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The Chinese Language, Ever Evolving

Debate on the roots and future course of evolution in written Chinese Language.


NZ Chinese Journals 先驅者之聲


Delighted to discover NZ Chinese Journals 先驅者之聲 project containing over 16,000 pages from three publications: 民聲旬報 Man Sing Times (1921-22), 僑農月刊 New Zealand Chinese Growers Monthly Journal (1949-72) and 中國大事週報 New Zealand Chinese Weekly News (1937-46) that span 50 years of Chinese New Zealand history.


Wonderful interface makes it a joy to view and search these fascinating historical sources in English and Chinese. Kezia Singleton (project manager) and David Adams addressed some of the challenges creating this complex project in this presentation at the New Zealand Digital Forum conference 2008.

More info on Chinese print culture in Aotearoa from New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.

觉 Jue Music and Art Festival

(覺) [Jué] to feel, wake up, come to one’s senses.
音乐 [yīnyuè] music
艺术 [yìshù] art

Lots of good links to current bands, artists, cafes, clubs, galleries and other groovy locales in both 北京 and 上海 from the 觉 Jue Festival celebration of “alternative, creative and progressive arts in Shanghai and Beijing. With no branding, no restrictions and no agenda, Jue is an excuse to leave your hidey-hole and experience a punk show, an art installation, and everything in between.” (Thanks PSFK.)

The Fun of a Naughty Pun: 草泥马 Cao Ni Ma

UPDATE 16 March 2009: The original 草泥马 “Grass Mud Horse” children’s chorus video below was removed from YouTube, but reposted here by Rebecca Mackinnon. Also of interest: 12 March NYT article “A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors.”

This adorable video features Chinese children singing on top of an English Oxfam/Mastercard ad. The word for alpacas, cǎonímǎ, 草泥马, literally “grass mud horse” when sung, sounds just like  càonǐmā, 操你媽, “f*ck your mother.”

From a Singapore Angle points out how respect for elders and ancestor worship colors Chinese swearings:

The Chinese believe that to directly insult a person’s character (the Anglo-American way) or belittle his abilities (the Japanese way) are not the best methods; rather only by abusing the person’s elders and ancestors can the biggest insults be achieved. For this reason the “national swears” of the Chinese: ta ma de (他媽的; lit. “his mother’s…”), cao ni ma (操你媽; lit. “—- your mother”), etc., all do not directly abuse the person being swore at, but abuse the person’s mother; cao ni nainai (操你奶奶; lit. “—- your grandmother”), cao ni zuzong (操你祖宗; lit. “—- your ancestor”), etc., on the other hand, are intensified versions of cao ni ma.

But we’re not just talking about curses here. The video, which is becoming increasingly popular, is basically a commentary on the frustration of political censorship. (via Ethan Zuckerman writing up a talk by Rebecca MacKinnon onWorldchanging.) China Digital Times has an in-depth write up of the lyrics, which offer a coded song of struggle with internet censors, represented by “river crabs” 河蟹 héxiè, a homophone for 和谐   héxié “harmonious.”

If you want more, Ten Legendary Beasts of Baidu offers up other species whose names map to juvenile puns for curse words or genitalia.

It’s all Greek to Me


When an English speaker doesn’t understand a word, one says “it’s all Greek to me.” Hebrew speakers say it “sounds like Chinese.” Apparently Korean speakers say it “sounds like Hebrew,” according to Language Log. Strange Maps illustrates the relationships between languages that seem alien. Chinese definitely wins, being the reference language for Greek, Polish, Rusian, Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Dutch, Hungarian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Speakers.

Stumbling Upon the Money Tree

Pachira Aquatica

Encountering Pachira Aquatica, Shaving Bush Tree(?)

Giggling when I came across this bonsai tag at California Home & Garden in Wellington, NZ, and took a photo so I could look up what on earth a “shaving bush” tree really was. Turns out the illustrious Pachira aquatica has traveled widely, under many names. The genus name, Pachira, is derived from a language spoken in Guyana, the species is Latin for “aquatic.” It’s also known as the Guiana or Guyana chestnut, saba nut, Bombacaceae,  Malabar chestnut, Munguba and provision tree.

It’s here in my 中文 Zhōngwén Chinese journal because Pachira Aquatica is also 馬拉巴栗 Mǎlābā lì “Malabar chestnut” a.k.a. The Money Tree 發財樹 fācái shù . This plant gets recommended by 风水 fēng shuǐ practitioners to attract wealth and prosperity, due to the arrangement of five large green leaves on each branch symbolizing the  五行 wǔxíng five classical elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.

I think they meant to label this “Shaving Brush Tree,” because the gorgeous flowers do somewhat resemble a glamorous shaving brush tucked inside an exploding banana peel:


Shaving Brush Tree flower

Pacifica aquatica Shaving Brush Tree flower in Sao Paolo, Brazil, by Mauroguanadi

Wishing everyone good luck and prosperity as I watch Obama’s address to joint session of U.S. Congress while writing this. If you’d like your own good luck money tree in the U.S., there are lovely braided bonsai versions from Windowbox and Red Envelope.

Bonus:For another interpretation “money tree“, check out Fiona Hall’s art installation: “When My Boat Comes In.” 

Chinese Language Learning Tool: nciku


Delighted to discover nciku, an online Chinese-English dictionary and language learning tool. There are lots of helpful features like autocomplete and saving to vocab lists.

What really sets this one apart is the ability to handwrite characters on the screen using any input device. As you are writing, a grid of possible characters appears and you can select the appropriate character from the list. I am using a Wacom Cintiq 21UX 21-Inch Interactive Pen Display at my desk and a Bamboo (Small) Pen Tablet with my laptop, and it’s a great way not only to practice writing the characters, but to get searchable text versions I can then paste here rather than using images.

The character I have handwritten above is 网 wǎng, which I learned in class last week as part of 上网 shàngwǎng “to go online”. I love that 网 wǎng looks like a net and has historically been used as both “net” and “web” in other contexts: 渔网 yúwǎng fishing net, and  蜘蛛网 zhīzhūwǎng spider’s web.

Last time I was studying Chinese, the 互联网 hùliánwǎng Internet was around, but not the 万维网 wànwéiwǎnɡ World Wide Web. Now I am finding such great resources for language study online. One man in my class says he learned everything so far on, which I am starting to explore. I’ve also enjoyed finding and talking with Chinese language partners through, though it’s not limited to Chinese — or English.

Do you know of any other online Chinese language study resources I should check out? I welcome your suggestions in comments.



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