How to learn real Mandarin: an anecdote

The following is a guest post by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

The personal names used in the original correspondence have been changed to generational designations.

Compared to the Hànzì-centric pedagogical approach which forces little children to memorize extremely difficult and complicated characters like 老鼠 and 蝴蝶 instead of teaching them lǎoshǔ and húdié, today I received some more hopeful and sane news.

A friend of mine is teaching her grandson Mandarin. The way she is doing it is to write out the Xī yóu jì (Journey to the West) in a simple báihuà paraphrase using Pinyin only (with glosses in English for new vocabulary). My friend is a first-generation immigrant to America, and her daughter married a German who was studying in the United States, so that makes the grandson third-generation Chinese-American/German.

The other day, the grandson asked his mom out of the blue: “What’s the difference between shíjiān, shídài, and shífèn?” My friend, the grandmother, explained to me that all of these terms were in the Pinyin text that she had prepared for her grandson, and that she had glossed them as “time” or “period.” She said that the boy’s mother was very pleased, and she was tickled too, because the boy had discerned the common element shí by himself. As my friend (the grandmother) put it, “He spends very little time on Chinese, so we were pleasantly surprised.”

Hearing this account from my friend, I wrote to her: “Thank you so much for the TRULY WONDERFUL story you wrote about your grandson. This is how to learn real Chinese!!!! And you are being a real Chinese teacher to teach your grandson this way. And I’m also happy that your daughter appreciates what you and her son are doing together. Tell your grandson I’m really impressed at the intelligence of his question.”

Pinyin with audio and Chinese characters: Fortress Besieged

cover of the book 'The Besieged City' (围城)Sinolingua‘s terrific series of abridged editions of classic Chinese books includes one of my favorites, which may well be the finest novel written in Mandarin during the twentieth century: Qian Zhongshu’s Wéichéng (圍城/围城), best known in English as Fortress Besieged but published by Sinolingua with the English title of The Besieged City.

I’m very pleased to announce that now offers the first chapter of Sinolingua’s edition this book, along with an audio file of it being read aloud. This edition is in Mandarin, in word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin (with Chinese characters underneath) and has a few notes in English as well as mp3 files of the text being read aloud.

Here’s the download page: Wéichéng (圍城/围城/).

I’ve often told people who plan to go to China and want me to recommend a book that will help them “understand” the country (as if!) they’re about to visit: “By all means, read the Analects of Confucius, the Dàodéjīng, and the Zhuāngzǐ; but know in advance that they’ll be about as relevent to your trip as reading the Gospels would be to someone from China who’s about to travel to the West for the first time. And don’t waste your time with crap like The Tao of the Chinese Boardroom’s Inner Art of Feng-shui or whatever. Read Fortress Besieged. It’s as good a start as just about anything — and a lot more fun to read.”

The novel is also available in a fine English translation.

Related reading:

screenshot of part of a paragraph of the PDF of this book

Ba Jin in Pinyin, with audio

illustration of two young men under an umbrella -- from Ba Jin's 'Family'This bit of news is simply wonderful. As part of Sinolingua‘s Abridged Chinese Classic Series, all three volumes in Bā Jīn‘s “torrents” trilogy (Jīliú sānbùqǔ / 激流三部曲) are now available in abridged editions in word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin (with Chinese characters underneath), along with a few notes in English and mp3 files of the text being read aloud.

These books would make great material for those who are

  • studying Mandarin
  • trying to memorize Chinese characters
  • learning Hanyu Pinyin
  • wanting to read something in Mandarin that isn’t too damn hard but isn’t a children’s book either
  • looking for something to read in Mandarin that doesn’t require much or even any knowledge of Chinese characters (ABCs and other “overseas Chinese,” take note!)

Through the generousity of the publisher, now offers sample chapters from each of these three classics of twentieth-century Chinese literature along with audio files of the text being read aloud.

I’m very pleased to offer samples from these books on this site and hope these editions will be enjoyed by many readers worldwide and become standard texts in many classrooms.

major updates to Chinese KEY

key_softwareIf you are using one or more programs from the Chinese Key family of software, you should definitely update if you haven’t in the past few months, as some significant improvements have been made.

One of the things I particularly like about Key is that it has the rare virtue of following proper Pinyin orthography. So if you’re not familiar with it, you might want to give it or one of its sibling programs a 30-day test drive.

No, I get no kickbacks from the company; I just admire the software.

common newbie errors in Pinyin: YAN

Today’s post is something for those who are relatively new to Pinyin and Mandarin. It covers something I’ve received more than one query about.

Hanyu Pinyin is quite simple. But it still has a few points — beyond the usual caveats about x, q, c, and zh — that sometimes trip up introductory students of Mandarin. One of the most common of these is the syllable yan.

Lots of Mandarin learners tend to pronounce this as if it were yang — but with an n on the end instead of an ng. But it’s properly pronounced much like the English pronunciation of the name of the Japanese currency: yen. Thus, yen for yan is a common misspelling.

Yet yan is a perfectly regular spelling within the Pinyin system. What’s more: Pinyin doesn’t have anything spelled yen.

Remember that when an i comes at the beginning of a syllable, it is written y (or yi, if there is no vowel immediately following). Thus,

yan = ian

I stress this because relatively few people get any of the following related syllables wrong:

  • bian (as in former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian)
  • pian (as in pianyi / cheap)
  • mian (as in chaomian / fried noodles)
  • dian (as in dianhua / telephone)
  • tian (as in tianqi / weather)
  • nian (as in nian / year)
  • lian (as in buyao lian / shameless)
  • jian (as in zaijian / good-bye)
  • qian (as in qian / money)
  • xian (as in xiansheng / mister)

Now try reading these:

  • yanjing / eye
  • yanjing / glasses
  • chouyan / smoke (verb)
  • yuyan / language
  • yanse / color
  • keyan / scientific research
  • It’s easy!

    further reading:
    combinations of initials and finals in Hanyu Pinyin/span

    onomatopoeia in Mandarin and how to write it in Hanyu Pinyin

    cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyToday’s selection from Yin Binyong’s Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography is onomatopoeic words (340 KB PDF).

    Yin Binyong makes a distinction between onomatopoeic words that originate in Literary Sinitic (which thus generally have fixed forms in Chinese characters) and those from Modern Mandarin. The former can be written with tone marks, the latter aren’t.

    In practice that distinction may well be more trouble than it’s worth. But I was happy to learn a new expression from his examples: shūshēnglǎnglǎng (the sound of reading aloud), which YBY writes as two words and the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary writes solid.

    OK, for some niceties and examples:

    Some of these words can be stretched out for auditory effect; to express this lengthening in writing, a dash is added after the syllable:

    • Du — , qìdi xiǎng le. (Toot went the steam whistle.)
    • Dà gōngjī, o — o — tí. (The rooster crowed cock-a-doodle-do.)

    Reduplication is of course quite common in Mandarin.

    • huahua (sound of water or rain)
    • huhu (sound of wind)
    • wawa (sound of calling or crying)
    • dongdong (sound of beating drums).
    • wangwang (sound of a dog barking)
    • miaomiao (sound of a cat meowing)
    • jiji (sound of insects buzzing or chirping)
    • zizi (sound of a mouse squeaking)
    • gugu (sound of a pigeon cooing)
    • wengweng (sound of bees or flies buzzing)
    • gaga (sound of a duck quacking)
    • haha (sound of laughter)
    • heihei (sound of bitter or sardonic laughter)
    • xixi (sound of giggling)
    • gege (sound of guffawing)

    All of those could also be written tripled instead of doubled, e.g., wangwangwang, miaomiaomiao, hahaha.

    Yin provides some orthographic rules based on the patterns of the onomatopoeic words. The sound of a ticking clock, for example, could take various forms, such as

    • dida
    • dida dida
    • didi-dada

    Note spacing, hyphens, and lack thereof. See the PDF for all the details.

    Still, don’t sweat the stylistic niceties of these too much. It’s onomatopoeia, so have fun!

    further reading:

    mood particles in Mandarin — and how to write them in Hanyu Pinyin

    cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyToday’s post is on the “mood particles” of Mandarin (426 KB PDF), e.g., a, ba, la, ma, ne.

    Mood-indicating particles are used to add various moods, spirits and tones to an utterance. “Mood” includes such diverse qualities as interrogation, request, command, emphasis, and exclamation. Some Chinese grammatologists classify mood particles as an independent part of speech, calling them “mood words.” Two distinctive features of mood particles are their position, typically at the end of a sentence or phrase, and their tone — they are usually read in the neutral tone. (In Hanyu Pinyin, consequently, they are never marked with tones.) The intonation of a sentence, which in Putonghua usually rests largely on the final syllable of an utterance, is in the case of a particle-final sentence transferred to the penultimate syllable. Mood particles are always written separately, from other components of a sentence.

    Again: They’re always written separately and never with tone marks. So the orthography of these is easy.

    OK, well, maybe the orthography is a little trickier than that. First, the examples give “bàle” (罷了/罢了), which sure looks to me like it has a tone mark. And then there’s the case of “a” (啊), which is an extremely common particle “used to express emotion, affirmation, interrogation, and other moods.”

    In speech, its pronunciation is partially determined by the final of the syllable preceding it. After -a, -e, -i, -o, or -ü, a 啊 is pronounced “ya” 呀; after -u, “wa” 哇; and after -n, “na” 哪. These different pronunciations are conventionally represented by the different characters seen here; in Hanyu Pinyin, however, a single “a” is used to represent them all.

    That certainly complicates matters if you’re trying to get a Chinese-characters-to-Pinyin converter to work properly. Note that when Yin Binyong is writing above about finals, he’s referring to sounds, not spellings. Thus, what’s written “hǎo a” is pronounced “hǎo wa,” not “hǎo ya” (and not “hǎo a” either, of course). If you’re still wondering about this, say –ao very slowly to notice the -u final. (Y.R. Chao and George Kennedy had good reasons for choosing -au in their romanization systems rather for what is -ao in Hanyu Pinyin.) Also, the distinction between a/ya isn’t absolute.

    But the practice of just using “a” makes life easy if you’re writing something in Pinyin, which I’m grateful for, given that particles are, for people trying to learn how to employ them, zhēn de hǎo máfan a! So beginning and intermediate students of Mandarin should definitely read this selection.

    le redux

    cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyNo, I’m not switching to French. I just wanted to get back to the matter of the particle le (了), which was discussed previously in How to write verbs in Hanyu Pinyin. Le is so frequently used that it deserves its own section.

    Because today’s selection on this from Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography is just a few pages long, for this post I typed out all of it — other than most Chinese characters, which can be seen in the PDF of the original: Tense-Marking Particles (le/了) (240 KB PDF).


    9.2. Tense-Marking Particles

    Tense-marking particles have already been discussed in some detail in Chapter 5, Verbs. It was noted there that the tense markers zhe (indicating an action in progress) and guo (indicating a past experience) are always written as a single unit with the verb they follow. The particle le 了 (indicating a completed action) is sometimes, but not always, written as a single unit with its verb. This is because le, unlike zhe and guo, may be separated from its verb by other elements; and also because le itself can act as a mood particle as well as a tense particle. (For details on le as a mood particle, see Section 3 of chapter 9.)

    This section is devoted to a discussion of orthography specifically as it relates to the tense particle le. Three rules are laid out to help the student master the written forms of this particle.

    1. When le occurs in the middle of a sentence or phrase, and immediately follows a verb or verb construction written as a single unit, le is written together with that verb or verb construction:
      • kànle yī chǎng diànyǐng (saw a movie)
      • tǎolùnle xǔduō wèntí (discussed many issues)
      • chīwánle píngguǒ he xiāngjiāo (finished off the apples and bananas)
      • dǎsǐle sān zhī tùzi (shot three rabbits)
    2. When le occurs in the middle of a sentence or phrase, and follows a verb phrase written as two or more units, then le is written separately:
      • zǒu jìnlai le yī wèi jiāngjūn (a general came in)
      • shōushi hǎo le zìjǐ de xíngli (gathered up one’s luggage)
      • dǎsǎo gānjìng le zhè jiān shūfáng (cleaned up the study)
      • yánjiū bìng jiějué le huánjìng wūrǎn de wèntí (researched and solved the problem of environmental pollution)
        • Note that le here applies to both verbs, so that the meaning is equivalent to yánjiūle bìng jiějuéle.
    3. When le occurs at the end of a phrase or sentence (that is, immediately before any form of punctuation), it is written separately from other elements:
      • Xiàtiān lái le. (Summer is here.)
      • Wǒmen fàngle jià le. (Our vacation has begun.)
      • Kělián de xiǎoyáng, bèi láng gěi chīdiào le. (The poor little lamb was eaten up by the wolf.)
      • Tiān kuài liàng le, wǒmen gāi dòngshēn le. (It’s almost dawn; we should get moving.)
      • Hǎo le, hǎo le, nímen zài bùyào zhēnglùn le. (All right, stop arguing, all of you.)
      • Nǐ bù shì chīguo fàn le ma? (Haven’t you eaten already?)
        • Note that le is here treated as if it occupied the sentence-final position, despite the presence of another particle (ma) following it.


    OK, it’s me again. In closing I want to draw attention to that final note, because it’s important: If le is followed by ma, le is still treated as if it came at the end of the sentence and thus is written separately from its verb.