I love Mandarin Chinese. Even after nearly seven years of studying it, the language continues to confuse and amaze me. The origins of Mandarin Chinese date back nearly 3,000 years, and today is by far the most commonly spoken language in the world.
As I wrote in my column last week, I happened to begin studying Chinese by accident. Although my experience began by chance, I quickly fell in love with the East Asian dialect. My original fascination with Chinese stemmed from the beauty of the written language. Chinese characters, or hanzi, are not comprised of an alphabet. Rather, each character is a glyph with an original meaning.
Though characters often feature a combination of preexisting radicals, each character is unique. An average Chinese person holds about four thousand characters lodged in their memory. Some characters are pictographic: for instance, the Chinese word for eye is a near direct depiction of the human eye. Other characters are often ideographic, with their depiction resembling an abstraction of the meaning of the word. The example that makes the most sense to me is that the Chinese words for the numbers one, two and three are simple dashes.
As a 13-year-old, the characters were what made Chinese exciting. I would pore over my basic lessons, memorizing the various characters and working on my handwriting during class assignments and essays.
As my education continued, my incentive to study Chinese rose from a shared connection with my classmates. In my non-Chinese high school classes, we Chinese students would use Chinese to speak with any of our friends who were also studying the language. We would discuss plans for after school, talk about our social lives or (regrettably) give nicknames to any teachers we happened to dislike. It was pure adolescent mischief but I enjoyed it all the same.
An event that bolstered my early interest in Chinese was the Chinese New Year. Our Chinese class took lessons on the ritual “dragon dance,” in which we learned how to beat a gigantic drum in a particular rhythm and control a two-person dragon costume. We performed in front of the whole school, and though it had the potential to be incredibly embarrassing, it ended up bringing our class closer together.
At that point in my high school career, our Chinese classes consisted of semi-serious pursuits; though our teacher quizzed us once a week, we spent the rest of our class time watching Chinese movies with English subtitles and playing card games.
One card game that became popular in our classroom was a Chinese version of Magic: the Gathering titledsanguosha. The game featured aspects of the American trading card game but replaced mystical characters with historical figures from China’s Three Kingdoms (220-280 A.D.). Famous warlords and generals such as Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Quan, renowned for their triumphs in Ancient China, were locked in constant battle in our San Francisco classroom. This card game and our use of Chinese as a sort of secret language helped bolster my resolve to continue studying Mandarin.
This same incentive continued into the beginning of my time at Boston University. One of my favorite memories from my freshman year was sitting in a room with my roommate and a bunch of his friends from back home in Shanghai playing sanguosha – I still can’t believe I managed to win a hand.
In recent years, my reasons for studying Chinese have shifted. Although I still have a real appreciation for the beauty of the written language and the fun of participating in Chinese culture, I’m beginning to look towards the professional aspect of my proficiency.
While I study abroad in Shanghai (and believe me, I’m counting down the days until my Feb. 9 departure) I’m going to try my hardest to gain fluency in spoken and written Chinese. Regardless of where I intern while I am abroad, I want to be in an environment that will push me outside of my comfort zone and force me to speak as much Chinese as possible. Even though I’ll be living in a foreign student dormitory building, I hope to explore the campus of Fudan University that I will be studying in.
By the time I graduate from BU, I want to be able to use my knowledge of the Chinese language to put my Political Science degree to use. For now, my studies of Mandarin Chinese revolve around making this goal a reality.
Mandarin Chinese has held many functions in my life: a builder of friendships, a resume booster and an art form. One thing Chinese has never been is boring. I am continually amazed by the breadth, depth and scope of the written and spoken language and its history.
Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.