Saturday, April 10, 2010

"C'est du chinois..."

I came across a short article in Facebook and it caused the tiniest of stirs so I thought it might be of interest to the 'larger' audience here at FCA.

Top 1 Because the writing system is ridiculous

Top 2 Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet

Top 3 Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated

Top 4 Because there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen)

Top 5 Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck

Top 6 Because tonal languages are weird

Top 7 Because there is culture difference

A reader on another friend's page quipped, "中文難學的第8個原因,因為他沒在中文國家長大 [The 8th reason he finds it hard to learn Chinese is he didn't grow up in a Chinese-speaking country]." Clever, but I think the matter runs deeper than that, as I explained to a friend who asked me about the article, thus:

Chinese is harder than many other languages only if the student chooses to be literate in it. Speaking most dialects of Chinese is as easy as learning... well, as easy as learning any other language by ear and mouth. But the fact is, it takes YEARS of CONSTANT study to be able to READ IN CHINESE, which is something I think no other language requires. I've been studying Japanese for nearly two months and I can already at least "say" what I see in a text. Give me another year of study and then a year in Japan and I guarantee I will be at a level in Japanese that it took me four years to reach in Chinese. Part of my 'advantage' with Japanese, of course, is that I can already 'understand' many Japanese characters (kanji) based on my knowledge of Chinese characters (漢字 Hanzi). BTW, I'm not bragging about my (projected) ability in Japanese, since after 4 years of Chinese, I still wasn't at a very high level of literacy. I've only gotten really competent in the past two years or so. Classical Chinese is, however, a nightmare, about which I will have more to say later.

I think I discovered the original source for most of the Facebook piece's ideas, which is an essay by David Moser (then at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies), notoriously titled "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard". Here are some choice lines:

Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. ... Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. ... The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet -- some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren't too practical for daily use. ...

John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time. ...

The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me "My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can't read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can't skim to save my life." This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers....

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. ...

After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels.... At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn't yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn't read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People's Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. ...

Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues' gallery of hard-to-learn languages. ...

If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical, and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you're just sunk. And you're sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. ...

This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on. And when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"? ...

I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up out of curiosity. "Hmm," I thought to myself. "I've never studied Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand." At random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186 people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese. ...

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. ...

In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it's often trial and error to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:


If you think that after three or four years of study you'll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you're sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure. ... It's truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging. "Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?" You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible "grass-style" calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the "personal" section of the classified ads that say things like: "Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please." ...

But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed -- when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like "Hey, that's my water glass you're drinking out of!", and you follow your intonational instincts -- that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for "my" -- you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood. ...

Those who have tackled other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I'm sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to consider if you've decided to better yourself by learning a foreign language, and you're thinking "Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat." ...

How much harder is Chinese? Again, I'll use French as my canonical "easy language". This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese. ...

Someone once said that learning Chinese is "a five-year lesson in humility". I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.

There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach's uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, "But how are they able to perform such difficult music?"

"Shh -- not so loud!" says the director, "If you don't tell them it's difficult, they never know."

Suffice to say that much--very much--of what Moser describes resonates deeply with my own experience. I will never forget the time I asked a Taiwanese colleague how to write "sock" and how she couldn't remember... and how she asked her mother how to write it... and how her mother likewise could not begin to write it. Sock! Nor shall I forget the early despair I felt at flipping through a Bible or a dictionary and not even being able to find a page number quickly, since I still was not totally fluent in Chinese numbers. Nor should I ever forget the slow but real shock I felt one day, about three years ago, when I realized I had spent my first three years in Taiwan virtually completely illiterate on the streets. By then I could read nearly everything I passed on my scooter or on foot, but again, for three years I had been basically illiterate in the country in which I lived and worked as a teacher and as a part-time missionary. And the truth is, the vast majority of foreigners living here are just as profoundly illiterate, sometimes even after a couple decades.

Now, all those woes are mostly past me--these days I earn money on the side by making Chinese-to-English translations, and I'm learning Japanese with Chinese textbooks--but the fact is, there are days I wonder just how many Chineses there are in Chinese and if having learned however 'many' Chineses I've learned realistically equips me for what's around the corner. Most computers in Taiwan have as their default home page, so when I open IE or Mozilla, I have a brief glimpse at the headlines. Even now, I find I've only got about a 60% success rate of "cracking" the headline even just for "the main idea." I've been told this is because much of the Yahoo News comes out of Hong Kong, and therefore uses a different style of Chinese, but this 'reassurance' only underscores the problem: for all the Chinese I've learned, have I really learned the "right" Chinese? It's no less common a problem when I watch TV news over dinner or waiting in a clinic. I can watch a two/ or three-minute story, which of course has spoken interviews and graphic visual aids, and yet I might still have no idea what the story is really saying.

The good news is that I have accumulated so many characters at this point that, if I encounter an unknown word, I can, often but not always, make a good guess at both how to pronounce the word and what it might basically mean. But again, I'm just guessing enough to hope to be able to look it up more easily when I get a chance. If you've never studied Chinese, you might not grasp why Moser (and I and others) make so much of the "dictionary problem." In 1986 the Sinologist Victor Mair wrote an essay [PDF LINK] about the need for phonetically arranged Chinese dictionaries. "It is a source of continual regret and embarrassment," Mair confesses,

that, in general, my colleagues in Chinese studies consult their dictionaries far less frequently than do those in other fields of area studies. ...

Incredibly, many Chinese scholars with advanced degrees do not even know how to locate items in supposedly standard reference works or do so only with the greatest reluctance and deliberation. For those who do make the effort, the number of hours wasted in looking up words in Chinese dictionaries and other reference tools is absolutely staggering. ...

It is generally acknowledged that a passive command of about 5,500 characters is sufficient for reading the overwhelming majority of literary texts. ...

Even the most highly literate Chinese scholars can almost never recognize more than 10,000 characters and the person who can accurately produce as many as 5,000 is exceedingly rare. ...

For someone who has been actively involved in Chinese studies over a period of ten or fifteen years, the process of looking up a word (let us say t'ing-tuan)in his battery of Chinese dictionaries goes something like this. As he stares fixedly at the graph t'ing, he cannot be totally sure whether the radical is "ear", "ten", "eye" on its side or maybe "net", "one", "heart", or "jade". He knows that the graph basically means "hear" so by all rights it should be listed under "ear". But he has been burned too many times before. ... Although his insecurity is excusable, he feels a little bit guilty about not looking under "ear" and has an impulse to do so but his eyes begin to glaze over as he contemplates all of the residual strokes he would have to count. Supposing he were to miss one?

Mair goes on for several more lines recounting how he jumps from one lexicon to the next trying to find what he dimly recalls is a defunct legal term. The problem Mair mentions is that of "radicals." Radicals are the 214 components of all Chinese words which, loosely, express the "logical" type of word it is [LINK]. Some of the more famous and lucid radicals are the heart, hand, water, wood, mouth, and fire radicals, which, respectively, crop up in words having to do with intentions/feelings, change/action, moisture/fluidity/motion, wood/construction/tools, speech, and energy/cooking. Here are some examples:

意 yi4 - meaning or will
推 tui - push
流 liu2 - flow, current
森 sen - wooded (and of course 森林 senlin2 tree forest)
烧 燒 shao - burn
吗 嗎 ma - question particle

After enough time you simply learn how to spot the radical (look at the left, top, and bottom of the character, and occasionally the right), so I do find Mair's anecdote a bit over-the-top. All the same, some words break the radical rules and go by a rogue radical, so you might just have to consult an index listed according to total number of strokes. Moreover, sometimes the word has no apparent "logical" connection to its radical, so the radical is like a "false cognate" in terms of remembering it. Even once you pinpoint the radical, you must then find it based on the remaining strokes in the character. In 意 you must flip to the heart-radical section, about a third of the pages in, and then to the section of heart-words with 9 additional strokes (here due to the five strokes in 立 and the four strokes in 日 above 心). Then, of course, you must note if the character is spoken in a variant way (known as the loathsome phenomenon of "broken-sound words").

Anyway, eventually you just submit and get used to the, ahem, radical problem in Chinese. But another problem lurks. Maybe your dictionaries of choice don't have the word you need. Maybe it's too obscure, or a variant form. Admittedly, once you find a couple solid dictionaries, after years of sifting and practice, this is only a frequent problem at very high levels of study and in attempting to learn classical Chinese (which is why Mair, a professional Sinologist, encounters the problem so often). Chinese simply has too many words which appear too rarely to be both clear to most (even native) readers and easily located in most dictionaries. As far as I know, the regnant 214-radical classification system was invented by the Kangxi Dictionary [Wiki LINK], published in 1716. I have also read that, aside from being riddled with errors, and having never been revised and reissued in three centuries, two-thirds of the Kangxi Zidian are now defunct. So much for being a useful reference work.

The radical that happens to be highlighted in red is nuu3, the "female" radical. See how she curtsies?

As I mentioned above, I have recently taken up the gauntlet (again?) of trying to make sense of classical, or literary, Chinese (文言文 wenyanwen). Ever after just a few days, however, I must admit I find the task perhaps decisively discouraging. I honestly don't know if, for now anyway, I care enough about "the Chinese classics" in "the original Chinese" to really attain competence in classical Chinese. Nevertheless, I should mention a distinction between 古文 guwen and 文言文 wenyanwen. The former is "ancient Chinese," as found in The Book of Odes, Laozi's Daodejing, the Analects of Confucius, and so on. The latter refers more to the compact, densely allusive style of Chinese which developed from ancient Chinese and which was commonly used into the 20th century. I am committed--like a mental patient?--to learning Chinese for the rest of my life, so I realize my grasp of 文言文 wenyanwen will improve gradually the more Chinese I read generally. SO I am heartened to realize learning 文言文 wenyanwen is mostly a matter of attaining a higher level of stylistic competence, not that of trudging through a vast, and vastly arcane, underworld of ancient Chinese civilization as found in 古文 guwen. As for 古文 guwen, I'm not decided yet if I want to be able to read ancient Chinese well enough "on my own," or if reading explanations and annotations in Mandarin 'translation' will suffice. I also have to admit, despite my intensely autodidactic character, that 古文 guwen might be the one aspect of Chinese for which I absolutely require a teacher and regular courses.

Let me give you a taste of 古文 guwen and you might see why it is so daunting. At a used bookstore the other day, I was looking for books about ancient Chinese grammar, or just a basic guidebook to 文言文 wenyanwen. I found a historical grammar of Chinese, which is appealing in its own dry, laborious way, but I also came upon a few old sheets of printed paper inside another book. (This sort of clandestine break is why bibliophiles love used bookstores.) They were bound like a leaflet but were pages 9–18 from an unknown book. I found no hint of a title or author's name, but the chapter is titled "怎麼提高古文斷句能力 (How to Raise Your Ability to Parse Ancient Chinese Sentences)". The ability to parse––or literally 斷 'break'––古文 guwen is known as 古文斷句 (gu3wen2 duan4ju4) and I will refer to it as 斷句 duanju.

Our unknown author, whom I shall affectionately call Gao Wen Li, says, "斷句能力是閱讀古書的基本功 [The ability to parse sentences is fundamental in reading ancient texts]." The problem with 古文 guwen, Gao explains, is that it lacks punctuation or very clear signs of where one string of words begins and another begins (rather like ancient Latin notoriously has no spaces between words). He admits this is a common obstacle for young readers, but reminds us that the young already 斷句 duanju when they recite some of the most famous poems from their youngest schooling. For example, Li Bai's "Night Thoughts" (夜思 [LINK for more!]) begins 窗前明月光, and is parsed as follows: 窗前•明月光. Famously, it means, "Light seen before the window," and segues into Li Bai's nostalgia for his home. The point is that only by breaking it between 前 and 明 (which means it is read with a pause after 前 [which is, of course, cutely ironic if you understand Chinese]), can we make any real sense of the string of characters. So, Gao is saying, while 斷句 duanju is difficult, even children can do it.

A couple pages later, however, Gao admits there can be valid disagreements about 斷句 duanju, even among qualified readers. He cites a line from the Historical Records 史記: 項籍少時學書不成去學劍又不成. Gao then notes how the China Bookstore's edition of the Historical Records parses the sentence like so: 項籍少時•學書不成•去學劍•又不成, whereas the edition published by Beijing University parses it differently, thus: 項籍少時•學書不成•去;學劍•又不成. (I will not waste my time or yours with a 'serious' attempt to translate this, but I think the gist is that if little time is given to the study of books, the study of war will also suffer. Or maybe it means that if things are arranged poorly, one will not grow through academic study, and neither will martial training help one.) This comparison is followed by a string of questions, about how the words were used in ancient time and so forth. Gao then provides a longer citation, this time from 莊子 Zhuangzi, and a detailed analysis of how to parse it as he does, none of which I will provide here.

However, on page 17 Gao provides one final quotation, and a parsing analysis, which I will reproduce, for no other reason than that it vividly displays how tragicomically recondite 古文 guwen can be. In a chapter of 孟子 Mengzi, we read the following:


[Personal anecdote: It just took me nearly ten minutes to enter 孰 the first time, since I couldn't guess its proper phoneme (shu2, it turns out), couldn't decide which radical under which to find it, and couldn't pick it out from a long list of other 11-stroke characters at this good online dictionary. My sympathies go out to Mair, and his to me, in a fresh way. {I have asked a number of native speakers about 孰 and they are also consistently beguiled by or diffident about its radical. Cue petty sense of vindication!}]

Gao notes how within only 50 or so characters, 樂 is used 30 times. He then ever so kindly explains that, as nearly all students of Chinese know, this 樂 is a dreaded 破音字 "broken-sound word", read either as yue4 or le4, and means either music or happy, respectively. He then explains that this dialogue which Mengzi is having with the king, is about whether listening to music 樂 by oneself makes for a greater or lesser happiness 樂 than listening to it with others. Here is how the dialogue is parsed on a webpage I happened to find via Google:

曰 :「王 之 好 樂 甚 , 則 齊 其 庶 幾 乎 ! 今 之 樂 猶 古 之 樂 也 .」 曰 :「可 得 聞 與 ?」 曰 :「獨 樂 樂 , 與 人 樂 樂 , 孰 樂 ?」 曰 :「 不 若 與 人 .」 曰 :「與 少 樂 樂 , 與 眾 樂 樂 , 孰 樂 ?」 曰 :「不 若 與 眾 .」

This is still all too clever and arcane for the beginner, but a good parsing makes it much less rebarbative. Well, a little less rebarbative.

On the bright side, one thing motivating me to really "crack" 文言文 wenyanwen is that ancient Japanese (known as kanbun 漢文 or "Han/Chinese writing") just is 文言文 wenyanwen. So perhaps my progress into Japanese and my grudging descent into 古文 guwen will reinforce each other and bring me to a happy middle position... about 30 years from now. In the meanwhile, I have discovered a wonderful blog discussing one man's progress in learning 古文 guwen, "Nothing Undone," and do intend to keep up with it as a slow but steady way of absorbing 古文 guwen at my own pace. (Lest I forget, I should add that the Kangxi Zidian is written in 文言文 wenyanwen, so even its explanations of obscure words are themselves grammatically obtuse to modern readers.)

Speaking of Japanese, let me cite Moser again to clarify why I think Japanese is so much easier, in terms of literacy, than Chinese. In a footnote to his essay, Moser says,

I'm aware that much of what I've said above applies to Japanese as well, but it seems clear that the burden placed on a learner of Japanese is much lighter because (a) the number of Chinese characters used in Japanese is "only" about 2,000 -- fewer by a factor of two or three compared to the number needed by the average literate Chinese reader; and (b) the Japanese have phonetic syllabaries (the hiragana and katakana characters), which are nearly 100% phonetically reliable and are in many ways easier to master than chaotic English orthography is.

It took me a few weeks to master hiragana and katakana, and this means I can sound out all words in basic Japanese texts which provide furigana (i.e., hiragana or katakana above or beside the character, as in children's books and some ads). It also means I can actually read and write actual Japanese words and grammatical structures based on learning them by ear-and-mouth. I can certainly enjoy the same benefit of phonetic "cheats" in Chinese children's books and the like (here in Taiwan they use Zhuyin Fuhao, normally inserted horizontally in tiny script next to each character), but for the most part writing what I want to say in Zhuyin would quickly be a dead end, since Mandarin has too many homophones, as I shall show presently. It's an open secret that the rise of computers has led to major declines in the written ability of native Chinese speakers in this generation. Not only will high-school and university students in Taiwan commonly resort to simplified (PRC) characters when the traditional character is to ornate, but also students in both Taiwan and China will often just write notes at high speed in Pinyin or Zhuyin, perhaps even in English, since keeping up with a spoken lecture whilst writing characters is more trouble than most people want. As Moser notes, Chinese is not just "difficult for foreigners"; it's just difficult.

(This level of nagging difficulty holds for Chinese and Japanese typewriters as well, as this humorous how-to explains. [Wiki LINK to Chinese typewriter and LINK to Japanese typewriter.] Here's another quick expose of the Chinese typewriter at Wired and a lush post about Japanese typewriters.)

Let me show you an "artifact" that might capture the paradoxical love-hate relationship Sinophiles have with Chinese. The following essay-story was written by 趙元任 Zhao Yuan Ren (1892-1982), a language prodigy and Chinese-American sociolinguist. It is titled "The Chronicle of the Lion-Eating Poet named Shi [in the Stone Den]" and is written 施氏食獅史 [施氏食狮史] in Chinese (traditional and [simplified] characters). (Wiki LINK] Nothing about it is so terribly remarkable--except, I guess, the idea of a lion-eating poet in a cave--until you hear it read aloud or, in this venue, see its phonetic transcription (in Hanyu Pinyin): "Shī Shì shí shī shǐ". That's right: all the words in the title are pronounced as common fricatives of varying tones. And it doesn't stop there. Here is the whole of the tale in Hanyu Pinyin:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Here are the characters:


You can hear it read aloud at Youtube here or here. Below is a .gif of the tale, followed by the web author's own translation.

A poet by the name of Shih Shih living in a stone den was fond of lions. As he had taken an oath to eat ten lions, he went out to the market every day at ten o'clock in order to look for lions. It was at the time when all of a sudden ten lions came to the market and also Shih Shih went to the market at once realizing [sic] these ten lions. Relying on his (bow and) arrows, he caused these ten lions to pass away. Shih picked up the corpses of these ten lions, and as he went to the stone den, the stone chamber was damp. Shih had the stone den wiped by his servant. As the stone den was cleaned, it was the time [sic] that Shih began trying to eat the meal of these ten lions' corpses and he began to realize that these ten dead lions in fact were ten stone lions' corpses and he tried to get rid of this matter.

A perfectly sensible, albeit far-fetched, tale, but one that is incomprehensible in spoken Mandarin, and perhaps only just comprehensible in other dialects, like Cantonese. It is an elaborate tongue twister but also something more, for it is a window to the fact that you simply cannot hope to comprehend Chinese, nor even make substantial progress in (spoken) Mandarin, without a grasp of Chinese characters. Hence, if you seriously desire competence in Chinese, I suggest you begin by memorizing the 214 radicals and going from there. The initial myopic labor will only serve you well down the road. Zhao's tale is a vivid sign for how a student of Chinese can both love the byzantine richness of the language and yet also loathe the archaic inscrutability of its written dimensions. It has taken me nearly seven years of study to be able to read Zhao's tale in the original Chinese (since he employs a number of obscure words and also uses 文言文 wenyanwen), much less find it winsome, but I can't imagine having it explained to me, in a detailed manner, based only on a grasp of phonetic Mandarin.

Reading all this, you might wonder why I persist. I thought about it last night. At this point, Chinese is not a "challenge" as much as a hobby, and not a "hobby" as much as simply a habit. I don't really see how I can stop learning Chinese. It is a part of me, and knowing that gives me the patience to keep chipping away at it, perhaps even down to the hoary caverns of 古文 guwen and Sino-Tibetan etymology.


Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to add Chinese to the list of languages I wanted to learn. (So far, I've only worked with Spanish, French and ASL.) Looks like learning Chinese would require quite a commitment of time and effort. The local school district here (Oregon) is thinking of starting a Chinese program beginning with the Middle School, and then moving into the High School ages.

The Codgitator said...


What interests about Chinese? Is it an "I've always thought about getting a tattoo" attraction or an "I've always wanted to have children" thing? It's fun in the initial stages, as long as you don't get too worried about the characters. Audiolingual Mandarin is famously fairly easy so I say hats off to you. I'm just curious what your longer-term goals might be. I recall you asked me (it was you, right?) about Chinese or Japanese in an Oregon school district. Are you a teacher? I should probably get a teaching cert and some professional license in Chinese (and German). I enjoy teaching kids and teaching is the best way to learn.


Lou said...

Actually, the characters only take 1.5 years of dedicated study. After that they're easy. (Or perhaps I'm just a genius.) I have even found that character I had forgotten come back to me mystically, that is -- without looking them up. Besides the genius part, I'm serious.

There are only 4 tones. If you can't master them, then you didn't try.

So to some it up, Learning Chinese is easy. But making yourself study is not (for most people). If one actually spent a couple hours a day studying, in its classical sense -- most students don't know the difference between studying and facebooking these days -- then you would think the same way I do.

I must admit, I didn't read your post, just glossed it, but it seems you are using the old shi-shi-shi-shi argument. You should know that it is Classical Chinese and that the majority of words in Mandarin are disyllabic. Thus, bringing it up is pointless acquisitionally speaking.

The Codgitator said...


Thanks for your input. I wrote this piece as a sort of nostalgic primer for those with basically no knowledge of Chinese, so I tried to paint as broad a picture of the possible difficulties and definite joys of learning Chinese as I could for a non-specialist.

Competency in Chinese--and I suppose in any language--is relative to your goals and needs in using the language. If by "the characters are easy" you mean you can master a Tuttle textbook of high-frequency words, or breeze through the standard course of Mandarin patterns and vocabulary, then, sure, they're easy. But if you mean that after two years anyone can easily swim in any and all Chinese literature (in the news and poetry and modern fiction and the classics and comics, etc.), then frankly you're full of horse shit. People tell me all the time I have a gift for languages, but I don't want that to feed my ego. When I talk about my Chinese, I try to be humble, perhaps to a fault. But the fact is, I have put in lots of long hours on "the characters" and, if you want to hear me say it, my grasp of Chinese characters is superb. Commonly hailed as the best among all foreigners my many native-speaker friends know. Frequently capable of schooling native speakers themselves. And so on. And I got that way by not (to use your term of art) "facebooking", nor by using online dictionaries, unless I were just passing the time.

I agree that the key is just to STUDY, which is a 'skill' most people don't respect, let alone grasp. I also fully agree that knowledge of enough characters triggers a 'mystical' snowball effect whereby you really can guess out a word's meaning and sound or conjure it up from a recollection of its kin-words (viz., the 青 'cognates' and the like). It sounds like you're saying MANDARIN is easy, which I have already said is true. Unfortunately, my point is that CHINESE is much larger than Mandarin, and therefore much more difficult to "master" (a word I would apply to myself in any field with only the greatest trepidation). As such, the shi-shi-shi segment is not an 'argument' against Chinese so much as a true feature of Chinese, which some readers (alas, perhaps not geniuses like you) might find interesting in its own right. Even so, if you don't think a grasp of obscure, high-falutin', classical and quasi-classical Chinese is necessary for "mastering" Mandarin, then why, for example, was an essay I recently translated from 白話 rife with expressions that initially baffled me AND NATIVE SPEAKERS?

I appreciate that you admit you didn't read the whole post before choosing to pontificate, and I suppose I must respect such behavior as one of the privileges of being a genius.


The Codgitator said...


BTW, 'admitting' that my Chinese is "superb" ultimately boils down to saying that it's still "only so-so."


Mockingbird said...

Great post.

You write: "here in Taiwan they use Zhuyin Fuhao, normally inserted horizontally in tiny script next to each character), but for the most part writing what I want to say in Zhuyin would quickly be a dead end, since Mandarin has too many homophones."

Color me skeptical. In English we have the words "bow" (anything that bends over on itself) and "beau" (boyfriend) which are pronounced identically. In a few contexts they might be confused, so we use spelling to distinguish them, as Mandarin uses characters to distinguish homophones. But we also have synonyms. If we need to be precise about the meaning of "bow" we can specify "longbow", "crossbow", "rainbow", "hair-ribbon" or whatever. For "beau" we can substitute "boyfriend". How many Hanzi would be absolutely necessary for comprehension, if writers in Mandarin using mainly alphabetic systems would avail themselves of similar strategies?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...


Glad you like the post! It sort of just "came out" of me in one or two sittings but I guess it had been germinating for a while… say, seven years haha.

I'll grant that "a dead end" is too strong an expression here, but I was being expressive. The reason it would, however, be a deadening end, if I may, is that we are talking about written language versus speech. It's not only more tiresome to have to parenthetically explain what you are writing (by which I mean NOT, not KNOT, and YOU, not EWE, and WRiteing, not RIGHTing, etc.), but writing is all too vulnerable to snowballing scribal errors. If I were trying to write things hastily in only zhuyin, how many times might my third tone (a small check mark) cramp into what looks like a second tone (´)? Or how often might my first tone slope up into a second tone? Or, if we were to use this omicron diacritic ^ for the third tone, how easily might it wither into a fourth tone diacritic (`)? The point is not exactly how often these things might happen, but that would be sure to happen, and on a large scale. I can't even honestly imagine using a zhuyin-only grocery list to go shopping down the street.

In any case, maybe I'm too much of a Luddite even in language. I know John De Francis was a major campaigner for pinyin-only Chinese and even published a few (?) books in pinyin-only. How many actual characters would you "need" to "understand" otherwise fully Chinese? Only a few thousand, but hell it would be an ugly language. Imagine shifting gears every few words from English to Pig Latin to Wingdings. Yeah.

Despite De Francis' magisterial acumen and missionary zeal, I'm still not sold on 'pinyinism' because I think all attempts to simplify Chinese suffer the same flaw, namely, they must rely on the very characters they want to exorcise in order to establish a new 'ideolexical' regime. For instance, students of simplified Chinese still have to learn the traditional characters so they know why the simplified characters are what they are (i.e., know the derivation)! So it is for pinyinism: you have to first learn "real Chinese" in order to establish enough competence in what the pinyin phonemes mean.

Lastly, consider that if in a generation or two all Chinese speakers did convert to pinyinism, they would, in three or four generations, be effectively illiterate in all literature––"ancient Chinese wisdom"!––prior to the conversion.

I have toyed with my own "simplified" system, which I arrogantly and quixotically call "Boyu", and which seeks to combine Hanyu Pinyin the source word's radical… but it's very much on the back burner for now. Learning "real Chinese" is demanding enough. ;p


Mockingbird said...

Cogitator, thanks for the prompt reply.

You write: "How many actual characters would you "need" to "understand" otherwise fully Chinese? Only a few thousand, but hell it would be an ugly language. Imagine shifting gears every few words from English to Pig Latin to Wingdings. Yeah. "

But the Japanese do precisely this, using kanji where needed and using kana for particles, inflections, and many other words. In the past, one form of Korean literature was Wenyan with Korean connectives. As for "shifting gears every few words from English to Latin", well, the macaronic song is a well-established (though now largely obsolete) genre in English:

Of one that is so fair and bright
velut maris stella
Brighter than the day is night
parens et puella

And do not Cantopop singers sometimes spice up their songs with English words, which, when the words are written, are written in the Roman alphabet? So the inconvenience of shifting typefaces is not an objection to converting to a mixed system of writing if good grounds could be found for it otherwise.

You also write: "if in a generation or two all Chinese speakers did convert to pinyinism, they would, in three or four generations, be effectively illiterate in all literature––"ancient Chinese wisdom"!––prior to the conversion."

This too would not be a valid objection to such a conversion if it were to go forward for otherwise good reasons. Most Chinese literature prior to around 1915 was in Wenyan anyhow, which must be learned as a separate language, just as we need special study fully to learn Latin or Old English. Those who do not have time or inclination to study rely on translations, or go without. The Japanese reduced their character set after World War II. Those who need to read the older literature as originally written simply learn the obsolete characters. So if Mandarin and Cantonese were to switch to a mixed system of Hanzi for some words and zhuyin or pinyin for the rest, those who needed to read the older literature as originally written would learn the additional characters and, for Wenyan and Guwen writing, the older languages. Those who didn't need to do this would rely on transliterations, or go without.

Of course, I don't expect such a major conversion to be made anytime soon for any of the languages of China or Taiwan that are currently written using Hanzi. Such reforms when they come will probably be by baby steps, much as our spelling reforms in English have been.

Harry Blarr said...

A confess from CHINESE:
To be frank, the wenyanwen is also a hard task for us, it required us to study since we are at appropriate age(well, some who are only 12 had learned how to WRITE wenyanwen) but chinese is an interesting language.

And About this:
It is easy to understand, but when i read it will start with shi shi shi and then sh*t sh*t......

clueless learner said...

Re: uncertainty while entering characters by radical
Have you considered using cangjie for entering unknown characters? I'm only just beginning to
learn, and the basic decomposing still seems somewhat ambiguous to me in some cases -
a handful or two of the radicals don't seem exactly intuitive, but once these few are memorized
it seems very straightforward because the rules about how to "walk through" a character are independent of whether the components are semantic or phonetic, so there's no guesswork, even if neither the meaning nor the pronunciation is known.

Or are there difficulties that I've just not run into yet that make cangjie less useful as a
lookup tool?