February’s FEATURED AUTHOR: The Chinese Language – Making Sense of the Characters

It’s the last Wednesday in February already. Yes, already. And to bring a little brightness into the reality that this year is just flying by faster than I wish it to, here’s our Featured Author Douglas Jaffe with post on the Chinese language. You know, the one with all the squiggly lines that caused my one and only “D” on a report card. Ever. 😉


The Chinese Language – Making Sense of the Characters

When I first started studying Mandarin Chinese back in the mid-90s, there was an almost mystical quality to the language. As a Caucasian with no exposure to Chinese culture, examining a Chinese character for the first time was akin to reading hieroglyphics. I had already accepted the reality of my poor handwriting and limited drawing ability, so diving into a new language that required these skills was not going to be easy.

There are different methods for learning to read and pronounce Chinese characters. You can rely on pinyin, which is a system by which characters are turned into Latin script and Westerners can pronounce them in a familiar form. There is also a phonetic system commonly called Bopomofo, which is often used in Taiwan and has a set of simple characters that can be put together to approximate the various sounds and tones of the language.

Students of Chinese will be familiar with these systems and no doubt remember the hours spent trying to learn this difficult language. As a novice in Taiwan when I started studying, I remember spending the first six months struggling to make any progress. Within the safety of the classroom, I would be able to follow my teacher, but interesting, if I went on the street and a stranger asked me something – a question I’d heard dozens of times from my teacher – my brain would literally freeze up. I’m not sure why, but the fact it came from someone else, in a different voice, would completely throw me for a loop and I could not answer.

The turning point came roughly six months after I’d started studying. I woke up one day and while I was still a beginner, I’d gained the ability to learn. The language was no longer so alien and the grammar and structure, no longer so unwieldy. More importantly, I could engage in a simple chat with someone outside the classroom. I’d still easily lose track of the conversation or stare vacantly when new words were introduced, but I could now pick out the few things I did understand or get the gist of the exchange, without getting barreled over from the moment a word was directed at me!

Many years later, I still take a private lesson once a week and still get an absolute kick out of learning a new character. The novelty of learning Chinese has never worn off, and I look fondly back to my student days, especially the time spent in Beijing where I did a year of intensive language study. One memory is especially vivid.

In our little language center library, I remember getting the biggest, oldest dictionary I could find. It was an enormous tome filled with over 50,000 classical characters. Today, perhaps 5,000 or so characters are used in written communication so most of those in the book had long since passed from common usage. They were historical relics carrying inside them the accumulated history of thousands of years of Chinese society. Characters are impressive things, but like all historic relics, they must be remembered to remain relevant.

You can look up a Chinese character you don’t know in a few different ways, but one of the most common is to use the number of strokes. My intention that day, however, was not to look up a specific word. What I wanted to do was find the most complicated character in Chinese history. This search brought me to the giant old dictionary and I recall flipping to the back. I was surprised to find the end result of my search was a monster of a character with 64 strokes. To understand a stroke, think about drawing a capital “E”. In Chinese, you would draw the top bar first from left to right, followed by a downward stroke for the left-hand spine and then you would fill in the middle bar and finally end with the bottom, remembering to go from left to right. In total, it would take four strokes to make the “E”. The monster character was 16 times more complicated.

It was comprised of four dragon characters stacked in a square formation. A single Chinese dragon character required 16 strokes and an untrained eye could make out the extended snout and the curved, serpent-like body from the written completed character. The 64-stroke character had four of these beasts and its definition, which should hardly surprise anyone, meant “really loud”.

The character is not in use today, as far as I know, but I love the idea of that ornate, regal character sitting idly in China’s history waiting to be looked up by a new generation of curious students. It brings to mind an image of four tiny, joyful little dragons flying in tight formation above my head, roaring in unison, exalting in their freedom from the cramped pages of that old dictionary.

For those who are interested, here is the traditional character for dragon. In pinyin, it is pronounced Long (2); with the number indicating it has a 2nd tone. Note this is just a single dragon, so imagine four of these put together!

long - dragon


tribal-dragon-tattoos-03How did you know this was one of my favorite Chinese characters? Really? There’s just something about dragons that call out to me. And it’s not just the fire-breathing, or the (probably) ear-splitting loudness, rather it’s how graceful they must be. Yes, I’m nuts. But I’m so fascinated I’ve been considering adding the image on the right as body art. Maybe it’s time to stop considering and start acting? 😉

But enough about me. Thank you so very much, Doug, for visiting this month! I enjoyed your sense of humor and your guest posts, and I wish you all the best with Chasing Dragons, which I promise to review as soon as I’ve uncovered myself from under my day job.