Hello, my fellow Shaolin aficionados. As a Shaolin disciple myself (obsessed is probably a more accurate term), a personal friend of Doc's, and an amateur student of Mandarin Chinese, and with Doc's persistent encouragement, I will endeavor to write a few things, which hopefully will be of assistance to those of you who wish to learn something about Mandarin Chinese. I AM BY NO MEANS AN EXPERT WITH THE LANGUAGE, and don't pretend to be. Most of what I have learned has come from studying for four years on my own rather than in a classroom. However, Doc still feels that I have something valuable to contribute here, so I will do my best to be of assistance to him and to you.

Bai He

My Own Experience with the Language

It has been my vast experience that the Chinese people appreciate greatly any Westerner who comes to their country being able to speak to them in their own language to any degree. It's very common to find persons in China who speak English, especially if they occupy any kind of prominent position in government, business, or education. English education is also standard curriculum now for the children growing up there. But it's almost unheard of for them to see Westerners who can speak Chinese. It's something that surprises, thrills and flatters them. It also gets you a lot of attention. I've been swarmed more than once by curious Chinese persons (especially young persons) once they've known that I could converse with them, including at Shaolin. It's been a lot of fun. It's also meant that I could communicate directly with my coaches over there rather than being dependent on a translator.

Being able to speak Chinese is also an invaluable survival skill when traveling in Mainland China. I've been to China and Shaolin three times thus far. Each time I've been traveling alone at some point, and each time I've had to use my language skills to survive at some point. It also helps out a lot when shopping and ordering food. I still remember well the last time I was at Shaolin, when I finally figured out how to order French fries (praise the day!) by giving them a literal word-for-word translation of the phrase "deep-fried potato strips": "zha tudou tiao". Remember that phrase. You'll be glad you did if you ever go over there. I like Chinese food, but after you've had it for every meal for a few weeks it starts to get old. You start craving good ol' American junk food. One word of advice though--bring your own foil ketchup packets from the States. The "ketchup" over there tastes more like bland tomato paste.

I also used my language skills to bust a dishonest taxi driver in Beijing once who tried to take advantage of what he perceived to be foreign vulnerability on my part. Being on a tight schedule to catch my flight back to the US that day, in order to save time, rather than walking I decided to take a taxi from the restaurant where I was eating lunch back to my hotel to pick up my luggage and head for the airport. I hailed a taxi, then without saying anything, showed him my hotel card to let him know where I needed to go (Another valuable piece of advice--always carry your hotel card with you. It may be the only thing that gets you back home if you ever get lost). He assumed that I was a foreigner who didn't speak the language or know which direction I needed to go. Fortunately, he was wrong on both points.

When he pulled out onto the road, he turned and started driving exactly opposite the direction I knew we needed to go. Some taxi drivers over there will try to do that to you sometimes in an effort to make more money off of you. They'll take the "scenic" route to your destination rather than the shortest route in order to rack up a big bill to stick on you, especially in lean times. You should have seen the look of sheer shock and terror on his face when I corrected him--in Chinese--and ordered him to turn the car around and go back the other direction. He obviously knew exactly where he was supposed to go because, after that, I didn't have to give him any more directions. He drove right up to my hotel, into the driveway, and pulled up to the door to drop me off.

If I had not been able to speak the language, he could very well have caused me to miss my flight back to the States. Technically I could have refused to pay him and could even have turned him in to the Chinese authorities for the loss of his taxi driver's permit. One thing you can do in order not to have this happen to you is offer to give them a tip if you arrive at your destination quickly: "Women kuai dao de hua, wo gei ni xiaofei". You may or may not survive the ride, but at least you won't get taken advantage of that way.

An Introduction to Mandarin

As you may have already heard, there are two main dialects of Chinese--Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is the official language of China and is the dialect spoken at Shaolin. Cantonese is spoken mainly in Hong Kong and the surrounding Canton Province in Southeast China (also known as Guangzhou or Guangdong), and by many overseas Chinese persons who have emigrated from the area and their descendants. Both dialects use the same written characters, though they are pronounced differently. Some of them sound pretty close to each other, some completely different. Some of you may recall a fateful night in San Francisco some years ago (I believe it was 1992) when Shi Yan Ming defected during the first ever Shaolin Monks Tour of the United States. He snuck out of the hotel that they were staying in during the middle of the night, hailed a taxi, and ended up being dropped off at a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant owner only spoke Cantonese. However, the two of them were ultimately able to communicate in writing, and that's why.

What you may not know is that there are 40 or more ethnic nationalities that constitute China's population, each with it's own language and customs. The Han nationality is the largest by far, constituting more than 90% of the population, and its language, called "Hanyu", constitutes by far the largest portion of Mandarin Chinese. In fact, the term "Hanyu" is often used synonymously in Mainland China to refer to Mandarin Chinese, although doing so can offend the ethnic minorities at times. They prefer that you use the terms "Putonghua" (the common speech), "Guoyu" (national language), or "Zhongguohua" (Chinese language) instead.

The Spoken Language

The "Tones":

My next endeavor will be to try to ease your minds somewhat about the effort necessary to learn the language. Most people are intimidated by the fact that it's a "tonal" language--you change the tone of your voice and it changes the meaning of what you're saying. However, if you can speak English (which you obviously can or you wouldn't be reading this), you are actually already far more accustomed to tonality than you realize. For example, read the following sets of words, first stressing the first syllable, then stressing the second:

Pro'duce: Fruits and vegetables in the grocery store

Produce': To make or come up with something

Con'tent: What something has inside it

Content': Happy, at peace, or satisfied

Con'duct: Behavior

Conduct': To lead or guide

Pre'sent: The here and now, a gift, or to be currently in attendance somewhere

Present': To give away or introduce something

Com'plex: A grouping of buildings or psychological condition

Complex': Complicated or intricate

Pro'ject: A task to be completed

Project': To shine an image on a surface located at a distance

Com'bine: A large machine used to harvest grain

Combine': To mix or bring together

See what I mean? You change the tone of your voice, and it changes the meaning. There are, in addition to the above, many noun/verb pairs in English which have similar or identical meaning, the only difference between the two being the tone. For instance:

Noun Version:




Verb Version:




Furthermore, every multi-syllable word in the English language has a standard pronunciation, which includes tonality, we simply don't refer to it as such. We refer to it as "intonation", "emphasis", or "stress". If you put the stress on the wrong syllable, you sound strange. We learn the proper emphasis by mimicry without even thinking about it.

You may also be comforted to know that Mandarin is one of the simpler tonal languages. It only has four tones--high, low/dipping, rising, and falling (five if you include the neutral tone, which is simply no tone at all)--whereas other tonal languages such as Cantonese and Vietnamese have seven or nine tones each, so there are fewer to remember.

The Phonetics:

As for the phonetics used in Mandarin Chinese, all of them are used in English with one exception--roughly the equivalent of an "umlaut u" in German--which can be formed by combining two phonetics from English. To make this sound, first say "ee" (like "seek"). Now freeze your tongue and jaw in that same position while you move your lips to the same position they would be in if you were saying "oo" (like "moo"). Now you know how to pronounce that, too.

Furthermore, every syllable in Mandarin is formed by combining one of 21 "initial" sounds with one of 38 "final" sounds. Once you know how to pronounce each of the initials and finals, pronouncing words simply becomes a matter of combining the two. A few of the finals, such as -i, change slightly in pronunciation depending on what initial consonant is combined with them, but they are for the most part completely consistent. Mandarin doesn't even use all of the possible combinations of initials and finals. It only uses about 2/3 of them, and even then, many of those combinations are used next to never.

The Grammar:

You may be comforted to know that Chinese grammar and sentence structure are very similar to and often far simpler than English. Sentence structure basically boils down to:

Subject - Time - Place - Verb - Indirect Object - Direct Object

They tend to speak in short, to-the-point sentences and phrases rather than in long, drawn-out run-on sentences (like I do). Also, any time they can drop any portion of the sentence, especially the subject, and still be understood, they do. They don't waste words.

Verbs are probably the simplest aspect of the Chinese language. Many languages require you to use several different forms of a given verb depending on tense and/or case such as 1st/2nd/3rd person, past/present/future, singular/plural, formal/informal, etc. For instance, the English verb "to be" can take on many different forms-- "is", "am", "are", "was", "were", etc. Chinese does no such thing. It always uses the same one basic form of the verb for every case. In the case of the verb "to be", the word that they use in all cases is 是(shi).

You should also be aware of the fact that you don't have to be fluent in Chinese to be functional. Once you know even a little bit, you'll at least be able to figure out what's going on. And once you get to the point where you can understand even half of the words being said, you'll be able to figure out and fill in the rest from the context of the situation. You can also expect your ability to recognize and understand what's being said to progress much more quickly than your ability to recall words to say yourself.

The Written Language

Having to learn to read and write the characters is another factor which tends to discourage people from trying to learn Chinese. There are, however, quite a few mitigating factors here as well. Some of you may have heard that you have to know 2,000-3,000 characters just to read a newspaper, which is true. However, if you learn only the 300 most often used characters alone, you already know 66% of the written language. Bump that number up to the 1,000 most often used characters and you have close to 90% mastered. The other characters only account for a little more than 10% of the language and consist mainly of specialized topical vocabulary, which you would only use once in a while.

And, like the spoken language, you can expect your ability to recognize characters to progress much more quickly than your ability to write them. You also don't have to worry if you can't remember how exactly to write each character. They'll understand anyway. The Chinese themselves make "stroke errors" just like we make "spelling errors".

Furthermore, the characters used in Chinese are not all individually unique. They tend to mix, match, and combine the same basic bits and pieces together in a thousand different ways to form their characters. So learning new characters usually boils down to little more than remembering which bits and pieces combine together in what way to form the character. Take for instance the word for "good":


It combines two pieces: 女 (nu) which means woman/female and 子 (zi) which means child/small thing, so "woman" + "child" = "good". Here's another example for the word "male":


It also combines two pieces together. They are 田(tian) which means "field" and 力(li) which means "power", so "field" + "power" = "male".

Another factor that makes the characters somewhat easier to learn is the Chinese government's modern campaign to simplify the characters from their older traditional forms, which required far more strokes to write in many cases. The simplified forms are much easier to learn and write. The older, more complicated traditional characters are still used in Taiwan, but if you're going to Shaolin, which is located in the center of the east half of Mainland China, the vast majority of characters that you will see will be the modern simplified ones.

So, are you still intimidated by the prospect of trying to learn the language? Well, try it! You'll probably be surprised by the result!

More to come,

Bai He