skip to Main Content

Periodical Quora Q&As Digest about Chinese Learning

Do you have inquiries about learning Chinese or about Chinese culture? Here we recommend a website which is Quora.com. You can learn ask any question and there will be great answer from someone who has first hand experience with the topic. There are some great topics about the Chinese.

Especially, there are even non-native speakers who give some great insight on Chinese related questions that listeners should definitely take a look at. We will help you select those practical and interesting topics about Chinese learning as a periodical digest. Here are several topics to read about.

Culture

1.Q: Do native Chinese speakers really find “nǐ hǎo (你好)” to be a fake or insincere greeting?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s insincere,你好(Nǐ hǎo) normally is used when two each other are not so familiar. Native Chinese seldom use 你好(Nǐ hǎo) with their acquaintances. It does tend to be much less used in informal conversation, but it’s just that among all the choices of ways to greet people. How many times do you use hello vs. other greetings (hey, hi, yo, how’s it going, etc.) in English or just a nodding?

On the phone, it’s common to use 喂(wéi), rather than 你好(Nǐ hǎo) to answer a call. This is also used in other electronic situations such as testing A/V equipment (as in “hello hello testing”), but not used in face-to-face communication or in writing.

In the mornings it’s very common in conversation to just say 早(zǎo) (think of this like ‘morning) as short for 早安zǎo ān (good morning).

吃饭了没有?chī fàn le méi yǒu? (Have you eaten?) and all its variants can be used as greetings as well but not everyone uses it and it depends highly on the circumstances. For example it’s probably appropriate if you’re a host and greeting a guest (and ready to feed them anyway regardless of their answer), or if you bump into a classmate or coworker and it’s about meal time. On the other hand it’s probably not a good way to greet a stranger, and a bad way to greet a host if you are the guest. There are many other ways to meet people depending on the circumstances:

  • 最近好吗?/ 最近怎么样?Zuìjìn hǎo ma? /Zuì jìn zěnme yàng? (how have you been recently?)
  • 欢迎 Huān yíng (welcome) can be used as a greeting if you’re a host. 欢迎光临 huān yíng guāng lín if you are a business owner and you have customers entering.
  • 好久不见 hǎo jiǔ bú iàn (long time no see) used in informal situations at the appropriate time, if you really haven’t seen them in a long time and suddenly have a random encounter
  • 去哪?qù nǎ ?(Where are you going?) used with close friends; similarly, 去…了?(You’re going to …. ?) (去上课了?qù shàng kè le ? going to class?) (去买东西了?qù mǎi dōng xī le? going to buy groceries?) etc. all very common for random encounters in the hallways, not that different from what English speakers might do with close friends
  • With friends, calling the person by their nickname is also fairly normal way to greet them. Most Chinese friend circles have nicknames for everyone, usually picked by their friends. Sometimes it’s based on their Chinese name, sometimes just an English name, and other times something wacky and funny based on some inside joke. These nicknames can serve as greetings, as well. A person’s real full Chinese name carries an air of formality and close friends seldom call each other by their real full name.

Note that “吃了吗?Chī le ma” is an old style greeting and is used less and less in nowadays. But “你好 Nǐ hǎo” will not be regarded as a “fake” greeting, especially when you are a foreigner, it’ll be accepted gladly.

2. Q: How difficult is it to live in China’s major cities as a foreigner if you don’t know Mandarin?

It depends on what you mean by “live.” If your goal is to feed and clothe yourself, participate in social events with other expats, and work at a job where no Mandarin is required (foreign companies, English teaching, etc.) In other words, if you speak no Mandarin, you can sort of create an English-speaking bubble universe for yourself inside China. A lot of people pretty much do that and are happy with it.

If, instead, you want to see China from the point of view of the locals or participate in local life — that is, become a fully-engaged member of your new home’s society — you won’t get very far with just English. You will get a pretty different take on current events or Chinese culture from a migrant laborer over a nighttime snack of roasted lamb from a street vendor than you will from a college-educated, English-fluent Chinese professional at an expat cafe. Without Mandarin you won’t be able to watch the local TV shows your Chinese friends are talking about, or read the latest bestselling books.

Your mobility will also be pretty limited; your ability to go out and explore random places around the country will not be great. And of course everything will be much more expensive since you’ll only be able to access services aimed at rich-by-Chinese-standards foreigners.

The above two paragraphs probably sound pretty negative, but again, it just depends on what your goals and expectations are.

Grammar

3.Q:What are the most interesting points of Chinese grammar?

A: Flexibility – compared to other languages, Chinese grammar strikes me as very loose.
There is a “general” structure to a sentence to follow
(Subject+Time+Location+Verb+Object), and yet you can re-arrange words in almost any order and it will still be correct (eg. “I read this book” could also be said “this book I read” or even “read this book I”). The only thing you change is which part of the sentence is most important.

Lack of tenses – Past present or future? Verbs never change, no tenses, no conjugation, nothing. The only way to distinguish is context, like by specifying a time for the verb.

The all-powerful “了” – Easily the most complicated aspect of all Chinese grammar: how to properly use the character “le”. Beginners are tempted to interpret it as “this sentence is now past tense”, but it’s more accurate to say that the character signifies “there has been a change”. Still, what it really means depends on its placement – after a verb, at the end of a sentence, some other random place? Entire dissertations have been written on this character. It’s one of those things that you just have to know by intuition.

Measure words – You can’t just say “three pens” or “fifteen pictures”, it’s “three ZHI pens” or “fifteen ZHANG pictures”. You have to use a measure word to signify that you’re counting something, and every type of object may have a different measure word. And if you use the right measure word you can often omit the object itself and still be understood. (eg. How many pens do you want? “three ZHI”)

Certain words change the tone of your conversation – In English if you want to ask a question, you raise your tone on the last syllable of the sentence. But Chinese is a tonal language, raising the tone would change the very word you’re trying to use. So instead, you add an extra character to the end of your sentence, “吗”, to signify that you’ve asked a question. Similarly, if in English you wanted to speak kindly, or aggressively, you just change your tone of voice. But in Chinese, you add words instead. A “吧” at the end of your sentence means you’re offering a suggestion instead of a command, even if the tone of voice sounds harsh. This can create a lot of confusion for foreigners, who might listen to two Chinese people shouting at each other and be told they’re actually having a polite conversation.

Repeating words – I’ve always found this kind of fun. Repeating a word or character is a common way of emphasizing it. If “gaoxing” means happy, then “gaogao xingxing” means “super happy”. “Chi” means eat, but you can say “chi chi chi” to emphasize that you really want the other person to eat something…. or it might also mean that you’re eating a huge quantity of food… Similarly, you don’t “take a look”, you “look a look”. You don’t indignantly ask “What are you looking at?”, you ask “Look what look?”. Yes, there is a full art to repeating characters.

Chinese Characters

4.Q: Why should I learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

A: I think that you should definitely learn to write a few dozens characters by hand. Thus you will understand the way it works, the radicals, the phonetic and the ideographic parts of a Chinese character, the discipline it requires, the difficulties that arise. Calligraphy is a great art and exercise for the mind. It would be a loss not to learn to handwrite at least a few characters.

The problem is when you have time constraints and learning to write characters by hand is done at the detriment of other aspects of the language.

In my opinion, priority should be given to reading over writing, it will be great if you can achieve both of course.
In most instances, and considering the availability of electronic devices, it is better to be able to read 3,500 characters and to be able to write by hand only 100 of them rather than being able to handwrite and read 1,000 characters altogether. In the former case you will be very comfortable reading any written material in Chinese, in the latter one you will be a diligent student with little efficiency in daily life. This roughly one (pronunciation + meaning + writing) versus three and a half (pronunciation + meaning only) proportion is more or less what I have experienced.

General Chinese

5.Q:What are your methods to remember Chinese characters, phrases and terms?

A. The key is to realize Chinese is very combinatorial.
Basic characters are made of strokes. There are only a dozen of strokes.

Compound characters are made of 2~3 basic characters, or variants of them (aka radicals). The meaning/pronunciation of each basic character/radical usually contributes to the meaning/pronunciation of the compound character. There are only tens of those common radicals.

Words/Phrases are made of characters, usually only two to four of them. Chinese is good at recycling old concepts to construct new ones, instead of creating them out of thin air. For example, computer in Chinese literally means “electronic brain”. Furthermore, “electricity” in Chinese derives from its older meaning “lightning”, which is still in use today. Use your wildest imagination to make associations.

Therefore, instead of memorizing words, phrases and terms as individual entities, try to analyze their components and identify the connections underlying their shapes and meanings. This way, when you learn one word, you implicitly obtain a lot of knowledge about many other words. It will pay off in the long run. Flash card is probably a good way to learn English, but less so for Chinese because it cuts off the latent relationships among Chinese characters.
The key is not brute-force memorization (you may have to do it occasionally for the few exceptions), but to draw connections.

6. Q:What are some of the best resources for learning classical Chinese?

The question in the context is for advanced Chinese learners.
The resources should preferably be in Chinese or English.
An obvious example would be 四书五经, but I’m also very interested in modern literature of the field and study guides.

Furthermore, the eventual learning goal is actually writing in classical Chinese, not just reading and comprehension. So I welcome resources on grammar and syntax.

A: Even in Chinese-speaking countries today, high school and university classes on Classical Chinese focus on reading comprehension instead of composition. Students are typically presented with a Classical Chinese passage, but the questions and answers on it are in Modern Chinese. However, like any other written language, you can always practice your composition skills as your reading ability improves.

In my opinion, the best English-language resource to begin studies in Classical Chinese is A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese (2007) by Paul Rouzer. Each of the 40 lessons presents a real passage from literature, which get increasingly complex as the book progresses. Rouzer then provides English definitions of the new vocabulary, explanations of grammatical points, and occasionally historical or cultural background necessary to understand the text. Finally, there are reading and writing exercises to practice the material covered in the lesson.

Interestingly, Rouzer does not assume the reader already knows Modern Chinese, though he does point out differences between the two when it might be confusing. (For example, 「走」 means “to walk” in Modern Chinese, but “to run” in Classical Chinese.) Furthermore, pronunciations of all characters are given in three languages: Modern (Mandarin) Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. In fact, Rouzer explicitly states in the introduction that his goal is to teach Classical Chinese as a language in its own right rather than as a more “refined” version of Modern (Colloquial) Chinese, even though, in practice, that is how Classical Chinese is used today.

In the book, Rouzer sometimes cites the more advanced book, Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar (1996) by Edwin Pulleyblank, which is supposed to be the authoritative English-language resource on Classical Chinese grammar. However, this book seems to be intended for professional linguists and scholars of the Chinese Learning as opposed to enthusiastic amateurs.

The final reference I’d recommend is An Introduction to Literary Chinese: Revised Edition (2004) by Michael Fuller. It is structured somewhat differently from Rouzer: Whereas Rouzer’s lessons are consistently organized around passages, Fuller focuses almost exclusively on grammar in the first few lessons, then provides texts of increasing complexity in the remainder of the book. Although Rouzer’s passages are better chosen from a pedagogical perspective (each lesson tends to use many characters taught in earlier lessons), Fuller’s grammatical explanations are more complete and coherent.

These were some of great insights to different aspects Chinese culture and we hope you learned something new from these answers. If you are interested or want to ask a different question about the China, go to Quora.com or our forum and discover what you are curious about. Your curiosity will lead you to great answers, so enjoy the new resource with your Chinese studies and have fun learning.

Rita Zhang

Rita is a professional Mandarin teacher, has been teaching more than 8 years. She enjoys digging more about Chinese grammar and culture work and helping more learners. Now she is working at the one-on-one online Chinese school TouchChinese.

Back To Top