Chinese Verbs, Chinese Surnames (and other simpler parts of a highly complex language) –by Jinny Batterson
I’ve found learning Chinese to be hard. This frustrates me, because for most of my life, I’ve liked to think of myself as an intelligent person, as someone who learns languages easily. Yet over half the time, I cannot distinguish among the different tones of Mandarin Chinese (tone 1, high; tone 2, rising; tone 3, falling, then rising; tone 4, rapidly falling). I cannot remember many Chinese names. The way words may be related in character form but have radically different pronunciations mystifies me. For example, one tree is called “shu (4),” while a group of trees is called “lin (2),” even though the characters that represent them are similar. Learning Chinese is an ongoing struggle. However, as my experiences in China have lengthened, I’ve found a few glimmers of hope.
Take Chinese verbs. In English, it’s important to pay attention to both “person” and “tense” when composing verbs. Teachers of English grammar cringe at improper usage: “I is,” or “he are,” or “yesterday I am sick,” or, maybe worst of all, “she ain’t.”
As they say in some hackneyed Chinese-American TV shows, “No problem.” In Chinese, verbs are much easier, though sometimes it can be important to provide sufficient context. Once I learn the basic form of a verb, say, “to be” (“shi (4)),” I’m good to go. It does not matter whether I want to say “I am” or “he is,” “yesterday we were,” or “tomorrow we will be,” the verb is still “shi (4).”
Another “easier Chinese” example is the pronunciation of the pronoun for “he,” “she,” or “it.” Great news—in Chinese, all three pronouns, though their character representations differ, are spoken exactly the same way: “ta (2).” So when your Chinese-native-speaker friends have some trouble mixing their “he’s” and their “she’s” in English, cut them a little slack. They can always find lots more that’s laughable in your halting efforts to speak their language.
Then there are Chinese names. One frequent difficulty in going between English and Chinese is name order: in English, we put the family name last, with the person’s given name before it. In Chinese, it’s just the opposite—if I am “Li Ping,” it means my family name is Li and my given name is “Ping.” I’ve known Chinese friends in the U.S. whose names I’ve gotten backwards for so long it’s embarrassing.
My struggles with names got easier once I learned a helpful pattern: Chinese family names are clustered much more strongly than American family names. In fact, the 100 most common Chinese family names cover nearly 85% of all the people in China. Whoopee!
What’s even more helpful, the most common of the common family names encompass about 10% of all the inhabitants of that Chinese region, though there are significant inter-regional differences. Generally speaking, someone from the northern part of China has a 1 in 10 chance of being named “Wang.” Likewise, someone from southern China is more likely to be a “Chen” than to have any other family name. The second most common family name, both north and south, is “Li.” Were there still such things as telephone directories, listings for major Chinese cities would have hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of “Wang,” “Chen,” and “Li.”
As our societies become more globalized, family name changes have thrown a minor monkey wrench into the Chinese common names tooling: fairly often, Chinese immigrant families to European-based countries adapt their family names to follow more closely the phonetic patterns of their adopted countries. “Li” becomes “Lee.” Sometimes the transliteration is made by accident—a recent medal awarded to top Chinese badminton player Li Xuerui was mistakenly inscribed to her as “Xuerui Lee.”
So, a word of caution: if you are about to meet a Mr. or Ms. Lee for the first time, do not assume you’ll encounter someone whose ancestors included a bearded American Civil War general. It’s just as likely that you’ll make the acquaintance of someone whose ancestors came from China.