Chinese Corner


Expressing misfortune, and resistance, in Mandarin – Anne Henochowicz

Strunk and White’s classic textbook Elements of Style taught us to avoid the passive voice in our writing. Our verbs should take action, not a back seat, whenever possible. (This advice is not universally accepted.) In Mandarin, however, the passive voice packs a real punch. When something is done to you, the passive evokes your great misfortune.

Chinese Corner

Triad and Tested

Start talking like a Hong Kong gangster – RS

It’s an open secret in Hong Kong that both triads (haak1 se5 wui5 黑社會) and local police worship the same deity, Guan Gong, for upholding brotherhood, loyalty and righteousness. It may be odd for organizations that represent opposite ends of the morality scale to both honor righteousness, but it’s this blurred space between right and wrong that is so fascinating about the triads of Hong Kong.

Chinese Corner

Mother Tongue

Cantonese is no mere “variant” of Mandarin – Gina Tam

In May, a packet of supplementary information promoting Mandarin in the classroom was sent to schools in Hong Kong. This collection of new research on effective language pedagogy included an explosive piece by Song Xinqiao, a consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Mandarin Education, in which he claimed that it was incorrect to call Cantonese the “mother tongue” of Hong Kongers.

He premised his argument on a selective interpretation of the UNESCO definition of “mother tongue.” According to UNESCO, Song reasoned, “the mother tongue does not only belong to a person but an ethnic group”; Cantonese does not denote an ethnicity, but only a “Chinese dialect,” and therefore should not be called a “mother tongue.” Rather, Cantonese is one “variant of Mandarin,” which Song claims for the Chinese ethnic group as a whole. For Song, this was not up for debate – it was scientific fact. Chinese is an ethnic group, represented by Mandarin. Cantonese is not.

Chinese Corner

One Language, Two Systems

Traditional vs. simplified characters – Ash Henson

As if learning to write Chinese characters isn’t enough of a headache already, there are two character systems in common use in the Sinosphere. “Traditional” characters, also known as “complex” characters, have been in continuous use for 1,500 years, and are the standard in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and many diaspora communities. “Simplified” characters are the result of script reforms made in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, and are also used in Singapore. It's an emotional topic for a lot of native speakers, not to mention a source of great strife for students of Mandarin. There’s something offensive for everyone.

Chinese Corner

Radical Characters

The real building blocks of the Chinese writing system – John Renfroe

If you’re learning to write in Chinese, you’ve probably been advised to learn the 214 standard “radicals,” those alleged “building blocks” of the character system. Perhaps you’ve tried to discern the meaning of an unfamiliar character through dissection, prying the “roof” 宀 off the “house” 家 to see what’s inside. Perhaps you haven’t gotten very far.

There’s a reason for your frustration: what you’ve been taught is all wrong.