Chinese Languages & Mandarin Chinese

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Chinese language is one of the most concise and systematic languages in the world; its written form is also one of the most beautiful calligraphy arts. Oftentimes the Westerns unfairly or unknowingly label Chinese as one of the most difficult languages to learn, partly because Chinese was a less-commonly taught language and each Chinese character may contain seemingly complex strokes compared to its counterpart English vocabulary. 

After considering the following aspects and starting learning Chinese a little bit, we will realize Chinese is a very concise and systematic language. 

 


Less Strict Grammar


In Chinese, we do not have past, present, and future tenses. We also do not have singular and plural nouns, articles (a, an,  and the), sexes, and strict grammars. Yet the Chinese can still clearly tell those differences in contexts. (This does not mean that Chinese languages do not have grammar at all.)

 


Minimum Number of Vocabularies


The number of frequently used Chinese characters is about 3,000 to 5,000 in our modern society. One or several characters may be combined to refer to a noun, a verb, or a phrase which are usually self-explaining (though they look seemingly complex and longer compared to English counterparts). Usually a person who has graduated from a junior high school (15 years old) no longer needs to carry a Chinese dictionary to read articles of literature, philosophy, math, physics, chemistry, engineering, business, and etc. As a result, we seldom memorize new vocabularies since then. The systematic design of Chinese language compensates for the seemingly complex number of strokes in Chinese characters, and in return, makes many glossaries in different fields of knowledge direct and self-explaining. Usually it is not necessary to look up in the Chinese dictionary except for rare cases.

Most people will need to know at least 20,000 English vocabularies to read the Times Magazine or other professional journals in many fields of knowledge. On the other hand, the average Chinese can read all fields of knowledge and understand the words without looking up in a Chinese dictionary since many, but not all, Chinese words or terms are self-evident in meanings when they are combined by a few characters (usally two to four.)

Basic examples:

Numbers

Chinese

Months

Months in Chinese

Days of the Week

Days in Chinese

1

January

一月

Monday

星期一

2

February

二月

Tuesday

星期二

3

March

三月

Wednesday

星期三

4

April

四月

Thursday

星期四

5

May

五月

 

Friday

星期五

6

June

六月

Saturday

星期六

7

July

七月

Sunday

星期日

8

August

八月

9

September

九月

10

October

十月

11

十一

November

十一月

12

十二

December

十二月

 


Less Space and Length in Printed Paragraphs


Though the combined characters may look more complex and tedious than the counterpart English vocabularies or words, the total number of Chinese strokes in a paragraph may be close to the number of English letters of exactly the same contexts.
Concerning space conservation, printed Chinese is probably the most compact language on earth.

The classical Chinese ( 文言文 ), though not used in modern conversations and in the fields of today's sciences, is still widely used in Chinese literature, philosophy, and art studies. They are even more concise as compared to modern Chinese used in our daily life. However, it's not easy to understand or decipher some articles written in classical Chinese.

 

Sample 1: Translated from Classical Chinese Style to English


歐陽詢書論 Oh-Yang Sheun's Essay On Calligraphy


澄神靜慮,端己正容,秉筆思生,臨池志逸。
Be clear in mind and deliberated in serenity with the body well seated and at ease. Have the idea in mind before we take up the brushes so imagination and aspiration can flash during writing.

虛拳直腕,指齊掌空,意在筆前,文向思後。
With the fist hollow and the wrist level, and the fingers firm and the palm void, start to write as the mind commands before writing the brushstrokes with the artistic ideas already conceptualized. 

分間布白,勿令偏側。
Be very careful with the general shape and spacing, and do not let the character tilt sideways.

墨淡則傷神彩,絕濃必滯鋒毫。
Too pale an ink will dim the characters' luster and downgrade the spirit, too thick a one will obstruct the brush motion.

肥則為鈍,瘦則露骨,勿使傷于軟弱,不須怒降為奇。
A broad fleshy stroke looks gross; a very slim one exposes the "bones." Do not spoil a character by over-pliancy, nor exaggerate it with affected fury and quarrelsome characteristics.  

四面停勻,八邊具備,短長合度,粗細折中。
Let all four sides be evenly proportioned and all parts corroborated and coordinated in eight directions. Short and long strokes must be calculated in relation to one another, and compromising effects well balanced between the rough (or coarse) and delicate (or fine) strokes.

心眼準程,疏密欹正。
Mind and eye together should calculate and determine density or looseness of textures as well as upright or aslant inclinations.

筋骨精神,隨其大小。
The will and spirit of characters depend on the their proportions and sizes.

不可頭輕尾重,無令左短右長,斜正如人,上稱下載,東映西帶,氣宇融和,精神灑落。
It is fatal to place a light head on a heavy base (or to write a stroke, say a Vertical or a Horizontal, with a bulged head and a light tail) or to overly shorten the left side in relation to the right one. The stance of a character should be like that of a well-built man. Achieving these qualities by synchronizing the top portion with the well-supported bottom portion in coordination with well-fitted equilibrium of the the left (west) and right (east) parts will delight our mood in writing with comfort and light up our spirit.

省此微言,孰為不可也。
By thinking over and following my humble suggestions, there will be no reason for wasted time and failure - I doubt who cannot be good at calligraphy!   

 

 

Sample 2: Translated from Classical Chinese Style to English

 


夫篆刻豈小技乎?其中有書法、有意法、有刀法,三者不可不講也。所謂書法者,古人作字不外六書,失之毫釐,謬以千里。若不深加考據,妄以己意奏泊,非書法也。章法者,點劃之間,自有向背。一字有一字之法,幾字有幾字之法,方圓不同,修短各異,照應收放,悉有原本。微有牽率強合之病,非章法矣。至於刀法,非燕尾鋸齒之謂也,日漸月摩,純熟之至,迎刃而出,自然渾融,具有天趣。否則,刻意摹古。痕跡未化,非刀法矣。

清.王撰《寶晉齋印譜》


Chinese seal carving is not an average skill. It is indispensable to deal with the methodologies of (seal script) calligraphy, ideas, and carving. The ancient Chinese wrote according to the Six Principles to compose Chinese scripts; a minimal error or deviation results in wide divergence. If one creates new scripts without studying and obeying the principles, the writing is not considered calligraphy. As for designing the arrangement of scripts in a seal, one has to consider the disposition of strokes and the various effects. The designs are different for seals with one or several characters - their angles, roundness, and lengths differ. There always exist principles as to modify the angles, roundness and lengths. If there is a minimal incoherence, it is not a good design. As for carving, do not imitate the shapes of a sparrow's tail or a saw's teeth. Practicing diligently for many days and months will help the carver obtain proficiency, natural smoothness and coherence, and joyfulness. On the contrary, if one labors to copycat ancient seals without understanding, traces of incoherence will show and this is not considered good carving.

Adapted from Seal Collections of Baojin Studio by Wang Zhuan of Ching Dynasty

 

 

More samples for comparison can be found from English and Chinese textbooks in many fields of knowledge.

 


More to be added ...

 

 

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