When I lived in China I often heard Chinese people claiming that their language is the most difficult in the world and expressing serious doubt that any foreigner could speak it. As is frequently the case with erroneous beliefs in China, the firmness of this delusion led them to refute the evidence of their own eyes and ears, in particular when they heard foreigners speaking Chinese well. I’m definitely not in the “speaking Chinese well” category, not even close. Nonetheless, even I often found that most people are China were happiest when I pretended that I couldn’t understand what they were saying in Chinese and I answered them in English, then they would pretend that they couldn’t understand what I’d said in English and reply in Chinese, and so forth.
Impertinent attempts by myself or other foreigners to actually converse in the impossible language would invariably be met with passive-aggressive hostility or outright mockery, and the better the foreigner was at Chinese the more they could expect to be derided and thwarted. I’ve never experienced anything like it, anywhere in the world. Not even in France.
All that said, there are some genuinely perplexing aspects of the Chinese language that have nothing to do with people in China being rude, xenophobic, narrow-minded dicks about it. Not all people in China are rude, xenophobic, narrow-minded dicks, for one thing. Some of them are very nice and these lovely people have a pretty good grip on how to live harmoniously in a world that has lots of different people in it, including white ghosts. In China I encountered a lot of utter arseholes but I also met some of the best humans I’ve ever met in my life. “Harmonious” is one of those words that’s very popular in China, incidentally, perhaps for the very reason that there’s precious little harmony in evidence these days, nor indeed has there ever been. Anyway, I’m getting distracted by my post-China traumatic stress disorder again…
The tones used to change the meaning of written Chinese words in speech are definitely perplexing to someone brought up with a European language. In standard Mandarin Chinese there are four, or five including the neutral, uninflected one. The others are 1 (¯ AKA macron, high and level, yin ping), 2 (´AKA acute accent, rising medium to high, yang ping), 3 (ˇAKA hacheck as used in Czech and other Eastern European languages, dipping from lowish then rising higher, shang), and 4 (` AKA grave accent, falling from high or “departing”, qu). And this fact leads to the real point of this post, such as it is, a piece of linguistic brain damage by Chao Yuen Ren:
Or ‘shi shi shi shi shi’. Yes, regardless of whether the word means “lion”, “poet”, “stone”, or something else, every word in this story (including the title) is pronounced “shi”, differentiated purely by varying tones. It’s also sometimes transliterated into Roman letters as “shih”, as in the lap dogs called Shih Tzu- “lion dog”. In written Chinese 施氏食獅史 at least makes some kind of grammatical sense. Spoken out loud it’s probably hard to parse even if it’s pronounced correctly: pronouncing it correctly in the first place is even harder. Transcribed into English it’s absurd, hence my interest in it. Chao was clearly a fan of cross-lingual gibberish, too: he translated ‘Jabberwocky’ into Chinese.
In a stone room lived the poet Shi,
He frequently went to the market to look for lions.
At 10 o’ clock, ten lions came to the market.
At the same hour, Shi was also at the market.
Seeing the ten lions, Shi relied upon his arrows
To make all ten lions die.
Shi picked up the ten lion corpses and put them in his stone room.
The stone room was damp, so Shi ordered his servant to wipe it.
As the stone room was being wiped, Shi started trying to eat the meat of the ten lions.
But at this meal time, he began to realise that the ten lion corpses
Were really ten stone lions.
Try to explain this affair!
I’ll be amazed if I haven’t made any mistakes in writing this out, but hey it’s the internet. I’m sure there won’t be any shortage of people ready to correct arrogant laowei trying to speak most difficult language in world.