I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chinese language (汉字 和 普通话) recently. I put this down to the fact that I’ve only got about a month or so of actual classes left. I also think that it’s because as I learn more, I begin to understand snippets of speech (口语), conversation on the bus, in the street, and on the radio. I grasp at characters (汉字), at the meaning behind adverts, menus and film subtitles. In other words, China has started to speak to me.
This is part of a dialogue that I was listening to as part of my 听力(“tingli”) class.
Woman: “Xiao Zhang[a name], this black motorcycle is yours?”
Some of the possible answers from my textbook;
A。女 的 认识小张的车。
The woman knows/ recognises Xiao Zhang’s vehicle.
B。女 认识 小李的车。
The woman knows/recognises Xiao Li’s [another man’s] vehicle.
So the key word here is “rènshi” (认识), meaning “to know/recognise”. Here are some examples of that word in context;
Nǐ zài nǎr rènshi tā de？
= Where did you get to know her?
Rènshi shìjiè, gǎizào shìjiè
= to understand the world and change it.
zhèngquè rènshi dāngqián de xíngshì
= to have a correct understanding of the current situation.
Here’s where things get philosophical…
= perceptual (rational) knowledge.
= theory of knowledge; epistemology.
So clearly 认识 can refer to what Immanuel Kant might call aposteroi and apriori knowledge, or, knowledge which is known intuitively, and knowledge which is only learnt from experience.
As the dialogue continues, 小张, the man speaking, reveals to the woman (女) that the black motorcycle they can see is in fact not his, but it is identical to his. The only way that we know that it is definitely not his is that he insists that he parked his motorcycle behind the canteen (which is presumably not where they are when this conversation takes place). He clarifies that this motorcycle belongs to Xiao Li (小李).
Though I was supposed to be guessing the “right” answer from a multiple-choice list, I was so taken with this question that I decided to theme a blog post around it instead (对不起 老师！). My teacher is training at the moment, and this particular lesson was being observed, with myself as the only student, so I didn’t want to give her a tough time about it. Yet what exactly does the woman in the question know/recognise/认识？
The woman knows the appearence of this motorcycle by experience (or so she thinks) and has probably inferred that it could be Xiao Zhang’s, as it’s parked nearby and he is with her, e. g., not currently riding his bike. Yet, she has mistakenly attributed the bike, and on a physical level, in reality, she has failed to recognise it for what it actually is. Before the man corrects her, however, we can assume that she believed it to be his motorcycle, and had she not been with him, she would have probably continued in this belief.
In my honest opinion, neither A or B are satisfactory answers. A is false, because although the woman knows Xiao Zhang’s motorcycle, she has incorrectly recognised it on this occasion. Therefore, she doesn’t “know” it, in an apriori sense, as the word 认识 might suggest. On the other hand, it is also not right to say that the woman recognises Xiao Li’s motorcycle, when she doesn’t even realise that it belongs to Xiao Li, until she’s told.
I originally went with B, because whether she knew it consciously or not, the woman has identified Xiao Li’s bike. However, it turns out that in this case, 认识 takes on its literal meaning, and A was the correct answer.
I still refute the textbook on this point though, because technically the woman doesn’t really recognise the motorcycle she thinks she sees – it belongs to someone else, but it looks familiar. I guess that ultimately you can argue that the motorcycle that she knows (认识 again!) is Xiao Zhang’s (小张), so perhaps A is the more logical answer of the two.
NB, there were more than two possible answers to this question, but they were saying nonsense like 小张没有魔车/ “Xiao Zhang doesn’t have a motorcycle”, so I eliminated them immediately.
So now everyone can guess just how hyped I am for my final listening exam next month! We get about ten seconds to consider each question, and it’s only taken me about forty-five minutes to write this, so I guess I’m not far off the mark.
Now I’ve chosen a handful of characters that I’ve recently learnt, just to demonstrate the breadth of how Chinese functions as a system of signs.
Let’s start with 内向, nèixiàng, meaning “introversion”. At first, it seems to be made of a combination of the characters for “person/a people”,人, with the character for “to return”,回。However, despite visual similarities, this word is actually composed of the characters for “inside” and “direction”. There are other characters for “inside” (里 面 etc) and “direction”, or “facing”, but the use of 人 tells us to apply this concept to people.
Next is a similar character, 囚, qiú, meaning imprison. No surprise here, the person radical,人, appears again, and this time, they are enclosed on every side, unlike the introvert. Interestingly though, the character that they are surrounded by is not 口 kou, meaning “mouth”, but an almost indistinguishable character called 囗 wéi, which means “proud, erect, upright”.
The advantage of having characters which visually display things is that you can quickly construct a logical system. If 惊, jīng, means “to start, or be surprised”(note the line on the left of the character, which is the radical for “heart”, and indicates that it’s referring to an emotion) then to be pleasantly surprised is 惊喜 jīngxǐ, a combination of the characters for “surprise” and “to like”.
Chinese is often presented, perhaps justly, as a language which relies on a lot of memorisation. Yet, once the basics are covered, the characters become far more intuitive than any mis-matched English word!
I was able to guess the meaning of 酵, jiào, the other day, because I knew that 酒 means alcohol and 教 usually means something to do with being taught or instructed, as in the characters for “professor” – 教授. The character I was looking at lacked the dots that 酒 has on its left (actually the radical for “water/liquid”), and I knew that the 孝 on the right was probably a hint on how to pronounce it. So, what instructs something in alcohol (which is NOT a liquid) to act in a certain way? Yeast. That’s what makes it ferment. Hence, 酵 means “ferment”, an instruction given to the yeast to make alcohol!
Not all characters are ideograms or pictograms though. Ideas which have no root in Chinese mentality, or foreign objects, are usually given characters which make a similar sound to the phonetics of that word in English.
Therefore, kā 咖 + 啡 fēi = kāfēi in pinyin, or coffee (咖啡), in English.
What ultimately makes 汉字 so fun to learn is that it combines visual inference with logical deduction to discern meaning. This can be done with rule based languages, and works well with say, Latin (and languages which derive from it) because once you know that the prefixes “mis” and “dis”are negative, then you can guess the sense of a lot of words.
Chinese characters go beyond this in that they allow for multiple interpretations to support a single meaning. As a friend and I argued the other day, does the character for “immortal” (xiān) 仙, represent a person leaning against a mountain, standing as constant, and lasting as long as it, or does it show the place where celestial beings traditionally live?
In Mandarin Chinese, 都可以! (It’s all possible!)