Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Why reading and writing Chinese is a struggle

on June 11, 2014

My greatest struggle was definitely Chinese reading and writing.  At our first Chinese literature quiz, which we studied for as glibly as we were used to back in Paris, I managed to score a glowing four out of 100!  What a come down from the status of genius-in-residence I had been accustomed to! I found that first of all, there was not a single question on the meaning of the text. No discussion of the author’s theme, message or purpose.  All we had were direct questions on vocabulary, translation and spelling. Some grammar too.

Yes, translation. Many of our texts were written in classical Chinese, which is a drastically different language from modern Chinese. Already, modern Chinese (mandarin) is a compact language compared to French or English. A 1,000-word essay in French would fit in no more than 300-400 Chinese characters. If you then translate this into Classical Chinese, you could take away easily another 50% of the characters. No wonder you see in movies these ancient scholars reading an entire book that would fit on just one roll of bamboo slats.

bamboo scroll

The word “said/say” for instance, in modern Chinese, is “shuo” = 說. In Classical Chinese, it is “yue” = 曰 . Totally different words. So, the sentence “Confucius said” would be in modern Chinese “Kong Fu Zi shuo” : 孔夫子說 , while it would contract to just two characters in Classical Chinese “Zi yue”: 子曰。Thus the need to translate.

Confucius, who said many things, causing us to have to memorize his sayings...

Confucius, who said many things, causing us to have to memorize his sayings…

Our homeroom teacher was our English teacher, a plump jovial lady in her thirties. She immediately announced to the class that she expected us to catch up with the language within a month.  She was the daughter of a military attache, and had lived in Iran in her childhood. Which is why she knew the phenomenon of diplomats’ children performing well in schools regardless of the language used. However, I found, to my detriment, that Chinese language was a different species altogether. Without the help of a tutor, our progress was painfully slow.

If reading was a Herculean task, writing was no less arduous. There was something called the Weekly Journal which we had to write using a thin brush and Chinese ink and turn in every Monday morning.  My first attempts looked horrendous. Not only my characters did not sit straight nor well-balanced, they looked like caterpillars having a bad hair day. The teacher kindly allowed us to use marker pens instead. The result was not much better. The caterpillars looked now like dead ones instead of live ones.

Essay writing was also a total paradigm shift. Whereas in France we had been practicing how to describe landscape without using “there is” or “he saw” (you can say instead, “The plain unrolled itself” or “the sky stretched above his head”), here we were asked to debate questions. I was stuck. “How do we debate this?” I asked my neighbor on the right. “Very simple,” she replied. “First paragraph, you say why yes. Second paragraph, you say why no. Third paragraph, you state your opinion. Then make sure to put in a few quotes from the ancients, and you are done!”

Easier said than done. I did not know any quotes from the ancients. I also found that written modern Chinese is closer to Classical Chinese than spoken modern Chinese.  Even the simplest statement is often written as a “cheng yu” or proverb. If you want to say, “it was very crowded”, you write “people mountains people seas”. If you want to say, “he returned home to die”, you write, “the falling leaf returned to the roots”.  I did not know any proverbs, therefore my essays sounded too verbal, which is a sign of mediocre writing. So I did not astound my teacher with my writing prowess.

people mountain people sea

My skill in brush writing actually improved under the mentoring of an old friend of Papa’s, Chang Yeh (Grandpa Chang). He used to work at the lumber mill that Papa joined when he first arrived in Taiwan. Being Muslim and older, he was delighted to meet another younger Muslim. He offered to share the Islamic diet he cooked himself with Papa, and by extension, he also offered to do his laundry, which has nothing to do with Islamic requirements. Papa was then a “young master” who had never had to cook or launder in his life and so welcomed this service happily. I always thought God Almighty has taken special care of Papa, who would not have survived in the mountains all by himself.

So it was Chang Yeh, now retired and often hanging around our house, who first looked over my shoulder one Sunday as I panted and struggled over my “large script” (there were large and small script pages of brush writing to hand in as well). “That’s not how you should write a horizontal stroke!” he exclaimed. And thus he started coaching me. It turned out that a horizontal line is not just a line in brush script. You write it always from left to right, but start about 1/3 into the line, go left, press, turn the brush, creating a neat angled corner, then pull the brush evenly over the line you just made, all the way to the right, then press again, turn the brush again, creating another neat corner, and finally lift your brush swiftly about 1/3 of the way into the right end.

brush horizontal stroke

By the time I managed to master the horizontal line, the vertical line, the turns, the hook, the sweep, and so on, I would notice that the entire structure was out of synch and threatening to topple. No wonder Chinese brush calligraphy is considered an art and great calligraphy is exhibited as a painting would. There is a particular stroke that took me years to finally perfect: it is a sweeping oblique downward stroke in the four o’clock direction, which looks rather like the foot of a ballerina pointed to one side, or if you prefer, like the tail end of a snail. It starts thin, then thickens as it stretches towards four o’clock, then touches the floor forming a crisp angle and finally gracefully thins down to the right, horizontally on the bottom though on a slant above. If I concentrated too much on getting the angle and slant correct, the stroke often ended up too long. More commonly, it would end up too short, looking like a stump.


The infamous stroke down towards four o'clock is named the "Nah" and is extremely difficult to master.

The infamous stroke down towards four o’clock is named the “Nah” and is extremely difficult to master.

2 Responses to “Why reading and writing Chinese is a struggle”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    Oh la la, I don’t remember any of this anymore. You have clearly analyzed our memories of school work in excruciating detail. I remember that everyone seemed to know the structured types of questions and sometimes one of our visiting uncles or aunts would kindly sit down and coach us as best as possible. It was a mystifying world and still is.

  2. Saadia Mai says:

    I remember elderly Chang Yeh visiting us a lot. I didn’t realize he was the one who coached us on brush calligraphy. I love brush calligraphy and have this on my wish list of yet one more thing to do one day.

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