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Field, Power, Man, Woman: A Chinese language primer
I’ve always been fascinated by languages, though not in the conventional sense. My approach to languages is purely calligraphic and rarely lexicographic. Once I can read and write a language it stops being challenging enough to keep my curiosity alive. Weird as it might sound, to be able to comprehend what I read or write, is least of my concerns. Being in India, there has never been a dearth of scripts to learn.

In class 7 and 8 I took up Bengali because it had a script different from devnagri (the script for Hindi)! Even now I can read and write Bangla, though I don't understand a word.

In college I was introduced to Tamil (Tamizh) music by a friend (it was a cassette of Ullasam and Iruvar). Once I had run through the initial cassettes I had borrowed from him, I would regularly watch Sun TV to stay in touch with the latest happenings in the world of music down south. Even after college, the fondness for Tamil music lingered on. Each time I would hear a new song that I would want to buy, I would grab hold of my recent acquaintance in our Delhi office (I was still in Delhi then) and would croon to him in my thoroughly broken Tamil and somewhat raucous voice the number I had heard on Tele (not a very pleasant endeavor for either of us), and would expect him to tell me the name of the movie from which that song was. The experience nudged me to pick Tamil because I wanted to read the movie names on Tele (and on CDs where the English name is usually a fine print) unaided.

Moving to Bangalore paved way for Kannada, which I am fairly comfortable with now.

I’ve been in awe of the Chinese language for a long time. The concept of a character representing a complete idea is a fundamental one and yet it seems so drastic, thanks to the way education conditions our thought process. Once while browsing randomly through selection of language courses in a bookshop at Singapore, I came across a book on learning Japanese. Now Japanese and Chinese are very very closely related. Japanese consists of 3 types of characters – Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji literally means “characters from China” and is indeed comprised of same characters that are used in Chinese. Hiragana and Katakana are used to represent sounds that are absent from Kanji (like foreign names) or grammar (they are akin to our notion of “alphabet”). Same characters, represent same ideas both in Chinese and Japanese; however, they are pronounced very differently. You learn to read/write Japanese, and you get a lot of Chinese ideograms as a free gift; which means that you can communicate with someone from China in writing (suits me ;-)). I’ve been pursuing Japanese off and on and can recognize few of the common Kanji.

So learning to read/write languages has been a hobby all along, and I never thought that I would ever find myself in a situation where this little knowledge would render itself useful – until today.

In Shanghai the use of English language by hoi-polloi is very minimal. Even in a big shop you’ll find people who are not quite at ease with a language other than Chinese (the McDonald’s across the road from office has menu only in Chinese!). Two of my Korean colleagues and I decided to visit a departmental store selling local crafts to pick souvenirs. The top floor of this big mall was dedicated entirely to traditional handicrafts. One of the things that one of my Korean colleague (Jae Ho), wanted to pick was a traditional Beijing Opera Mask. The problem was that none of us had the faintest inkling if the mask selected by him was meant to be worn by a man or a woman. We tried asking the ladies at the counter, but they wouldn’t understand English at all – not even something as basic as “man” or “woman”. After struggling for about 5 minutes, Jae Ho gave up. It is then that I decided to give matters one last-ditch attempt. I took out a pen from my pocket and quickly scribbled the Kanji ideograms for Man and Woman on my fingers. I then pointed with my pen to the mask and then directed it to my finger where I had just written the character for Man. The lady at the counter got our point! She shook her head sideways and pointed to the character on my finger for woman – mystery solved! (we repeated the iteration twice and got consistent answer – the mask was meant for women!). Jae Ho beamed at me as the girls at the counter chortled. A warm fuzzy feeling had descended on me – I was exulting in having put my knowledge to some practical cause!

For the discerning reader – paddy, power, man and woman: A quick primer on Chinese characters:

Each ideogram tells a story which is what makes learning Chinese (or Kanji) so much fun. A paddy field or a farm is denoted by a square box with two crossed bars in it (fair enough, a farm will typically be square or rectangular):

The symbol for power or strength is derived from your curled right hand pressing downwards:

A Man is a symbol of strength and toils in the farm. Combine the ideograms for farm and strength and you get the ideogram for man!

The symbol for Woman is not derived from other ideograms. It is one those symbols where if you exercise your imagination slightly, you’ll see a woman…

That’s about it! Engrossing eh?
posted: 18.2.04

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