Xuexi withdrawal

Xuexi (pronounced kind of like shweh-shee) means class or study. With things as busy as they’ve been at work lately, we’ve cancelled our twice-weekly Mandarin lessons until next month, and I’m really missing them. I’ve reacted by trying to study on my own and rely on my Number Two Teachers – namely my Chinese coworkers. By and large, they’re an educated bunch, and make pretty good instructors. Certain Mandarin-speakers back home have also helped.

Here are a couple of nifty things I’ve learned:

Luan qi ba zao. This literally means “mess seven eight waste” and is a phrase meaning “all messed up.” Apparently the number seven is associated with chaos in Chinese tradition.

Si zhu bu pa kai shui tang. A dead pig does not fear hot water. Think about this one, you’ll work out what it means.

Now, at the risk of boring my readers, I’m going to present one little observation about the Mandarin language. No great details, just a little tidbit I find interesting.

One of the first things you learn about Chinese is that there are no words meaning yes and no, which seems very strange to an English speaker. How can you possibly get along without such basic words? (Incidentally, I seem to remember Irish Gaelic is similar in this respect.)

Think about this: In English, the negative form of a question is always ambiguous in its answer.

Positive question:
Q: Is that your sister over there?
A: Yes.
Simple enough. But how about this?
Q: Isn’t that your sister over there?
A: Yes.
So is it the sister, or not? Strict proper logic says that an affirmative answer to a negative question means the negative, so it must not be the sister. But we all know that in casual English speech, it would actually be the sister. Smart alecks like me sometimes play with this ambiguity by deliberately answering questions so that the asker doesn’t know what you mean even though you answered correctly.

In Mandarin, any question, regardless of form, is answered with the fact.
Q: Is that your sister over there?
A: Is.
Q: Isn’t that your sister over there?
A: Is.
Isn’t would be the opposite answer. See? No ambiguity.

In a way this directness is ironic, since Mandarin can be extremely ambiguous in many other ways.
Q: Don’t you know this is enough linguistics for now?
A: Know.


  1. "Mandarin can be extremely ambiguous in many other ways"

    :) I would say that Mandarin is a very flexible language, and its ambiguity state can be made as bad as the speaker wants it to be.


  2. Jon sir,

    I believe that you could open your own xuexiao, jiao zhongwen gen yinyu and voila never suffer xuexi withdrawl again. Ni hui yo hen duo xuesheng.

    have fun and hang it there...all you have is time!!