I recently came across an article entitled ‘Foreigners flock to learn Chinese’, which made me think about how many of my friends here are actually considering running in the opposite direction: they take classes either simply to get by from day to day or so that they can understand their bilingual children more than 50% of the time. Besides, a number of them have begun to feel deflated and demoralized by the difficulties of the tones and their own lack of progress – a sentiment that I often can relate to. As a foreigner in Beijing, I am finding Mandarin extremely difficult to master, even after three months of classes ordering food in a restaurant can be a struggle.
My teacher has a limited hold on the English language, so much of what is said seems to be lost in the thick air that consumes this city. It often takes me weeks to grasp the concept behind many of the language points. For instance, two of the earliest characters I learnt were the characters for horse (马) and female (女). Imagine my surprise when I saw the two paired together to produce the character for mother (妈). This combination translates rather conveniently into a joke about one’s horse of a mother (or mother-in-law). However, if I have learnt anything about Chinese culture, it is the sense of respect that people in this country hold for their elders. So, I concluded, this must be pure coincidence.
Still, I could not let the matter lie. I was too curious to know how the reverential Chinese concocted such a combination of characters and concepts. After making close to no progress with my teacher, I decided it was time to appeal to the font of trivia that is the Wikipedia on the Internet.
The explanation that I’ve found online seems to be the most reasonable one in the world: One component of a character often indicates the meaning whilst the other part indicates pronunciation. In the case of mother, female is indicative of the meaning and horse reflects what the character sounds like.
How did I never think of that? Though solving this mystery became the bane of my life for a good few weeks, it is facts and complications like that one that make me love learning the impossibly difficult language more by the day. Unlike my friends who are so eager to give up, I know that I must simply carry on finding ways to resolve any problems I come across. as that is where the true interest lies. I am currently attempting to discover how to distinguish between a radical and a mere component of a Chinese character, hopefully I will know by the end of the day.