Some Fun and Very Nerdy Research about China

My search through China continues. I’m looking up all kinds of things from the differences of the geographical areas and population densities. Here are some of the coolest parts I’ve discovered.

I found that Hong Kong, Micau, and China are all technically part of China, but very different from each other. Hong Kong back in the early 1900’s sometime was taken by Britain. China really wanted this land back, so they made a deal with Britain. Britain said they could have the land back if they allowed Hong Kong to operate under the same government for the following 50 years. So, Hong Kong is actually a democracy and has it’s own way of doing things. Micau, used to be owned by the Portuguese and was given back with similar rules. China is still honoring the agreement in the broad scheme, but like you’d expect there are plenty of rumors about strict control in some aspects.

The widest spoken language in China is Mandarin, which basically translates to “the national language”. It is based on the Beijing dialect, which is also the capital of China. Then there’s Cantonese, Shanghainese (Wu) and a few other popular ones, which are widely spoken in the South Eastern areas of China and also in Hong Kong. However, all the main broad casts and news are done everywhere in Mandarin. Almost every person can understand Mandarin, but as you’d guess, not quite as many are able to speak the same dialect. Chinese is a family of languages and is almost equivalent to how the romantic languages represents a diverse verity. Some of the branches of Chinese are just as different from each other as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. The standard Chinese is distinguishable from all the others as having the fewest tones and the fewest final consonants. Okay, I’m sold, sign me up! I always thought that this was supposed to be one of the hardest languages to learn. I gotta find out why people say that or if it’s just a common myth, so now my studying has some more fuel. Mandarin has four distinctive tones, while Lao has five or six! For example the word mai with a low tone means to buy and with a falling tone means to sell. That difference is the equivalent to our consonant changes from “guy” or “buy”. I have actually noticed the Lao PoP staff complaining about this part of English that they don’t understand. So apart from the tones Mandarin is no more different from English than French is, but adding the tones is definitely a challenge. Mandarin has no word conjugations and instead relies heavily on word order, which conveniently is very similar to English. I think this myth is broken and done with!

Now I’m more excited to learn Chinese after finding out it’s much easier than it’s reputation. Then, I get to the section teaching me about the written Chinese… Different from the Greek language using an alphabet, Chinese languages are written with characters. I know I know, you’re thinking “duh we all know that already!” Be patient, I’m getting to the better part. The characters stand for whole syllables, with particular meanings. Even though there are thirteen hundred phonetically distinct syllables, there are several thousand Chinese characters in everday use, essentially one for each sinlge-syllable unit of meaning. That means that there are many words with the same pronunciation but have different characters. Sounds a lot like to, too, and two in English. Full literacy calls for knowing some three thousand characters. However, in order to reduce the amount of time needed to learn characters, there has been a vast extension in the People’s Republic of China for character simplification, which has reduced the average strokes of the characters by half. That’s what it means if you see options for the Chinese language and one says “traditional” or “simplified”. Also, to help our stupid Western, alphabet-constructed brains, they have officially adopted a Romanization representation of the sounds of Chinese, called Pinyin, which literally means Chinese Language Spelling. China is using it in the short term to teach all students the same pronunciation of Mandarin, and long-term to be used as the standard style of written communication. Uhh, I vote for that one. I had to learn a different alphabet with Lao, but after about 50 distinct symbols, I had a rigid foundation with which to understand the language. Lao, unlike English, can be read perfectly, even if you have never seen the word or don’t know what it means. That certainly sounds much easier than learning another alphabet with Chinese. In the meantime though, as China is trying to spread the Pinyin system, characters, which mostly represent meaning, not pronunciation, are still the most widely used way of writing. I guess that makes sense, if they have a language with standard meaning, but no standard pronunciation, it would be pretty hard to understand people. Apparently it’s being kept is because it keeps alive distinctions of meaning between words, and connections of meaning between words, which are fading in the spoken language. So, now that your totally asleep, the whole point of that was just to say that my study of the Chinese language, for now, will just be with the Pinyin system.

While you fell asleep during my last explanation, I took that time to read more about Chinese characters, because I’m being a big nerd with this now and at least want to know about the difficulty, even if I’m not going to study that part of the language. In every character there are a few basic types of strokes, each with its own prescribed direction, length, width, and contour. The width can even change in the middle of a stroke. Wow, my head is already spinning. Most of the time when I’m writing in English it’s half cursive, half scribbled mess. This is already way too much attention to detail for me. The dynamics of the strokes as written with a brush, the classical writing instrument, show up clearly even in printed characters. You can tell from varying thickness of the stroke how the brush met the paper, how it swooped, and how it lifted; which are totally lost when we came over and forced the people to stop wasting time and use a bic. Whoops, sorry about that one. As if to make this any harder, the sequence of strokes is also of particular importance. Moving on, some characters are symbolic and can be figured out by the picture, but the most common type is complex, consisting of two parts: a phonetic, which suggests the pronunciation, and a radical, which broadly characterizes the meaning. There are about 200 radicals and over a thousand phonetics that can both be used in different combinations. I guess that was their first attempt to standardize the pronunciation. Sounds a bit complicated to me, no wonder it didn’t work. Traditionally, Chinese was written vertically, from top to bottom, starting on the right-hand side, and with the pages bound, so that the first page is where we would expect the last page to be. Along with the ball point pen, we also told them their idiots for printing things backwards and showed them how to do it the right way. ‘Merica! Bout time we showed them the right time. Fools have been doing wrong since 1500 B.C., when we found the oldest surviving characters.

The most common Chinese names are written as surname first and given name last, generally with a single-syllable surname followed by a two-syllable given name. Some surnames sound exactly alike although written with different characters, giving them a different meaning. To distinguish them , the Chinese people may occasionally have to describe the character or write it with their finger on their palm. So, next time I laugh when there are so many Chinese people all with the same Wong surname, I’ll remember it only seems the same because my language isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish them. With that said, I’ll still be laughing, even in China, because a handful of the surnames are so common that they account for a good majority of China’s population. Oh, that’s almost 1.4 billion people by the way. Yikes! When a woman gets married they don’t take their husbands surname, but might add it after their own for certain situations. The children take either name as their own, so siblings can have different last names. They have the same Mr. Miss Mrs. titles we have, but they are used slightly differently. Mrs. shouldn’t be used because it means she is a member of the “leisure class”. Miss shouldn’t be used because it carries the connotation of being from a rich family. Instead, the title, “Comrade,” is used in the place of titles. It can be used for female or male, regardless of marital status. Few, that makes it so much easier for me!

Everything in the country is run by a hand full of men, I think about 7. One of them is the boss of it all. He controls everything in China. I’m going to stop the comments there, so I don’t just disappear some day.

I heard from some expats working in China (not sure if this is true, haven’t looked it up) that they have their own version of everything. They have the China version of facebook, youtube, google, and all those social media sites. The normal ones we’re used to are not accessible in China.

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