Simplified versus Traditional

Inspiration for the character for 'electricity'

In the 1950s, to increase the literacy rate among its citizens, the government in mainland China began to develop a system of simplifying the thousands of Chinese characters, by decreasing the number of pen strokes required to write them. This resulted in the formation of two systems of Chinese characters – the traditional system (still used in Taiwan, parts of Hong Kong and many overseas communities) and the simplified system (used in mainland China and Singapore). As a student, you can choose which system to focus on, as our course supports both formats.

By choosing to learn the simplified version, you are shortening the amount of characters you need to learn, since many similar sounding characters have been replaced with a single one (for example while you have the characters 隻, 祇 and 只 in traditional, all three are combined into 只 in the simplified form). The characters you do have to learn also become a lot simpler, for example 嗎 becomes 吗 and 麼 becomes 么. The proponents for traditional form emphasize the beauty and tradition in the characters, many of which were developed in the fifth century. By learning the history behind characters, you also learn more about the culture and rationale behind the language.

In many cases, the simplified version of a character removes components from the original traditional character, thereby reducing the number of strokes required to write it. The traditional character for electricity for example 電 is made up of two components – rain, followed by lightning striking a field at the bottom (as depicted in the picture above). The simplified version 电 removes the rain component. Similarly, the traditional character to listen (聽) is a combination of “ear” (耳) and “goodness” (德). The simplified version however is reduced to 听, focusing more on the sound component than the origins of the character.

The debate then becomes whether it is easier to remember the smaller number of strokes of the simplified characters, or the meanings behind the components in many of the traditional characters. Other factors to consider include that most “writing” these days is done by typing out characters, in which case stroke count becomes meaningless. In the end, it comes down to where you are and how you plan to use your Chinese. Since literature written before the 1950s was all done in traditional characters, there will always be a need for scholars to learn the traditional system. However for learners predominantly in mainland China, focusing on current material, simplified may be the way to go.


Mid Autumn Moon Festival

Mid Autumn Moon Festival

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (zhōngqiūjié), or simply the Moon Festival, is celebrated in many countries throughout Asia, although it it originated some 3000 years ago in China. This festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese lunar calendar. Just as Westerners may wish for a “white Christmas”, Chinese wish for a clear sky on this day to observe the full moon in all its glory.

After Chinese New Year, the Moon Festival is the next important holiday in the Chinese lunar calendar. It is a legal holiday and is used to celebrate abundance and an end to the harvest season before winter kicks in, similar to why North Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day. However, instead of eating turkey, traditional foods include moon cakes, which come in wide varieties, and the pomelo fruit. Traditions include lighting lanterns and having barbecues under the moonlight, topped off with fireworks to celebrate the occasion.

The story behind the celebration of the Moon Festival is similar to that of Chinese Valentine’s Day. Once upon a time there were ten suns in the sky which began to scorch the earth, causing misery among the people. Houyi, the archer, solved the problem by shooting the suns down one by one, leaving just one. He was rewarded by becoming the king and marrying the beautiful Chang’e, as well as receiving a pill that granted immortality among the Gods. However, knowing that swallowing the pill would cause him to leave earth and go to the sky, he gave it to Chang’e to save for the future. One day, Chang’e was attacked by their servant who knew about the pill and wanted it for himself. Knowing that she had no other choice, Chang’e swallowed the pill herself, causing her to ascend into the sky and to the moon. Houyi tried to chase her, but in vain. Since then, every year during the moon festival, when the moon was at is brightest, Houyi would celebrate the memory of his love by lighting incense and eating the fruits and desserts that she loved to eat, which is how citizens today also celebrate the occasion.


Levels of Fluency

Levels of Fluency

I’ve always had a problem answering the question “Can you speak Chinese?” What exactly does the speaker mean by that question? Do you need to be fluent in the language to answer that question affirmatively? And if so, what level do you need to reach to attain “fluency”? To complicate things further, one’s listening / speaking skills might be a lot more developed than their reading / writing skills, so how do you factor that into the picture?

You will find that as you learn a new language, there are certain levels of fluency that you come across. The hardest part is crossing from one level to another, as this is a jump that many don’t make. The reasons for this vary from person to person, but in general we tend to get relaxed in our comfort zone. In the early stages, you learn enough to survive where you are. To get to the next level requires extra effort on your part which may affect your daily routine. Most would rather stay in their comfort zone than expend this extra effort.

I have noticed this resistance by analyzing feedback and statistics for the users of my course as we cross from one level to another. It would be a much more pleasant experience for basic listeners, for me to continue teaching the course in the format used in earlier lessons where a dialog is presented in Chinese, then explained completely in English. However, by adding Chinese to the explanations in later lessons, I am forcing the listener to consult the translations and word bank where necessary, which of course requires extra effort on their part.

During my recent experience working with individuals of this course, I also found it interesting that different users used different standards to decide when to progress to later lessons. Some students wouldn’t continue unless they understood 90% plus of the material and vocabulary used in a lesson. Others were more lenient and would continue on despite much less retention. Of course there is also the question of what exactly you are trying to learn. For some, having proper pronunciation was most important. Others were more interested in vocabulary or grammar usage. Some might have mastered these skills and were now going through earlier lessons to shore up their reading skills.

I think it would be quite an accomplishment for a user to actually start the CLO course from the first lesson and be able to progress at their own pace all the way to the most recent lessons. Hopefully the tools we have added and will continue to add along the way will help users accomplish the individual goals and targets they have set for themselves. If there are certain hints or strategies that have worked well for you, please share them with the rest of us.


Chinese Dialects

Chinese People Talking

One of the lessons I found out early on during my initial stint in Taiwan was that there was more than one form of Chinese, in fact a LOT more! I found it odd that when people spoke to me, I could make out what they were saying, and they seemed to understand what I was saying to them. However, when I tried to eavesdrop on people talking to each other, more times than not, I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying!

We all know that Mandarin is the official language for China and Taiwan. However, each region within these places has their own unique dialect that can differ greatly from typical Mandarin. In Taiwan for example, most residents speak Minnanhua (also knows as Taiwanese) which is similar to the dialects spoken in the Fujian province of China. In fact, most regions in China have their own hua or local dialect. So when local residents speak to each other, that is usually the language they will use. It is what is used at home among family members as well.

Many generations ago, the Mandarins of Imperial China came up with an official language to unify the country and allow people from different regions to be able to communicate with each other. This is why Mandarin is called Putonghua (the common language) in Mainland China and Guoyu (the country language) in Taiwan. It is the language used to teach in school, on the news and to conduct business in (which makes it a good language to learn!)

Because for most people, Mandarin is formerly taught to them in school, it is also a sign of good education if you can speak proper Mandarin. So don’t be surprised if someone compliments your Chinese by saying “It’s very standard!” If you want to really fit in with the locals, learn a few words of the local dialect. If you think being able to speak a few words of Mandarin will impress them, imagine if you spoke a few words of the local language – that will be sure to floor them, as they know there are no books on the subject – the only way to learn it is to pick it up off the street, just like they had to.

As this course has shown, there are differences between pronunciation patterns from different regions in China. Learning about these dialects helped me better appreciate the differences in speech between different speakers. Just like it’s possible to identify where a person comes from by their English accent, it is also possible to do so by listening to a person’s Chinese.


Chinese Tea Culture

Chinese Tea Culture

While many may know that tea is popular in Chinese culture, many may not know how important and how integral it is as part of daily life. Tea is offered by the host to his guests as a sign of respect towards them. When visiting someone’s house, expect to be served tea when you are first seated. Going to a business meeting? Expect to be served tea before and during the meeting. Getting a haircut? It’s not uncommon for tea to be offered to you there as well. Tea ceremonies are also an integral part of Chinese weddings, where the new bride and groom offer tea to their parents and in-laws as a show of appreciation.

There are several different kinds of tea available, some more common than others, depending on the occasion. Green tea is a more natural form as it maintains the original color of the tea leaves. This flavor is found not only in tea but also in everything from chewing gum, medicines, cooking, soaps and even toothpaste! The green tea extract has many healthy properties, so it is common to extend these properties to other products of daily use.

Black tea (or red tea as it is known in Chinese) gets its color after fermentation of the tea leaves. Wulong tea is a cross between green and black tea, as a result of partial fermentation. Other types of tea include scented varieties such as jasmine tea, created by mixing flowers during the processing of tea leaves.

So why is tea so popular? In the summer, tea is known for dispelling heat and producing a cooling and relaxing sensation. Tea is also considered to have chemicals that aid in digestion, as well as removing nicotine and alcohol from the body. There is a fascinating process of how tea is served, involving constant pouring and repouring of hot water from the teapot to the teacups to provide the proper tea color and aroma. This process is especially used at tea shops, when customers are sampling different types of tea for purchase.

When served tea, it is best to follow the gestures that others around you use to show gratitude to the host, as these can vary from region to region. In general however, expect the host to make sure your tea cup is constantly refilled, so if you have had your fill, it is best to take a sip and let the rest sit in your cup.