G.E.M.鄧紫棋 – 差不多姑娘 (2019)

Looking for something to explain the rich meaning of the Chinese expression 差不多 I came across this videoclip by G.E.M.鄧紫棋 who raps about what she calls “差不多 girls”. The song 差不多姑娘 was published as part of the album City Zoo and is the only rap song on it. It seems the 差不多 in the lyrics has the meaning similar as in hard to keep apart. To better understand the lyrics you need to be familiar with Chinese internet slang and some other expressions that aren’t part of the standard HSK vocabulary. The combination of rhythm and rhyme do make things easier though…

差不多姑娘 – MISS SIMILAR

With Chinese-English subtitles

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

我回到差不多的家 躺在差不多的沙发
微博差不多的刷 都吃著差不多的瓜
那标题差不多的炸 八著差不多的卦
网友差不多的嘴弄脏了差不多的话

一条差不多的事业线 抓差不多的眼
看着差不多的留言 都是差不多的贱
到处差不多的Baby 比著差不多的基尼
举著差不多的V 挤著差不多的D

在差不多的街头 摆着差不多的Pose
跟差不多的潮流 整了差不多的Nose
交差不多的男友 走得差不多的Close
供差不多的楼 送差不多的Rose

跳着差不多的舞 扭著差不多的屁股
差不多的思路 嫌差不多的腿粗
看差不多的脸书 人差不多都想哭
女孩差不多的路 都差不多无助

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

都露著差不多的腰 Fake著差不多的微笑
撒著差不多的娇 关系差不多的靠
抱 差不多的大腿 语气差不多的骚
靠 差不多的方法 买了差不多的包

都逞著差不多的强 所以讲话差不多的呛
差不多思想 都有着差不多狭窄审美观
差不多的弹 差不多的赞
为差不多的闪光 差不多的忙

喝差不多的红酒 啃著差不多的肉
对差不多的镜头 演着差不多的秀
图差不多的修 修得差不多的瘦
身边差不多的密友 都是差不多的Low

OH 差不多的优越感 写在差不多的脸上
在差不多的机场 走差不多红的地毯
差不多的妆 差不多的浪
裙子差不多的短 家里差不多的脏

差不多的姑娘
追逐差不多的漂亮
她们差不多的愿望
牵着她们鼻子方向

差不多的你 差不多的我
差不多的她 差不多的傻
听着差不多的废话
差不多的那些乌鸦 又嘻嘻哈哈
吱吱又喳喳 都差不多的瞎
差不多姑娘 都土生土长 在有毒的土壤
差不多都曾对镜子里的自己失望
差不多都遗忘 没有武装的模样
这差不多的症状 夸张

而现在各位姑娘 这里我要分享
曾经的我都一样 有差不多的忧伤
差不多两个礼拜没有吃饭
差不多我就把命给送上
数不尽的差不多 都差不多
差不多 人生真的不该这么过
像我唱的那首歌 差不多的虚荣如果能够看破
只是差不多的那个 泡沫

Getting fluent in Mandarin: Underestimating the four tones

In the process of Mandarin learning you’re never “done”. That’s especially true for the four tones. This video by an Mandarin expert reminded me that the mā-má-mǎ-màway people typically think of the four tones is wrong. He reveals some other interesting things as well.

Mastering the tones

In this first episode of LeLe Linguistics, LeLe Farley walks you through “the first step” to achieving fluency in Chinese: mastering the tones.

LeLe Farley is a rising star on YouTube. What he has to say about learning Mandarin should be taken quite seriously, since his fluency in Mandarin and accurate pronunciation are outstanding and he doesn’t beat around the bush as to how he got there.

Who is LeLe Farley? In his own words: “Grew up in Texas, college in ATL, post grad in Beijing. Now, I’ve come to LaLaLand to try and make a name for myself as a Chinese English bilingual rapper and comedian. Banned in the PRC, but hope to return one day.”

He’s an interesting and wildly creative guy. Let’s examine his take on the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. He starts off debunking some common “misunderstandings” about them…

1. “Don’t think tones aren’t important”

YouTube comment: "I always loved those people who said they speak Chinese without the tones"

LeLe notes that many learners of Mandarin seem to think that tones aren’t that crucial to becoming fluent or that 差不多 (“almost right”) is good enough. Don’t believe Chinese people who complement you on your excellent 中文, he adds, most of the time they are just being polite – they might hardly understand what you’re saying.

Bottom line: hitting the tones right is essential for comprehension. You may not hear the difference, but they do. I don’t think LeLe means to say that you have to hit EVERY single tone a 100 percent right, but rather that you should put some real effort into it.

2. “Tones are not for beginners only…”

YouTube comment: "98 % of the foreigners learning Chinese can't get their tones right"

I argued in earlier post that it’s best practice to get the tones right from the start in drill-like fashion, meaning repeating nothing but tones and pinyin for at least two weeks. While I still think that’s extremely helpful and necessary, it’s just as important, as LeLe explains in his video, to keep at it. Instead of gradually lowering “tone quality standards” once you’ve finished base camp. I couldn’t agree more with his message that if tones don’t come natural to you, you have to learn them the hard way. A long-term endeavor that will involve getting your ego hurt from time to time again. This of course is not something that learners want to hear, but it’s the truth anyway.

3. “Don’t learn tones, learn tone combinations instead”

YouTube comment: "You just taught me more about the tones than my mainland Chinese teachers"
(16 tones = tone combinations)

LeLe emphasizes you shouldn’t just learn the four tones in isolation, but learn their frequent combinations. As most words in Mandarin consist of two syllables, this makes a lot of sense. These “basic units” keep coming back.

Although I don’t like this kind of diagrams much – they remind me of similar ones for German grammar – , the point is to memorize these tone patterns and – over time – store them as little soundbites in your brain. New vocabulary can be shaped and pronounced accordingly.

Mandarin tone patterns 16 + 4

The next step to sound even more native-like would be to put these words in a sentence, since they too typically exist in a larger unit.

4. “The third tone is the tricky one”

LeLe explains why the third tone and the 3-2-combo in particular is the nastiest one to most learners. Even many Chinese teachers seem to be confused about the exact pronunciation of the third tone. They may pronounce it correctly; explaining how it changes in certain combinations can be a problem though. As a student you probably don’t get the relevance of this at first. That’s why you have to keep at it while you advance, record yourself and mimic native speakers.

Further reading

The way the four tones are being taught is evolving as are the linguistics behind it. Equally important, in my opinion, are intonation, stress and rhythm which determine for a large part whether you sound “native” or not (imagine a foreigner speaking Mandarin with a French accent). How much time did your teacher(s) spend explaining these musical qualities?

By the way, LeLe Farley is not the first to come up with all this:

Learn tone patterns on YouTube

Good for practicing: In this video not merely the 4 tones are introduced, but the 16 frequent tone combinations are also covered at some length.

I hope you enjoyed this short article. Feel free to let me know your take on the four tones in the comments.

Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

It is said the best art comes from turmoil and hardship. This seems particularly true for Mainland Chinese cinema which for decades had gone practically unnoticed, but reemerged in the relatively liberal eighties and nineties, transforming long years of revolution, war and chaos into internationally acclaimed works of art.

If you’re only into the newest movies from China, you’d best stop reading here. This is a list of mostly older Mainland Chinese movies I’ve come to like and recommend to anyone interested in China.

Although the reality presented in these films may seem very different from the China we see today, these lived experiences continue to shape China. Since this blog is mainly about learning Mandarin I’ve added my estimation of the difficulty level for each film.

Included on my list:

  • Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)
  • To live – 活着 (1994)
  • Coming home – 归来 (2014)
  • Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)
  • The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)
  • Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003
  • Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

Concubines! Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman (played by Gong Li) who is forced to become one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. The four concubines “compete” with each other in order to be the master’s favorite taitai and gain the privileges that come with that status.

The movie can be read in many ways. In my eyes it’s mainly an condemnation of traditional patriarchal society and capitalism where women are sold as slaves. But Lantern can also be seen as a symbolic depiction of any power system or government that demands absolute of obedience of its subordinates by rewarding those who comply and punishing those who don’t. That’s how the system maintains itself and the master – whose face remains invisible – gets his way. Power and wealth will be shared only if you comply with its rules. North-Korea and other totalitarians regimes come to mind.

The film was directed by China’s most renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou and has been banned for a certain period in China after it came out.

Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Hibiscus Town was directed by “third generation” Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin and probably the first film to look back upon the upheavals of the cultural revolution. Actually the story – which is set in a small Hunan village about sixty years ago – is still very relevant today as radical ideologies demanding absolute equality have all but disappeared.

Hibiscus Town tells the story about the kindhearted and pretty Hu Yuyin who successfully sells a local variety of bean curd made from rice. She works hard and together with her husband Guigui manages to save enough money to build an impressive new house. During the Four Cleanups Movement of 1964 however, they suddenly see themselves denounced as “new rich peasants” who have to undergo some kind of punishment for their “reactionary” thinking and behavior.

The film – typically classified as a “scar drama” – was well received in China when it came out, but internationally still is not that well-known.

To Live – 活着 (1994)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better” – final line of Fugui.

I know of no other movie that gives a more lasting impression of China’s inner turmoil and life-changing revolutions in the past century than To Live. It’s yet another movie by Zhang Yimou. The storyline in one sentence: After Fugui and Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) lose their personal fortunes, they raise a family and survive difficult cultural changes during 1940s to 1970s China.

I was surprised to learn that the film was denied a theatrical release in mainland China by the authorities due to its “critical portrayal” of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Beautiful soundtrack by Zhao Jiping.

Coming home – 归来 (2014)

Full movie available here

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English / Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

This is probably the most tragic film about the cultural revolution directed by Zhang Yimou (as if To Live wasn’t heart-wrenching enough). Coming Home is actually a love story, but not a happy one: Lu and Feng (played by Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner during the cultural revolution. He finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife no longer recognizes him! Lu is determined not to give up and desperately tries to reawaken his wife’s memory.

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese, songs can be difficult to understand, partly a “silent” movie)

This is a rather sombre and slow movie by Chen Kaige, another member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Yellow Earth focuses on the story of a communist soldier who is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Communist Revolution. There he stays with a peasant family and learns that the happy songs he was sent to collect do not exist; the songs he finds are about hardship and suffering. He returns to the army, but promises to come back for the young girl, Cuiqiao, who has been spell-bound by his talk of the freedom women have under communist rule and who wants to join the Communist Army. The story relies on images more than on words.

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Advanced (partly non-standard Chinese)

Another one by Zhang Yimou starring his favorite actress Gong Li. The film tells the story about a desperate quest for justice. A peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives in a rural area of China. When her husband is kicked in the groin by the village head, Qiu Ju, despite her pregnancy, travels to a nearby town, and later a big city to deal with its bureaucrats and find justice. One thing that makes The Story of Qiu Ju stand out is the fact that many of the street scenes were filmed with a hidden camera which gives an authentic picture of daily life during the Deng Xiaoping era – a whole different approach compared to Zhang’s To Live and Raise the Red Lantern.

Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003

Rating: 8 out of 10.

This rather bleak but internationally well received movie was directed by Li Yang who has been “controversial” in China for addressing China’s social problems in his highly realistic films.

Two Chinese coal miners have hit upon the perfect scam: murder one of their fellow mine workers, make the death look like an accident, and extort money from the boss to keep the incident hushed up. For their latest “mark,” they choose a naive teenager from a small village, and as they prepare to carry out their newest plan, things start to get complicated. The story literally takes place in the underworld where people do the most ruthless and evil things for money.

Maybe not very surprisingly since it highlights a dark side of Chinese society, Blind Shaft has not been approved for release in China.

This is merely short list of Mainland Chinese movies I’ve been wanting to share on my blog for some time. If you have any suggestions for Mainland Chinese films you missed in this list please let me know : )

For more Mainland Chinese films from the 80’s visit this page.

Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese: “it’ll be fun, they said”

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Reading is key to expanding your vocabulary. I finally felt ready for reading a serious work of fiction in Chinese. Not an abridged version, not a children’s edition, but the real thing. This is how it went…

Some thoughts on reading in Chinese

Not at your level

Most of the content you find free available on the web isn’t at your particular level and doesn’t necessarily fit in with the vocabulary and sentence patterns you’ve covered so far. Graded readers are the best solution, but their pricey – you want to read more than just one – and chiefly written for beginners and lower intermediates. So once you’re past that level, there’s practically everything and nothing you could pick to read.

Don’t read about the southward expansion during the Qin Dynasty

If you do wish to continue reading, best pick a topic you’re familiar with. If it’s a book, choose one you know by heart. I’ve been looking for The Hobbit in Mandarin for example. Since I’ve read it in Dutch and English, I’m already familiar with the names, places and storyline. I merely have to get used to Gandalf speaking Mandarin to Bilbo and the dwarfs.

Weixin Dushu app by Tencent
The app Weixin DuShu by Tencent

Weixin DuShu – 微信读书

I used the app called Weixin DuShu, produced by Tencent and somewhat similar to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s usually linked to a WeChat account and not that well-known outside of China. It’s main attraction: it gives access to a great number of Chinese books.

Tencent…?

Tencent, by the way, was the company that released a mobile game titled “Clap for Xi Jinping: An Awesome Speech“, in which players have 19 seconds to generate as many claps as possible for Xi. Another interesting fact is that they got this big mainly by piracy or like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group stated, “The problem with Tencent is the lack of innovation; all of their products are copies.” Worst of all, the Chinese company plays a major role in mass surveillance and implementing censorship in China.

The app itself

Weixin DuShu is not optimized for language learning, but it does allow you to look up words in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary or underline certain characters. It’s not completely free. You enjoy unlimited access to the Weixin library for about a month, than you have to pay to read on. This can be avoided if others send you a book invitation and it seems you then can keep on reading for “free” more or less permanently.

Some features I find useful:

  • Change the font size: reading slightly larger characters can make reading a lot more comfortable.
  • Search the Chinese-Chinese dictionary or search the web: unfortunately, no English translation included.
  • Listening: the AI voice isn’t even that bad! You can listen entire chapters conveniently on your phone or tablet.
  • Offline-mode: continue reading when you’re offline.
  • Comment function: Nobody likes library books with little scribbles all over, but in this app everybody can comment on a word or passage. Not essential, but nice anyway.

Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese

Now to the book itself. Reading the first volume of the series proofed more difficult than I thought. Except for graded readers I’d never read a whole novel written in Mandarin before. Here’s what I struggled with:

Unknown vocabulary…

It’s words like usurper (篡夺者), lord (贵族), bastard (私生子女), armor (甲胄), queen mother (母后) that are new to me. The same goes for vocabulary like loot (洗劫), heir (继承人), the king slayer (弑君者), pray (祝祷) and many other less relevant words.

Chengyu or Chinese idioms

If you’re familiar with the mostly four character idioms: great. If you aren’t, you’re left to guess. Sometimes they could just mean anything! Here’s a selection of the chengyu I encountered while reading the first chapters:

  • 措手不及 – be caught unprepared
  • 大失所望 – to one’s great disappointment
  • 摇摇摆摆 – swaggering
  • 视如无睹 – take no notice of what one sees
  • 口无遮拦 – have a loose tongue
  • 自然而然 – naturally
  • 甜言蜜语 – sweet words and honeyed phrases
  • 野心勃勃 – be overweeningly ambitious
  • 名垂青史 – go down in history
  • 忠心耿耿 – loyal and devoted

Much description…

Although compared to J.R.R. Tolkien George R.R. Martin’s novels are written more straightforwardly and the narration flows much quicker, the author does have lots of heroes and history to introduce to get the story going. Martin takes his time describing swords and the history and mindset of the royal houses. Sometimes minor details contain important clues about places, characters or events. This doesn’t make for easy reading.

The names…

With every royal house having its own family history, the story shifting back and forth between different places and protagonists, remembering all the names is tricky enough, even in English. But in Chinese the who-is-who turns into a guessing game of a whole different category. Sometimes you don’t even recognize the characters at hand as a name. Judging from the sound of the Pinyin you may connect “Nai de” to “Ned” and “Shi ta ke” to “Stark” or – more likely – you don’t and wonder who the hell “Qiong en Xue nuo” is (it’s Jon Snow) and why a person named “Robb” should be called “Luo bai” and so on.

Like others before me I don’t get the “system” behind the translations, but I accept them. A few more examples:

  • 艾德·史塔克
  • 凱特琳·史塔克
  • 羅柏·史塔克
  • 珊莎·史塔克
  • 艾莉亞·史塔克
  • 布蘭·史塔克
  • 席恩·葛雷喬伊
  • 瓊恩·雪諾
  • 提利昂·蘭尼斯特
  • 詹姆·蘭尼斯特
  • 瑟曦·蘭尼斯特

A longer list you can find here. I’ll put out the English names in the comments later on.

Overall difficulty

For an upper intermediate learner like me (HSK 5 / 6 – for what it’s worth) who has watched the entire series the novel is still astonishingly tough to read in Mandarin. I knew it could be done though and I gradually picked up speed, combining and switching between two reading styles: Intensive reading for detail, extensive reading for speed and breadth. I still progressed rather slowly. I do envy those who can read Chinese as fast as their native language, but you gotta start somewhere and nobody said it was going to be easy. I did learn lots of new details that somehow didn’t make it into the series, not to mention words like bastard (私生子女!) and king slayer (弑君者!) in Chinese.

Do you have any thoughts on reading in Chinese? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

How much Mandarin can you listen to in one month?

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For one month I digitally teamed up with like-minded spirits for a Mandarin learning challenge. This is what I learned.

Hacking Chinese challenges

Maybe the biggest problem of self-studying a language in the long run is to keep the flame of motivation burning. Especially if you’re not perceiving any clear sign of progress – no matter how hard you are pushing forward – and no one of your friends shows any particular interest in your “hobby”…

The truth is most people can’t relate to language learning as an activity to voluntarily engage yourself in. To stop feeling that you’re completely wasting your time, it’s worth looking for like-minded spirits who share your passion. They can also support you to tackle another issue: to set achievable goals and make you see light at the end of the tunnel.

This is where the Hacking Chinese challenges come in. The basic idea is to digitally team up with other motivated people for – what could be called – a Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal, make it public and give it what you got.

The June 2020 challenge was all about listening, an activity which is (arguably) more laid-back than writing, reading and speaking, since all you have to do is sponge up spoken words.

Set a goal and share it

I updated my personal goal twice: from a modest 15 hours to 20, up to a more ambitious 25 hours eventually, cause I wasn’t sure how much time I could find to effectively listen between work and family duties.

How high you set your goal doesn’t really matter, as long as it is reasonable and challenging at the same time, which is easier said than done. Listening about an hour everyday, I reached my goal of 25 listening hours surprisingly smoothly – that equals more than one day of quality Mandarin input. It was the perfect excuse to spend more time on YouTube. Other participants managed 30 or even 50 hours.

Finding suitable listening materials

Finding the right stuff to listen to was a challenge in itself. For an intermediate learner like me randomly tuning in to a Chinese radio station or listening to some podcast I’ve never heard of before doesn’t cut it. The Chinese audiobook called “十年徒步中国” I tried proved to be too difficult to enjoy. I missed major information about Lei Diansheng’s hiking adventure and pretty soon lost track of the supposedly simple story line.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, personal record

The popular YouTube Channel Mandarin Corner worked best for me. I really enjoyed all the Mandarin subtitled interviews with taxi drivers, tattoo artists and the like. Very authentic and perfect when you’re not yet ready for non-subtitled, high speed Chinese radio and podcasts.

A little more challenging were the speeches from TEDxTaipei with a great variety of topics and (mostly Taiwanese) speakers to choose from.

One of the bests things of teaming up with others is that you can share ideas and resources: Popup Chinese and Learning Chinese through Stories are podcasts I hadn’t checked out before. The same goes for the Chinese podcast websites Qingting.fm and lizhi.fm. There’s definitely no lack of Chinese audio materials. It’s just where to find something that matches your level and interests.

Check your progress and the leaderboard

We live in a KPI-obsessed world. That’s not always a bad thing. The performance chart keeps track of your progress, so you know if you’re on schedule or not. I’d normally never do this kind of thing, but I realized it does help to stay focused on your goal. Plus, it feels reassuring to know you’re on schedule and delivering a solid performance.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, performance chart
My performance chart: my goal was to do at least 25 hours of Mandarin-listening

There’s an element of competition to it as well. Open the leaderboard and see how you have been performing compared to the others, with the score standing for hours spent listening. It’s not about being the best of course. Far more important is to motivate yourself and others. As you can see everybody did quite well.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, leaderboard

It worked

By joining this Mandarin Challenge, I studied far more productively than I could have done on my own. I know I can be goal-orientated and self-motivated to a certain degree, but being a part of a group of enthusiastic people with a shared objective felt like shifting gears. It was also refreshing to focus on one language skill for an entire month.

That’s why I am really grateful to Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese for organizing this Mandarin adventure. If you’re interested in participating, you can check the upcoming challenges.