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1979 was a heady year for those with an interest in the People’s Republic of China.  After decades of enmity, including as combatants in the Korean War, the United States and the People’s Republic of China opened diplomatic relations in that year.  I remembered watching live on TV several years earlier as Richard Nixon landed in Beijing for a historic visit that brought together the world’s largest economy and most powerful country with the world’s most populous nation — one that boasted a history of more than two thousand years.  China was mysterious and had been largely closed off to America since Mao led the communists to power in 1949 following a civil war where the side backed by the U.S. had lost and was driven into exile onto an island that is now known as Taiwan.

The excesses of the communist revolution would later exhibit themselves in Mao’s Great Leap Forward – a failed project to radically modernize China’s agricultural sector along communist lines that left some 20 million people dead due to famine.  This was followed several years later by the Cultural Revolution, which sought to purge China of capitalist and traditional elements.  The Cultural Revolution saw students marauding through the country attacking intellectuals, officials, teachers, and others considered to be bourgeois remnants who had to be swept away in order for China to become fully communist, leaving between 500,000 and 2 million people dead and the lives of countless others ruined.

In the wake of the historic normalization of relations, I devoured every report in the media about the communist giant that I could get my hands on.  What I discovered was a people not possessed by paranoia and fear of the U.S., but rather a people yearning to connect with and learn from America.  Suddenly, over a billion people who had been cut off from us for so long wanted to know us.  And I wanted to know them.

It was not just the sudden opening that excited me – it was the enormous potential that the P.R.C. represented as a huge market for Western products, an inexpensive place to produce goods for export, and, very significantly, a bulwark against Soviet expansionism.  After all, while both the P.R.C. and the Soviet Union shared an economic and political ideology, they had come to be geopolitical rivals, and it seemed that the U.S. could exploit that rivalry to serve its own interests.  At the time, it was said that optimists learn Chinese, while pessimists learn Russian.  The notion there was that optimists thought that China would rise to play a major role in the world economy and would act as a balance to Soviet power, and therefore it made sense to study Chinese.  The pessimists, on the other hand, who were convinced that the Soviet Union would become an increasingly powerful and worrisome rival to the U.S., believed that it made sense to study Russian.

Of course, it did not exactly turn out either way.  After the Soviet Union collapsed and was dissolved in 1991, it no longer posed the same security threat to the U.S. and the West that it had before then.  (Of course, Russia has in recent years become an increasingly aggressive player under Putin, but it remains to be seen how long that will last and how far that aggression will extend.)  While Chinese economic development succeeded in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and did contribute markedly to global economic growth, China ended up becoming a powerful and successful economic competitor of the U.S.  And the demise of the Soviet Union made the need for a bulwark against the Russians less urgent, at least for a while.  In fact, in recent years, China been drawing increasingly close to Russia.  Instead of serving as a bulwark against another power, China has risen to become a formidable military power of its own with the ability to threaten the West’s security interests, at least in Asia and the Pacific.  Although many thought that China would liberalize politically as its economy liberalized beginning with the rule of Deng Xiaoping, China’s political system has remained every bit as autocratic as was the Soviet Union’s.  I think it is safe to say that it turns out the main difference between the Chinese and the Soviets is that the Chinese are more competent than their Soviet counterparts ever were and may therefore present an even more potent threat to the U.S.

However, in the wake of normalization, I camped with the optimists and proceeded to study Chinese (Mandarin) for six years at Penn and Harvard, with the addition of a summer of intensive study in Shanghai.  The university in Shanghai where I studied had all the charm of Soviet architectural design, and I am not talking about the tall Stalinist skyscrapers found in Moscow (which I confess I do find cool).  In the main courtyard, there was a large statue of Mao which looked very much like the statues of North Korean leaders one sees in that country.  There were loudspeakers all over the campus that sounded like something out of 1984 and which would play announcements, as well as traditional Chinese music to which people would do their Taiqi exercises each morning.  (Taiqi is a program of slow, choreographed, and meditative movements that many Chinese do on a daily basis and that are supposed to promote mental and physical health.)

In the parts of the university that we were relegated to, there was only one room with an air conditioner (our dormitory rooms only had fans), and Shanghai summers, with their intense heat, humidity, and mosquitos, are not for the faint of heart.  One activity I did enjoy there was going running in the evenings on a track just outside the rear gate.  The Chinese I would pass would greet me with the little bit of English they knew, always with a smile and in a friendly manner.  There was not much to do at night there, except to call a car and grab dinner at one of the few downtown restaurants or go bowling and have drinks at an old and rather ornate club that somehow managed to escape destruction in the Cultural Revolution, perhaps because Mao’s wife reportedly enjoyed dressing up in fancy gowns and frequenting the club.  So much for revolutionary spirit!

While the Chinese could be very friendly, there was an aspect to them in those early days of the West’s encounter with China that could be very irritating.  When Westerners such as myself would wander the streets of downtown Shanghai, we would become objects of fascination to the Chinese walking those same streets.  Whenever we would stop to read a map or change film in a camera, large crowds would form around us, observing us like we were aliens from another planet and often getting very close to us as they inspected what we were doing.  If someone was tall and blond, this only fueled their fascination even more, with people even trying to touch the blond person’s hair.  To us, of course, this behavior seemed unbelievably rude and made us feel as if we were animals in some exhibit in a zoo.  Today this behavior certainly no longer occurs, as the Chinese are now far more sophisticated and accustomed to what foreigners look like and how we behave than they were back then.   We are simply not as exotic or interesting as we used to be.

As you have probably heard, Chinese is a very difficult language to learn, and there are various reasons for that.  To begin with, unlike English and other Western languages, but similar to some other Asian languages, it is tonal, meaning that words have not only a phonetic pronunciation but also carry a tone.  This means that a word’s meaning is determined not only by its phonetic pronunciation, but also by the tone with which it is spoken.  Mandarin has four tones – flat, rising, dipping, and falling (just to make things even more complicated, there are some words, usually grammatical particles, that are spoken with a neutral, or natural, tone).  It is the tones, particularly the falling tone, that can make Chinese sound harsh to listeners, and, as you can imagine, the tones makes singing in the language somewhat fraught.  Some Chinese dialects have even more tones than Mandarin, such as Cantonese, which has eight.  For speakers of non-tonal languages, such as English, tones are one of the most difficult aspects of Chinese to master, as we are not used to pronouncing words with tones accompanying their phonetic pronunciation or to paying attention to a spoken word’s tone to ascertain its meaning.  Thus, for example, the Chinese word “ma” can have very different meanings depending on the tone that accompanies it: flat tone (mother), rising tone (hemp), dipping tone (horse), falling tone (to abuse), or neutral tone (question particle).  (There are actually many more meanings for “ma,” but I offer just the foregoing in order to illustrate my point about tones.)  If you know the written character for the word being spoken, then you do not need either the phonetic pronunciation or the tone to understand its meaning.

Just to complicate matters further, Chinese has a much more limited number of phonetic sounds than Western languages, meaning that you need to pay attention not just to the tone, but often to the context as well, in order to understand a word’s meaning.  This requires that somewhat more attention needs to be paid to the context in which a word is spoken than is required when listening to English.  The number of meanings a word can have is expanded even further, as many Chinese words are actually combinations of two or more component words.

As for names, in Chinese, a person’s surname (usually one word) comes first, followed by the given name.  Most Chinese surnames are just one word, but some are comprised of two words.  Interestingly, the number of permissible Chinese surnames is but a tiny fraction of surnames one finds in Western societies, meaning that 85% of people in China have one of the top 100 most common names.  Thus, for example, some 93 million people in China share the surname “Wang,” while another 92 million share the surname “Li.”  Non-Chinese names need to be “translated” into Chinese if the person wishes to be addressed properly in Chinese and so their name can be written in characters.  This needs to be done by a native speaker or someone who knows the language very well, as they need to select Chinese words that have some phonetic resemblance to the person’s name and that also evoke some characteristic that the giver of the name wishes to attribute to the person whose name it is.  Thus, for example, my name (Jason Abrams) was translated by my native-speaking teacher to “Ai Jiesheng” — pronounced like Eye Jyehshung (more on romanization below) — not very close to my name’s original pronunciation, but about as good as one can get with a decidedly non-Chinese name like mine.  As for meaning, my given name in Chinese (“Jiesheng”) means “born special,” while my surname (“Ai”) is a homonym for the Chinese word for “love.”

Chinese grammar is in some ways simpler than English grammar or that of other Western tongues.  Verbs are not conjugated, nor do they carry tense.  This makes working with verbs somewhat easier, but the lack of tense means that the speaker needs to use other means to communicate when an action takes place, for example by using a time word, such as “yesterday” or “in the future,” or by inserting a grammatical particle (“le”) that has no equivalent in English and indicates, among other things, that an act has been completed.  In addition, another plus for Chinese is that neither nouns nor adjectives are gendered.

Grammatical particles also play other roles in Chinese.  Thus, “le” indicates not only that an action is completed, but can also indicate that there has been a change of condition.  Thus, if you were sick and you want to say that you are now well, you would insert “le” after the word for well to show that you have changed from being sick to being well.  The particle “ma” is rather useful, as it allows the speaker to turn a statement into a question merely by adding “ma” to the end of the statement.  English also has no equivalent for the Chinese particle “ba,” which turns a word or phrase into the imperative or a suggestion, such as “let’s go outside.”

Certainly, the most noteworthy aspect of Chinese is its beautiful and complex writing system.  So prized and refined are the system’s aesthetics, that its calligraphy is considered an artform and calligraphic scrolls are collected and displayed in homes and museums in China and throughout the world.  So developed and influential is the Chinese writing system, that other languages (most notably Japanese) have integrated Chinese characters into their writing systems.

The study of Chinese characters is an important portal to understanding Chinese values and philosophy.  They can also be poetic and evocative.  Thus, for example, the character for “good” or “well” is composed of the symbol (also commonly referred to as a “radical”) for “woman” and the symbol for “child,” meaning that a woman and child together are the essence of goodness.  The character for “kingdom” or “country” is composed of the symbol for “king” surrounded by the symbol for “border” or “enclosure.”  The character for “home” consists of the symbol for “pig” with the symbol for “roof” above it, referring back to a time when peasants’ pigs lived with them in their homes.  The characters that make up the word “week” literally mean “star period,” and the character for “month” means “moon.”  The character for “virtue” is made up of the symbols for “travel,” “straight,” and “heart,” meaning that “traveling through life with a straight heart” is the essence of virtue.  The characters that make up the word “Japan” are comprised of the characters for “origin” and “sun,” meaning “the origin of the sun” or “the land of the rising sun.”  There are, of course, many other interesting compositions of symbols in Chinese writing, which can serve as a window on the Chinese mind and culture.  The appeal of using pictograms to convey meaning is today reflected in the popularity of using emojis when sending electronic messages to give an added dimension to one’s expression.

As Chinese characters are primarily pictograms, with only some characters containing elements that indicate their pronunciation, linguists have developed romanization systems (which use Latin letters) so that those learning or working with the language will know how to pronounce words.  The most widely used system today is called “Pinyin,” and if you study Chinese, you will need to learn how the system works in order know how to speak the language.  As sounds in Pinyin are pronounced differently from how they are in English, it is a mistake (though an understandable one) to pronounce Pinyin words the same way the Latin letters and phonetic combinations would be pronounced if they were being pronounced like they are in English.  Thus, the Pinyin word “xi” (which as you now know can have a variety of meanings) is actually pronounced similarly to the word “she” in English (only with the tip of the tongue pressed up against the back of the teeth), while the Pinyin word “wo” (which can mean “I,” as well as other things) is pronounced similarly to how “whaw” would be pronounced in English if it were an English word.

There are, of course, many other syntactical and grammatical differences between Chinese and English.  Many of these differences are not necessarily complex, but they are sufficiently different from English so as to make Chinese that much more challenging to learn.

In closing this exploration of my experience with learning Chinese, I will just mention that Chinese has, of course, many different dialects.  While the spoken aspects of these dialects are mutually unintelligible. their written and grammatical systems are virtually identical.  This means that although a Mandarin speaker and a speaker of Fujian dialect cannot engage in a conversation, they can read and understand the same books and write letters to each other.  (By the way, if you are going to learn a Chinese dialect, you will most likely study Mandarin, as it is the official dialect in the P.R.C. and is spoken by some 80% of Chinese.)  Chinese is undoubtedly a difficult language to master, but given its philosophical and visual beauty, as well as the fact that it is spoken by well over a billion people, learning it is well worth the effort.