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Learning Chinese - Would You Dare?

Today, out of the blue altogether, I was gifted a big English-Chinese and Chinese-English dictionary. I've been learning Chinese from the very beginning of my stay in Donghai, sometimes with a teacher, other times on my own, from various books and from the Internet, but I must admit it's going very slowly. In case you wonder... it's not so much because it's that difficult, but rather due to my lack of discipline in practising it every day, as I often preach about learning English. So, today would be a good starting point for this subject - hopefully it'll turn out to be a good motivator.

Here is an introduction to the history of Chinese calligraphy. It's not an original story, but I decided to share it here with you for two reasons: it's short and accurate and it gives a good indication of the level of English the Chinese learn in grade 10. This is only half of an exercise for designing a booklet - the other article was on the Braille tactile writing system. The girl who lent me her books (age 16) told me how they start their classes at 7:30am and go home to sleep at 10pm, with a lunch break of 2 hours... every day!! When I showed my amazement she admitted that ... well, once a month they're allowed a break of 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon, but after that they need to return to school to finish their scheduled classes.

The Development of Chinese Characters

The Chinese language differs from Western languages in that, instead of an alphabet, it uses characters which stand for ideas, objects or deeds. Chinese words are formed by putting together different characters. In many cases, a single character can also make up a word. The history of the Chinese language can be examined by looking at how these characters developed.

Chinese writing began thousands of years ago. According to an ancient story, a man named Cang Jie invented Chinese writing. One winter day while he was hunting, he saw the tracks of animals in the snow and observed that the appearance of each one was different. Then he had the idea that he could use different shapes to represent different objects. The first Chinese characters were drawings of physical objects. Some characters have been simplified and others have been made more difficult over time. However, as a whole, the characters have developed from drawings into standard forms. The character for a mountain was at first three mountaintops together. This became one mountaintop and three lines, and over time turned into the character used nowadays.

Not all characters were developed from drawings of objects. Sometimes to express ideas, some characters were made by combining two or more characters together. For example, ‘rest’ was made up of the characters for a man and a tree. The character ‘prisoner’ was formed with a ‘man’ inside a square. Other characters were developed for directions and numbers. It is easy to distinguish their meaning by looking at them, for example, the characters for ‘up’ and ‘down’, which are opposites of each other.

Though these kinds of characters indicate meanings, one of their shortcomings is that they do not show how they should be pronounced. Therefore, a method was developed to have one part of a character indicates the meaning and the other suggests the pronunciation. Many Chinese characters used today were made this way.

In the 1950s the Chinese government introduced simplified Chinese characters and now they have widespread use in China’s mainland.

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