On Chinese Writing

Warning: This article is really long.  And boring.  So don't read it if you don't want your eyes to claw their way through your brain and out the back of your head in an attempt to escape.

Many of you may have wondered why you will see Chinese names written with x's and q's and whatnot.  Pinyin (which means "spelling" in Chinese) is a system of using the Roman alphabet (yes, English uses Roman characters, which is why OUR spellings are messed up, too) to write out Chinese words.  There is actually a system called Zhuyin Fuhao, or Mandarin Phonetic Symbols, which is a home-grown alphabet for Mandarin in use in Taiwan.  It looks like this: ㄅㄆㄇㄈㄉㄊㄋㄌㄍㄎㄏㄐㄑㄒand so on.  (If this does not appear correctly on your PC, I apologize, and you can go to this site: http://www.pinyin.info/romanization/bopomofo/ to see what it looks like.) The mainland uses Pinyin, so most people who study Chinese use it.  (I use the Zhuyin system when studying because it keeps me focused on the fact that the sounds are NOT English sounds, and should not be pronounced that way.)  In Taiwan, road signs and place names are also transliterated into Pinyin for the foreigners to read.  However, there have been several different Pinyin systems used over the years, which is why Mao Tse-Tung is now written Mao Zedong.  It's not that they say it differently now, it's that they have reworked the Pinyin system.  The new system is the one with the x's and q's.  The x is similar to a "sh" sound and the q is like a "ch" sound.  The reason they do this is that Chinese has two "sh" sounds and two "ch" sounds.  So "sh" and "x" are slightly different sounds, as are "ch" and "q".  The fun thing about the different pinyin systems is that there are three different pinyin systems currently in use in Taiwan, so the city where I work is alternately spelled Zhonghe, Jhonghe, or Chung-ho.  I am finally beginning to get a grip on this, mostly by ignoring the Pinyin and trying to read the characters.

Oh, those pesky characters.

You have to know at least 3000 characters to read a newspaper, apparently.  I currently know about 400 or so.  Now, you may think this is ridiculous, since I've been here for almost a year.  But I haven't really focused (at all) on the characters.  I was mostly focusing on just the speaking.  Now, of course, I'm scrambling to catch my writing ability up with my speaking ability.  This will take a while, since there's no real logic to the characters.  A common misconception is that Chinese characters are pictographs.  Several of them were, originally.  However, after several thousand years of stylization, complication, simplification, combination and obfuscation (just to pick a few), they now just resemble random blithers of ink on paper.  It does have some saving graces, though.  For one thing, most of the characters have identifiable parts, called "radicals".  Some of these radicals are characters in their own right, and some are not.  So, if you know how to draw all of the radicals (there are 214 or so) then you can draw 99% of the characters.  You just have to know how to draw them in relation to each other.  For instance, "sun" and "moon", on their own, are fairly simple characters.  But if you combine them into one character, with the sun radical on the left and the moon on the right, you get a character which can mean (in various contexts) "bright" or "obvious" or "understand".  That's another common misconception: that each character is a word in its own right.  While many characters can stand on their own as a single word, many cannot. What each character actually represents is a syllable.  This COULD have been a phonetic system, but it's not.  The same syllable can be represented by many different characters, since that syllable can be part of many different words with different meanings.  Like I said above that "yi", 4th tone, has at least 72 different characters, and each of those characters may have different meanings depending on the context.  Oh, the complexity.

See?  I told you it'd be boring.

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