Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fun with Chinese Characters

My Chinese teacher Yanfen feels that it’s important for me to learn to read and write Chinese characters if I’m ever going to learn this language. As for me, I’ve been content to take the whole process of communication slowly, using, for instance, the all-purpose “wo yao” (I want) and then pointing – those dumplings, that knockoff Bottega Veneta purse, those shrimp-flavored potato chips – as a basic means of communication. It gets me farther than you might think. But Yanfen wants me to understand the culture, and maybe even determine whether a street sign says “Temple of Heaven” or “Danger: Do Not Enter,” so we’ve started working on the basics of Chinese strokes. I feel like a three-year-old writing the letter “A” for the first time. But the difference is that in the U.S. we don’t especially care if the kiddos write the left-hand side, the horizontal middle, and the right-hand side in any particular order. An “A” is an “A.” The Chinese, though, care about strokes, the building blocks of characters. Strokes have their own names, a fact I find daunting. Even more daunting: Before I begin, I have to remember the following rules: horizontal lines goes before vertical; downward left goes before downward right; left goes before right; top goes before bottom; outside parts before inside parts. And then it gets even more complicated: You do the outside lines, then inside strokes, and THEN you close off the outside part. But before you commit that to memory, remember this twist: a middle stroke goes before two sides. Now, that might seem to contract the “from left to right” rule, wouldn’t you think? And that’s just the beginning. Let’s start with the character “ma,” which stands for “horse.” It’s also the building block for other things. For instance, a “ma” at the end of a sentence indicates one is asking a question. What this has to do with horses is beyond me. (Digression: My grandmother called the bullet-shaped pasta we ate “horses,” but that was because the Italian word for horse, “cavallo,” sounds something like the Italian word for the pasta we ate, “cavatelli.” Now that makes perfect sense.) In any event, this is the character for “ma.” 马 Now, this is the simplified character. The ancient symbol looks a tiny bit like a horse rearing up on its hind legs. For the modern character, well, use your imagination. And maybe some Lego blocks. In fact, employing a very healthy imagination is useful for lots of Chinese characters. The character for six, for instance has four strokes: 六 It’s supposed to look like a horizontal line of three fish, with another fish on the top and two on the bottom. Get it? And good luck trying to remember them. There are about 3,000 in SIMPLIFIED Chinese, and few of them use just one character to form a word. The day that Yanfen told me that a character got modified – usually the right half is kind of sliced off and sometimes changed nearly completely – when it gets combined with another character or even more to form a word, I looked at her incredulously. If I didn’t respect her earnestness and honesty, I would have thought I was being punked. I’m trying not to take the Chinese language personally – I mean, I’m sure the Chinese have something better to do in their 5,000 years of history than to punk an expatriot American in 2012 – but sometime I wonder. For instance, the feminist in me can’t help but to remember this darling little character: 女 That’s the symbol for “female,” and the ancient character it’s based on looks like a woman kneeling subserviently. Hey, thanks China. Sure, women are equal, except in that dainty little kneeling-like character. But at least it’s easy to remember and fairly easy to write with just three simple strokes: you make the kneeling stroke, kind of a sloppy “L,” then you crisscross that, and then you put the horizontal line across them. That order of strokes is taken directly from my book, “Kuaile Hanyu,” or “Happy Chinese.” (Am I happy yet? Do I look happy?) But adding the horizontal line last contradicts the “hortizontal before vertical” rule. If that doesn’t sound like someone being punked, I don’t know what does. If you ever start to feel proud of your own intelligence – maybe you understood what the Supreme Court was trying to say about the health care law, for instance, and didn’t dump inane comments all over Twitter in the first ten seconds – just try writing a few Chinese characters while your teacher is looking on. Get them in the right order. And the right direction. And then write them about the size of a Times New Roman 14-point type. I haven’t even started on the subject of tones, or of sounds the Chinese can make that my mouth does not seem to want to form. Let’s just say that I’m waiting for the weather to cool off before I make any casual conversation about the weather, because the word “re,” (hot) is pronounced something like a cross between a French “r,” a “je” sound, and something both gutteral and “r” at the same time. At least that seems easier than writing the word for hot using Chinese characters: 热 I think I’ll just wait. The bitter Beijng winter is just around the corner.

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