画蛇添足 (hua she tian zu) is one of my favourite chengyus, partly because it was one of the first I learned, but also because, like so many others, it has a story behind it, which really helps me remember them. The literal meaning of this idiom is “drawing a snake and adding feet” and the story behind it is this:
After helping with a household ceremony, the master of the house gave a jug of wine to his servants as a thank you. However, there wasn’t enough wine for all of them, so one of the servants proposed that they have a competition to see who can draw a snake first, and whoever wins gets the wine.
One of the servants was very good at drawing, and finished his very quickly. When he was finished, he looked up and saw that everyone else was still drawing. Feeling cocky, he added feet to his drawing, and triumphantly seized the wine jug.
The next servant to finish drawing his snake saw the first servant’s drawing, and said “snakes do not have feet.” Thus, he deemed himself the real winner and took the wine jug from the first servant and drank it all.
Thus, the true meaning of 画蛇添足 is to ruin the end result by adding something superfluous.
For some reason, despite the fact that Chinese is a tonal language, I’ve heard so many people (all of them non-native speakers, incidentally) say that tones aren’t that important when speaking. However, this is (unfortunately/unsurprisingly) completely untrue.
Sure, you can get away with a lot of mispronunciations in casual conversation (context makes everything easier), but that does not mean tones are irrelevant. Chances are, the person/people you’re talking to are just used to hearing foreigners speak Chinese, and have learned to fill in the gaps.
I remember one time in China, some friends and I were eating at a restaurant and we wanted some tea. My friend, who had only been learning Chinese for a couple of months at that point, decided to ask the waitress for some tea, but got her tones wrong. Instead of saying cha2, she said cha4. Naturally, you might assume that the waitress would realise the mistake and know that we were asking for tea, but she didn’t. To a foreigner, cha2 and cha4 might sound the same, but to the waitress, there was a clear and obvious difference, certainly big enough to throw her off.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to repeat a word or phrase over and over again because my tones were incorrect and the person I was talking to couldn’t understand what I was saying. There have even been times when my teachers, who earn a living listening to non-native speakers mangle their mother tongue, sometimes have difficulty understanding us.
Granted, it’s possible to get away with making a few mistakes here and there, but that doesn’t mean others will always know what you mean, and it certainly isn’t an excuse to not even bother trying.
And if you feel embarrassed, just look at some of the reactions of Hong Kongers to Jamie Oliver speaking Cantonese… sure you might look a bit silly trying to get it right, but native speakers will appreciate the effort, and everyone can have a nice little giggle.
My local Chinese supermarket offers a student discount, but the only sign advertising the discount is in Chinese, so every time I go there, I get a little kick out of getting a (marginally) cheaper price than the other “老外“ simply because I can read/speak Chinese and they can’t.
Admittedly, it’s not quite the rush I used to get paying about 10-25% of the original asking price in some Beijing markets, but I enjoy the fact that it’s still sometimes possible to get the 说中文 discount here in the UK.
Obviously, this isn’t going to do much to alleviate the thousands of pounds worth of debt I can look forward to upon graduating, but it’s nice to see it literally paying off already (even if it is in such a minor form).
Someone I know recently moved to Beijing to study Chinese and they asked me how to improve their listening skills, as they’re having trouble understanding other people’s responses.
There are loads of ways to improve your listening skills, but I think the best way is to get a language partner. A language partner is a native Chinese speaker who is studying your native language, so you help each other study.
I think this is really helpful because it gives you a chance to practice speaking Chinese with someone who doesn’t make you feel embarrassed if you have to ask them to slow down, say that again, or admit that you don’t understand. They’re also an invaluable resource if you’re studying abroad, because they can also tell you which are the good places to eat and visit, explain the local culture, and help you with any problems that might arise, which really speeds up the settling in process.
I also think a language partner is better than a tutor because you get to make a new friend (with the added bonus of saving money). In second year, I had a language partner from Hainan, who was able to hook a friend and me up with a free hotel room while we stayed in Haikou during the Winter Vacation, and we were also invited to attend her cousin’s wedding, which was fun.
My language partner at Shandong University became one of my closest friends in China, and we regularly use WeChat to catch up. We still often email each other for advice on writing assignments or to explain certain phrases or customs we don’t fully understand.
I have a new language partner for this year, and her help has been invaluable. We only have 3 hours of language class a week this year, which is a huge drop from the 20 hours a week I had in China, so meeting with her is really important for keeping up with my speaking and listening skills.
Given that the main reasons for learning another language is to learn about another culture, communicate with others, and meet new people, I can’t see any reason not to get a language partner if you can.
家常豆腐 (home style tofu): quite possibly my favourite tofu dish.
Shanghaiist’s ‘Mother of the Year’ gave birth to a baby boy
I came across this article the other day, and felt that the tone was a little judgemental, considering the lack of context.
Of course, leaving a newborn baby abandoned in a cold toilet on a train is incredibly dangerous to the infant, and no one would advocate doing so, but given the complete lack of information regarding the mother and her situation, referring to her as ‘Mother of the Year’ seems overly snarky and unfair, in my opinion.
First of all I think the most important thing to consider in this scenario is the role of the one-child policy, a policy which:
- Makes it illegal for (most) Chinese people to have more than one child
- Further penalises unmarried mothers by classing the birth as illegal, making it harder (and more expensive) to get the child registered under the household registration system, without which the child cannot have access to healthcare or education
- Only allows women to legally give their child up for adoption if the woman forfeits her right to have her own children in the future
- Forces millions of women to have an abortion each year or pay a large fine.
And let’s not forget that on top of this:
- Sex education in China is woefully inadequate
- Access to contraception is limited for many (either because of lack of options, or because people are too poor to afford them)
- There has been more than one scandal of fake condoms being sold in China
- Unmarried mothers face huge social stigma
- Despite the fact that the policy forces millions of women to have abortions each year, these women also have to pay to have one.
When you take all of these factors into account, the mother in question is most likely a poor, unmarried woman with insufficient access to sex education and support (both financial and emotional), who suddenly found herself in labour while on a train, and did not know what else to do.
Naturally, we all feel sorry for the poor newborn abandoned in a train toilet, but if anyone is to blame for this tragedy, it is not the mother (who is also extremely vulnerable and unfortunate), but the society which gave her no other option but to do so.
Zhang Wei (张玮）singing on 中国好声音 (The Voice of China)
Since my Pop Culture class on Thursday, I have not been able to get this song out of my head (singing starts at 00:35).
Chopsticks have long been a curio to many a western eye. In ancient China, up to 5,000 years ago, sticks or branches broken from trees would be used to retrieve food from fires and thus saw the very beginnings of the development of what became chopsticks in China.
As populations grew and resources became more scarce, people would cut food into ever smaller pieces to save on fuel, as food made in this way could be cooked quickly. Within a century the humble chopsticks had migrated to other Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Although, originally, the Japanese would only use chopsticks in certain religious ceremonies, they quickly gained popularity as everyday items.
To the casual observer all chopsticks might just look the same; particularly regarding the fact that many Japanese and Korean restaurants overseas (that may not even employ staff from those countries) often generically use Chinese-style chopsticks.
Chinese chopsticks (kuàizi 筷子) can be made from a variety of materials:bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, metal, or sometimes even jade, ivory or silver. Kuaizi are around 25 cm long, rectangular in shape, with blunt ends.
Japanese chopsticks (hashi 箸 or otemoto おてもと) are slightly shorter than Chinese, they are typically rounded and taper to a point. This may be attributed to the fact that the Japanese diet consists of large amounts of whole bony fish. The pointed ends make it easier to remove small bones from the fish.
Korean chopsticks (jeotgarak 젓가락) are of medium-length with a small, flat rectangular shape, and made of metal. Traditionally they were made of brass or silver. Many Korean metal chopsticks are ornately decorated at the grip…
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I personally prefer Chinese and Japanese style chopsticks. I find Korean chopsticks, being both metal and flat, increase the likelihood of dropping food (this is probably why spoons are often used at the same time).