Spot the difference

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.30.15 好久不见 (hǎojiǔ bùjiàn) = Long time no see.

I cannot say that my recent lack of posts has given me much respite because I have been preoccupied with work. In addition to my college work, I have been doing a lot of research into various factors of China, which has included efforts to learn more about the Chinese economy and reading Chinese literature. I have been quite keen to share some of my findings, but did not want to provide incomplete facts (…which idiom does that remind you of?). I felt the urge to create today’s post because of something that has taken my focus as of late. This is something that I came across on several occasions during my Mandarin lesson earlier today and had lead to the title of todays post.

If you are familiar with the Chinese language or have been following my posts then you will recognize the contrast in the Chinese language to conventional methods of communication such as the English language. Something that makes me appreciate the complexity of Chinese is the similarity that certain characters share. I remember scenes of being in my Chinese lesson and staring at a character on the white board with certainty of its pinyin, only to find that it is just a character very similar to the one I had been thinking about. At times like that I could not fathom how the composition of the character could so heavily impact its meaning.

Something I often get asked is if I ‘find Chinese hard’. My response is usually that Chinese is one of the hardest languages to master, however I find it enjoyable and thus have managed to cope with its complexity. However recently when I have been asked by my peers to talk about the Chinese language I tell them that although you may never be fluent in any language, it is certainly impossible to be completely fluent in Chinese. This is not a result of pessimism (the glass is always half full as they say), but because even native citizens of China come across characters that they are unfamiliar with. Even so we should not accept defeat in our mastery of Chinese on the basis that Chinese citizens occasionally stumble (the reason is sometimes lack of schooling); but we should be aware of the fact that some characters have a certain pinyin (transliteration) in one sentence, and then the same written character can have an entirely different pinyin in another sentence. If you had only learnt one pinyin reading for a certain character then it is likely that you will make an error when reading the character as you encounter it in a text because you will read it with the particular pinyin that you had learnt, when in fact it is meant to be read with a completely different pinyin. I hope I have not lost you with my explanation, the similarity in characters is a strange occurrence in the Chinese language but it cannot go unnoticed.

Sometimes it is not that a particular character will have a different pinyin reading depending on the sentence; it is in fact more common to find two (or more) characters that may look identical on the first glance, but closer inspection will indicate that there are differences in their radical components. In a nutshell what I have just explained illustrated the title of this post. I suppose I should demonstrate this with ‘an example or two’…So let’s play a round of ‘spot the difference’. I will indicate each example with a number as a prefix, the first character, then a forward slash, followed by the next character, and then a comma before the next example. 准备好吗/Ready?

1说/况, 2处/外, 3废/发, 4去/法/却, 5或/成, 6水/永, 7人/入, 8如/加, 9白/自, 10子/字, 11员/贵, 12不/下, 13大/天, 14免/晚. How did you do?

When you learn your first Chinese characters it can be daunting to be shown such similarities, so to see them openly in a list is quite hard hitting. Today I had experienced denial in my Chinese lesson when I noticed example number 1. Often in lessons or when I am reading, I notice these similarities and they can cause me to pause so that I can confirm a radical. For example, although the difference is not as implicit as the others, today I got confused with example number 5 when being asked to translate a text.

The post would be a bit unfinished for me to provide these examples without explaining how they can be differentiated. Therefore I have created a few tables (like the ones from my post ‘Chinese basics kept basic’) in order to define the characters and show you how they are in fact different although they may look the same.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.04.18 Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.04.33 Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.05.49 I do not view this aspect of the Chinese language in a negative manner (after all I did make it into a game), rather I think that it’s interesting and motivates me to focus when translating Chinese texts. If you are familiar with Chinese language then I invite you to provide some of your observations 🙂

If you come across characters that seem identical but actually have a minor difference in their radical components/, good luck 世界.

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

EDIT: Take a look at the character 长. It is an example of a character that can have a different Pinyin and meaning depending on the context of the sentence. 长 can be read as either ‘chang’ or ‘zhang’. I wanted to give some sort of example when I had originally written the post but my mind had gone blank then, perhaps you should wish me good luck! [That also reminds me, the character for wish (zhù) is 祝, and if you compare it with the picture at the start of the post you may find further similarities…]. 

Blind men touching the Elephant 盲人摸象

elephant-blind-compo Before I begin the story of盲人摸象, allow me to extend the definition of idioms that I gave in my previous post ‘Being busy and idioms to help’. Chinese idioms have a literal meaning gained from translating each of the characters in the phrase, as well as a figurative meaning that sums up the moral. Usually people just stick with the figurative meaning as it gives an all rounded idea of the intended message of the idiom. Coincidentally, the idiom that I will share with you today is about properly understanding an idea, rather than forming conclusions with what you may find on the surface. This ties in with the idea of having an all rounded understanding of something, because you cannot make conclusions about something with little knowledge. Today’s idiom is called 盲人摸象 (mang ren mo xiang), and is literally translated as ‘Blind men touching the Elephant’.

Out of the idioms I have learnt to date, 盲人摸象 is the most vivid in my mind because my Chinese teacher prepared a script for my classmates and I to perform as a play in order to illustrate the idiom. Acting out the story was a great experience because it made us more confident to use mandarin, our class became more cohesive with teamwork, and it was really funny to act out and watch other people’s parts. This would be a great revision strategy for you if you have a story or event that you need to remember, so perhaps you could create a mini play for your work as well.

As with the other fables I have discussed in my blog, idioms tend to have varying accounts, therefore I will use the play that we performed as the basis for this story. I was considering using the script my teacher had created in order to retell the story, but without asking her that would be plagiarism (plagiarizing is really bad) (不应该养成这样的习惯 = you should not form that habit) (if I did plan on using it I would ask for permission do not fear) (…brackets finished!)。另外, in addition I can’t find the paper from last year 😅

There once were four blind men. One man was a successful Accountant, another was a wise Scholar, another was a renowned Doctor and the last blind man was a famous Fortuneteller. They had all met in a market and each took turns to boast about their achievements and admirable reputations. The Accountant claimed that his calculations were never wrong, the Scholar declared that he was the smartest of the bunch, the Doctor professed that his medical practices were the most heard of, and the Fortuneteller stated that he was the most powerful of them all. Inevitably they broke out into argument…except no one directly addressed each other because they were blind, so instead there was a scattered bustle of noise. After a moment had passed, an elephant and his guide came through the market. The guide announced the elephant’s arrival and silenced the bickering men. Slowly, the men began to approach the elephant and were positioned at various parts of its body. The Accountant touched the elephant’s ears and thought it was a fan. The Scholar felt the trunk of the elephant and was adamant that it was a snake. The Doctor was at the elephant’s rear and was certain that it’s tail was a rope. And the Fortuneteller glided his hands across the body of the elephant thinking that it was a wall. The elephant guide then posed the questioned; 大象怎么样?which means, ‘how is an elephant?’. The men individually put forward what they had thought the elephant was after touching it, but their bickering quickly resumed as they all argued for their particular view (that the elephant is a fan, snake, rope and wall). Shortly afterwards the elephant guide interrupted the men and told them that they were all wrong. The elephant guide explained that neither of the men was correct about their assumptions of what an elephant is because they had all experienced different parts of the elephant. In our production we had the elephant guide address the audience with the moral of the story. This is that we should not be like the blind who touch the elephant (不要像盲人摸象一样)because we will form conclusions based on incomplete judgements.

I hope that you enjoyed my account of the idiom 盲人摸象 ‘Blind men touching the elephant’. I think that the moral is one that we should not stray from and we should try to bear in mind that we do not know everything, as we are also blind in some respects; hence why we should try not to make judgements about certain things, especially if we are unsure of the full details.

If you ever over use brackets (brackets are the future), or think you may be like the blind men touching the elephant, 世界 I wish you good luck.

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

Ps. As I find a lot of small things to be mentally stimulating, I think it would be interesting to explore some topics that we have an emotive response to so we can 开阔我们的眼界 ‘broaden our horizons’ (so cliché it hurts, but I couldn’t think of another way to phrase it). Obviously topics would need to be engaged with without being like the盲人摸象 (if you know the pinyin without cheating then I applaud you).