Monday, September 15, 2014

Varieties of Chinese

       I've heard a phrase used to define a country: Culture -  Language - Borders. The potpourri of cultures and languages in China is impressive. Repression has been a remarkable tool in up building China, both ancient and modern. But a new reality has set in. Tourism and social media has had an affect. While Mandarin is the official language of the country and the teaching English is so widespread making it a common thread among the elite and rising middle class, there are still areas of China where the local dialect renders the people almost unintelligible foreigners.   There are still  Chinese who have to rely on translators to understand what leaders in Beijing are speaking, but they can read what they said after-the-fact…if they can read. Kind of explains why China is governed/ruled the way it is. Quite a feat.
       A fellow English teacher who spoke Chinese very well told me that when some of his students who came from a distant province became aware that he could understand what they were saying whilst they spoke Chinese among themselves, they immediately began to speak in their local dialect rendering his Chinese useless. So much for inclusion.

       Note how Taiwan is referred to as a province by Chinese sources as opposed to a country as recognized by other nations in the world.

Anny did pretty good on her complicated presentation in Oral English class.

Linguists identify between seven to fourteen subgroups in the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.  Traditional classification of seven of the groups include:
Gan       (Jiangxinese)
Guan     (Mandarin or Beifanghau)
Kejia     (Hakka)
Min       (including the Hokkien & Taiwanese variants)
Wu        (including the Shanghainese variant)
Xiang    (Hunanese)
Yue      (including the Cantonese and Taishanese variants) 

In addition to the standard, accepted languages and dialects in China, it is customary to speak informally of dialects within each proving, e.g. Sichuan dialect, Hainan dialect. These designations do not generally correspond to classifications used by linguists, but each nevertheless has characteristics of its own. 

The question of whether the various varieties of Chinese should be called dialects or languages in their own right is contentious. There are two principal uses of the word dialect. If varieties are consider dialects of a single language when they are mutually intelligible, and separate languages otherwise, then the principal branches of Chinese, and even some of the subbranches, are distance languages. If, on the other hand, Dialect is used in its other meaning of a variety that is socially subordinate to a standardized or otherwise prestigious variety, perhaps one that share a common written language and literature with the prestige form, then they are all dialects of a single Chinese language, though Cantonese and to a lesser extent Shanhainese and Taiwanese are local prestige forms with use in the media and a nascent literature.

Whew! That's a mouthful!

The following is a brief overview of today's Chinese dialects:
1.  NORTHERN DIALECT (also called Mandarin)….
The official tongue of China, mainly based on Beijing dialect.
2.  JIANGSU DIALECT (also called Wu Dialect)….
Mainly based on Suzhou dialect, which in a way is closer to the Song Mandarin than that of the Northern Dialect. Song Dynasty (960-1279) is the most economical, culturally and intellectually developed period of Chinese history with vast volume of written materials produced during that time. Jiangsu Dialect again branches into many different sub-dialects, and Shanghai dialect is one of them.

3.  ANHUI DIALECT (also called Hui Dialect)….
Mainly use by people of Anhui province.
4.  JIANGXI DIALECT (also called Gang Dialect)…
Mainly used by people of Jianxi Province.
5.  HUAN DIALECT (also called Xiang Dialect)….
Mainly used by people in Huanan Province.
6.  Gujian Dialect (also called Minnan Dialect)…
Mainly sued by people inFujian and Taiwan Provinces.
Mainly ethically based (by Kejia ethnic people) who speak this particular form of dialect and can be found in Fujian, Taiwan and other southern provinces.
Mainly used by people in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.

This only just begins to scratch the surface of the complexity of Chinese languages & dialects. There is also Guan (Mandarin) with eight main dialect areas of Mandarin in Mainland China, Min with eight more dialect areas, Wu with six dialect area, Yue  with nine dialect areas, among others.

In addition to the varieties within the Sinitic branch of Sino-Tibetan, a number of MIXED LANGUAGES also exist that comprise elements of one or more Chinese languages and and dialects, plus OTHER languages.   YIKES!!!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Chinese Characters

       We learned that more Chinese students study English than there are English speakers in all of America. While that unfortunately does not translate to very much English speaking fluency in China, it is always a good experience for anyone to study something of another language. It enriches knowledge and appreciation of one's primary language. Jane proved to be a good example of this with her presentation.
       We never saw a yellow #2 pencil in China. Students use .5 or .7 fine tip pens or mechanical pencils. Why? Because whether writing Chinese characters or English letters, all their writing is incredibly tiny…and because most written Chinese characters are much more complicated that English alphabet letters. The thickness of a #2 wood pencil would blur the words/characters and besides, there are no pencil sharpeners to be found which would need to be used every few minutes, anyway.  
       Is it any wonder that illiteracy was common for centuries in China? It's a wonder to see Chinese students today reading and writing in two or more languages of such divergent complexities.
      Because Jane used so many Chinese characters to illustrate her points, her presentation had to be posted at a photograph so you can see all her examples. Zoom In for more comfortable reading. Reading it as is….is more like our experience reading their Written English assignments; by electrical moonlight ( the only light in our Chinese apartment ).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ancient Chinese Jade Culture

The Chinese fascination with Jade puzzled me. One of my most intelligent students spoke with glowing conviction of the power of Jade to heal. I listened to her with polite amazement. She wasn't the first of my college-educated students to swear by the medicinal value of jade. Copper bracelets have nothing on jade in China. Serious bio-feedback. It is said in China: Gold is valuable, Jade is precious. In fact, the written Chinese character for jade is similar to the character for imperial power. Go figure.

        "The ancient Chinese dictionary, Xu Shen's Explanation of Words and Phrases published during the Eastern Han Dynasty, defined jade as the "most beautiful stone with five characters"….hardness, subtle color, musical quality, the smooth fracture and transparency. The 5 characters were respectively equal to man's courage, benevolence, wisdom, self-discipline and fidelity.

        "Jade symbolized a man of noble character. Confucian endowed jade with eleven virtues, such as courtesy, wisdom, benevolence, fidelity, sincerity and so on. It is clear that jade had been personified. It was not just a piece of jewelry, but a part of one's being. The ancient Book of Songs noted that "a gentleman would never discard his jade ornaments without any reason, and the way he thought and spoke should be as mild and gentle as jade." Ancient Chinese also thought a man should treat himself as a piece of jade needing to be carved.

        "The ancient Chinese also believe jade can stave off evil spirits and create safety. According to Taoism, jade collecting the essence of the earth and heaven, could keep one immortal physically. In Zhou Dynasty people began to sew thousands of jade pieces into burial suits for rulers, so that their corpse would not vanish.  The custom developed further in Han Dynasty. The tombs of Prince Jing of Wester Han Dynasty and his wife were excavated and two jade suits were found. People do not make the burial suits any longer; however, still believe its protective powers and buy jade wares.

        "Jade also represents the imperial powers. We can get the idea from the way our ancestors created the character "yu" which means the jade. The character was gotten from the character "wang" meaning 'the king' or 'emperor.' Three horiztonal line of the "wang" implied the earth, the man's world and the heaven, and the vertical lines suggest the man who can understand the three worlds. When people wanted to wear a jade, they would drill hole with it, so the added spot of the "yu" character implied the hole and distinguished difference between the two characters. Jade also had an impact on other Chinese characters. Many emperors also preferred to used jade to make imperial seal. For instance, the imperial seal of the Qin Dynasty, the first feudal society in China, was made of jade.

        "All above, jade is beyond the definition of ornaments for Chinese. That is the reason why jade culture never died away, although China is not the main origin."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Chinese Nostalgia

Vila was a sweet visiting student from humble village roots far from Jinan. It is a curious practice in the Chinese university system that invites students to take classes at another university somewhere in China  (and sometimes Asia) for 1 or 2 semesters. Students bop all over the place. I had 3 incredible students from South Korea. The Korean students' English was always superior to their Chinese peers. Real home-sickness is not uncommon among freshmen students.

"As is know to all, nostalgia is a recurrent them in Chinese poetry. Most of us, especially the foreign readers of translated versions of Chinese poetry, may well be taken aback --or even put off-- by the frequency, as well as the sentimentality, of the lament for home. Actually, to understand the strength of the sentiment, we need to know that it has been deep-rooted and profound over the ages.

"To begin with, in ancient times, transportation and communication were largely limited and people were greatly isolated by mountains and rivers. Once separated, reunions seemed far from coming. Although they had thousands of words, few letters could be delivered. For this reason, even letters from homeland ere worth their weight in gold. Drifting on strong lands alone, poets were inclined to recall happy memories of their family members and hometowns at the sight of familiar scenes, especially when they were seriously ill and severely frustrated. And on holidays, they often found themselves drowned in great homesickness, In this case, nostalgic poetry seems the best embodiment of their loneliness and longing for home.

"In the second place, the Chinese desire for stability and rootedness in place is prompted by constant threat of war, exile, and the natural disasters of flood and drought.  Compared with natural calamities and man-made misfortunes, human beings seemed so insignificant and powerless. Have you ever seen the movie 1942?  Actually, I have seen it twice. From the hero's perspective, even dying closer to one's hometown is a kind of consolation. As a prevailing Chinese old saying puts it, if dead people can't be buried in their ancestry graves, their should will wander aimlessly all the time just like ghosts.  In other words, it's the forcible removal that makes the Chinese keenly aware of their loss and the importance of their homeland.

"Finally, it is the feeling of relaxation, warmth and sincerity that makes our longing for home ever-lasting. Faced with fierce competitions, people are not isolated by distances by  mistrust and jealousy. In this case, home is not a place to protect us from heavy rains and strong winds, but also a place to ease our minds and cure our wounds. That is the place where our beloved ones live in and our in exhaustive motivation comes from. That's the reason why so many people can endure all manner of difficulties and fight their way home. That's the reason for the emerging of the so called Chinese Spring Festival Travel Rush, the greatest temporary migration in human history.

"In a nutshell, Chinese nostalgia may be expressed in different shapes in different times, while the essence is the enduring."

Monday, July 21, 2014


Cerina was by far one of our best female students with a sharp sense of humor. Her presentation gave us a peek inside Chinese culture known mostly to the natives. You see and learn a lot about a culture living within it for a good stretch of time. But there is a unique native perspective and that always surprises visitors, especially in China.

The term :Chinese style: became popular about eight years ago thanks to a television series called Chinese Style Divorce which depicted how couples were entangled in three kinds of betrayals: mental betrayal, physical betrayal or mental/physical betrayal. 

Chinese-style Road Crossing: Whether the light is red or green, al long as a handful of people are gathered together, they'll cross the road as a "flock."  One can only count on being safe crossing at a Chinese intersection if one is walking in the flock.
Chinese-style school pick-up: God to any primary or even secondary school when school breaks and witness the chaos created by the quantity of parents waiting at the gate. Listen to the noise generated by the crowd as well as the variety of bicycles, motorbikes, and tricycles used by the parents. Even the busiest bazaar an't beat it. Note: Parents carry one or two children on their bicycles or motorbikes in the most precarious, hazardous fashion, which would be illegal in any western country and probably deserving of jail time.

Chinese-style tricks for curbing traffic jams: Limiting the time period and the areas in which one is allowed to travel by car. Limiting the amount of cars sold. Limiting car use depending on whether one's license plate is odd or even. Auctioning license plate numbers.

Chinese-style blind dates: The girls show up with their mothers. THe mother's job is to make detailed inquiries into whether or not the candidate for marriage has some real savings in his bank account, a car, a house.

Chinese-style gift-giving: A peculiar "collective movement" one week before the Chinese New Year or during major events such as the Moon Festival or the Boat Festival. People are so busy delivering present to their relative, and of course also to government officials, that the roads are chock-a-block. Note: Chinese gifts are among the most elaborately packaged gifts on the planet. Yards of satin, bows, shiny paper and layers of boxes within boxes. Not being tea-drinkers or moon cake fans, we re-gifted a lot, much to the delight of our landlady, the cafeteria cooks and whoever else we could find.

Chinese-style food safety: Melamine-enriched infant milk. Poisonous rice. Clenbuterol-fed pork. Dyed buns. Recycle cooking oil that come from the gutter…  This is all to blame on the economy, of course.

Chinese-style politico: The "three-must-haves" for any public official: a mistress, a secret bank account, and a getaway mansion. The more of each of these items, the better. 

Chinese-style suicide: A prominent feature of the 'Chinese-style suicide' is the most of Chinese suicide victims did not kill themselves because they were mentally ill. Instead, they committed suicide mainly because of their families' economic problems and the traditional Chinese outlook on life: laying down one's life for justice.

China's government is determined to tackle these problems. If you come to China in ten years or so you ma find totally different Chinese-styles.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Chinese Tea Culture

I don't drink classic tea, particularly caffeinated teas; but I'm imbibe an herbal tea now and then. But I learned from our students that hot water is also called tea. Boiling hot water dispensaries are everywhere on campus because one can not drink the water in China. Freshman student, Emma, gave a good information about Chinese tea culture even though she struggled with it. I prefer to see students give honest, personally prepared presentations rather than copy something perfectly scripted from the Internet just to save face.

Tea Garden in China

Chinese people are believed to have enjoyed tea drinking for more than 4,000 years. Legend has it that tea was first discovered by Shennog, who was tasting hundreds of herbal medicines to fast their medicinal power. Since then, tea was originally used for detoxification and mean to be chewed in the mouth. Later, people began to eat it with water In Han dynasty, Chinese people gained a wealth of experience, including different tea species, baking skills, infusing, water selection, tea sets and so on; initially forming a set of tea drinking customs.

Tea as a drink prepared during the Tang Dynasty. In Song dynasty, tea became a popular drink. You can see tea houses everywhere. Someone worked in the house was called tea doctor. New skills created many different ways to enjoy tea. During Ming and Qing dynasty, drinking tea had been an elegant hobby so that many literati like drinking and talking tea to show off themselves. There is a saying that literati drink tea, warriors drink wine.
Tea plant

How does the teach make? First is withering. After people put off the leaves, they evenly place them in house to make leaves dry. The new leaves must be parched in tea cauldrons. Then is rolling and chopped. This step make the smell of tea out of the leaves and easily volatilize when people drinking it. The last step is ferment. It takes four pounds of fresh tea leaves to produce one pound of parched Chinese tea. Different steps decide different species of tea, including black tea, green tea, white tea, yellow tea and dark green tea. In addition, China has many kinds of tea, the most representative are the China top ten famous teas.

Oolong tea being infused in a gaiwan

Tea is a healthy drink which has anti-aging, prolong life and physical effects. It can refresh you when you are tired. It is also good for eyes and teeth. Whats more, tea can prevent cancer and reduce radiation. 

A tea plantation
About how to drink tea, this formed tea arts. Different tea has different arts. For example, Oolong tea art has 36 steps. So, someone calls Chinese tea as Gongfu tea. If you have a chance, you really should see the tea show. You can see tea doctor use long spout of the teapot to pour. It is interesting and amazing. Chinese say tea drinks like life.
Leaves of tea plant
Tea of different fermentation prepared, in cups:  green tea, yellow tea, oolong and black

Tea set

Tea Culture Photos Tea Ceremony SCAM

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Chinese Table Manners

Now that you have your chopsticks well in hand, it's time to get the rest of your Chinese dining ettiqutte down pat. Food is huge in China. Our students list "delicious food" as their first delight. But in a culture that has favored delicious food for several thousand years, there's bound to be a few rules attached; especially in a society where appearances and decorum matter very much. I'll let Leslie, Olive and Cheris tell the rest of the story.

Eating is dominate aspect of Chinese culture, and eating out is a most common way to honor guests.   Similar to westerners, eating together in China is way to socialize and deepen friendships. No matter at home or restaurant, there are many eating manners that one must pay attention to.  There are rules for inviting guest over. When guest of honor enters into room, hosts stand until the guest of honor is seated. The host then orders dishes brought and the guest should be silent. When dishes arrive, the meal begins with a toast from host, and guests then make a toast in turn in honor or host. 

A round dining table is more popular in China than a rectangular or square one since many people can be seated comfortably facing each other. Seating arrangement is most important part of CHinese dining etiquette. In ancient times it was enacted according to a 4-tier social status: 1. imperial court, 2. local authorities, 3. trade associations, 4. farmers & workers. Respect in modern times is simplified to: 1.master of the banquet, 2. guests.  Seat of honor is reserved for master of banquets or guest with highest status or most aged and that person is one who always faces east or facing entrance. In China, left is the sign of being respectable; so, the host can take the seat beside The Big, or sit opposite The Big, and next to the door. Why' that? Obviously  it's convenient to pay the bill. Those with high social position sit closer to master of banquet and lower positions sit furthest from the seat of honor. 
Guest of honor should be first one to start the meal. The best food in a dish should be left for the guest of honor.

Unlike the West where everyone has their own play of food, in China the dishes are placed on the table and everybody shares. Sometimes the host will serve some dishes with his/her own chopsticks to guest to show hospitality. This is a sign of politeness. 
If the dinner is held in the host's family and the meal is cooked by the beautiful hostess, then when she serves the dishes and told you she's very sorry that the soup today is not so tasty, or the beef is a little bit over-fried, and if you believe she really thinks that way, alright, you may be out of her list next time. The appropriate thing to do would be to eat whatever-it-is and say how yummy it is. If you feel uncomfortable with this, you can just say a polite "thank you" and leave the food there. 
Never try to turn a fish over yourself, since the separation of the fish skeleton from the lower half of flesh will usually be performed by the host or waiter. Superstitious people deem bad luck with ensue and a fishing boat will capsize if you do so. This is especially true to southerners in China.
As Chinese food contains meat with bones, so it's OK to spit the bones on the plates or table.

Men, women and children participate in the custom of toasting. During the 1st toast of the night, all stand. The toaster may say "gan bei" (dry glass) which is like the western  "bottoms up" and all are expected to finish the entire drink. If the beverage is not baijiu then gan bei is not said; rather, "thank you for coming" or something similar is said. All are expected to clink their glasses with other guest within reach. Women & children do not normally drink alcohol but still participate in the toast with what they have. Anyone can propose a toast. If you are too far from the person you want toast, then tap your cup or glass to get attention; don't raise your voice. And when you toast someone superior to you like a teacher or elder, you are supposed to let the rime of your glass tap lower than the rim of their glass to show respect.

Unlike the many western nations, a hand must be placed over the mouth while using toothpick to conceal the action. Not doing so is considered rude. Used toothpicks should be placed on your bowl or plate that you do not intend to use again. Never should be left on tablecloth for a waitress to have to pick up, nor thrown on the floor. Such throwing is rude on floor is rude to restaurant or host and putting on tablecloth is inconsiderate to servers.  

…One should not point teapot spout directly at others as this is same as using the finger to point at somebody, which is very impute and also means that this person is not welcome in the house. Obviously, at circular table, the teapot mouth must point at someone, but it is not supposed to point directly to the person on the left or right of the teapot. Across a table does not count, so it is fine.
… When pouring tea for other, hold teapot with right hand and press lid with other hand to show honor and sedateness. If you are getting teach for yourself, make sure to ask other first if they would like some more tea. Then serve yourself after you have served them. Using teach to force the visitor out, there was a rule in Qing Dynasty's officialdom as "the tea that given by the boss shouldn't be taken." So if the boss give tea to his subordinate by his own hand, which is given by a servant, that means he is impatient to the subordinate, and the subordinate should leave immediately. If the boss is visiting the subordinate house, the subordinate must not give the tea to the boss by his own hands, either because that's very impolite and means to force the visitor out.
… If you are not pouring your own tea, but at a restaurant where the service is attentive, in the region of south CHina (especially Canton and Hong Kong) the one who gets the tea uses the knuckles of first and middle fingers to tap the table 2 or 3 times to show thankfulness. This looks similar to knocking on a door, but don't knock as heavily as if it were a door. It is a tap, not a knock; the motion resembles a knock.
…  When the teach runs out and requires more hot water, you may leave the life ajar but still on the teapot -- this is a signal for attendant to refill it. Do not entirely remove the lid and place it on table. The lid touching the table is allowing good luck to escape, and also the table might be dirty. Do not leave a teapot with lid ajar in  middle of table. It should be toward the side of table so that the attendant may refill it without rehang across patrons in an invasive/taking manner.

In most restaurants in Chinese countries, there is not tip required unless it is posted, and will already be on the bill. Guests should not truly 'split the bill' with the host. A gust who splits the bill is very ungracious and embarrassing to the host. If you do not accept the host paying for the bill, it is implying that the host cannot afford it or you do not accept the friendship or hospitality of host. However, it is expected for the guest to offer to pay for the meal multiple times, but ultimately allow the host to pay. It is also unacceptable to not make any attempt to "fight for" the bill. Not fighting for the bill means you think that the host owes that meal to you somehow. Therefore, if you are the guest, always fight for the bill but never win it on the first meal in your host's hometown. After the first meal at your host's hometown, and sometime before you leave, it is customary to bring the host's family to a meal out to thank them for your stay if you did not bring  initial small present for them when you arrived. For that meal, you may pay but you must request your host's attendance and cooperation with allowing you to cover that particular meal.
If you and an acquaintance are on a business trip, it is acceptable to split the bill, but more common to rotate who pays for the meal, with meals of similar cost. Though it is a rotation, here is still the same mock-fight for the bill. The difference is that you may say, "Fine fine, since you are my elder, this is fine this time, but the next meal, I cover." Or something to that effect and pay for the next meal. This rotation does not have to be a meal necessarily. For example, you may rotate a meal and a game of golf. The key to the rotation being viewed as acceptable or not, is the enjoyment both parties actually get from the activity and the approximate cost. Golf would not be an acceptable oration of the other person does not enjoy golf, is rather bad at it while you are excellent at it, etc.