The mysteries of Mandarin

by

Shì māo!

I’ve been going through a bit of a wuxia phase lately, basically devouring any wuxia-based movies I can get my hands onto. Things such as the brilliant Dragon (or its Chinese release name – Wuxia), Reign of Assassin’s – which wasn’t too bad, and Young Detective Dee – which while not bad, was not as good as the original. Oh and the Grandmaster – which was – *awesome*.

Wuxia for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to Chinese martial arts. I won’t go into the exact meaning, as that’s a post unto itself, but look at it along the lines of wu = martial, xia = most translations sum it up as chivalry – but it’s more than that. It’s more of a loose translation into ‘doing the right thing.’ Think superheroes and their typical mentality.

Anyhow, I have been meaning to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a long time. I think I’d only ever seen it the one time – the original time at the movies, where I loved it. How I have not seen this movie since its 2002 release is beyond me, however it was a very different experience this time around.

My appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture since originally viewing the movie have completely changed. And moreso, I now understand Mandarin to a certain degree. I take pleasure in watching Mandarin movies for the language recognition above all else, and to watch Crouching Tiger with a degree of understanding was a great experience.

Learning another language to me is so much more than just remembering all of these crazy new and foreign words. To me, it’s important to understand the mechanics of the language – and so it’s at this point in my language learning life, that I come across things that utterly boggle my mind.

Mandarin is known as an incredibly different language – and it’s true. However, not specifically for the reasons you might think. On one hand, the 4 tones are utterly alien to your every day English speaker – and the character based language also couldn’t be more different. But Mandarin as a language has considerably fewer words than English, and much of the language is simplified – think very basic grammar. Much of the language is implied – not spelled out word for word. The English language for your information, has upwards of a million words…a *million words*! In comparison, they say if you can master around 3000 of the most common Chinese characters, you can effectively read a newspaper.

Anyhow – it’s this simplistic sentence structure that often stumps me, and I found a perfect example in Crouching Tiger.

There’s a scene where Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is visited by her desert lover, Lo. Just after he leaves, one of Jen’s handmaids calls from outside the window, “Madam, I heard a noise, are you alright?” (or words to that effect).

Jen’s reply in Mandarin is: Méiyǒu, shì māo (没有,是猫)

Now in English, the sentence was, “Everything is fine, it was just a cat.”

The Chinese on the other hand: Meiyou = literally, ‘have not’, referring to there being no noise – there is no noise. Followed by ‘Shi (is) mao (cat).
So her literal response in Chinese was, “Is not (noise), is cat.”

Now that to me, is baby speak.

So much of Mandarin translates this way. I asked my former Chinese teacher about this and she said that its true, so much of the language is very simple, however it’s because most other things are implied – ie the have not referring specifically to the lack of sound, the ‘is cat’ referring to the reason for the noise.

Things like this don’t necessarily confound me when it comes to understanding the language, but I simply can’t imagine how it feels to speak fluent Chinese – from an English point of view. Oh god how i’d love to just magically develop the skill for even just a day, and listen to it with my current perspective – but alas, that’s foreign languages for you.

If you’re a fellow Mandarin learner, or even any language, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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4 Responses to “The mysteries of Mandarin”

  1. Doris Larkin Says:

    Hi Marcus,
    This is Doris. I am with a study abroad organization called Minds Abroad, we organize volunteering, internship and language classes in Kunming. Can I have your contact please, your blog looks interesting and we would really appreciate the opportunity to collaborate.

  2. Marcus Says:

    Hi Doris,

    Feel welcome to leave your details and i’ll drop you a line,

    cheers
    Marcus

  3. Sou Fudao 搜辅导 Says:

    When I first started learning Chinese, I used to binge on Wuxia movies. Some favorites are Swordsman II (with Jet Li in the title role), House of Flying Daggers, The one armed swordsman (old school but solid), and Hero (yes, Jet Li being awesome again). 加油 with the Chinese learning, Marcus.

  4. Sou Fudao 搜辅导 Says:

    I used to binge on Wuxia movies when I started learning Mandarin, and if you are in to it it is a really fun and useful way to learn. A few favorites: Swordsman II (with Jet Li in the title role), The One Armed Swordsmen (old school but solid), House of Flying Daggers, and Hero (Jet Li again being awesome). 加油 with the Chinese learning, Marcus!

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