The French have a saying about incomprehensible communication. Americans say, “It’s Greek to me.” But the French say “C’est du chinois” — meaning, “It’s Chinese.”
Chinese characters are so complex that they make a good metaphor for failure to communicate. But an American copy editor living in Taiwan is trying to demystify Chinese characters and demolish a few myths about how they work.
Mark Swofford runs the Web site www.pinyin.info, a site dedicated to Pinyin, the standard system of writing Chinese words in the Roman alphabet (the alphabet used to write English).
“Most of what most people think they know about Chinese — especially when it comes to Chinese characters — is wrong,” Swofford writes at the site. “This Web site is aimed at contributing to a better understanding of the Chinese languages and how Romanization can be used to write languages traditionally associated with Chinese characters (such as Japanese, Korean and especially Mandarin Chinese).”
The Mandarin Chinese word for “crisis,” for example, is represented with an intricate symbol made with several strokes, but the word’s pronunciation can be spelled in Pinyin as “weiji” (plus a few accent marks).
Using the Pinyin system makes it easier for students to learn to speak Chinese languages, Swofford says, because Chinese characters are so complex and misunderstood — such as the frequently misinterpreted character for “weiji,” a favorite of motivational writers and speakers.
Seeking a better system
Swofford says he started his Web site in part out of frustration with the confusing and inconsistent ways street names were written in the Roman alphabet when he moved to Taiwan.
“As a professional copy editor, I found the plethora of misspellings more than just a nuisance,” Swofford says. “I started compiling lists of street and place names so that I would be able to know the correct spellings.”
Swofford’s Pinyin site features news articles about Chinese writing, original essays about Pinyin, spelling quizzes, song lyrics written in Pinyin and sample chapters of books on Pinyin.
“The Mandarin Chinese language has about 410 distinct syllables, not counting variations based on tones,” Swofford writes by e-mail from Taiwan, where he is a copy editor at Kainan University. “All can be written simply and unambiguously using the Roman alphabet.”
Swofford lists all of the syllables written in Pinyin, alongside the characters they represent, at www.pinyin.info/romanization.
“One needn’t be a student of Mandarin or a scholar to make use of the readings on my site,” Swofford says. “Most of the readings are in English and require no prior knowledge of anything about the Sinitic [Chinese] languages.”
Victor Mair is an avid reader and regular contributor to Pinyin.info. Mair is professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches a course called “Language, Script and Society in China.”
Mair believes that Western teachers often overemphasize the need to learn and read Chinese characters. By learning Chinese with a Romanized alphabet instead of characters, he says, students are able to start speaking the language more quickly.
Chinese characters themselves are often misunderstood, Mair says. Many students and scholars fail to realize there is a difference between Chinese characters and Chinese languages, he says, which can lead to problems because the meaning of the characters depends on the language and culture where they are used.
This confusion is partly to blame for the common claim of self-help books that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” means both “danger” and “opportunity.”
“A whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation,” Mair writes at Pinyin.info. “The explication of the Chinese word for `crisis’ as made up of two components signifying `danger’ and `opportunity’ is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages.”
According to the myth, to write the Chinese character for “crisis,” you combine the character for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.”
That’s based on a partial truth: the word pronounced “weiji” is made up of two characters, pronounced “wei” and “ji.” But while “wei” means danger, “ji” doesn’t mean “opportunity.”
“The `ji’ of `weiji,’ in fact, means something like `incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes),’” Mair writes. “Thus, a `weiji’ is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment. . . . A `weiji’ in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English.”
The word “ji” only means “opportunity” in some cases, such as when it combines with the word “hui” (“occasion”) to make the word “jihui,” for “opportunity.” Its meaning changes depending on what other word it’s blending with. The crisis-means-opportunity myth, Mair says, is founded on a faulty understanding of the way languages work.
“There will always be some degree of misinterpretation about other peoples and their languages,” Mair writes by e-mail, “but I’m hoping to reduce misunderstanding through critical thinking and clear education.”