2021-09-16 超级凉快 27795

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Most people think learning Chinese is difficult. Every time I’m back in Spain and I tell someone I can speak Chinese, they invariably reply with a: “Wow! Isn’t it super complicated?”. Some (weird) people claim that it is in fact very easy, though normally these people are just trying to sell you their “learn Chinese in 3 months” courses. I agree that the grammar is in general not very difficult, although remembering the correct classifier for each noun can be difficult at times, and I remember I had a very hard time grasping how some verbal constructions work. Some people say they learned to speak fluent Chinese in the street and I’m happy for them but I’m not so language-gifted (6 years in Suzhou and the local dialect still sounds like Japanese to me). There’s one thing I know for sure, though: in my opinion, if you can’t write the characters, you can’t really say you know Chinese.


When I was studying Chinese, we had to learn to write all the characters by hand. I guess it’s still like this. If you don’t practise writing each new character 20 times, it’s practically impossible to remember all the strokes. Nowadays writing by hand is not really that important, as everybody uses pinyin or wubihua to type on computers and phones and no one really writes by hand much (except students, of course) but I am really glad I got to learn how to write lots of characters. At the beginning you are taught the easier ones, the ones that used to represent graphically a tangible thing, like moon or sun, and you think: “Hey! This is very easy and fun!”. Then things start becoming complicated and it is not fun anymore when you have to spend 6 hours practising new characters (i.e. me when I had just arrived to Beijing).

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The title of the most difficult character in simplified Chinese is usually given to biang, a type of noodle dish. Luckily it is not commonly used and the only ones who would have to write it would be the waiters or owners of restaurants serving these noodles. However, it is so complicated that they sometimes write the pinyin instead because, really, why would anyone bother to write this?


This is not a joke, it’s a real character! And the traditional version is even worse…


I prefer simpler characters. My absolute favourite is undoubtedly this one:


Can you guess what it means? It is very easy: skewer! Isn’t it great? You don’t need to know Chinese to understand it because it’s super clear! It is pronounced chuan and if you are in the north of China you will need to add many r behind it to be understood: chuanrrrrrr.


Another character that I like is san:


Do you know what it is? It’s also very obvious: umbrella!


Another one that I like is a combination of two characters:


Mu means tree or wood. It looks a bit like a tree, right? The horizontal line is the ground and the three strokes below are the roots.


Lin is a surname and it also means wood, as it’s two trees.


Senlin… five trees. Well… it’s decidedly a forest!


I wish all the characters were this easy! Then I would never forget how to write them by hand…




And for the second time this month I’m saying that Chinese people are very superstitious. The other day C. came home with a branch of some plant that someone gave him. I had already seen that branch hanging beside the door of several neighbours and it reminded me of when Spanish people hang palm branches from their balconies in Easter. But it seems this branch has a totally different meaning…


At first I understood this plant was effective against mosquitoes, so I told C. to put it inside the house. We have SO MANY mosquitoes, even though we live in the 10th floor. I’m starting to think we have a mosquito breeding center somewhere. But he told me that no, this branch has to be hanged outside, because it has another function: to offer protection against evil spirits. As you can see, there is also a garlic head there…


I don’t know where this tradition comes from as I don’t remember seeing this branch on previous years, and for sure we never had it before. Maybe it’s some old custom that has been revived? I also have no idea what the plant is…


This was a fantastic post! I love learning about the characters and find it amazing that you were willing to learn Chinese. As you mentioned, everyone says it is so difficult, so young people shy away from learning it, but I think it is fascinating the the characters look like art strokes!
As you have your child and start showing him/her Chinese / Spanish books it will be interesting to see how they learn. I was just at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and China was the guest of honor. They were saying that Chinese children’s books are all about “effort” in life, while American books are about “happiness.” I wonder what Spanish books are mainly about. An Italian woman laughed and said that Italian books are about “fantasy.” :)


In Spain there are many people learning Chinese now! But I don’t know which percentage manages to get a good level. I think it’s very hard to achieve if you are not immersed in the language 24/7.
I haven’t read any Chinese children books I think. I would have thought they would also deal with “obey your parents at all times” hahaha. In Spain, I’d say many children books are about friendship.


I swear, Chinese is so hard to learn. My mother tongue is Cantonese but my Chinese level is that of a foreigner’s. That biang character is the reason why I’ll probably never be able to even master the basics, haha!


Oh, I thought you were native in Cantonese! The biang character is an exaggeration, usually the characters are not THAT bad xD


Biang is such a crazy character, ha. I saw it when I went to Xian and even ate the noodles too. Weirdly enough, I have heard Chinese talking and at first I thought they were speaking Japanese but then I heard a bit of Mandarin and realized they were actually Chinese. I thought they were from Shanghai but from what you said, maybe they were from Suzhou.


Well, Shanghai and Suzhou dialects are similar, part of the Wu language family.I also thought it sounds similar to Japanese at first!


Yeah, the Yangtze Delta sure has a lot of dialects. The interesting thing is they don’t sound like Mandarin or Cantonese or Minnanese.


Sean JS
I’ve always loved how the fact that Chinese characters are logographic lends itself to so many fun creations.

For example in Toronto we have a ramen place that has as part of its logo a seal containing a character made up of 麦,骨, and 豕, meaning “wheat”, “bones”, and “pork” respectively. Basically it’s a perfect descxtion of ramen, which the character itself embodies. Very creative

Yes! They allow for a lot of creativity, haha. That’s a very good example.

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Are you kidding me with that biang character?! Seems torturous.

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Maybe they use it to punish badly behaved children in school. “Now, write the character biang 500 times!”.


they would never misbehave again.

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Hi Marta, I do (did) love learning Characters and writing them – its the history of the character I love. I have forgotten most of them now as dont use them…such a shame. But Oh My Goodness I have never seen that first character let alone tried to write it…incredibly difficult.


The history of characters is fascinating, I love etymology in all languages! But I don’t really know the history of most characters, I only had an elective class that mentioned that.


I was very fortunate Marta my teacher in Australia taught me the background of each character I learnt. I wish I could study full time and probably wish I was younger to do it.


We were contemplating moving to China, we were learning Chinese, because we knew having some basics under our belt was hella important, as was being able to read some signs like bathroom, restaurant, hotel, etc.
And I must say, it was fun. I would say Chinese has been the funnest language to learn on my own, so I can only imagine how it would be to get proper instruction.
Good for you Marta! I say learning another language and being functional in your expat country can be rewarding and worth it!


Well, I wouldn’t call proper instruction exactly fun, but it greatly depends on the teacher. In China, the method is based on repeating everything a thousand times so not really fun at all, haha. But when you start thinking about the parts that compose the characters, why they are like that, etc, it’s very interesting.

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You know more Chinese. I struggle to remember first, middle and last name. I know 1-7 in Chinese.. Man, woman, horse.
What did the lst ideogram mean? Yea that looks like a landscape painting in calligraphy. :)

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A forest! Hehe. It’s literally a group of trees!

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Behind the Story
I knew mu looked sort of tree-like, but I never stopped to think about the fact that the bottom part was roots. Maybe that’s an American attitude, to think only of what’s above ground. Ha ha. When I studied Chinese (rather informally and not for nearly long enough), I did enjoy writing the characters. It was fun until they got too hard. My husband loved all the thought and history that went into the formation of the characters. He hated the simplified characters because he said too much of the meaning and history was lost. Of course, he grew up learning the traditional version.


I remember that when mu was explained to us the teacher said that, in a tree, the most important part is the roots. Yes, it’s a completely different way of looking at things!
Your husband was right, a big part of the meaning and history was lost. I hope it at least helped to improve the literacy rate in the past century.


Niial Hawking
nice post! very helpful for those who wanted to learn chinese language. thanks for the post.


Ni On The Fly
I commend you for learning chinese. Both my parents are chinese but I can only understand Cantonese as we only spoke English at home.
Now I’m trying to teach myself Cantonese and it’s a struggle


Very good post. I wish one day i learn chinese


Charmaine Ng
Gotta love Chinese superstitions! I’ve grown out of them now but growing up Chinese, I used to be so scared of the stories my grandmothers told me, haha!


Superstitions are kind of funny everywhere. In Spain, opening an umbrella indoors or passing under a ladder brings bad luck. I wonder, is there an evil force field in the umbrella or under the ladder? xD


I’ve actually been trying to find a house flag that incorporates the requisite Chinese characters for good luck, etc. I thought that would be a nice melding of east and west


Uhm, I looked it up on Taobao but house flags are not common here. However, there are many vendors who make custom flags

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Very interesting. I’ve never know about this superstition of hanging plants (is it scallion?) and garlic outside the door to protect against spirits. Don’t you find this similar to stories in the West about using garlic to protect against vampires, ha?


Yes! So this proves garlic is effective against evil xD