Frequently Asked Questions about Chinese Language and Culture 
Question: Does Chinese have an alphabet so we can spell out a, b, c ...
The answer is no. Chinese is a hieroglyphic language, like ancient 
Egyptian, in which characters like little pictures are used as words 
to represent various meanings. 
The Chinese language never had any alphabets, it does not have any 
alphabets now and I do not see it having alphabets in the future. 
A student of Chinese has to remember all 100 000 words one-by-one, 
there is little clue about the pronunciation of an unfamiliar word by just 
looking at it. However, the task of learning Chinese is easier than one 
might think because each word can be divided into radicals (or parts). 
There are only about 200 radicals to learn. Radicals, however, are 
not alphabets and do not represent vowels or consonants.
Question: But what about  ? Aren't they alphabets?
These are not Chinese alphabets, they are just phonetic pronunciation 
aids. They are similar to those funny letters in brackets after words 
in a dictionary. They are called Zhuyin symbols. Chinese students 
have to learn them at school, but everyone forgets them after getting 
a passing grade. They are seldom used for the rest of the person's life 
and they certainly cannot be used to write a letter, etc.
Question: How can I tell which is good Chinese calligraphy and which 
               is just ugly hand-writing ? 
Let us start with the basics. A Chinese word consists of vertical 
strokes, horizontal strokes, slanting strokes at 45º, vertical dots and 
slanting dots at 45º. The whole word forms approx. a square, as 
shown:  The word is 'painted' by a cone-tip brush, hence the 
special effects at both ends of the strokes. 
A slightly more artistic calligraphy is formed by 'Italicizing': Vertical 
strokes remain strictly vertical, but the horizontal strokes are rising 
at a small angle from left to right, as shown:  Also, the word 
now forms a portrait rectangle instead of a square. The rising 
angle of the horizontal strokes should be consistent from word to 

Other 'free-hand' artistic fonts basically varies the HORIZONTAL 
strokes, but the VERTICAL strokes should remain STRICTLY 
So, in general, look for vertical strokes to be strictly vertical and 
look for consistency from one word to the next. Crooked lines, 
vertical strokes which are not strictly vertical, and great variations 
from word to word are all signs of UGLY writing. Some so called 
'Chinese Calligraphy' you find on the Internet is written with a 
felt-tip pen! If you are in doubt, e-mail the image to us. We'll tell you. 
I don't want you to get an ugly font for a permanent tattoo.

Question: How is the quality of those automatic 'on-line' dictionaries ? 
              Can they come up with good Chinese translations ? 
Unfortunately, there is still a LOT of work to be done. Most Internet 
'on-line' dictionaries available now come up with, at best, barely 
acceptable translations for ordinary words. For names, the results 
are often idiotic and laughable. For phrases and famous sayings, 
they have no chance at all. 

A tattoo lasts for a life-time, so if you want to get one, invest a little 
time and effort to find a good translation and a good looking font.

Question: What is Kanji ? Is it Japanese or is it Chinese ?
The Chinese culture has great influence in many neighboring Asian 
countries. Starting in the Han dynasty (200BC-200AD), some 
Japanese monks and scholars -- the traditional custodians of learning 
-- came to China to study. They brought back Chinese writing to 
Japan and integrated it into mainstream Japanese. The Japanese 
calls these characters Kanji. Most Kanji characters do retain identical 
structures and meanings as Chinese. Both Chinese and Japanese  
persons do understand Kanji, to a large degree. In recent centuries, 
however, some Kanji had evolved to be uniquely Japanese. One 
very important fact to note: The number of Kanji characters in  
current use in Japan is FAR LESS than the number of Chinese 
characters in use in China (9 000 vs 100 000). So if you want to 
do a tattoo, do it in Chinese, don't do it in Kanji, because the chance 
of finding an elegant translation is far less in Kanji. Now don't get me 
wrong, Kanji is being used extensively in Japan. The names of cities, 
roads, important job titles such as president, executive, etc, are all 
in Kanji. The Japanese even use Kanji to write out their own names 
for official use such as in school certificates and passports.
Question: What is the greatest work of literature in Chinese ? 
The greatest work of literature in Chinese is a classical romantic novel 
called The Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of 
the Stone). It is a truly revolutionary work, both unprecedented and 
unsurpassed. It was completed in 1791, two years after the French 
Revolution, by two different authors: riches-to-rags nobleman Cao 
Xue Qin, and a scholar named Gao E. 
At first glance, this novel seems to be a Romeo and Juliet type tragic 
love story. The main characters Bao-yu (Precious Jade) and his 
cousin Dai-yu (Black Jade) suffered the fate of unfulfilled love, and 
had no 'happily ever after' ending. 

Look closer, and you'll find that it sounds a bit like The Adventures of 
Tom Jones, in which the teen-age playboy Bao-yu was dallying in the 
ranks of the female members of his household: his cousins and maids, 
longing after many but only truly loving Dai-yu. It is also similar to 
Upstairs Downstairs: a rich and big noble clan with all its lords, ladies, 
young misses and maids, and their lives of adventures and tears. 

The TRUE REVELATION about this novel comes when one notices 
that almost all the WOMEN in this book are described as elegant, 
sophisticated, intelligent, graceful, great decision makers, and above 
all, beautiful. Most MEN, however, are described as fools, rednecks, 
unfaithful mates, heart-breakers, n'er-do-wells, users of prostitutes 
and abusers of power ! 
The constant theme in the book is that the women had to obey all  
the rules in a men's world, BUT they did it better, with more class,  
elegance, grace and virtue. At the bottom of the social rung, the   
maids often had more heart than their over-bearing masters.  

It is all the more revolutionary that this novel was written by 2 men in 
feudal China in the 1700's and the message it carries is that women are 
not only the fairer sex, they may even be the BETTER sex. To quote 
author Cao himself, "In the inner boudoirs of my family there were 
real persons (great characters), and their stories must be told ... I have 
therefore hidden away the facts, and substituted them with fiction ...". 
Based on this, we believe  most of the characters existed in real life. 
We believe that Cao wrote this novel as a memorial to the love, care, 
kindness and grace that was given to him by the women in happier 
times before. For him, those times were forever gone and lost. That 
is why this book tugs the heart-strings of so many people. 

'Girl Power' tattoos are great, but young girls should most definitely  
read this novel, because it would give them great confidence in themselves. It would also teach the difference between LONGING 
and LOVING, and it would teach everyone, boys and girls, how to be 
out-and-out nice persons. It also teaches great personal relationships. 

(You can search for the English translations of this book) 

Just a word of fore-warning: At first reading, you will be into a bit of 
culture shock, and the first chapter is rather confusing because there 
is a fair bit of Chinese Mythology there. The best approach to this 
book is to jump right into the middle chapters and just follow one of 
the many sub-plots to get to know some of the characters. Chinese 
names translated into English can be confusing, especially the gender 
of the character. Fortunately most of them are teen-age girls.

Question: What is Pinyin ?  Is it alphabets and spelling in Chinese ?
Pinyin is the process of using European letters (a,b,c...) to spell out 
phonetically the corresponding Chinese characters. For example: 
'Beijing' is the Pinyin representation of the characters  
After 1949, the government of the People's Republic of China 
attempted to do away with the complicated Chinese characters and 
use Pinyin representations instead. But the effort was not successful. 
No one in China really accepts Pinyin for normal writing usage. 
Pinyin is taught at school as a required subject, though (poor kids). 
With the advent of computers and word-processing, Pinyin has 
become an important tool for the INPUT of Chinese characters 
into a document (using a Windows-type English keyboard). You  
type in Beijing and  gets put into the document. But still, 
Pinyin has severe limitations (to represent the tones of the letters) 
and you cannot use Pinyin as is to write an English-looking 
Chinese letter and expect people to understand fully what you wrote.
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