One of the most perplexing, difficult and sometimes annoying things about moving to China is the language. But, at the same time, its language is also one of the most interesting, exciting and exhilarating aspects of this country. Whether you want to delve into the language or just skim the surface of communication with the people around you in your new abode, Landing East wants to give you some insights to get you started on the remarkable adventure that is Mandarin Chinese.Let us start with a distinction – there are many different kinds of Chinese. The aforementioned Mandarin is the official language in the People’s Republic of China. In addition, there are roughly 300 dialects (according to Ethnologue) spoken and some also written all over the country. These dialects can be classified in about 9 major language families. Some, like Cantonese and the Fukien dialect, are very wide-spread in the Chinese diaspora (if you hear “Chinese” in Hollywood movies, more often than not, it is actually Cantonese dialect). But Mandarin is the version spoken on TV, written in newspapers and books and taught in schools.
Mandarin, as well as most dialects (at least those spoken by Han Chinese) use Chinese characters (called 汉字 hànzi in Chinese) rather than an alphabet as a writing system. These characters are pictograms with a history of more than 5000 years. Each character represents one syllable, so that one word might be only one character (like 我 wǒ, meaning “I”) or comprised of several different characters (like 电脑 diàn nǎo – literally electric brain – meaning “computer”). What makes things even more confusing, is that there are characters that carry a meaning in and of themselves (like 电 diàn – electricity, and 话 huà – word), but put together, the meaning might be very different from their separate connotations. 电话 diàn huà (telephone) you might still be able to guess, but what about 马上 mǎ shàng, meaning “immediately”, while 马 mǎ means “horse” and 上 shàng means “on top of”. So, being on top of a horse means doing something immediately?! Not so self-evident…
Because there are so many different Chinese characters, as soon as larger numbers or foreigners began to have contact with the Middle Kingdom (especially from the late 19th century onwards), they looked for a way of representing those characters in script they could decipher. While there have been several romanization systems through the ages, the two that are still significant today are Hanyu Pinyin and (to some extent) Wade-Giles.
Pinyin is the system most widely used throughout the world and the official transliteration of Chinese characters in the People’s Republic of China. It was developed in the 1950s based on earlier forms of romanization of Chinese. Rumors are this was done because Chairman Mao felt it would help literate his army of farmers and workers and thus make the young Chinese Communist nation stronger. Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet and adds 4 different tones to the words to help learners of non-tonal languages get an approximate feel of how something should be pronounced.
Wade-Giles, a system developed by British diplomats/scholars between the middle of the 19th century and the early 20th century, was used from the late Qing dynasty all the way to the 1970s. Today, it is still used by many in Taiwan for the transcription of names, even though it has been replaced by Pinyin as the official transcription system when the Kuomintang (this is a Wade-Giles transcription, by the way, it would read Guomindang in Pinyin) party was elected to power in 2008. Many well-known names of people and products in the West still use Wade-Giles (like Mao Tse- tung, Chiang Kai-shek or Tsingtao Beer).
In our little Survival Mandarin guide we will give you the Pinyin transliteration, so that you can get into the swing of things and feel right at home in Shenyang, where Pinyin can be found everywhere in the streets.
So, if you are still reading this, we assume you have not been scared away. While Chinese is not the most approachable language, learning to speak it is very rewarding. Plus, knowing some simple phrases in Mandarin may well be the difference between successfully navigating your way in this new country and being “lost in translation” in Shenyang. Not even in big Chinese cities like Beijing or Shanghai (let alone in the quaint provincial capital that is Shenyang) is English as widely spoken as people who have not yet been to China might think.
What do you think? Is learning Chinese intimidating? Which kinds of survival phrases would you be interested in? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or WeChat at LandingEastShenyang.
Written by Julie Marx.