Chinese Corner

Seeing Sini

The origins of Chinese Islamic calligraphy – Eveline Chao

The next time you’re in a Chinese mosque, look up. If you’re lucky, the entrance will be adorned with Sini, a Chinese-ified version of Arabic script. (And if you won’t be near a Chinese mosque any time soon, check out Professor Dru Gladney’s photos of Sini and other Islamic art in China.) Sini appears in most mosques in eastern China, and a bit in the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. You’ll see it used on the tasmiya, or invocation of prayer, hanging above the entrance or in the prayer hall, and sometimes on the shahada, a profession of faith hanging in a niche that indicates the direction of prayer.

Chinese Corner

Mum’s the Word

To learn Mandarin like a child, listen first – Eveline Chao

Editor’s note: If you’re resolving to pick up Mandarin this year, Eveline Chao has some encouraging insight about language acquisition for you in today’s Chinese Corner column. No matter where you are along the learning path, we’d love to answer your burning questions about Chinese. Send your linguistic quandaries to [email protected] with the subject “Chinese Corner,” or tweet a #chinesequestion at Liz Carter @withoutdoing or myself @annemhdc. – Anne Henochowicz

Ask enough expat parents, and you’ll eventually find someone whose child, upon moving to China, spent months as a near-mute. Then one day out of the blue, they began spouting fluent streams of Mandarin.

Chinese Corner

The Law of Hobson-Jobson

What “ketchup” and “compound” have in common – by Eveline Chao

In 1886, a Scot named Henry Yule and a Brit called A.C. Burnell published Hobson-Jobson, a dictionary of words from Indian languages (and other Eastern languages like Malay and Chinese) being used by British in India. Or as Yule put it in the preface, “that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular.”

Chinese Corner

The Write Stuff

Writing Chinese is hard. Is technology helping or hindering? – by Eveline Chao

One day in 2010, I was in a car with my cousins, being driven around Taipei by a (directionally challenged) aunt. After our third time getting lost, my aunt finally pulled over, plugged in the GPS, and used her finger to write the address of our destination onto the touchscreen device. As she scribbled out the characters, my cousins all leaned forward to watch. “Wow,” one of them said when she was done. “I don’t know how to handwrite anything anymore.”

Writing in Chinese, in case you hadn’t noticed, is freaking hard. So much so that Chinese people think so, too. I’ve seen everyone from my mom, to a seatmate on a Beijing bus, even to my Chinese teacher, suddenly stop in the midst of writing, unable to continue because they’ve blanked on a word. Professor Victor Mair at the University of Pennsylvania has called this character amnesia (he later clarified he “cannot guarantee that I coined the expression”).

Chinese Corner

Move It or Lose It

The link between physical gesture and language – by Eveline Chao

Once, some Chinese guy lounging on a freight trike asked me if I was a hooker.

He whispered the question as I walked past in a Beijing alley. It was the middle of the day, and I was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers – not the most standard gear for advertising sex work.  

When I recounted the incident to friends later (secretly trying to feel out whether I had missed some sort of memo about gray New Balance sneakers becoming the internationally recognized symbol for a woman of the night), one offered an interesting theory. “You know,” he said, “I can usually tell Chinese-Americans from Chinese on the street. Something about the way they walk and carry themselves. Maybe he picked up that there was something ‘off’ about you, but misread what it was.”