The Chinese Language
Cultural anthropology in China is directly related to the study of Chinese language. Chinese culture has an intricate and complicated history. One of the fundamental influences on Chinese culture is the Chinese language itself. From an anthropological perspective, Chinese language plays a huge part in Chinese practices and traditions. Chinese is one of the hardest languages for westerners to learn, because it uses tones, and does not use an alphabetical writing system. In this essay, I will discuss the many aspects of the Chinese language and its modern importance worldwide. I will first discuss the phonology, tones, and pronunciation of the language. Then I will discuss special grammatical patterns of Chinese. Also I will address differences between the several distinct dialects of Chinese. Furthermore, I will address the different writing systems of Chinese and their origins. I will also discuss the modern vernacular Chinese as well as ancient literary Chinese and their differences. Finally I will discuss the use of Chinese Globally. Chinese is a difficult language for many westerners to grasp, but despite being a hard language, Chinese is one of the most important languages in the world and will only grow in importance as China becomes a greater factor in the global economy, just as we discussed in class. In this paper I will discuss the many aspects of the Chinese language in detail, make sense of its many nuances, and also relate these aspects to the principles of Chinese culture as touched upon in class.
The pronunciation of Chinese words has had a long history, and has slowly changed over time, just as the culture of Chinese has gradually changed. Words in Chinese are made up mainly by three parts: an initial consonant sound, a final sound, and one of the five tones (Ross 3). In Mandarin Chinese, each word begins with an initial sound, which is a consonant, but this initial may be absent in certain words. Every word ends in a vowel sound, or final. There are 37 finals in the Mandarin Chinese language (Li 3). There are some sounds in Mandarin that do not exist in English, and some sounds in English that do not appear in Mandarin. Pronunciation and accent also vary from region to region. In Taiwan, Mandarin is pronounced sometimes without the h in the sounds sh ch and zh. In northern dialects, sometimes w is pronounced as v. Also in the northern accent, there is the use of er yin 儿音, or placing the character 儿er after many words. This does not occur very much however in southern China. Also there is slightly different vocabulary in mainland China and other areas, because of slight differences in the standardized mandarin used by the PRC, ROC, and Singapore. For instance laji垃圾 is pronounced laji in China while it is pronounced le se in Taiwan. These differences in pronunciation of Mandarin over different areas of the Chinese speaking world also reflect a slightly different culture in each of these regions.
In our class discussion we talked about how the spread of western religion throughout China. In the 17th century it was hard for westerners to spread Christian religion in China because the Chinese language is so hard to learn. One reason for this difficulty in the language was the use of tones; tones are some of the most difficult aspects of the Chinese language for westerners to grasp. They are the subtle variation of pitch in the pronunciation for each word in Chinese, similar to the emphasis we use in the sounds of the English language. Tonal languages are common throughout Southeast Asia.
In Mandarin Chinese there are five tones, and even more in southern dialects. These tones are not variable according to emotion, they are always the same. The first tone carries a flat pitch, while the second tone is a rising tone which gets higher in pitch from the start to end of a word. The third tone is a low tone; it is also a falling and rising tone. The fourth tone is a falling tone, which falls sharply, much like an angry shout in English. The fifth tone is a neutral tone, which is said quickly without much emphasis, like a slightly falling first tone. Mastering these tones is a crucial aspect in mastering the Chinese language. Many westerners have trouble with this because tones are something completely foreign to them. Along with every word that one must memorize, one must also memorize the tone of that new word. This must have surely been a stumbling block for many early missionaries trying to spread Christianity throughout China.
This language is also known as Shanghaies; it is mainly spoken in Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Jiangsu. The Wu dialect has roughly 80 million speakers, making it the 2nd most spoken Chinese dialect behind Mandarin. It is the most different and unintelligible compared to all the other Chinese dialects. However, like Mandarin it also has five tones. It also has the largest vowel quality of any language in the world, with over 20 vowel qualities (Ager). Wu is also important to historical linguists because it carries many of the sounds of ancient Chinese.
Min is the third most common dialect in China, with over 70 million native speakers. (Nordhoff) This language is spoken in Fujian, Taiwan and Hainan. Taiwanese is also considered to be a sub-dialect of Min. It has 7 tones, and many of its sounds are much different than Mandarin. Min can be expressed in written form by Chinese characters, but it also includes its own set of special characters for words not directly transferrable to Mandarin. A romanization for this dialect was created by missionaries in the 19th century, although this form of writing is rarely used.
This dialect is also known as Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Guangdong and Guangxi. This dialect also has many native speakers, with roughly 60 million native speakers just in China. Cantonese pronunciation is very different than Mandarin, and uses 9 tones, the most tones of any of the Chinese dialects (Ager). This language has been especially preserved in Honk Kong and Macau where it became their official language while the rest of China adopted Mandarin. However, standardized Mandarin and simplified characters are becoming more and more common in these places because of the influence of the Chinese government in the past few years.
Xiang, also known as Hunanese, is spoken mainly in Hunan, but also Guanxi, Sichuan and Shaanxi. Xiang has been influenced by Mandarin and Gan through time, making it different than the other three dialects. Nearly 38 million people use Hunanese as their native language (Ager). During the Han dynasty, the people in Hunan spoke southern Chu language, which is believed to be what we know as the modern Xiang language today.
Gan, or Jiangxinese, is spoken in Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, and Fujian. Most of these are in the lower reaches of the Gan River valley. Roughly 31 million people speak this dialect as a native language. It has 7 tones, two of which are entering tones (Ager). Many words in Gan come from ancient Chinese; because of this Gan also uses many more particles than other dialects, which enhances the ability to express meaning and emotion in a sentence. Speakers of Gan originally came from northern China, but this language has also been influenced through time by southern dialects.
Hakka is spoken by isolated groups in Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, and other places in southeastern China. It has roughly 30 million native speakers. The writing system for this dialect consists of an official romanization of its sounds. This language also utilizes 6 tones (Ager). The Hakka people are travelling people, and have moved themselves into separate isolated groups throughout China, which has helped this language to grow and develop overtime. This dialect is also very closely related to Gan, which has been discussed above. This language also has many sub-dialects, of which the Meixian dialect is considered the standard Hakka dialect by the Chinese government.
2.8 Southern Dialects vs. Mandarin
In class, we discussed the modernization of China and the many cultural changes that China has gone through in the last century. Part of this modernization has been promoting Mandarin as the standard dialect throughout China. The northern Mandarin dialect was chosen as the national language by Chiang Kai-shek in the early 19th century, and has continued to be the standard language taught in schools and used in government documents in China ever since. Because of this, many of the other dialects are now being slowly forgotten by the younger generations. However, recent movements have been made to preserve native dialects as a heritage (Jacka 146). Northern Mandarin is the standard language of China and has been a lingua-franca for many years. Southern dialects tend to be more numerous and varied because of the many migrations of the Chinese people from northern to southern China. The immigrants from many different periods of China remained fairly isolated in the south of China, creating varied and changed forms of the standard northern language of their time. Now many of these dialects are looked down upon as inferior to Mandarin. However, from our class textbook we know that many Chinese dialects such as Shanghaies and Cantonese are looked upon as elite dialects because of the economic power of the regions where these dialects are spoken (Jacka 146).
3.1 Basic Structure
The basic grammatical structure of Mandarin is difficult to categorize because of its many different variations. On the most basic level, a sentence starts with a subject, is preceded by a verb, and ends with an object. Time words also always come before the verb. These rules are not always true, but work most of the time. Words in Mandarin consist of one or two syllables or morphemes (Ross 3). Sometimes one morpheme is sufficient to convey the meaning of a word. Two syllables add emphasis and clarity to the language, and can change a single morpheme into a completely different word (Li 28).
3.2 Contextual Grammar
As we discussed in class, the concept of Li shows respect and courtesy to others in society. This concept is especially apparent in terms of the Chinese grammar. Mandarin is known as a contextual language, which means that one must understand the surrounding conversation or context of the word to understand the full meaning, and many times words cannot stand on their own. This is important when showing courtesy or politeness to a person of higher social status. When a single phrase is taken out of context, it can have many different interpretations, especially if one is using only spoken Chinese to communicate. One example of this is pronoun substitution and simplicity. When a pronoun has already been mentioned in context, it doesn’t have to be mentioned again. If someone’s name is mentioned, then their name doesn’t have to be mentioned again in context, and one can just say verbs. This can also happen with to object words if they are the subject. This is somewhat similar to spoken English, but in Chinese it is used much more extensively.
Many situations in Chinese are understood in context, like time, verbs, and pronouns. Because there is no past tense, the use of time must be always understood in context. Once a time word is made known in a conversation, then it is understood that the rest of the conversation is talking about that period of time, unless specified otherwise. There is no past tense in Chinese; however this aspect of the language is made up by particles that tell us the aspect in context of what is being talked about. This aspect part of Chinese can also be very difficult to grasp for westerners, because much of Chinese words by themselves cannot be taken apart like English; the meaning of the words depends on the context in which they are placed. The main aspectual particle is le 了. Le了 does not mean past tense, as many beginning Chinese learners mistakenly think. Le 了 represents many different things, like that an action is completed, ongoing, just happened, or that what has been said the situation at hand (Li 213). There are over seven ways that the particle le了 can affect a sentence to change its meaning, such as when events are quantified, when events are specific, when verbs have bounded meanings, or if there are events immediately following the described situation.
The Chinese people have developed unique forms of communication and speech different than anywhere in the world. Unlike English and Latin based languages, Chinese has no conjugation. This lack of past or future tense is made up by for by the use of particles. Also, because Mandarin is a tonal language, sometimes it is hard to express emotions fully. Final particles help to add more emotion and feelings that the tones sometimes take away. These exclamatory particles act like an exclamation point, but they also play other roles. One of these particles is le 了, which emphasizes that a situation is contrary to what has been expected. Other particles represent different emotions such as surprise, softening of emotions, confusion, or a sudden realization. The particle ma 吗 is also used to show that the phrase is a question, because this cannot be conveyed accurately by intonation. There are hundreds of other particles used in the Chinese language, such as possessive particles, but I will not discuss them thoroughly in this paper.
Politeness and manners, or Li, like we discussed in class, is a key aspect of spoken Chinese. This principle is accentuated through the use of context to convey good feelings, such as the practice of pronoun deletion, which means not repeating your own personal pronoun too many times, especially if it can be understood from the context. So many words in Mandarin have the same or similar pronunciation, that the pronunciation of many words must be understood in context. But using context is not always foolproof, and can be confusing; for instance in Taiwan I often saw people that had to explain exactly what character they were saying in order for the sentence to make sense, but this does not happen often. Also this contextual part of Chinese helps to confirm the role-relationship aspect of Chinese culture. For instance, it is impolite to repeat your own personal pronoun too many times, and also it is impolite to repeat personal pronouns of those in a higher social status than yourself. This aspect of Chinese grammar directly coincides with the role-relationship and Li principles of Chinese culture that we discussed in class.
Characters are an integral part of Chinese culture as well as other Asian cultures that have been influenced by China. Chinese characters are logo-syllabic, meaning they represent one syllable or morpheme. Characters are also pictographs that can represent physical objects, abstract notions, or similar pronunciations. Strictly speaking, Chinese Characters represent the sounds of spoken Chinese, and don’t have special meaning beyond sound. One character may comprise a word or it may be part of a polysyllabic word of two morphemes or more. To become literate in Chinese, one must memorize many characters, about 4,000. However, there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters known to exist. This can be especially difficult to master, and becoming literate in Chinese can take a considerably longer time than learning a language that uses an alphabetical writing system. Because of this, some scholars have created alphabets based on roman letters to represent Chinese words, to make it easier to memorize these characters. Characters have gone over many changes through the ages, for instance now there are two different types of character systems, simplified and traditional; I will explain the differences between these systems later in this paper. Chinese writing systems have been an integral part of historical culture and still play a crucial role in Chinese society today.
As for writing Characters, it is a time honored art form in China. Because there are so many Chinese characters that are aesthetically created, writing Chinese has become one of the most popular forms of art in China. Traditionally, characters are written with a brush and black ink onto rice paper. There are many forms and styles for writing these characters and creating Chinese calligraphy. Each character has a stroke order, which means that characters must be written from left to right and from top to bottom, with few variations. Historically Chinese characters were written vertically right to left. But nowadays many different types of writing are accepted; characters can be written in any direction, horizontally or vertically, left to right or right to left, as they can be read correctly. Chinese characters are truly an integral part of traditional Chinese culture and art.
4.2 The History of Chinese Characters
Chinese characters have a long and intricate history which has impacted Chinese thinking and culture for centuries. The origins of characters date back to the 6th century B.C. However the first confirmed source of modern characters was discovered in the Shang dynasty in the second century B.C. (Wang). These were oracle bones, which were characters carved in tortoise shells. When the oracle bones were burned, cracks would form run over the characters and reveal a mystery. After this, Characters were made into bronze script. These bronze script characters were less angular and slightly different than the oracle bone script. In the early Chinese dynasties, many different types of scripts or characters were formed, which were all somewhat similar. Many different Chinese states or factions made their own form of script during the same period of time. Characters were finally standardized throughout China during the Qin dynasty. The characters that we use today are very similar to the characters that were standardized in the Qin dynasty. After the Qin dynasty, each succeeding dynasty also changed the standard characters a little over time (Wang). Because of this, by examining the subtle differences between characters, we can know what dynasty they were written in. The changes of Chinese characters overtime also reflect the changes of culture and traditions in China throughout history.
4.3 Traditional Characters
From our class readings and textbook, we know that modern China is going through many changes, and some parts of traditional culture are slowly being lost. One aspect of this loss of cultural tradition the gradual underuse of traditional characters; traditional characters are a controversial subject now in many contemporary parts of China (Jacka 146). These older characters form a writing system that does not include the simplified characters that have been used after 1946. It includes the standard characters of the Qing dynasty and previous dynasties. Traditional characters are also used as standard writing system for Taiwan, Honk Kong, and Macau. Traditional characters take longer to write than simplified characters because they require more strokes. However, they are overall considered to be prettier, hold more meaning, and are easier to read. They are easier to read because the characters are much more different from one another than in the simplified system, which helps the reader to more easily differentiate between characters. Many Chinese online newspapers now show both kinds of character systems. Because of the influence of China in Honk Kong and Macau, many people are worried they will lose their traditional Chinese character heritage. Currently there is an ongoing debate as to whether traditional or simplified characters are more effective.
4.4 Simplified Characters
As we learned from the readings concerning modern China, China is becoming progressively standardized in education (Jacka 146). Simplified Characters are a critical part of the standardization of contemporary Chinese education. They are a system of writing characters that uses most of the traditional characters but at the same time simplifies some of the common radicals found in these characters. The simplified system also uses fewer Characters than in the traditional system, as multiple characters in traditional Chinese system were combined into one character. This writing system was standardized by the Chinese government in the 1950’s and 60’s to increase literacy (Li). The main idea behind simplified characters is that they are easier to learn, and also faster to write, which makes it easier for the children and others in China to learn Chinese characters and become literate. Because they are easier and faster to write, communication and economics in China should therefore increase in speed and productivity.
4.5 Other Chinese Writing Systems
Although Chinese characters have been accepted as the writing system for China for thousands of years, they still carry drawbacks; because of this many new systems of expressing words have also been invented. These other systems of expressing the sounds of Chinese have been implemented at various times and are especially useful for Chinese dialects and for westerners learning Chinese. However the Chinese traditionally used the “Fanqie” system to learn the sounds of Chinese; the “Fanqie” system requires learning the sounds of some Chinese characters and employing them to learn new characters. But the “Fanqie” system was hard for westerners to grasp. Many of the first westerners that entered China instead used roman letters to represent Chinese pronunciation, which was a much more effective way for westerners to learn the sounds of Chinese. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution and after the Communists took power in China, these other systems of writing were considered to replace Chinese characters as the standard written form of Chinese. Here I will discuss the romanization of Chinese and also “Fanqie,” two different but well known ways to represent the Chinese language.
As we discussed in class, many early missionaries had trouble learning the sounds of Chinese. Many of them created romanization of Chinese sounds in order to learn Chinese more effectively. Romanization of Chinese means taking Roman or Latin letters and using them to represent Chinese sounds. This is not an exact science, and some romanization systems are better than others in regard to the representation of these sounds. Beginning with the earliest missionaries that entered China, westerners have devised romanization systems to represent Chinese sounds and words. The very first romanization system was made in 1617 by the first westerner to set foot in China, Matteo Ricci (Yang). However, for nearly two centuries after him, westerners were forbidden to enter China, and so there was no improvement in romanization during that time. After him, many others followed with their own romanization systems.
Some have proposed to use the current standard romanization for Mandarin or “Hanyu Pinyin” to replace Chinese characters as a writing system. However, so many sounds are the same in Chinese which often causes confusion as to what word exactly is trying to be expressed. This is because Chinese is a highly contextual language; there would be much confusion as to which word is being expressed, sometimes it is hard to tell exactly which meaning is being expressed for certain Chinese sounds. Sometimes there are ten or more characters that represent the same pronunciation and tone. For this reason, using a romanization system to represent the entire Chinese language is impractical. Having a character system gives more meaning to Chinese literature and eliminates a great amount of ambiguity. However “Hanyu Pinyin” is the standard romanization used by China today (Alan). It is also still used extensively used today by the Chinese people and by westerners now to learn the sounds of characters. It is also the standard for the vast majority of many foreign Chinese-learning textbooks. Westerners have come a long way since the first missionaries coming to China, and now business and cultural transactions between China and the west are almost infinitely more effective.
The Chinese also understood that learning Chinese characters was not easy, but they invented their own methods for learning the sounds of the thousands of Chinese characters. “Fanqie” is the traditional system for learning the sounds of Chinese characters. This is done by using two characters in Chinese that show the pronunciation of the new character. All the sounds of Chinese characters are represented by the a few simple characters that one must learn. Sun Yan of the state of Wei was the first man to invent this system of learning the sounds of Chinese characters in 200 A.D. (Casacchia). In this system, the first character represents the consonant or initial of the new character, while the second character represents the tone and final, or vowel, of the new character. This is a more ancient form learning characters, one which was also hard for westerners to pick up. One of the major setbacks with this system is that some basic knowledge of characters is required before one can use this system, so it is impractical for use by westerners who have just started to learn Chinese. However, this system is more suited for an intermediate or advanced learner, or a native speaker of Chinese.
Literacy in ancient China was synonymous with raising ones status in society. Many scholars and students would study long hours so they could pass the national exam and become a government official. Even though literary Chinese was different from spoken Chinese, the ancient Chinese was based on grammar and not necessarily sounds or exact pronunciation. Because Chinese is not an alphabetical writing system, as it can be pronounced differently in many different dialects. This form has been used for over 2000 years, and has influenced Chinese culture for centuries. In ancient China, only the learned intellectuals could understand this ancient Chinese, leaving a disparity between rich and poor and the learned and unlearned. People would spend their whole lives learning characters and this grammar so that they could become a government official and increase their social status.
This disparity between the literate and illiterate caused by classical Chinese is the reason that in the May Fourth Movement many scholars pushed so hard to do away with the old writing system and institute a vernacular system, which is what is used today in modern China. Classical Chinese is still taught in schools and has an influence on the language, but is not the official written Chinese like it was before 1900. More information can be expressed with this language while using fewer characters; this is because all words are one character only. There are no multi-syllable words in this language. Many idioms and phrases used frequently in Chinese speech and literary works today come from classical Chinese. Classical Chinese still has a relatively large influence in modern society and culture.
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