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"niubi" means "cow's vagina", do you agree?|
British newspaper Guardian's Beijing correspondent Jonathan Watts writes in his
Empire of signs
Jonathan Watts reports from the linguistic foothills of the mountain that is Mandarin - and dreams of his Chinese being 'the cow's vagina'
Thursday February 16, 2006
There are countless justifiable criticisms of foreign correspondents, but the one that hits home hardest is that many of us are less than fluent in the languages of the countries where we are based.
We would do well to change our ways, especially in the light of recent reports warning that the advantages native English speakers traditionally enjoy are fast disappearing as the world becomes fluent in their language.
To add to correspondents' shame, it emerges that increasing numbers of students in Britain's schools and colleges are learning Chinese. Meanwhile, research by US and Chinese scientists has indicated that the incidence of dyslexia is much higher among readers of English than it is among Mandarin readers.
I must confess that after two and a half years in Beijing my Mandarin remains the butt of primary school children's jokes, invoking disbelieving frowns from strangers and straining the patience of friends and colleagues.
My efforts have not been entirely in vain, however: in a restaurant I can get by, as long as they have the five dishes I know how to order; in a taxi I can flawlessly describe the route between my work and home; and in a market I know the three phrases needed to barter with the best of them.
But for work, I can only manage the most basic of interviews: for everything else, I must try to find English speakers or depend on my assistant, Huang Lisha. As accurate, hardworking and reliable as she is, it is immensely frustrating not to be able to communicate with sources directly.
All I can say in my defence is that I have not given up: I have two or three lessons a week, and while progress is depressingly slow there is just about enough evidence of improvement to encourage me to keep at it: 1,000 characters down, 3,000 left to go.
What helps a little is that I have been in this situation before. I lived in Japan for 10 years, by the end of which time I was reasonably proficient in the local language. But at the two-and-a-half-year stage, I was just as hopeless in Japanese as I am now in Mandarin.
Never mind. One thing I learned in Tokyo is that language study is like mountaineering: you reach one crest, only to discover you are still in the foothills; you scale the next big peak only to find another, far higher one further ahead. But for exactly the same reason, it can be very satisfying to look back at all the ground you have covered.
Two big differences between learning Chinese and any other language are the tones and the characters. Mandarin has a far wider range of characters than English (more than 4,000 ideograms are commonly used, compared with the 26 letters of the alphabet) but a far narrower range of syllables.
As my erudite predecessor the classical scholar John Gittings put it: "Chinese is rich in vocabulary but phonetically impoverished." To distinguish between identical phonemes, Mandarin uses tones - four of them. And as a foreigner who struggles to hit the right note even in karaoke, it is the tones that get me every time.
Although locals make allowances for foreigners, a mistaken tone can be humiliating and expensive. I could never be a broker: depending on the tone, "mai" can mean "buy" or "sell". A tiny slip and billions could be lost.
Face, too, can be lost. In one of my first lessons, I was studying colours, and to practise my new vocabulary I asked my teacher what was the colour of her pen (one of the only other words I knew at the time). She blushed crimson, laughed, and quickly moved on to the next page of the textbook. The reason, I found out later, was that I had slipped from the third tone to the first - which had turned "pen" into a sensitive anatomical term.
At least I am not alone. Even the best foreign speakers of Mandarin sometimes get their rising tones mixed up with their undulating tones. "If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone," said Ed Lanfranco, correspondent for UPI and one of the best linguists among the foreign journalist community of Beijing. "I just can't pick the second tone."
By comparison, learning the characters is easy. This merely involves constant repetition rather than musical talent (which I suspect is something you have to be born with in order to master tones).
But, dammit, there are an awful lot of them. My only consolation is that I am not a pupil at a Chinese school, where the demands of education must be among the toughest in the world. As one taxi driver put it (and I paraphrase because I may not have understood him exactly, my Mandarin being what it is), "We are the oldest, biggest and most literate civilisation in the world, which means a lot of hard work for our students.
"In Britain, you have to learn 2,000 years of history; we have 5,000. In Britain, you have to know the geography and famous figures in a country with 60 million people. Well, we are 1.3 billion, and half a continent. And you have a mere 26 characters; we have 7,000."
Given that studying the basics of Chinese identity is likely to take up so much of the curriculum, it is easier to understand why so many people here are so nationalistic: they simply do not have much time to study the outside world.
China is a writing system as much as it is a country. That was one of the most insightful comments I was given before I arrived in Beijing, and it was proferred by one of the few foreign journalist who remained here throughout the Cultural Revolution, a veteran China hand. Forty years of covering the country had taught him that this was an empire united by a set of ideograms and not an awful lot more.
In terms of ethnicity, geography, religion and income levels, there are huge differences among the population. Each province is big enough to be a separate country, and there are countless different spoken languages. But what people have in common is their citizenship and - if they are educated - an ability to read and write thousands of ideograms.
That was reassuring for me, coming to Beijing after 10 years in Tokyo: I had only a few months of Mandarin study under my belt, but a reasonable grasp of the characters because many of them are also used in Japan.
This was useful, but only up to a point: Japan (like Taiwan) uses classical characters rather than the simplified versions adopted in mainland China after the revolution. Even when the characters are written in the same way, the meanings are often hilariously different. Take the compound comprised by the characters for hand and paper. In Japanese this means letter; in Mandarin it means toilet paper.
This is an illustration of my prejudices about the two languages, indeed about the two countries, which have become polarised in my mind: Japanese is classical, exquisitely refined and painfully polite; Chinese is romantic but rough edged and distinctly down to earth.
One of my first teachers in Kobe initially insisted that Japanese had no swear words. "So when you want to insult someone, what do you say?" I asked. "You should never want to insult them," she answered earnestly.
"Sorry, you are right. But it must happen sometimes - if not for you, for others. What do they say when they are angry?"
She lowered her voice. "Your head is as empty as a pepper," she whispered, before adding quickly, "but you should never use such words."
Less refined friends later taught me that Japanese actually contains a far bigger arsenal of offensive vocabulary. But it is still relatively small. Japan's most famous film subtitler, Natsuko Toda - who is also a very refined lady - used to say that the hardest things to translate were swear words, because a long string of English expletives could only be rendered by a single Japanese word, "baka" (idiot). She had particular problems with gangster films and anything by Joe Orton.
Chinese subtitlers are unlikely to face such problems, if the language used at their football matches is any guide. I doubt that even the Guardian's relatively liberal guidelines would allow the main chant to be used here. Suffice to say that it is a lot terser and cruder than "the referee's a bastard".
But I can, perhaps, share an expression that my Chinese teacher recently taught me, which shows that vulgar words rarely used in Japan even for insults are sometimes used in Chinese for praise.
If you really think something is great, she said, you call it "niubi" (cow's vagina). ;P I was astonished and childishly amused. The adult in me asked for the etymology, but she had no idea. "It is just a trendy term," she explained. "I don't know where it comes from."
I hadn't noticed it before, but sure enough, now that I have been taught the word, I keep seeing and hearing it: in conversation, on blogs, everywhere in the informal world - everywhere, that is, except in references to my Mandarin. I can only dream of the day that someone describes my Chinese as "niubi": Then I will have really arrived at a linguistic peak; then I will be on the way to being a half-decent correspondent.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006