Today I’m going to introduce you to words pronounced “shi” – a great example of the wonderful confusion that is homophones in Mandarin. There are TWO HUNDRED characters for the sound “shi”and I use at least 30 of them. They are split up between different tones, but still that’s a whole lot of shi.
Two of the first characters Chinese children are taught to write in school are 上 and 下. Both words are used all day, every day, in many different ways. 上 is on, over, above, up; 下 is under, below, down. But wait, there’s more!
怎么 [zěnme] is a great word because it is so useful. I love that something simple on the surface contains great subtlety, and learning to communicate implied messages simply and fluently – like a Chinese – not spelling it out – like a westerner.
Mandarin Chinese has no true equivalents for the English words “yes” and “no”. Although at first it seems complicated (“why can’t they just say yes and no?!”) once you understand it, Mandarin allows for a wide range of subtle responses.
I am often asked how I learned Mandarin Chinese. The short answer is good fortune and hard work. When I arrived in Beijing I could already read and write Chinese pretty well. Listening comprehension, however, took me a long time.