Who She?

Seriously, I’m talking about the great Chinese scholar 胡适 (Hú Shì), and you know better than to pronounce this name as “Who She”. Mr. Hu was born in China in 1891. He made vital contributions to Chinese liberalism and language reform by advocating the use of written vernacular Chinese and promoting new forms of literature. The vision and efforts of this great scholar has helped tremendously in reducing illiteracy among the Chinese as it is a lot easier to read written words that correspond to what one says, than to decipher and interpret the terse scholarly classical Chinese.

The vernacular Chinese language is called 白话 (báihuà). As you know, (bái) means white or bright, as in 白天 (báitiān daytime). It also means understandable or to understand, as in 明白 (míngbai). On the other hand, written classical Chinese is called 文言文 (wényán wén).

Following are two lines from a maxim composed by an ancient Chinese calligraphy expert:

Wù dào rén zhī duǎn;

wù shuō jǐ zhī cháng.

(wù), in this case, = 不要 (bùyào) = do not
(This word also means “not haveing or “without”.)
(dào) = (shuō) = speak, say
(zhī), in this case, = (de) = a particle used for indicating the possessive case
(duǎn) = 短处 (duǎnchu) = 缺点 (quēdiǎn) = shortcoming, faults
(cháng) = 长处 (chángchu) = 优点 (yōudiǎn) = strong points, strengths

In modern times, we write this maxim the same way as we say it, namely:

Bùyào shuō biérén de duǎnchu;
Don’t talk of other people’s faults.

bùyào shuō zìjǐ de chángchu.
Don’t boast of your own strengths.

Please click on this link to read a poem written by Mr. Hu that illustrates how one can compose sensible and enjoyable verses out of ordinary words taken from the vernacular language.

都是(dōushì) all are
平常(píngcháng) ordinary
情感(qínggǎn) emotions
言語(yányu) speaking
偶然(ǒurán) by chance
碰著(pèng zhe) encounter
詩人(shīrén ) poet
變幻出(biànhuàn chū) tranform into; conjure up
多少(duōshao) how much; this much
新奇(xīnqí) novelty
詩句(shījù) verses
醉過(zuì guò) after having beeen intoxicated
(cái) then
(zhī) know
(jiǔ) wine,alcoholic drink
(nóng) thick, dense, strong
愛過(ài guò) after having loved
(qíng) sentiment, feelings
(zhòng) intense, deep, heavy
不能(bùnéng) unable to
(zuò) do, make
正如 (zhèngrú) just like
(mèng) dream

A glimpse of classical Chinese (3)

I know the majority of you will never be called upon to read a full-length composition written in classical Chinese. Still, it helps to have a smattering of the classical or formal Chinese words so that when they appear on a sign, in a phrase or in a document, you will not be totally stumped.

Following are a few more examples of commonly used formal words and their modern/colloquial equivalents.

(shǒu) is the head. It connotes importance, priority and leadership. The modern equivalent is (tóu head).

(zú foot, sufficient) as a part of the body is the foot. The modern equivalent is (jiǎo foot). 足球 (zúqiú) refers soccer. When there’s pain in your foot, you’d say:

Wǒ de jiǎo téng.
My foot hurts.

The formal word for “to see” is (shì), such as in 电视 (dian shi). In everyday speech, you would use (kàn), or 看见 (kànjian), instead.

Tā kànjian yīzhǐ dà xiàng.
He saw a large elephant.

(yún) is the formal word for “to say”. It has been adopted as the simplified Chinese character for cloud. 佛云 (Fó yún) means “Buddha said.” The modern word for “to say” is (shuō say, speak).

(xíng) has a number of different meanings. It is the formal word for “to walk” or “to go”, which corresponds to the familiar word ( zǒu). It is also the formal word for “to carry out” or “to engage in”, which corresponds to the familiar word (zuò). It also refers to one’s behaviour or conduct, as in 行为 (xíngwéi). When used colloquially, 行! (Xíng!) means “Cool!”, “O.K.”, or “All right.”

人行道 (rénxíngdào) is a sidewalk or a pedestrian walkway.

, when pronounced as “zhāo”, means morning. (yáng) means the sun, or being positive, open or masculine. 朝阳 (zhāoyáng) is the morning sun. In modern spoken Mandarin, you would say, 早晨的太阳 (zǎochén de tàiyáng).

(xī) means evening, and 夕阳 (xīyáng) is the sun at dusk. In spoken Mandarin, you would say, 傍晚的太阳 (bàngwǎn de tàiyáng).

朝夕 (zhāo xī) means day and night, or daily. In modern parlance, it’s 天天 (tiāntiān).

If you ever need to bargain with Buddah for happiness, here’s a cute story that shows how. (This story is widely circulated on the Internet, but I was unable to find the name of its original author. If you know who the original author is, please let me know. Thanks!)

Wǒ duì fó shuō:
I say to Buddha,

Qǐng ràng wǒ suǒyǒu de péngyǒu yǒngyuǎn jiànkāng kuàilè.
“Please let all of my friends be forever healthy and happy.”

佛说: “只能四天.”
Fó shuō: “Zhǐnéng sìtiān.”
Buddha says, “Only four days.”

我说: “好. 春天, 夏天, 秋天, 冬天.”
Wǒ shuō: “Hǎo. chūntiān, xiàtiān, qiūtiān, dōngtián.”
I say, “Okay. Spring days, summer days, autumn days and winter days.”

佛说: “三天.”
Fó shuō: “Sāntiān.”
Buddha says, “Three days.”

我说: “好. 昨天, 今天, 明天.”
Wǒ shuō: “Hǎo. Zuótiān, jīntiān, míngtiān.”
I say, “Okay. Yesterday, today, tomorrow.”

佛说: “不行. 两天.”
Fó shuō: “Bùxíng.Liǎng tiān.”
Buddha says, “No way. Two days.”

我说: “好. 白天, 黑天.”
Wǒ shuō: “Hǎo. Báitiān, hēi tiān.”
I say, “Okay. Bright days (daytime), dark days (nighttime).”

佛说: “不行. 就一天!”
Fó shuō: “Bùxíng. Jiù yītiān.”
Buddha says, “No way. Just one day.”

我说: “好!”
Wǒ shuō: “Hǎo.”
I say, “All right.”

佛茫然问道: “哪一天?”
Fó mángrán wèn dào: “Nǎ yītiān?”
Perplexed, Buddha asks, “Which day then?”

我说: “在我所有朋友活著的每一天.”
Wǒ shuō: “Zài wǒ suǒyǒu péngyǒu huó zhe de mě iyī tiān.”
I say, “Each day my friends are alive.”

佛笑了. 他说:
Fó xiào le. Tā shuō:
Buddha smiles. He says,

Yǐhòu nǐ suǒyǒu de péngyǒu jiāng tiāntiān jiànkāng kuàilè.
“From now on, all of your friends shall be healthy and happy every day.”

Congratulations! You have just finished reading a complete story in Chinese. Give yourself a pat on the back!

Have a Happy New Year!


(gōng) means respectful or respectfully.
(hè) is to congratulate.
(xīn) means new.
(xǐ) means auspiciousness or jubilation.

A glimpse of classical Chinese (2)

Now that we do most of our writing on the keyboard or on the touchscreen, we forget that the fountain pen and then the ball-point pen were once a marvelous invention. It used to be that a learned Chinese scholar had to prepare the ink immediately before writing a document and make sure it had the proper viscosity and intensity. Writing was a time-consuming endeavor that many commoners could not afford to learn or enjoy. And I suspect this explains why classical Chinese is so concise and terse in style. Just as we’d like to execute a function in as few taps or keystrokes as possible on our computers, the ancient Chinese sought to express an idea in the least number of characters as possible. Therefore, the written language deviated a great deal from the more natural spoken language. And of course, the classical Chinese poems and lyrics, like the classical English poems and lyrics, can deviate substantially from the spoken language, the word order often altered to conform to the rhyming scheme adopted.

For example, in spoken Chinese, 好像 (hǎoxiàng) means “to seem like”, “to look like”, “as if” or “as though”. The corresponding word in classical Chinese is (ruò), (rú), or (sì).

Take the following line from the song, 高山青 (Gāoshān qīng), mentioned in my 12/14/11 blog post:

Měi rú shuǐ ya.
Are pretty as the waters.

In spoken language, you would say:

Hǎoxiàng shuǐ yīyàng měilì ya.

似乎 (sìhu) means the same as 好像 (hǎoxiàng). In this expression, (hu) does not carry any particular meaning.

You know that 知道 (zhīdào) means to know or to be aware of, and 自己 (zìjǐ) means oneself. In classical Chinese, 知道 (zhīdào) is just (zhī). As for 自己 (zìjǐ self), you will just see either (zì self) or (jǐ self).

Therefore, one who understands you well, your bosom buddy, is called 知己 (zhījǐ). And the word for being full of oneself is 自满 (zìmǎn). These terms are used in everyday speech.

Those of you who are named Peter have probably adopted 彼得 (Bǐdé) as your Chinese alias. (bǐ) means “that”, “those” or “other”. It is the opposite of (cǐ this). So, 彼此 (bǐcǐ) means each other, or one another.

Tāmen bǐcǐ zhījiān méiyǒu xìnlài.
There is no trust between (or among) them.

知己知彼, 百战百胜.
Zhījǐzhībǐ, bǎizhànbǎishèng.
Know thy enemy and know thyself, then thou shall fight a hundred battles and win a hundred battles.

The (dào) in 知道 (zhīdào) refers to 道理 (dàoli a principle, a truth or a way of reasoning). So, if you agree with what another person says, you could say:

Yǒu dàoli.
Makes sense.

Otherwise, you could keep quiet, or, if there’s no danger of offending the other person, say:

Méi dàoli.
Doesn’t makes sense.

If you hear the following expression, you will know that the other person is really frustrated or furious:

Preposterous! Outrageous!
(How can it be this way!)

(qǐ) means “how can it be”, which conveys a sense of negativity. It’s the equivalent of 难道 (nándào), which is a rhetoric that translates to “Are saying that . . .?” On the other hand 岂不 (qǐbù) can be interpreted as “is it not” and connotes an affirmation. Learn to use these expressions, and your Chinese teacher will be really impressed. Following are two examples:

Zhè qǐ shì tā néng liǎojiě de?
How could he possibly understand this?

Zhè qǐ bù shì zìtǎokǔchī?
Is this not asking for trouble?

Zhè nándào shì tā néng liǎojiě de?
How could he possibly understand this?

Zhè nándào bùshì zìtǎokǔchī?
Is this not asking for trouble?

A glimpse of classical Chinese (1)

The Chinese language is widely recognized as one of the most difficult languages to learn. But how difficult is it? And why is it so difficult? Let’s try to answer the second question first, and we will limit the discussion to Mandarin and not worry about the local dialects used in the various provinces of China.

The inherent difficulty for an English-speaking learner arises from the fact that Mandarin and English do not share the same root and therefore sound and look totally different. On top of that, the current Mandarin language in circulation has retained many expressions and word usage of the classical Chinese used thousands of years ago. (Imaging reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.) It has also incorporated innumerable idioms that have evolved over the same time period from the collective wisdom of the largest group of people on earth. In addition, modern parlance includes new phrases coined by newscasters, advertisers, Internet users, etc., that, when taken out of context, even a Chinese may sometimes have trouble understanding.

Therefore, I would list the levels of difficulty of learning Mandarin in the following order:

Learning everyday conversational Mandarin, children’s songs, folksongs
Reading children’s books and the lyrics of folksongs and pop songs
Watching modern-day sitcoms
Typing Chinese characters
Writing Chinese characters
Watching historical movies
Reading Magazines and novels
Reading newspapers and listening to news
Reading/writing official documents containing classical cliches and technical jargons
Studying classical literature

Up to this point, we have focused our attention on spoken and written vernacular Chinese. However, we have inevitably encountered a few words that are borrowed from classical Chinese. It is time to point those out to you.

It is customary in classical writing to include the following words merely for the purpose of form or function:


The combination, 之乎者也 (zhīhūzhěyě), has become an expression that refers to pedantic terms. Nevertheless, the individual words are still employed in modern Mandarin in various ways.

As a particle after a descriptive word, (zhī) has been replaced by the modern word (de). For example, for “beautiful flowers”, you would say 美丽的花 (měilì de huā), and not 美丽之花 (měilì zhī huā). On placards and in magazine article titles, you will still see things like 巴黎之夜 (bālí zhī yè Nighttime in Paris).

之前 (zhīqián) means prior to a certain point in time.

之前, 他沒去過.
Zhīqián, tā méi qù guò.
He had not been there previously.

In classical Chinese, (zhī) is also used as a pronoun in the objective case. A number of canned phrases containing this word are used in modern Chinese, such as:

Bù kěyǐ děngxiánshìzhī.
One should not treat this as unimportant.

As an interrogative particle in classical Chinese, (hu) has been replaced by

(hu) has retained its use as a preposition, such as in 几乎 (jīhū close to being, nearly; practically) and 合乎 (héhū conform to or comply with).

When referring to a person, the classical word (zhě) is the equivalent of 的人 (de rén a person who …). For example, 爱好者 (àihàozhě) is a lover of art, reading, etc, or a sports fan, 读者 (dúzhě) are readers, and 新闻记者 (xīnwènjìzhě) are journalists.

(zhě) is also a particle that appears in the important word, 或者 (huòzhě or, perhaps).

Whereas in classical Chinese, (yě) is just an appendage, such as a “yeah” added to the end of a sentence, in modern parlance, it is an adverb that means “also” or “as well”.

Zhèyàng yěhǎo.
It’s fine this way, too. (It’s just as well.)

也许 (yěxǔ) and 或许 (huòxǔ) both mean “perhaps” or “maybe”.

Yěxǔ tā wàngdiào le.
Perhaps she has forgotten.

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