Learning Mandarin: Five – about me?

This is the sixth in a series of posts where I'm looking at how the Chinese view numbers, often from a superstitious basis.

Five

The Chinese character for five (Wǔ) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above.

The number five is slightly on the lucky side of neutral in Chinese, where people believe there are five blessings: luck, prosperity, wealth, longevity, and happiness.

Similarly, it has been associated with the five elements: water, earth, fire, wood, and metal. There is some past association with emperors.

It sounds a bit like the word 吾 (Wú) which means "I", "my", or "me".

While that's all good, it also sounds like 无 (Wú) which is more like "nothing" or "not" or "without". That has the possibility of being either good or bad.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Four – death…

This is the fifth in a series of posts where I'm looking at how the Chinese view numbers, often from a superstitious basis.

Four

The Chinese character for four (Sì) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above.

Four is universally regarded as a bad number in Chinese culture. Once again, that's because it sounds like other words.

In particular, four sounds like 死 (Sǐ) which means "death". It's similar in Cantonese where the word is sei, it's the same issue. It's considered an unlucky number because of this.

You'll find buildings in Asia that don't have a floor 4 (similar to how many Western buildings years ago had no floor 13). Some buildings take it even further and have no floor 4, 14, 24, 34, and so on.

Four is so frowned upon that people avoid saying it, and don't display it anywhere. People will get upset if they're issued an ID or credit card that has the number 4 in it.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Three – important stages of life?

This is the fourth in a series of posts where I'm looking at how the Chinese view numbers, often from a superstitious basis.

Three

The Chinese character for three (Sān) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above. It's three single lines (probably originally sticks).

Generally, the number three is regarded as a good number in Chinese culture. Many times, meanings of Chinese numbers are related to other words they sound like. While three doesn't sound all that close to 生 (shēng), in Cantonese the word is sāang, which is much closer.

Either way, 生 means life and is often directly related to birth.

出生 (Chūshēng) is to be born and even though Chinese aren't really into birthdays (at least traditionally), 生日 (Shēngrì) is the word for "birthday".

Many historical tales in Chinese use three in a positive way. You'll come across restaurants like "three kings". Some see it as a heavenly number, associated with prosperity.

Unfortunately though, there is another meaning associated with three. While in Cantonese, it sounds a bit like sāang, it also sounds a bit like sāam, which relates to separating or breaking up with someone or something. So that's the downside of this number.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Two – easy going or reckless?

This is the third in a series of posts where I'm looking at how the Chinese view numbers, often from a superstitious basis.

Two

The Chinese character for two (Èr) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above. It's two single lines (probably originally sticks).

Generally, the number two is regarded as a good number in Chinese culture. Similar to the English saying, the Chinese have an equivalent saying for "good things some in pairs".

Two suggests happiness, joy, and luck. However, two can also represent stupid and reckless.

Because the Cantonese word for two is similar sounding to the word for "easy", two is also often associated with "easy". A good example is that the number 24 is often regarded as "easy death" or "reckless death". We'll talk about 4 later.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: One – for winners, singles, or for loneliness

This is the second in a series of posts where I'm looking at how the Chinese view numbers, often from a superstitious basis.

One

The Chinese character for one (Yī) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above. It's a single line (probably originally a stick).

Sometimes when it's written on bank notes, checks (cheques), etc. it's often written as a different character:

That's to avoid fraudulent changes, which you can imagine it would be easy to make for a character that's just a single line.

Cultural Concepts

One isn't regarded as a special number. Obviously it can be good when it's assigned to a winner.

But often in Chinese, one can represent being single or being lonely.

11/11

A few years back, the Alibaba company created a special day just for singles. It's called Singles' Day or shown in Chinese as double-one, double-one: 11/11. It's held on November 11th.

The Western tradition of Valentines Day has been creeping into China but there are so many single people who find it a depressing day, particularly with endless pressure from their parents for them to get married. Singles' Day is a celebration of being single, and it's an excuse for single people to spend money on themselves.

You might think that sounds peculiar but it's worth noting that it's now the largest retail event in the world, by a long, long way.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Zero – everything or nothing

One thing that always fascinates me about Chinese culture, and probably about most Asian cultures, is the endless belief in luck, both good and bad. I have to admit that nowadays I have little time for any form of superstition. I think it's just a throwback to periods where we just understood far less about the world. I think you make your own luck, again both good and bad.

In Chinese culture though, numbers are especially significant. If you've ever wondered by there is no 4th floor in some Chinese buildings, or the misfortune to try to sell a house with 24 as the street number, or the good fortune to be selling a house with 8 as the street number (or 88 even better), you'll know what I'm talking about.

Many Chinese people view things that happen in their daily lives through a perspective where numbers are having an effect.

So I thought I should spend a short while, talking about each of the standard digits and how they're seen.

Zero

The first we'll look at is zero. The Chinese character (Líng) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above.

It's sometimes seen as a good number but other times, it's seen as just neutral. It's good nature no doubt relates to the fact that it sounds like another word that is a notion of "sacred".

Zero can relate to either nothing, or everything, as it is limitless. Everything is seen as starting with zero.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: How are Japanese characters related to Chinese characters?

If Asian character sets are new to you, you might wonder if Japanese and Chinese characters are the same or similar.

Japanese has a number of character sets:

Hirogana is the simplest set of characters. There is a single character for each basic sound in the language. For example in the name Hirogana itself, there are 4 characters: Hi, ro, ga, and na. Every word can be made up of these characters. The characters have no meaning on their own. There are only 46 characters and 68 additional variants of them.

Katakana is another set with the same number of characters. It is used to represent words from another language. This concept might seem a bit strange to English speakers. If we adopt a French word, we typically write it with the same alphabetic letters as we use for English. (We might use italics and/or add accents or graves but it's basically the same).

Romaji is just a way of writing the Japanese words by using a Roman alphabet like we use.

Kanji is a large set (tens of thousands) of characters where a single symbol or a pair of symbols might represent an entire word. Kanji characters originated from traditional Chinese characters.

Kanji vs Chinese

Now while the Japanese Kanji characters and the traditional Chinese characters will often be the same, the words are mostly different. And the characters might be draw somewhat differently.

In the main image above, note the similarity in the Chinese and Japanese written words, and also note that the PinYin word is very different to the Romaji word. (English-like words below).

This leads to an interesting situation. I spent 5 years learning Japanese at high school and I got to a level of basic greetings, etc. I didn't, however, ever learn enough Kanji characters to be at all literate.

In fact, many older Japanese people also don't know many Kanji characters. I've seen Japanese newspapers where the story on the front page is written using a mixture of Kanji and Hirogana, but the same story is on the back page, written entirely in Hirogana so that it can be read by less-educated people.

But now that I've learned a good number of Chinese characters, I see signs written in Japanese, and while I have no idea what the Japanese word is, I know what the sign means. So ironically, I can understand more written Japanese since I've been learning Chinese, than back when I was learning Japanese.

I might not know the Japanese words, but I recognize the written characters as "fish market" in both of the languages shown above.

Traditional Chinese

Part of the reason those words above look different is that the Chinese is actually Simplified Chinese. Japanese Kanji was based on traditional Chinese characters.

Now compare the Japanese to the Traditional Chinese:

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Radicals can help to identify correct characters

In a previous post, I mentioned that radicals (characters within characters) can help you to recognize characters in Chinese.

A simple example is that if I type "ma" into my pin-yin editor, I see this:

The third character is the word for a horse. (Notice that it now even returns an emoticon for a horse in this editor as the fifth character -> how cute).

If you look at the fourth character, you can see the horse on the right, but another symbol on the left. The one on the left is the woman radical. I know this is the word for mother because this radical is there.

If you look at the first character, you'll again see the horse on the right. That's how the sound is assigned to the character. The radical on the left though is the character for a mouth. This "ma" is a bit like a question mark in English. Adding it to many sentences turns them into questions, like "ka" does in Japanese.

Another purpose

But there is another aspect of the radicals that makes them useful. In English, I could say:

I must bring an umbrella.

but I could also say:

I must take an umbrella.

You'll notice there's  a subtle difference in the meaning of these English sentences, but they're still pretty close.

Similarly, in Chinese there is often a confusion about whether to use

带 (Dài) – as a verb, Google says "carry"

or

拿 (Ná) – as a verb, Google says "take" or "hold"

Where the radicals become of interest, is helping to decide which one to use. Here is a bigger picture of the second word:

The bottom radical (that I have highlighted) is actually this character:

手 (Shǒu) which means "hand"

And it's no surprise that 拿 (Ná) is more commonly related to situations where you are picking something up to take it (i.e. it involves using your hand).

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Radicals can help with meaning

I get a lot of questions from people about how anyone ever learns so many Chinese characters. There are about 30,000 of them but, like in English, most people use a much smaller subset of them. I've often heard 2,500 mentioned as a good level, and enough to read most newspaper articles, etc.

One trick with learning the characters is to learn about radicals. In many cases, recognizing the radicals will help you to recognize the characters.

Radicals are written as part of characters but they're usually squashed. For example, the word

(Rén) is the word for "person" or perhaps "man" in the sense of "mankind".

But it's also the character on the left hand side of this word:

(Nǐ)

The word means "you" and the person radical is the vertical line and the stroke leading up to it. I've highlighted it in the main image above. It's referred to as:

人字旁 (Rén zì páng) which is close to "person character beside".

Another common word that appears as a radical is:

(Shuǐ)

You'll often see it as a series of droplets:

(Hǎi) is the word for sea. The three droplets on the left are the squashed form of the word water. So it would be called:

水字旁 (Shuǐ zì páng)

Learning the common radicals can help you to recognize words much more quickly. You'll often have an idea what they're about.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Words that look the same but have different pronunications and meanings

In English, we have a number of words that are spelled the same way but sound different and have different meanings. These are called heteronyms. They shouldn't be confused with homographs which are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, and homophones that are words that sound alike, have different meanings, and different spellings.

A common example of a heteronym is the word lead. I can lead someone to pick up a piece of lead.

An more interesting example is the word August. As a proper noun, it's the month and has emphasis on the first syllable when pronounced. As an adjective, it's describing someone and has emphasis on the second syllable when pronounced. August is also an example of a capitonym, or a word that has a different meaning when it is capitalized.

Now, you could argue that these types of words would be more common in English, given we only have 26 characters to play with when creating words. And if Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, does it run into the same problems?

And the answer is yes.

A simple example is this character:

I can use it like this:

我还没有那本书。(Wǒ hái méiyǒu nà běn shū)

In this case, the word is (hái) and means "still". The sentence above means "I still don't have that book".

But exactly the same character can be: (huán). It means close to the English equivalent of "return" as in returning something to someone.

Here are some other common examples:

银行 (Yínháng) – this is the word for a bank. The second character is háng. But the same character can be Xíng with a lot of different meanings.

is chang or zhang

is le or liao

is zhe or zhao

And so on. So you might start to understand the real challenge of automatic translation by computers. If you just type 长 how would the computer have any idea what you meant? The answer is that you have to give it context (i.e. more to go on) before it can decide that.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.