Luck, Prosperity and a Monster – Happy Chinese New Year

Do you remember Christmas morning as a child? I remember bursting with excitement waiting for gifts, while my dad got a cup of coffee. Chinese children feel that same excitement waiting for red envelopes on New Years Eve. What we call Chinese New Year is known as Spring Festival or  春节 in China. It is the most important holiday in China. Families return home to celebrate and hope for a prosperous new year, but as with Christmas, Chinese New Year has a darker side.

In Chinese mythology, a creature called the 年兽 or nián shòu comes out to eat people. The word nián shòu is often shortened to nián or year. The nián is afraid of three things: the color red, fire and loud noises. In the past, some villagers put red scrolls on the gate and lit fireworks at midnight to scare the nián away. The nián has never been seen again, but people continue the practice today.

Spring is upside down

Chinese New Year starts with the tradition of cleaning and organizing the home, both inside and out. People are letting go of the old in order to welcome the new. Once the house is clean, families shop for food, firecrackers, pastries and maybe 酒 or jiǔ.

Chinese families hang red scrolls or pieces of paper on the gate and doors. One of the scrolls is an announcement of the coming new year. Chinese people write the Chinese character, spring, on a red scroll and hang it upside down on the front gate. In Chinese, similar sounding words can add new meaning to a phrase. In this case, upside down sounds similar to arrive. Thus, by hanging the word spring upside down, Chinese people are announcing the arrival of Spring Festival or 春节.

Fish and chicken for a lucky and prosperous new year

For their New Years Eve dinner, people often eat fish, chicken and dumplings. Each of these foods have special meaning. Again, how the word sounds adds new meaning to the words fish and chicken.  Fish or 鱼 sounds like the word for left over. People eat fish in hopes that they will have more than they need. Chicken or 鸡 sounds like the word for auspicious, and people eat chicken in hopes for luck in the new year. Families also eat dumplings or 饺子, which look like gold nuggets and represent wealth.

After dinner, parents give their children red envelopes or 红包 hong bao. There is a saying, 恭喜发财 or gōngxǐ fācái, which means Congratulations and get rich. The hope is for a prosperous new year. Chinese New Year or Spring Festival celebrations start this Wednesday. We wish you a happy and prosperous new year. How will you celebrate?

Why You Aren’t Mastering Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is simple. The verbs don’t conjugate; there’s no adding -ing for the present tense. In fact, there is no real tense. You just add words to indicate a time or perhaps a sense of completion. Ironically – this can make mastering the grammar more difficult.How to Study Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is deceptively easy.

Chinese is not like German. Just to understand German grammar, you’ve probably spent some time practicing and studying. If you look at an explanation of Chinese grammar, most of the time it will straight forward. For example, when you want to turn a statement into a question, just add 吗 (ma) to the end of the sentence. You might think, well that’s easy and stop there. Here’s the problem: you don’t need to understand Chinese grammar, you need to use it. Without thinking.

Where you are going wrong.

Many people go wrong here. It isn’t that you won’t be able to ask a question with 吗 (ma.) You will, but slowly. It will come out as stilted as you pause, think and then add the ma to the end of the sentence. Even worse, while you might remember to add ma for questions, there are literally hundreds of simple explanations. If you don’t practice until the grammar comes smoothly, you won’t remember them all. How you study Chinese matters.

Don’t read – use.

First, let’s go back to some basic learning. Reading over grammar is not the best way to study. Using the grammar is. When you practice using a pattern it develops pathways in your brain. At first, it’s a rough footpath with rocks. With practice, the footpath becomes smooth and easier to walk. You know this path. You don’t forget your way and stumble. You just walk the path naturally.

Here are three ways to drill yourself on grammar:

Translation drills

Take an English sentence and try to say it in Chinese. You can make flashcards with English on one side and the Chinese on the other. Then get to work. This approach is essential early on, but will also help you understand the language on a deeper level.

Sentence transformation

So work out some drills. For 吗 (ma) you might convert back and forth with the question choice type method of asking questions in Chinese.  “Nǐ hǎo ma” becomes “Nǐ hǎo bù hǎo?”

Practice saying sentences in different tenses. Make flashcards with a sentence on the front. Write the sentence in past or future tense on the back. Now practice with the flashcards when you get the chance.

Flashcard vocabulary drill

Make a series of flashcards with a vocabulary word one one sentence and a complete sentence on the other side. Look at the word, make a sentence and then check your work.

Daily practice

As you go about life every day, think about the questions you ask. Try to ask and answer these questions in Chinese (in your head!) When you go to a restaurant, think about how you would order the chicken or a drink. When you go to the post office, think about how to ask for stamps. When you go to the grocery store, name as many foods or other items as you can.

What drills do you use? Tell us in the comments!