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“Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade—all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.”
...................................... Okakura, The Book of Tea

If you’re staying in Xiamen awhile, I recommend you try to pick up a little Mandarin. Xiamen University’s Overseas Correspondence College offers full and part-time courses – or hire a tutor (though the tutor route takes lots of discipline, and the tutor may be more interested in learning English than teaching Chinese).

Foolproof Mandarin Courses? I’m still hoping to get Mandarin down myself. Years before coming to China, I took college Mandarin courses. I memorized stacks of flash cards bought in Taipei and Los Angeles’ China Town. I tried the course advertised in flight magazines – the one that promises native level proficiency and a high post in the Diplomatic Corp within 90 days or double your money back. In desperation, I even paid $500 per month for a year of private tutoring, and a year later and $6,000 poorer could barely tell our tutor zaijian (goodbye). Xiamen was my last hope. I could just see those enigmatic squiggly characters coming to life – if I could just survive the enigmatic enrolment.

Our college administrators had good hearts, but I suspected some were but simple souls hauled in from the countryside and handed a pen, an official chop and a blotter, and told to go manage—just like hundreds of thousands of city folk were carted off to the countryside, handed a hoe, and told to go farm; getting enrolled was certainly a long roe to how.

The administrator began day one of our beginner’s class by handing out a pile of Chinese forms and explaining rapidly, in Chinese, that we were to fill out the forms, in Chinese. When we just sat there, lost, he said, “What is wrong? Please fill out the forms now.”

In my haltered Chinese I said, “Teacher, if we could already read and write Chinese, we would not be in this beginner’s Chinese course.”

He stalked out and returned with a translator.

Shanghaid on Shibboleths Not to worry. Chinese are exceptionally patient, and good humored. Just talk with everyone you meet and you’ll pick it up eventually – with a southern accent!
The Book of Judges (Bible) recounts how the Israelites found out who was friend or foe by making them say Shibboleth. The foe could not pronounce the “sh” and invariably said “Sibboleth.” And lost their tongue and head with it.

Southern Chinese can’t pronounce “sh” either, so Shanghai is Sanghai. They also can’t tell f from h, or l from r and n, or the long e and the short e. To further complicate matters, they hear no difference between t and th, or c and ch or z and zh, deng deng. And it does make a difference, especially in business, because it is impossible to tell “4” from “10” or “eat” (yes, the tone is different, but they mix that up too).

If Southerners can’t get the sounds out in Chinese, it stands to reason they trip over the same ones in English. No matter how hard most Xiamen people try, my name “Bill” invariably comes out “Beer.” One Christmas, my hapless Southern students threw in the towel and their tongue and presented me with a Christmas card made out to, “Professor Beer,” and a nicely wrapped bottle of Chinese Tsingdao beer (the most enduring legacy of Germany’s occupation of Shandong Province up North).

Inevitably, I too have acquired a slight Southern Chinese accent, to Northerners’ endless amusement. That’s why many Chinese experts recommend learning the language in the North, but I’ll take a few shibboleths over frostbite any day.

So, Ni Hao, y’all!
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A Word’s Worth 1,000 Pictures I often preface proverbs with, “Confucius said,” because it’s a safe bet that either he or some other ancient Chinese did – and probably in 4 words or less.
Most of the planet says, “A picture is worth a 1,000 words,” but for Chinese, a word may be worth a thousand pictures, for over the aeons they have distilled their wisdom and experience into concise proverbs that strike to the heart of any matter, and strike fear into the heart of foreign language learners.

Even after memorizing the 3 to 4,000 characters of a minimal vocabulary, we’ve no guarantee we have any idea what they mean when they are used against us. No dictionary can convey the full nuances of a character, and 3 or 4 strung together in one of China’s tens of thousands of proverbs conjure up ancient historical incidents, or classic poems, or paintings, or deep philosophical notions. My favorite ancient Chinese book is “The Art of War,” which has influenced military, business, and diplomacy—and the entire classic is only 5,000 characters. That’s like fitting “War and Peace” between the covers of Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat.”

Chinese have a proverb for every occasion. A Chinese businessman who squanders his capital “drains the pond to catch the fish.” A public figure who thinks he can hide an immoral private life, “Covers his own ears while stealing the bell.” Impatient people are “rice pullers” -- like the foolish farmer who killed his rice plants when he tugged on them to make them grow faster.

“Contradiction” in Chinese is maodun, or “spear-shield.” It refers to the ancient fable of the weapon salesman who marketed both impenetrable shields and unstoppable spears.” Inappropriate public policies are like “using wood to put out a fire.” People with unrealistic fears see, “a soldier in every tree and bush.” A persistent person is like the old granny determined to “grind an iron rod into a needle.” The fawning sycophant capitalizing on others’ power is the “Fox exploiting the tiger’s prestige.”

Every saying makes a point, but also stirs up images of the story behind it. Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism (The Way), used only 4 words to preach an entire sermon on the power of gentleness and softness over inflexibility and hardness. He said, “Teeth fall, tongue remains.” (hard teeth fall out, soft tongue and gums remain into old age). Translation: “Go with the flow!”
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Drawn to Chinese I'm drawn to Chinese--perhaps because I like drawing! And that's basically waht Chinese is--not writing but drawing. And while the Chinese have a saying or a solution for everything, they're often at a loss how to teach us foreigners the ABCs of Chinese. That’s mainly because there aren’t any ABCs. No alphabet at all—just 40 to 50,000 characters to memorize.

Chinese characters are pictographs—drawings of objects or ideas. So in a sense, all literate Chinese are artists. And pictographs have a great advantage over alphabets. They aren’t abstract representations but concrete drawings, so any Chinese can ‘read’ their meaning, even though they are pronounced completely differently in Cantonese, Sichuanese, Pekinese, deng deng. Even Japanese can read them, for Japan’s language, like some her culture and religion, evolved centuries ago from ancient China.
Chinese characters for concave and convex are easy to decipher, as are mountain and river, but star?  Banana?  Fish?  Sounds fishy to me!  Amoy Magic--Guide to Xiamen and Fujian history, culture, travel, tourism, investment, business, research, cuisine, arts and crafts, deng deng!
Some Chinese pictographs so closely resemble their object that even illiterate foreign friends can figure them out. Consider the characters to the right:

Change is afoot (Speaking of which, people ask, “Is there a lot of change in China?” I answer, “None! Taxi drivers don’t have change, stores don’t have change; postal clerks don’t have change…)

Chinese characters are changing (both the written and the 2-legged kind). After must post-Liberation deliberation, New China decided to fight illiteracy by simplifying characters. For example, “hui” (meeting) was simplified from 13 strokes to 6—much easier to memorize and to write. But the art of simplification can go too far. On bus signs, for example, “Xia,” (from Xiamen) is often written with three strokes instead of twelve. Taken this far, simplification robs characters of much of their beauty and meaning. Think of how we would react if Uncle Sam fought illiteracy by simplifying English. How wud we lik it if our govurnmint tride too improov literasee and speling bi geting rid ov awl unesesaree leterz and xsepshuns in speling? Chinese characters were simplified, but they could go further.  Instead of 25 strokes for eye, why not just 3.  Or instead of 20+ strokes for Fast Food, why not the golden arches?  Or a real triange for triangle, instead of 17 strokes!  Amoy Magic--Guide to Xiamen and Fujian travel, tourism, expatriates, Xiamen University, research, study, investment, business, trade, history, culture, deng deng!
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A Modest Proposal Aesthetics aside, it was courageous of Beijing to tamper with the ancient language of the most tradition-bound people on earth, and strike a mighty blow against illiteracy. But illiteracy might be vanquished forever if Beijing finished the job of simplification by using a few of my suggestions:

Ups and
................................of Chinese!
To further brutalize us barbarians, Chinese tones play havoc with our ears (see Dr. PinYin’s unPatented PinYin Guide at the end of this chapter). Grammar and word order are different too. “Please buy me a coke” becomes, in Chinese, “Please give me buy a coke.” And Chinese change a sentence’s meaning, tense, or intensity by tacking on little sounds like le, and ma, and ee, which is why Chinese who speak English often say changee instead of change, and lookee instead of look.

There is no end to the mistakes, some quite embarrassing, that Chinese coaxes out of Americans. About a century ago, an American missionary asked his Chinese maid to prepare chicken for dinner. The maid returned 3 days later and said, “I’m sorry, Pastor, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to marry a foreigner.” “Chicken” sounds similar to “wife,” but even said correctly in another context, “eating chicken” can mean dallying with a prostitute, much to Colonel Sander’s dismay.
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Left or Right? There’s also the matter of knowing one’s left from one’s right. While English is written from left to right, and Hebrew is written from right to left, Chinese goes with the flow – left to right, or right to left, or even top to bottom. All are equally acceptable. I’ve even seen diagonal (but so far no bottom to top), and I’ve come across sentences going two or three directions on the same page. Only by context do you know the direction, and short sentences are a bear.

Xiamen Univ. is Everywhere!? I once told a Chinese friend, “Xiamen University has buildings all over China and Asia!" and I pointed to a sign with the two characters for “Xiamen University.”

My friend laughed. “You’re reading it backwards!” Sure enough, Xiamen University backwards was Dasha, or "hotel" (from Russian “dacha”).

Excess of Courtesy is Discourtesy
............................. Chinese Proverb

Titled Gentleman Even if you can talk to your Chinese friend, how do you address them? Chinese honorifics are legion and lethal. Even common laborers have titles. They are called “Master,” and they are, and they know it. Try to get a carpenter who is just lumbering along to finish a job on schedule and you’ll see just who is master in Socialist China.
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Crying Uncle I have at least 8 licit titles and a few I’d rather not discuss. I have been called “Professor Pan,” “Teacher Pan,” “Master Pan” and “Mr. Pan.” My Chinese elders may call me Xiao Pan (Xiao means little, or young), but people younger than me say Lao Pan (Lao is old, or venerable). Some Chinese children like to call me uncle—but which kind of uncle? I’m either Bobo or Shushu, depending on whether I am older or younger than the child’s father. When the child doesn’t know an elder’s age, then he really cries uncle.

But it all Pans out in the end. Besides, aunties and uncles are on their way out, thanks to the one child policy. With no aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews, traditional family structures are undergoing greater simplification than the language. Happily, in my wife’s home I use only two titles: “son”, and “your highness.”


But in all seriousness (wow!), Mandarin is a beautiful language, and spending a little time on it will make your stay a lot more pleasant and profitable.

Dictionaries, Diction, and Deng Deng Whether you master Mandarin or not, a good phrasebook and dictionary are essential. The absolutely best dictionary around is Oxford University Press’s “Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary.” It is one of the very few that use Pinyin throughout, so you can make a semblance of pronouncing those pictographs—and so you can look both English and Chinese words up alphabetically. Otherwise, given that Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, how do you look things up? You can use pinyin, but if you don’t know the character, then you can’t even pronounce it to spell out the pinyin.
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Different Strokes for Different Folks There are several methods of searching Chinese dictionaries, but none are foolproof, even for Chinese. Some arrange by number of strokes: characters with 1 stroke, 2 strokes, ? strokes, ? strokes, ? strokes, deng deng. This is broken down further (and I do mean broken) by arranging them according to which stroke is first (vertical, horizontal, slanting down and left, or up to the right, deng deng). But I’ve come across characters that even Chinese professors could not find in this way. One professor who was a real character rifled the pages of my dictionary for 15 minutes, then said, “It’s no problem looking this up because we know it anyway.”
Well, different strokes for different folks.

The little red Oxford Dictionary is found in most mainland bookstores.

“A Chinese-English Dictionary,” produced by Beijing’s Foreign Language Institute, is another excellent tool—and plain fun to read! I read it through twice in four months just because I enjoyed the sample English sentences! Bear in mind, of course, that it was printed in 1988—scarcely a decade after the unCultural Revolution, so it’s not surprising that every sentence had a revolutionary bent.

My favorites "sample English sentences" include:
Suppose: "I suppose she’s gone to practice grenade throwing again." (what a hot date she'd make!)
Anew, afresh: "Launch a fresh offensive!"
Barely: "When I joined the 8th Army route, I was barely the height of a rifle."
Be: "I want to be a PLA man when I grow up."

Armed with such a vocabulary, imagine the conversations students strike up at Friday night English Corners! ( But jesting aside, it’s a very comprehensive little dictionary).

Mandarin Chinese—a marvelous language! And it would behoove you to learn a little. After all, it’s the official language of 1/5 of the planet’s people. But if 40,000 pictographic characters intimidate you, start with China’s official romanization scheme, PinYin. It’s simple, and useful—and I tell you how in “Dr. Bill’s unPatented PinYin Guide.”
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Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language.  This is a diagram of what the four main tones look like.  Amoy Magic--Guide to Xiamen and Fujian travel, tourism, business, investment, study, research, history, culture, cuisine, arts, crafts, deng deng!

Dr. Bill’s unPatented Pinyin Guide
(from Amoy Magic--Guide to Xiamen and Fujian, p.391)

Make the magic of Amoy come alive by spending a few minutes mastering China’s official romanization system, Pinyin. Some sounds are similar to English, but others are otherworldly. For example, how on earth do you pronounce “Xiamen?”

All Chinese words come in 3 parts: initials, finals, and tone. In “Xiamen,” “X” is the initial and “ia” the final, and the “Xia” is pronounced with the 4th tone.
Pinyin’s “X” sounds like “sh,” so Xiamen is pronounced like “Sh-Yah Men,” (with Sh and Yah crammed together so that Xiamen has only two syllables-something like “shaman with a yah after the sh”). (See page 393).
With only 400 or so distinct sounds, Mandarin is a haven for homonyms, but the 4 tones (plus a 5th "neutral" tone, and context) help us decipher them:
1st tone is level, and at the top of one’s normal vocal range for speaking.
2nd tone rises from the middle of one’s range to the top.
3rd tone starts in the middle, drops to the bottom, and rises at the end (Susan Marie says that if your chin hits your chest on the low note, you’ve got it right).
4th tone starts high and ends low, as if you were scolding someone.

The four tones (sounds like a 60s Pop Group!) sound like the diagram above.

In a tonal language, tones don't simply give an emotional undertone (anger, fear, joy, surprise) but completely change the meaning of words. Take ma, for example. With 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tones, ma means “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” and “to curse.” Get it wrong and you might call someone’s mother a horse!
Intimidated? Don’t be! And don’t cop out with the “I’m tone deaf” ploy because you’ve been using tones since you were a toddler…
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“Tone Deaf...”
...and other Lame Laowai Myths

Frustrated Laowai often excuse their poor Mandarin with, “I’m tone deaf!” Sheer nonsense. All English speakers use tones—especially us married ones. I’ve heard all four of Mandarin’s tones, and a few dozen more, from Susan Marie.

When Susan yells, “Bill!” with the 1st tone, she means, “Come here!” The 2nd tone “Bill” asks, “Where are you?” or “Is that you?” The 3rd tone “Bill” is reserved for giving me the third degree and means, “Do you expect me to swallow that?” The 4th tone “Bill,” a sharp, barking descent, means I’m in hot water. But when my sweetheart drops my nickname altogether and intones with the dead calm of a Taiwan typhoon’s eye, “William,” it is the neutral 5th tone, a portent of dire peril, and I am not long for this world.

Americans, particularly us domestipated ones, know tones.

Fortunately, Chinese are a forgiving people, even when you massacre your Mandarin and create tones of your own. A simple “Ni Hao Ma” (how are you) will have your congenial hosts exclaiming, “You have such excellent Chinese!”

But do them and yourself a favor and master PinYin.
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Pinyin Initials, Finals, and Approximate English Equivalents

b,m,m,f,d, about the same dou dough
n,l,g,k,j,s, as in English gan gone
y,ch,sh,t,w shu shoe

c Like ts in rats cai tseye
can tsahn

h Guttural h, like hao how
German ch in ach hu who

q Like ch in chick qu chew
qin cheen

r Between j & r ru roo

x Like sh xia shee-yah

z Like ds sound zai dzye
in kids zong dzong

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Pinyin Finals

Pinyin English Examples Pronunciation

a ah in ah! ba bah
ta tah

ai Like y in my lai lye
hai hi

an ahn (lawn) can tsahn

ang ahng (angst) mang mahng

ao ow in cow zao zow

ar ar in are nar nar

e u in bush re ruh

ei a in day gei gay

en un in pun wen wun

eng ung in rung leng lung

er ur in purr mer mur

i Like ee in wee qi chee
(after b,p,m,d,t,n,,j,q,x) mi mee

Like z after z,c,s ci cz
zi dz

Like r after ch, shi shir
sh, and r chi chir (chirp)

ia ee-ya, in one syllable xia sheeyah

ian yen tian tyen

iang yahng jiang jyahng

iao ee-yow (meow, piao pee-yow
in one syllable) tiao tee-yow

Pinyin English Examples Pronunciation

ie yeh tie tyeh

in een in preen pin peen

ing ing in sing ming ming

iong eeyong (long o) xiong sheeyong

iu eo in Leo liu leo

o roughly like a mo mwo-uh
long o and short u po pwo-uh
run together, with a w in front

ong Like ong in gong, tong tong
but with long O sound.

ou o in toe zhou joe

u like oo in boo, except du doo
after j,q,x,y, and then lu loo
like the French eu yu yeu

ua wah (ua in guava) gua gwah

uai wye (as in rye) guai gwye

uan wahn (swan) except duan dwahn
after j,q,x or y, when
it is wen (when) yuan ywen

uang wahng (as in angst) kuang kwahng

ue oo and yeh (yeah) said xue shooeh
in one syllable
ui like way chui chway

un like woon with the jun jwun
oo of book

uo like o (oh) and u (uh) duo dwo-uh
in one syllable

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