box if it doesn’t come through right away.

After you have subscribed, please leave a comment on THIS post letting me know. If someone recommended this blog to you, please indicate that in the comment.  Just give the person’s first name and last initial. I will most likely be able to figure out how it is!

The deadline to subscribe is the end of the day (wherever you are on the planet) on October 13, 2012. 2 names will be chosen randomly to receive a free copy of my book.

That’s all there is to it!

Now, with that out of the way, and to whet your appetite, here is the introduction to the book:

In 1582 an Italian Jesuit named Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau to begin learning the Chinese language. He would eventually master the language and come to be recognized as a true Chinese scholar by the intellectual elite of the day. He not only spoke the language fluently; he translated the Confucian classics into Latin and even wrote books in Chinese himself.

After establishing communities in Macau, Guangzhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing, he was granted permission by the emperor to live in Beijing in 1601, becoming the first westerner to reside there. He died at his home in Beijing in 1610.

In March 2010, to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, the municipal government of his hometown in Italy sponsored a special exhibition on his life and work at the Beijing Capital Museum, titled “Matteo Ricci: An Encounter of Civilizations in Ming China.” The exhibit included many 16th century artifacts, including original Chinese language books written by Ricci.

One section of the exhibit focused on his years of language study in Macau, and was titled “In the Whirlpool of the Chinese Language.” It is an apt description of what it is like “foreigners” to learn Chinese.

Many people come to China with the hope and/or intention of learning the language, but soon give up. The tones, the unfamiliar sounds, and he complexity of the characters quickly form themselves into a whirling mass that overwhelms the motivation and desire to learn. The task seems too big.

Learning Chinese is a big task, but learning how to use the language to accomplish simple, everyday tasks is not.  You may never, like Matteo Ricci, translate Chinese classics or write books in Chinese yourself. But even Ricci had to start with the basics, learning the sounds, the tones, and the vocabulary to accomplish the stuff of everyday life.

And there-in lies the purpose of this book – to help you learn the sounds of Chinese as well as some basic vocabulary, questions, statements, and conversations. It is by no means a comprehensive Chinese language textbook. You will NOT be fluent by the time you work through it. Rather, it is something to help you get your feet – or should I say your big toe –wet. Actually, if you can use this material when you are done, you will have just enough Chinese to get you into trouble.

Whether you are trying to learn some Chinese in preparation for a visit to China, for a short-term work assignment, or as the first steps in a life-long journey of learning, it is my hope that these materials will be helpful to you.


You can read more about the book by clicking “My Book” at the top of this page.

Related Post:

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

With the end of the semester upon us, I know there are thousands out there who are completing a course of Chinese language learning.  Maybe it was a semester; maybe a year; maybe two years. It doesn’t matter. The hard slog is nearing an end ( or perhaps already over for you), and you’re ready to get on with the next thing, which of course includes being a life-long learner.

For most of us, studying Chinese has been and will always be somewhat of a chore. There is the day-to-day sameness of classes and tutors and personal study; the never-diminishing stack of character flash-cards that have to be memorized; another tutor time that has to be planned.

For many of us, the learning – those moments when we discover something or finally figure something out – will always be fun. Like when you figure out that the literal translation of vacuum cleaner is ‘suck dust machine.” When you begin to see that there is meaning (and beauty) in Chinese characters – they aren’t just chicken scratch.  When you use that new pattern or phrase you have been trying to master, and it works!

But for all of us, the ability to communicate in Chinese – to converse with people on a deeper level, on their terms (and using their terms) is first and foremost a privilege.

To be sure, it doesn’t always feel like a privilege to know the language and live here – when we’re walking home through a rubble and garbage-strewn alleyway; when we’re nearly turned into road kill by a homicidal truck driver; or when we’re trying to extricate ourselves from a guanxi web (personal connections).

No matter how we feel about it (an emotion that changes from day to day), the fact remains that it is a privilege for which we should be grateful.

This new language we have acquired (or are still acquiring) is not just a tool to get so that we can talk TO our Chinese friends and colleagues. It is a tool that allows us to learn FROM them.

Learn before teaching; listen before talking.

It is their country; their language; their culture, and we are allowed to be participants.

That, my friends and fellow language learners, is a privilege.