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City Life - Culture
Written by Joe Luke
I want to talk about three things, in my very first article for New Dynasty. Learning chinese, my perceptions of concepts of personal space and spacial perceptions in general in China, and tea.

Learning chinese is a real trip.  I've had to really change my attitude towards speaking chinese recently.  Previously, chinese was something I just spoke, and usually other chinese speakers would compliment me on my ability to speak with the appropriate inflections in pronouncing each word, and I would assume I was speaking chinese. Not so. Chinese is, I've figured out, not spoken in words. Chinese is almost spoken in sentences, but not quite.  That is to say, there are very set patterns.  English, english, well, I'm not sure.  I think when we speak english we have some of the same forces at work - that we speak in culturally accepted and tried-and-true patterns, that we, or I at least, am not totally conscious of when I speak. 

In chinese, I've discovered that although five or six verbs mean very similar things, but one of them can't take on a particular direct object.  for instance, you can produce things to sell, a certain encounter might produce a certain feeling inside you, and a certain influence might produce a favorable result, but in Chinese, all of these verbs are different and can only be matched up with their own objects.

Describing it now I feel like a fool for not having realised this before, but I truly didn't, and it was never really pointed out either.  This means that my chinese is getting much more precise as time goes on and much more natural, but it also means that there's a heck of a lot more work to do.  I guess I never really thought I could get totally fluent in a year, I admit I'm always more optimistic about what I can do in a certain time frame, but looking at how much I've got to learn before I get there is daunting.

Chinese also, of course, has a lot of leeway for creativity.  I'll list a few things I've come up with while talking with teachers and joking around.  Most of what I've come up with are puns;  Chinese has a lot of room for punning, since there are only about 800 individual syllabic sounds in Chinese.  In reference, English has about 5,500. This means that theoretically English could have a lot more monosyllabic words than Chinese.  I sometimes lament the fact that we have not taken advantage of this.  but I guess that's how the cookie crumbles.

Joke 1

"If you have a target, place the arrow"  This is a well known saying, which basically expresses that if you have a goal, you should unwaveringly proceed towards the achieving the goal, without delay. There is a funny twist on words that one of my teachers told me, which is if you say one of the words with a slightly different inflection (same sound though) you can make it sound like:  "There's a place to defecate" 

The joke being that since the school I'm attending has so many female teachers and only two female toilets that they have no place to <ahem> powder their noses.  I thought this was pretty funny, but then came up with a correlary, which translates literally to: "The earlier you find an arrow, the sooner you can reach your goal." This, using the previous analogy of arrows and goals, means that the sooner you find a means of reaching your goal, the sooner you can reach it.  It's a little shakey because the means would actually be a bow, not the arrow, but you'll have to indulge me.  Anyway, it also sounds like:  "The earlier your bowels are full (I'm paraphrasing to be more polite.  Literally it means "the earlier there is shit , the earlier you go to the place (to do your business)."  it really only works if you already said the first one, as I guess is the case with some puns.  As always, toilet humor is the easiest to figure out.

Pun Number 2

I asked one of my teachers if she had any siblings (that whole one-child policy started in 79 so there's a lot of teachers that do have siblings) and she said she had a younger sister. So the pun goes:  "When everyone knows a younger sister as younger sister, they also now know what an older sister is."  The pun being that if you say "younger sister" with a different inflection (and change the word  "older sister" entirely) you get what Laozi says in the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching, being: "When everyone knows beautiful as beautiful, they also now know ugly"  I thought I was pretty clever.  She didn't get it because she's never read the Tao Te Ching, which is only slightly less accessible to most Chinese than Chaucer or Spencer is to Americans.  After I explained it she liked it though.

Crossing the Road and space in China

I'm going to make this really quick.  I have only a few observations:

1)  There are a lot of people in China

2) In a car accident, Chinese law only faults the party that runs into the other party.  This means there is no situation (except when violating a light) in which you can say "but he pulled out in front of me when he shouldn't have"  This has negative consequences on chinese traffic, I would say

3) People don't move on escalators.

4) There are a large number of people that, when walking in front of me, or when I am approaching them to pass them,  will swing around suddenly and almost crash into me, save for my own dexterity.  There have been a subset of men in particular that seem not to realise that there might be someone behind them that they can't see, and that they should watch out when they want to change directions suddenly.  This strikes me as odd, since there are people EVERYWHERE in china.

5) And here we come to my lesson:  look both ways before you cross the road in China.  Bikes don't respect the "drive on the right hand side of the road" rule.  And be careful if you want to change directions, or when you pass that short man smoking and wearing a leather jacket and talking loudly to his friends while obviously about to turn around without looking where he's going.  it's happened a lot.  i think some of it has to do with the population density, but am I crazy to look where I'm going? Am I crazy not to be surprised that there's someone right behind me where-ever I go in public?


I love tea.  I'm afraid of the pesticides that they probably have in them, but you know, I'm hoping the anti-cancer properties of the phenols, plant pigments etc. will counteract the effects.  Tea is like wine, except you don't get drunk, but have a good tea and you can savor so much flavour and really just enjoy it like very few other things.  For me, things I can really enjoy like wine and Tea are apples (lots of varieties.  I ran into a very nice Swiss variety of apple in England.  Unfortunately I forgot what it was called....), bread and cheese. I think my favorite though are apples and tea. Buddha doesn't particularly encourage epicurian pursuits (that's a light way of saying it) but not being buddhist in any meaningful sense, I'll have my tea and drink it oo, thank you.  Three teas I've been enjoying a lot:

Tie Guanyin

This is named "iron buddha" after the fact that the leaves grow in a way that looks a lot like the main set of hands (she's got 1000 I think) of the buddha Guanyin (Japanese Kannon, Hindi Avalokiteshvara) is depicted in statue form.  Guanyin ("See-Sound") is the buddha whose name you cry when you need help in a dangerous or hard situation.  Anyway, it's a fermented tea (oolong, not green, but not fermented as much as black) that is really fragrant and reminds me of wintergreen, although the higher grades are much more floral and not very wintergreen-y.  It has a nice taste and sweet aftertaste that, in a good tea, lasts for hours.  It's really nice.  Apparently the most expensive pound of tea ever sold was Tie Guanyin, for something insane like 60,000 US dollars.  I've never had any of the expensive stuff, just the "better than average" as judged by you're average chinese tea enthusiast, but it still is my favorite oolong tea.


I'm not sure what this translates too.  Basically, also an oolong tea, not a green tea.  They make it with some flowers and a bit of american ginseng thrown in with the fermented tea.  It smells a bit of apricot, and has a sweet taste without actually being sweet, as well as a nice, non-bitter tea taste.  I'm enjoying a cup now.


Shincha is not chinese.  It's japanese.  it's a green tea, and it's picked just in the very early part of the season, when the leaves are young and tender.  It has the most vitamins and flavonoids of all the green teas, i think, and is therefore probably the best for you.  I mention it here because it's just so good, by far my favorite green tea.  It has an overwhelmingly fresh, pungent fragrance, which is very vegetal, in some ways the same effect as freshly cut grass, but not the same smell.  It's very intense though, and the first cup is always too bitter, but the second and third cups are really wonderful.

One of the best: Shincha (新茶), literally "new tea", from Japan.

Our valuable Editor Joe Luke has been with us since Tuesday, 22 January 2013.
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+1 #1 DD 2013-01-22 23:39
If you bothered to learn Mandarin, you would have noticed the same thing that many others have said: in terms of grammar, Mandarin is a "baby language". There is not much grammatical correlation between words in a sentence. You don't have to conjugate any verb, you don't have to adjust for genders etc.

The downside of the baby talk is that it does not encode a lot of information, and to make up for that you need to say more words for transferring the same amount of information. For example, you cannot say "went", because there is no past version of the "go" verb. To make up for this deficiency, you would need to say "go yesterday". And so on with everything else.

The fact that a Mandarin syllables contain more information is upended by the lack of grammar. The result is that Mandarin speakers talk a lot, but they don't necessarily say a lot.

German is very different. The complex grammar encodes a lot of information. German speakers can convey very complex facts and relationships in relatively short sentences (they concatenate many words, which looks intimidating; but that's another issue).

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