Mandarin Language Basics and How it Can Help You Learn About Chinese Culture
In today’s globalized world, the interconnection between countries is getting narrower every day and the ability to establish relationships with people from different places is an extremely useful skill.
Language isn’t only a means of communication but also contains a significant imprint of our culture and determines our way of thinking and relating to one another.
In this article, I want to use examples to demonstrate how learning the basics of the Mandarin language is a starting point for understanding China’s way of thinking and ancient culture.
The importance of homonyms in Chinese culture
Chinese phonetics is relatively simple compared to other languages. That means that despite being a tonal language, the number of possible sounds is very small. This doesn’t mean that Chinese phonetics is easy but rather quite the contrary, as many sounds are very similar to one another.
Without counting tones, in Chinese, there exist approximately 400 possible syllables, which is much less than in English, for example, which has more than 10,000 possible syllables, or Spanish, with more than 2000. If you combine this with the fact that the basic unit of the Chinese language – the character – is monosyllabic, the possibility that homonyms (words with the same sound but a different meaning) or parnoyms (similar sounds whose writing and meaning is different) exist is very high.
Homonyms and paronyms have had a great influence on Chinese culture and beliefs. Below I give some of the most relevant examples.
In Chinese, numbers are very symbolic, and each is associated with a meaning based on its homonymy with other words. The numbers 4 and 8 are without a doubt the most important.
In Chinese, the number four (四, sì) has a pronunciation that is very similar to “to die” (死, sǐ), and the only difference is the tone. This is why in China, the number is seen as a bad omen and is avoided whenever possible.In China, it’s common to see buildings that have no fourth floor (and no floors that contain the number 4), or people avoiding doing important things on dates that contain the number 4.
The number eight (八, bā), on the contrary, is considered the lucky number par excellence. Its pronunciation is similar to “wealth, fortune and prosperity” (發, fā). In addition, 88 has a similar shape to the character 囍 (xǐ, double happiness), which is very common at weddings.The presence of this symbolism in Chinese society is very pervasive. For example, people are willing to pay very large amounts of money to have telephone numbers or license plates that contain a lot of eights. Another clear example was the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which started at exactly 8:08 in the evening on the date 08/08/2008.
Although these two examples are the most relevant, in Chinese, each number is associated with a meaning, and choosing a date for an important event such as a wedding can be a difficult task.
New Year’s traditions
Chinese New Year is a time of traditions and superstitions, in which homonymy plays an essential role in good omens.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve or Chuxi (除夕), certain foods have to be on the table due to their symbolism.
Dumplings or 饺子 (jiǎozi) are an essential dish, especially in northern China, not only because they are a food in which the entire family participates, but also due to their symbolism. 饺子 has a pronunciation which is almost identical (only the tone changes) to 交子 jiāozi, which means “to change year” in old Chinese.
The pronunciation of chicken in Chinese, jí (鸡), is very similar to吉 (jī), which means good luck. Because of this, New Year’s dinners tend to contain at least one chicken dish.
Fish in Chinese is pronounced yú (鱼), which is exactly the same as 余, which means abundance, because of which the presence of fish on New Year’s Eve indicates the desire for the family to not lack anything the following year.
Another example of homonymy during New Year’s traditions is found in the decorations that Chinese families place on the door to their house. During New Year’s festivities, Chinese people usually stick a poster with the character 福 (fú, good luck) upside down on their door.
The reason why is that upside down in Chinese is 倒, which has exactly the same pronunciation (dào) as 到, which means “to arrive.” In other words, by inverting the character 福, they are asking for good luck to come to the family.
Pro-Tip for studying Chinese using YouTube
If you’re interested in Chinese food, YouTube has 1000s of hours of videos about delicious Chinese cuisine that you can import into LingQ and study the text, listen to the audio, and easily look up new words.
Here’s a video I recommend that shows you how to import YouTube content into LingQ.
The use of Chengyu (idioms)
Idioms or Chengyu (成语, Chéngyǔ) are verily commonly used in modern Chinese, and are strongly linked to culture and history. The majority of these expressions consist of four characters and have a legend behind them. Below are two examples:
This literally means horse horse tiger tiger, although its real meaning is “more or less” or “careless.” This Chengyu is one of the first ones that you learn because of its simplicity and frequent use. There are numerous versions of the story associated with this Chengyu, all of which are related to a drawing with a tiger’s head and horse’s body. Some people also believe that the origin of 马马虎虎 lies in the difficulty of choosing between these two animals, which are highly valued in Chinese culture. The characters are at times opposite according to the Chinese horoscope. While the tiger is associated with ambition and leadership, the horse is associated with freedom and self-sufficiency.
While this Chengyu isn’t as common, the story related to this idiom is very illustrative. 沉鱼落雁 literally means “fish sinking goose falling,” but its real meaning is that of a very beautiful woman. This Chengyu is related to the legends of two of the four great beauties of classic Chinese, 西施 (Xīshī) and 王昭君 (Wáng Zhāojūn). Legend tells that Xishi was so beautiful that when she would go out onto the balcony to gaze at the lake (West Lake in Hangzhou), the fish would forget to swim and sink. In the case of Zhaojun, the legend tells that during her trip to meet her future husband, she stopped to play the lute, and a flock of geese, struck by her beauty, forgot to flap their wings and fell to the ground.
Greetings in Chinese
Greetings in Chinese are also a good example of how culture and beliefs are highly pervasive in the language.
In Chinese, like in other languages, there are different ways of greeting someone, such as 你好 (nǐ hǎo, hi), 您好 (nín hǎo, formal hello), 早上好, (zǎoshang hǎo, good morning) or 你好吗 (nǐ hǎo ma, how are you). However, all of these greetings (maybe except for 早上好), are used with strangers, in formal situations or as a way to establish a certain degree of distance with the other person.
There are another type of greetings which are very common and are used between people that know each other and want to demonstrate a certain proximity to the other person. Here are the four most common:
（你）去哪儿？(nǐ qù nǎ’er?, where are you going?)
This greeting is very related to the Chinese idea of being educated and showing closeness. For Chinese people, demonstrating interest in other peoples’ lives is a way of being educated and showing closeness. When a Chinese person asks you “Where are you going?” they generally aren’t really interested in knowing where, but rather are giving you a friendly greeting, and it doesn’t really matter how you answer. Normally, a short answer that doesn’t have to be true is expected, something simple such as “I’m going to work,” “I’m going to school” or “I’m going shopping.” This type of greeting exemplifies one of the cultural differences that tends to be the first noted by people that come from cultures where privacy is very important. These people often feel overwhelmed by the number of personal questions that Chinese people ask when they just meet you. For Chinese people, showing interest in your personal life is a way of being educated, as opposed to being a gossip.
你吃了吗？(Nǐ chīle ma?, have you eaten yet?)
Just like the previous greeting, this is a very common way of saying “hi” between acquaintances and friends that doesn’t imply anything, and comes with a quick answer such as “I haven’t yet eaten” (还没有吃) or “I’ve already eaten, and you?” (吃了，你呢？). This also contains another cultural aspect – the huge importance of food in Chinese culture. Just like Mediterranean cultures, Chinese people are proud of their cuisine and food is the most common way to socialize. It’s also common for important decisions to be made or business deals to be closed during meals.
最近好吗？(zuì jìn hào mǎ, how have you been lately?)
This is a very friendly greeting which like the previous ones doesn’t come with an extensive answer. “Good,” “Not bad” or even an onomatopoeia is enough.
好久不见！(hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn!, long time no see!)
This is a common greeting between old friends that shows a lot of closeness and a desire to see you more frequently
Learn Chinese Greetings on LingQ
LingQ is packed with 1000s of hours of content that you can choose from, including a course that teaches Chinese greetings and goodbyes. What’s great about this course is you can listen to the dialogue to help you understand the different tones being used and also save your new vocabulary and pull up LingQ’s available dictionaries with ease.
Connection between Chinese grammar and writing and the Chinese way of thinking
It’s obvious that in addition to containing a significant cultural imprint, language also has a large influence on people’s way of thinking and relating to one another. In this sense, Chinese isn’t an exception.
Learning how to write Chinese is a difficult and repetitive task and an incredible memory exercise. Because of this, it isn’t strange that many Chinese people have an incredible memory and accept to complete repetitive tasks without too many complaints.
However, writing Chinese characters also requires diligence and following clear rules. Because of this, it’s common for many Chinese people to not feel very comfortable with tasks that require a certain creative component.
On the other hand, Chinese grammar doesn’t tend to be very strict, and context plays an important role. In the same sense, vocabulary can be vague at times and have certain room for interpretation. Because of this, it isn’t difficult to see why Chinese people tend to be somewhat indirect, opposed to being straightforward. You often have to read between the lines to understand what the person speaking to you actually wants to say.
Learning Mandarin Chinese can be a major benefit
This article is a little glimpse into how culture influences the Chinese language and vice versa. Learning Chinese isn’t only about learning a new form of communication, but also about delving into a culture that dates back thousands of years. Also, as China’s economy continues to grow, the language can be a huge benefit if you’re looking to do international business.
Sergi worked in Beijing for five years and China changed his life. Upon returning home, he left his job as a researcher to dedicate his time to sharing what he learned in the Middle Kingdom. He is currently the editor of the website Sapore Di Cina, intended for people who would like to go to China to live or travel, and is the co-founder of EsChina Space, a Chinese language and cuisine academy in Barcelona.