What Languages Are Spoken in China?

Even though I have a fairly high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, there are still numerous places in China where I can travel to and not be able to understand a word of what is being spoken by the locals. This map, posted at That’s Magazineshows why


Image credit: @nick_kapur, via That’s Magazine

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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.


Today’s Reading Assignment– China in a Word

Have you ever wondered if there is one word that pretty much sums up Chinese society? It's a silly question, I know, but Eric Abrahamson has written a great piece on the Latitude Blog of the International Herald Tribune casting his vote for the word guan ( 管). Here's a taste of what he says:

Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few months becomes a folk etymologist. Look: the Chinese character for “good” combines “woman” and “child”! China must be a society of patriarchal homebodies!

Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few years tends to give it up. The history and evolution of Chinese characters is such a messy accretion of historical sediment and false cognates that even scholars of Chinese take its etymology with a grain of salt.

But language is telling, and as I translated a novel about official corruption over the past year, one character began to emerge as the linchpin of the book’s discussion of power and those who wield it. That character is 管, pronounced guǎn, with a “scooping” tone.

Originally meaning “pipe” or “flute” — the feathery bit at the top is the bamboo radical, indicating a section of bamboo culm — guǎn later evolved into a verb meaning “to manage” or “to be in charge of.” If I were given only one word to capture Chinese society, guǎn would be it.

Guǎn appears wherever authority is wielded. Besides its base meaning of being in charge, it shows up in “jurisdiction” (管辖, guǎnxiá), “management” (管理, guǎnlǐ), “supervisory control” (管 制, guǎnzhì, sometimes a euphemism for a police lockdown) and “butler” (管家, guǎnjiā).

He goes on to give other common uses for the word guan in everyday life, ending with this conclusion:

Hovering over guǎn and all its permutations is a gentle anxiety about a society ungoverned. “No one’s in charge!” (没有人管, méiyǒurénguǎn) is a phrase spoken in tones of disapproval, even horror. It’s not only Jackie Chan who believes that Chinese society needs watching over. To a certain mindset, in China everything is someone else’s business.


As they say, click on the link and read the whole thing.

Oh, and getting back to my original question — what one word do YOU think best describes Chinese society?


“Live the Language” – a Great Beijing Video

Sitting in Minnesota, watching this short video of Beijing kind of makes me homesick! It was produced by Education First, a global study-abroad program. Click on the link and enjoy a tour of my adopted hometown.


EF – Live The Language – Beijing from Albin Holmqvist on Vimeo.

 (HT: Yourenotfromaroundhere.com)

Videos of other cities can be found here.

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin.This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, x an sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters.  Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them.  In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.


After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.


This past week Louisa Lim, Beijing correspondent for NPR did a fascinating story on this 105-year-old professor. She writes:


When Zhou was born in 1906, Chinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the “Centenarian Scholar” — seems unbelievable….


It took Zhou and his colleagues three years to come up with the system now known as Pinyin, which was introduced in schools in 1958. Recently, Pinyin has become even more widely used to type Chinese characters into mobile phones and computers — a development that delights Zhou.


“In the era of mobile phones and globalization, we use Pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of ‘Open sesame,’ opening up the doors,” he says.


Today he has become an outspoken advocate for political reform in China. You can read/listen to Louisa’s full report here.


105 years old and still going strong!


(image source: mirrorbooks.com)



Twinkling with Inheritance and Development Achievement

One of the big projects I’ve been working on the past few months is doing the English editing of some academic papers. Fortunately, most of them have been good translations, but every so often I find myself working on one that just hurts my brain. That was the case this past week, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years back on the perils of Chinese-English translations. I thought it was about time to share it again:

On Thursday night my landlady called and asked if she could come to my apartment because she had some translation questions for me. Now anyone who has been in China for awhile knows the fear and dread that well up inside when someone calls asking for help with translation work. “Just read it over.”  “It won’t take long.” Those words always precede hours of painful and laborious mental gymnastics trying to translate phrases like the one in the title of this post from what we call “Chinglish” to English.

My landlady and her husband have their own business producing publicity and promotional materials for schools in China. Since English is so popular, these materials (from DVD’s to brochures) must all be in English as well as Chinese–never mind the fact that very few English speakers will actually see or read them. In the China of 2005, one simply cannot produce something like this without any English in it. My landlady out-sources the translations to professionals; however, there are times when, for some reason, she doubts the accuracy of the translations, so asks me to look at them to see if the English makes sense and if it indeed accurately reflects the Chinese meaning.

Yesterday she had one such project for me, and that noise you heard emanating from the western side of Beijing on Friday was the sound of two cultures and languages clashing!

An interesting feature of Chinese discourse is the use of poetic and flowery language in nearly every conceivable context, formal and informal. A language that has been around for 3000 years has quite the collection of poetry, expressions, and idioms, and they are all to be used as much as possible.

The phrase “twinkling with inheriting and development achievement” is merely an extreme example.  The document we worked on had line after line after line of such phrases, and I was supposed to see if the translations were OK. After hours spent trying to decipher these, one of two things happens. Either I read a sentence and decide it makes perfect sense (a sure sign that I have been in China way too long) or I must attempt to convince her that it is impossible to translate such a sentence. In fact, after yesterday, I am convinced that there should be a law against translating such sentences.

When I read it in Chinese, it makes perfect sense, but there’s no way to get it into a formal English sentence that both maintains the poetry and has meaning. Take your pick, Mrs. Li. You can’t have it both ways!  Ah, but you see, in Chinese, they do have it both ways, because poetic language is not only permissible in formal writing, it is expected, for it is one of the main ways to demonstrate that one is a literate and cultured person.

After my brain was fried to a crisp trying to disentangle that mess of a sentence, we sat back and discussed the cultural differences. I explained to her that it was so difficult because in English we have different sets of rules for business writing than for essay writing. Poetic and creative language can be used in essays, but not in business writing. Therefore, when translating such phrases, I may be able to come up with some suitable English words that approximate the meaning, but their presence in such a formal setting is completely unacceptable.

Translating such a sentence is nearly impossible because it will never come out in a manner that suits both sides. If the Chinese person wins the argument that the emotional language remain, then it will be gibberish in English. If the English speaker wins, then the Chinese person will feel like the translation isn’t close enough to the original, in either meaning of feeling (and they’d be correct, of course).

In the course of the conversation (argument, really) with Mrs. Li, I learned the distinction between two Chinese words for written text: wenzhang and wenjianWenzhang is the word for essays or articles of a literary nature. Wenjian is the word for formal documents, like something a boss or leader might hand down to his/her underlings. Wenzhang demands emotional and flowery language. Wenjian is cold and impersonal, and implies authority, command, and distance. Poetic language is not used in wenjian, but it must be used in wenzhang.

Aha!  I said to her. That’s the problem. In the mind of a Chinese speaker, a brochure like this is considered a wenzhang. An English speaker would consider it to be a wenjian. Finally a breakthrough in understanding (for both of us) as to why our languages were clashing. In her mind what we were translating was a wenzhang and in my mind it was clearly a wenjian. Finally she understood. Finally, I understood!

Wenzhang, Wenjian, …..let’s call the whole thing off!

Perils of Direct Translation

While on a flight to Urumqi last week, the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation.  Like all such conversations here, it began with her asking me where I was from.  I told her, and asked the same of her.  In due time I asked her why she was going to Urumqi.  In English, she replied "I’m going to see my lover."  To someone not familiar with Chinese (and even to someone who is), that was a pretty forward answer, given the connotation of the word "lover" in English.  But she was merely directly translating the Chinese word "ai-ren" (love person), which is often the word used for a spouse.  I smiled, assumed that’s what she was talking about, and said, "that’s nice!" 

Yes, I am back from my Kashgar trip, and I have stories and photos.  But 5 days away from my office means I’m buried in work right now, so posting will probably not happen for a few days.  Sit tight!  I’ll just tease you with this formula:  10,000 feet + Kyrgyz yurt + heavy snow = adventure!