Remembering Y.R. Chao: 1892-1982

Y.R. Chao

Y.R. Chao
November 3, 1892 – February 25, 1982

Today, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the brilliant linguist and all-around interesting guy Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / ??? / ???), I’m remembering him by rereading some of his work. (Chao died twenty years and one day after his good friend Hu Shih.)

Here are some readings here on Pinyin.info by or about Y.R. Chao that you may wish to review:

New database of cross-strait differences in Mandarin goes online

Last week, on the same day President Ma Ying-jeou accepted the resignation of a minister who made some drunken lewd remarks at a w?iyá (year-end office party), Ma was joking to the media about blow jobs.

Classy.

screenshot from a video of a news story on this

But it was all for a good cause, of course. You see, the Mandarin expression chu? l?ba, when not referring to the literal playing of a trumpet, is usually taken in Taiwan to refer to a blow job. But in China, Ma explained, chu? l?ba means the same thing as the idiom p?i m?pì (pat/kiss the horse’s ass — i.e., flatter). And now that we have the handy-dandy Zh?nghuá Y?wén Zh?shikù (Chinese Language Database), which Ma was announcing, we can look up how Mandarin differs in Taiwan and China, and thus not get tripped up by such misunderstandings. Or at least that’s supposed to be the idea.

The database, which is the result of cross-strait cooperation, can be accessed via two sites: one in Taiwan, the other in China.

It’s clear that a lot of money has been spent on this. For example, many entries are accompanied by well-documented, precise explanations by distinguished lexicographers. Ha! Just kidding! Many entries are really accompanied by videos — some two hundred of them — of cutesy puppets gabbing about cross-strait differences in Mandarin expressions. But if there’s a video in there of the panda in the skirt explaining to the sheep in the vest that a useful skill for getting ahead in Chinese society is chu? l?ba, I haven’t found it yet. Will NMA will take up the challenge?

Much of the site emphasizes not so much language as Chinese characters. For example, another expensively produced video feeds the ideographic myth by showing off obscure Hanzi, such as the one for ch?ng.

WARNING: The screenshot below links to a video that contains scenes with intense wawa-ing and thus may not be suitable for anyone who thinks it’s not really cute for grown women to try to sound like they’re only thwee-and-a-half years old.

cheng3

In a welcome bit of synchronicity, Victor Mair posted on Language Log earlier the same week on the unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation, briefly discussing just such patterns of duplication, triplication, etc.

Mair notes:

Most of these characters are of relatively low frequency and, except for a few of them, neither their meanings nor their pronunciations are known by persons of average literacy.

Many more such characters consisting or two, three, or four repetitions of the same character exist, and their sounds and meanings are in most cases equally or more opaque.

The Hanzi for ch?ng (which looks like ??? run together as one character) in the video above is sufficiently obscure that it likely won’t be shown correctly in many browsers on most systems when written in real text: ????. But never fear: It’s already in Unicode and so should be appearing one of these years in a massively bloated system font.

Further reinforcing the impression that the focus is on Chinese characters, Liú Zhàoxuán, who is the head of the association in charge of the project on the Taiwan side, equated traditional Chinese characters with Chinese culture itself and declared that getting the masses in China to recognize them is an important mission. (Liu really needs to read Lü Shuxiang’s “Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.”)

Then he went on about how Chinese characters are a great system because, supposedly, they have a one-to-one correspondence with language that other scripts cannot match and people can know what they mean by looking at them (!) and that they therefore have a high degree of artistic quality (g?odù de yìshùxìng). Basically, the person in charge of this project seems to have a bad case of the Like Wow syndrome, which is not a reassuring trait for someone in charge of producing a dictionary.

The same cooperation that built the Web sites led to a new book, Li?ng’àn M?irì Y? Cí (???????? / Roughly: Cross-Strait Term-a-Day Book), which was also touted at the press conference.

The book contains Hanyu Pinyin, as well as zhuyin fuhao. But, alas, the book makes the Pinyin look ugly and fails completely at the first rule of Pinyin: use word parsing. (In the online images from the book, such as the one below, all of the words are se pa ra ted in to syl la bles.)

The Web site also has ugly Pinyin, with the CSS file for the Taiwan site calling for Pinyin to be shown in SimSun, which is one of the fonts it’s better not to use for Pinyin. But the word parsing on the Web site is at least not always wrong. Here are a few examples.

  • “???” is given as p?oshénr (good).
  • And apostrophes appear to be used correctly: e.g., fàn’?n (??), ch?n’?n (??), and f?i’?n (??).
  • But “???” is run together as “dìèrch?n” (no hyphen) rather than as shown correctly as dì-èr ch?n.
  • And “??????” is given as yí?e tóu li?n??e dà (for Taiwan) and y??e tóu li?n??e dà (for China). But ge is supposed to be written separately. (The variation of tone for yi is in this case useful.)

Still, my general impression from this is that we should not expect the forthcoming cross-strait dictionary to be very good.

Further reading:

Early instances of misunderstandings of biblical proportions

old-style Hanzi for ?From time to time I come across references by the credulous to the supposed biblical roots of some Chinese characters. I was surprised to learn, however, that that manner of interpretation has been around for many years.

In his 1902 book China and the Chinese, Herbert A. Giles (of Wade-Giles fame) pointed out the flaw he had seen in some earlier work.

Even the early Jesuit Fathers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to whom we owe so much for pioneer work in the domain of Sinology, were not without occasional lapses of the kind, due no doubt to a laudable if excessive zeal. Finding the character ?, which is the common word for “a ship,” as indicated by ?, the earlier picture-character for “boat” seen on the left-hand side, one ingenious Father proceeded to analyse it as follows: —

? “ship,” ? “eight,” ? “mouth” = eight mouths on a ship—“the Ark.”

But the right-hand portion is merely the phonetic of the character; it was originally ? “lead,” which gave the sound required; then the indicator “boat” was substituted for “metal.”

So with the word ? “to prohibit.” Because it could be analysed into two ?? “trees” and ? “a divine proclamation,” an allusion was discovered therein to the two trees and the proclamation of the Garden of Eden; whereas again the proper analysis is into indicator and phonetic.

Nor is such misplaced ingenuity confined to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1892 a Protestant missionary published and circulated broadcast what he said was “evidence in favour of the Gospels,” being nothing less than a prophecy of Christ’s coming hidden in the Chinese character ? “to come.” He pointed out that this was composed of “a cross,” with two ?? ‘men,’ one on each side, and a ‘greater man’ ? in the middle.

That analysis is all very well for the character as it stands now; but before the Christian era this same character was written and was a picture, not of men and of a cross, but of a sheaf of corn. It came to mean “come,” says the Chinese etymologist, “because corn comes from heaven.”

Even if all the character etymologies Giles cites are not necessarily in keeping with modern scholarship, his principles here are correct.

Gift ideas for Mandarin learners

Here are some books I recommend. You may still have time to buy some of these for others (or persuade others to buy for you) before Christmas.

In a departure from my usual practice, all of the images below are linked to Amazon — in part to make things easier for most readers of this site but also because I’m a bit curious to see if the potential kickbacks from that site would ever add up to enough to buy myself some books I’ve been wanting. Mainly, though, I’d like to see these books make it into the hands of more readers. This isn’t meant to be a complete list; but it’s a good start.

One of these days I’ll post about the works below I haven’t written about previously.

Dictionaries

ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin. This is the Mandarin-English/English-Mandarin dictionary that every student needs. Suitable for all ages and levels. It’s small enough to carry with you. And at US$20 or even less it’s a bargain too. For an e-edition, get Wenlin (see below). Description. Excerpt from Mandarin –> English half. Excerpt from English –> Mandarin half.
ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis. The best large Mandarin-English dictionary. Entries are arranged alphabetically, by words, rather than head Chinese characters. Note: This is a Mandarin –> English dictionary and does not offer an English –> Mandarin section. For an e-edition (which does allow for the lookup of English words), get Wenlin (see below). Sample of what entries in this dictionary look like.
Readers
Chinese Biographies: Lang Lang, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of pianist Lang Lang, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
Chinese Biographies: Yao Ming, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of basketball star Yao Ming, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
The Besieged City (Abridged Chinese Classic Series), by Qian Zhongshu. Pinyin-annotated abridged version of a terrific Chinese novel. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Family (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Spring (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Autumn, (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpts.
Textbooks
Basic Spoken Chinese: An Introduction to Speaking and Listening for Beginners, by Cornelius C. Kubler. Although this book is not in orthographically standard Pinyin, it’s nonetheless strong. A practical, real-world textbook that focuses on learning the language, not getting beginners bogged down memorizing character after character.
Fundamental Spoken Chinese, by Robert Sanders. Another excellent textbook. Audio files are available online. Excerpt.
Background
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis. Essential reading. This book will inoculate you against the absolute nonsense that many people — including all too many teachers — believe about Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, by William C. Hannas. A wide-ranging, detailed book that discusses some of the drawbacks of the continued use of Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, by Li and Thompson. Good for the linguistically inclined. Just about the only Chinese characters in this book are on the cover, which, yes, I consider to be a good thing.
Software
Wenlin software for learning Chinese, version 4. I use this on a daily basis. This incorporates both dictionaries listed above.
Beyond This List

Here are some things not listed above, in most cases because Amazon doesn’t stock them.

  • Pinyin Riji Duanwen, by Zhang Liqing. A book of largely autobiographical short stories, written entirely in Hanyu Pinyin (except for one brief letter in English). For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. At just US$5, plus shipping, this is the least expensive work on this list. The complete text is also available for free online, though a URL just doesn’t have that same Christmas feeling as a physical book, does it?
  • Any or all of the three volumes in Y.R. Chao’s Sayable Chinese series. For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. Note: These books are in Chinese characters and Gwoyeu Romatzyh, not Hanyu Pinyin, so for most people the learning curve is steeper than for reading something in Hanyu Pinyin. With some notes in English. Excerpt (Gwoyeu Romatzyh column only).
  • Other works on my recommended readings list, which may be available at Amazon but which may or may not fit well on a list for Mandarin learners.
  • KEY5 2011 Multimedia — a different sort of software than Wenlin but one that offers excellent Pinyin support.

Attitudes in Hong Kong toward Mandarin: survey

Mandarin is less well loved in Hong Kong than most other “icons” of China, according to the results of a survey there.

Although the percentage of those who described themselves as “averse” (kàngjù) to Mandarin is quite small (in the single digits), it has quadrupled since 2006 (1.8% to 7.3%). (I’m using the English and Mandarin terms given in the source material.)

Meanwhile, the percentage of those who are “affectionate” (q?nqiè) toward Mandarin has dropped, though not to an all-time low. And the percentage of those who are “proud” (zìháo) of Mandarin is also down, though it remains much higher than it was in 1994 when the survey began.

Affection toward, pride in, and averseness to Mandarin in Hong Kong, 1994-2010
graph showing affection toward Mandarin in the 27-35% range, pride in Mandarin rising from 19% to 34% percent but dropping since 2006, and aversion to Mandarin at around 3% until the climb to about 8% in 2010

Interestingly, averseness to Mandarin has been growing, while averseness to most other mainland icons has been dropping.

In the graphs below I have omitted some surveyed icons — Hong Kong’s regional flag/emblem, the night view of Victoria Harbor, the Legislative Council building, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, and the Bank of China Building — to keep the graphs from getting too busy looking and because those are within Hong Kong itself.

The lines for Mandarin are in dark red. Click to enlarge the images to a useful size.

Percentage of respondents feeling “averse to” Mandarin (“Putonghua”) and other Chinese icons
graph

Percentage of respondents feeling “affectionate towards” Mandarin (“Putonghua”) and other Chinese icons
graph

Percentage of respondents feeling “proud of” Mandarin (“Putonghua”) and other Chinese icons
graph

But even though Mandarin hasn’t gained much affection recently from the people of Hong Kong, it’s still far more liked than the least popular of the PRC’s institutions: the police (g?ng’?n).

sources and further reading:

Not the same sound

Today’s New York Times exhibits one of my pet peeves. (Yes, I do seem to have a lot of those.)

This particular one is the practice of declaring that some Mandarin word or expression has “the same sound” as something else — even though it doesn’t. Claiming that the Mandarin words for death and four sound identical is a frequent example of this.

So today we have this:

Consider Tide detergent, Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt.” (Characters are important: the same sound written differently could mean “too purple.”)

Nope. The Mandarin name for Tide detergent is Tàizì. On the other hand, “too purple” would be “tài z?,” which is close but not the same.

Tàizì ? tài z?

So, the answer to the question “When is a homophone not a homophone?” is “When it’s not a @#$%! homophone.”

But I will give the Times points for not mentioning wax tadpoles.

source: Picking Brand Names in China Is a Business Itself, New York Times, November 11, 2011

New row about old foolishness

It appears that few things are harder to get rid of than a Taipei City Government official’s bad idea.

Four years ago I noted that city hall was sponsoring a “festival” for beef noodle soup and promoting it to foreigners through a machine-translated Chinglish Web site and the absurd use of the supposedly English “Newrow Mian” for niúròumiàn (???/???).

The city has continued to host the annual event. This year, the city appears to have moved to solve its Chinglish problem by simply failing to provide English translations — though one wonders just where the “international” part comes in without much of anything in English. Thus, useful English is lacking; but fake English like “Newrow Mian” remains.

image of logo that reads '2011 Taipei International New row Mian Festival'

This has come to the attention of the media. For example, see this video report: Niúròumiàn = New Row Mian? Shì-f? zhíyì r?yì.

Táib?i Shìzhèngf? j?bàn niúròumiàn jié, xiànzài yào tu? w?ng guójì, buguò què y?u y?nji?n mínzhòng f?xiàn, huódòng h?ibào, b? Zh?ngwén “niúròumiàn” zhíji? y?n yìchéng Y?ngwén de “New Row Mian,” bùsh?o guówài l?kè kànle d?u t?nyán, wánquán bù d?ng shénme yìsi, zhìyí shì-f? shìbushì Y?ngwén f?nyì yòu ch?b?o, buguò shì-f? chéngq?ng, shu?shì wèile xu?nchuán “niúròumiàn” de Zh?ngwén niànf?, ràng t? xiàng shòus?, p?sà y?yàng, ràng quánshìjiè d?u zh?ozhe yuánwén niàn.

According to the brief write-up above, some people had noticed that foreigners had no idea what this “new row mian” was or even how to say it, so the municipal authorities explained that this is for the sake of publicizing the Chinese pronunciation of niúròumiàn. City authorities dream that English will take on “new row mian” as a loan term, just like sushi and pizza. (Apparently it’s important to convey to the world the Chinese-ness (with Taiwanese characteristics) of this dish, so “beef noodle soup” — which is what just about everyone in Taiwan calls this when speaking in English — just won’t do.)

Sigh.

Really, this isn’t that difficult. If you want to use the roman alphabet to write a Mandarin term, use Hanyu Pinyin. Although Pinyin will not be helpful in all situations to people who know nothing about the system, neither will anything else. But Hanyu Pinyin stands the best chance of working because it’s the international system for writing Mandarin in romanization. It’s also Taiwan’s official system for writing Mandarin in romanization. And it’s even the Taipei City Government’s official system for writing Mandarin in romanization, which means the city is supposed to use it rather than employing ad hoc bullshit year after year.

Anyway, the festival doesn’t start until November 17, so if you have ever wanted to “beef the world” — and who hasn’t? — now’s the time. (That this is being run by an ad agemcy agency that somehow missed getting its own name right, however, doesn’t inspire confidence.)

If anyone would like to let the city know your thoughts about this, the contact person is Ms. Yè, who can be reached at 1999 ext. 6507, or at 02-2599-2875 ext. 214 or 220. Tell them this concerns the Táib?i Guójì Niúròumiàn Jié.

Further reading:

And for still more reading, see the Taipei City Government’s massive PDF (157 MB!) for the 2008 event. This has lots of English (and Japanese!), which appears not to have been machine translated; but some parts could certaintly use improvement, such as “The regretful beef noodles have been staying in my memory.” Additionally, the romanization system employed is Tongyong Pinyin, rather than Taipei’s official Hanyu Pinyin (e.g., “Rih Pin Shan Si Dao Siao Mian” instead of “Rì P?n Sh?nx? d?oxi?omiàn” and “HONG SHIH FU SIN JHUAN” instead of Hóng Sh?fu X?n Zhuàn).

Of course, it’s not consistent even in its incorrect use of Tongyong. It also contains broken bastardized Wade-Giles (e.g., the “Kuan Tu” MRT station instead of “Guandu”) and the city’s “new row” whenever it gets the chance (e.g., HUANG ZAN NEWROW MIAN FANG instead of Huáng Zàn Niúròumiàn Fáng / ??????).

Later, all of the stores’ addresses are given in Tongyong Pinyin (e.g., Chongcing, Mincyuan, Jhihnan, Mujha, Singlong, Jhongsiao).

Zhou Youguang on NPR

Louisa Lim had a story on National Public Radio yesterday about Zhou Youguang (??? / Zh?u Y?ugu?ng), who’s often referred to as the father of Pinyin.

Most stories in the mass media about him focus on just two things, which might be summarized as “pinyin” and “wow, he’s really old.” This story, however, draws welcome notice to some some other things about him, as the title reveals: At 105, Chinese Linguist Now A Government Critic. (There’s a link to the audio version near the top of the page. Zhou can be heard in the background speaking Mandarin — though his English is excellent.)

The article also provides a link to his blog: B?isuì xuérén Zh?u Y?ugu?ng de bó kè (??????????).

Further reading:

Hat tip to John Rohsenow.

photo of Zhou Youguang signing a book for me