Native Chinese speakers (of any one of the language’s forms) make up roughly one-fifth of the world’s population. Meaning, Chinese (specifically Mandarin) is the most widely spoken language on Earth. Over the course of China’s long history, wars, cultural shifts, and time have all been instrumental in the evolution of the Chinese language written system. Thus, tracking historical changes in the pronunciation, shape, and meaning of each character is a lesson on ancient civilizations and cultures.
In this way, anyone interested in learning more about China should begin with learning the language. To get started, here are five amazing facts about Chinese:
1. Chinese is one of the oldest languages still in use.
Our knowledge pertaining to the origins of written Chinese comes from the famous Oracle Bones (circa Shang Dynasty, 1600-1046 BCE), which are believed to be the earliest examples of Chinese script in existence. Written on old bones and turtle shells, these inscriptions predicted future events, such as whether or not it would rain, whether there would be a good harvest, or if the king would win a particular war.
Roughly 4,500 Oracle Bones (see above) have been discovered thus far, on which 1,700 ancient characters have been identified. While these are a substantial sampling of the language’s early characters, they are not representative of all the characters used at that time. The Oracle Bones have become a worldwide subject of interest, and today there are many Chinese and foreign scholars engaged in archaeological, philological, and historical research concerning these ancient artifacts.
2. Calligraphy is art.
Writing well-formed and beautiful characters has been an important part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, calligraphy is one of China’s most famous branches of classical Chinese art.
There are five traditional forms of Chinese calligraphy: Seal Characters, Official Script, Running Script, Formal Script, and Cursive Hand. Additionally, there have been many famous calligraphers in Chinese history, such as Wang Xizhi from the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Yan Zhenqing and Liu Gongquan in the Tang Dynasty, and Huang Tingjian and Mi Fu from the Song Dynasty.
To this day, Chinese people like to decorate their homes and offices with pieces of calligraphy. In response to their increasing desire to do so, the value of ancient Chinese calligraphy has risen dramatically in recent years. For example, the cursive script Ping An Tie, written by Wang Xizhi circa 7th century (see above), was auctioned off for 308 million RMB at the 2010 China Guardian’s Autumn Auction.
3. Chinese is a tonal language.
If you are an English speaker learning Chinese, the most difficult part may be mastering the five tones (see below).
Since Chinese is a tonal language, a syllable’s meaning can change drastically based on it’s tone. For example, the syllable ‘ma’ has different meanings depending on whether it’s spoken with the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth tone: mā (mother), má (hemp), mǎ (horse), mà (to scold), and ma (indicates a question).
If you mispronounce a syllable’s tone, you might end up saying the completely wrong thing. For example, “Wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ”, means, “I want to ask you [something]”. But if you were to say “Wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ”, it would mean “I want to kiss you”. (Note the different tones over the syllable “wen”.)
4. Compound characters often still make sense when reversed.
Many Chinese words are comprised of two characters (the shortest words are one character long, while the longest are three). When the characters of a two-character-long word are switched, it often still has meaning. However, that meaning might be very different from that of the original. For example, 上海 is a city in China (Shanghai), while 海上 means ‘on the sea’; 牛奶 means ‘milk’, while 奶牛 means ‘cow’; 故事 means ‘story’, while 事故 means ‘accident’; 蜜蜂 means ‘honey bees’, while 蜂蜜 just means ‘honey’; and, 工人 means ‘worker’, while 人工 means ‘artificial’ or ‘manual work’.
5. Two-part allegorical sayings are popular.
Two-part allegorical sayings are a unique form of Chinese idioms, created by common people wanting to reference everyday life. The first part, always stated, is descriptive. The second part, which is sometimes left unstated, carries the message. Chinese people usually use allegorical sayings to be humorous. Given their popularity, even if the speaker only says the first half of the phrase, the listener can infer the second half.
A few examples of two-part allegorical sayings are:
- “黄鼠狼给鸡拜年, 没安好心”, directly translated is: “A weasel wishing Happy New Year to a chicken – harboring no good intention”.
- “狗拿耗子, 多管闲事”, directly translated is: “A dog trying to catch mice – too meddlesome”.
- “竹篮子打水, 一场空”, directly translated is: “Like ladling water with a wicker basket – it is empty (nothing)”.
- “兔子尾巴, 长不了”, directly translated is: “The tail of a rabbit – won’t last long”.
- “丢了西瓜捡芝麻, 因小失大”, directly translated is: “Lose the watermelon and pick up the sesame seeds – because of something small, lose something big”.
There are many other interesting facets to Chinese grammar aside from these five. For example, verbs aren’t modified for tense (like they are in Romance and Germanic languages). Instead, adverbs like ‘before’ and ‘after’ are used to indicate temporal relations. And unlike in English, where plural nouns are marked with an ‘-s’, Chinese nouns retain the same form regardless of plurality or singularity.
What other differences between Chinese and English do you find interesting? Comment below to let us know!