A Journey To The East... Pt. 1

I have been somewhat quiet on the blogging front but I've finally pulled myself together and I'm back. February has been an eventful month, filled with both good incidents and not so good incidents. Thankfully the good ones seem to dominate so all is well. Now February is almost over and it's nearly March (I do wonder where the time has gone!) I'm intrigued what the new month will bring...in the meantime I'm taking all of you along to a magical journey to the east...so pull up a chair, get comfy and don't forget to grab a snack ;-)

{Zhōng Guó}

If you recognised the flag correctly you'll know that our journey to the east is taking us to China. Coincidently the fourth largest country in the world. We've all heard about it, we've all read something or other about China, we all own something 'Made in China' and most of us have been to a Chinese Restaurant or ordered Chinese Takeaway.

If you really think about it, what do you actually know about China? Go on take a moment and think about it. What do you know about the fourth largest country in the world except that they seem to speak a language nobody could possibly ever understand, draw 'images' rather than write words, eat with chopsticks rather than cutlery, seem to  have predominantly black hair and grow rice for a living. This is what I learned in school about China (along with the name of the capital city of China!). I kid you not! It is shocking that school taught me this about a country with more than 5000 years of history and 1,5 billion inhabitants. 

Insulting, isn't it?

Here's some really basic information for you:

  • The currency of China is the Chinese Yuan Renminbi. One Euro is roughly 9 Chinese Yuan at present (source: xe.com) and with 'at present' I mean at the time I wrote this blog.
  • China represents a full 20 percent of the world's population - one in every five people on the planet is a resident of China.
  • The capital city of China is Beijing situated in northern China.
  • China borders 14 nations, more than any other country in the world (except Russia which also borders 14 nations).
  • The Giant Panda is one of the four animals distinctively associated to China, the other three are the Yangtze River Dolphin or Baiji, the Yangtze Alligator (a critically endangered species) and finally the Golden Snub-nosed Monkey, a cute little fella.

Are you wondering about the purpose of this blog post yet or are you just going along with this hoping I'll tell you why on earth I've decided to put together a blog about China of all things? Well for starters, I'm not after broadening your knowledge about the world's geography - I leave that entirely up to you. The reason for this blog is really rather simple. I've decided to learn Mandarin Chinese.

You're now probably thinking whether I lost my mind entirely...correct? On the contrary, I'm quite sane. Mandarin Chinese is the native language of over 845 million people in the world and in total over a billion people speak the language. In comparison, English is the native language of only about 400 million people in the world.

Facts aside, the sheer majority of Mandarin Chinese speakers in the world also isn't the reason why I'm learning it. I've chosen to learn the language simply because I want to. I speak and write two languages fluently and speak another intermediately - I decided it was time to devote my time to discovering another language. Still doesn't explain why Chinese though, does it? Oh dear, you people are difficult to satisfy... See Spanish, French or Italian has always been on the cards but I always felt something was missing, some sort of spark to get me going and start lessons - surprising really since French, Italian and Spanish are three of the five languages I hear all day, every day in work. With Mandarin Chinese the spark was there so now here I am enthusing about a country we have all heard about but effectively know nothing about and a language that seems to make no sense at first glance.

You know what? You're wrong. It's actually quite a sensible language (opinion subject to change as my lessons advance). Granted the writing looks scary as hell (though Chinese simplified isn't so bad) and oh god how on earth are you supposed to pronounce a picture when reading, eh? Well simple, you learn the Pinyin (no that's not yet another language) of the character. Pinyin is basically phonetic Chinese, if you're after an easy explanation. You would for example use it to write Mandarin Chinese on a computer. Since the language has over 20,000 characters it would be close to impossible to have them all on a keyboard so in the 1950s the Chinese government decided to come up with something easier. If you have ever seen a sign with Chinese characters and letters from the Roman alphabet underneath...well that is Pinyin.

But enough with the history/language class (China has over 5000 years of history, believe me we'll be here a long time if you want me to go into detail!) and onto some rather intriguing facts about China...if you want more go here or here.
  • The Great Wall of China spans more than 5,000 kilometres and it's over 2,000 years old.
  • Ice cream was invented in China around 2,000BC when the Chinese packed a soft milk and a rice mixture into the snow. In addition to that the four great inventions of ancient China are the compass, gun powder, paper-making and printing.
  • Some 20 percent of the world's tea supply comes from China (that includes my favourite tea - Jasmine tea which I could happily drink all day, despite being a coffee addict).
On a random note altogether, I'm just realising that there's about a million things I could write about China and I still wouldn't manage to do the country justice. The are so many things to see such as the Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture festival, the Forbidden City in Beiing, the Yangtze River which is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, the Terracotta Army, China's Giant Pandas, the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan) or the Potala Palace in Lhasa. That's nowhere near it though. There's a million and one things to see in China and it would take months to visit all the beautiful places the country has to offer.

Apart from the sights, the history and the cuisine, China also offers quite beautiful music. One of my favourite songs is called "Sheng Si Bu Li" (translation: Life & Death) sung by Jackie Chan [You can follow Jackie's adventures on his Twitter @EyeOfJackieChan, do bear in mind though that it's updated by one of his agent but the blog posts on the official homepage are Jackie's work.]. Jackie dedicated Sheng Si Bu Li to the terrible earthquake in and around Chengdu, the capital city of the province of Sichuan and you can read his personal feelings on it here. 'Sheng Si Bu Li' is a truly beautiful song and I've found a pretty good English translation for you if you'd like to read the lyrics. It's from the heart.

There are actually quite a few songs from Jackie Chan that I really like - he's got a magnificent voice when he sings. It's slightly tainted when he sings in English due to his accent but when he sings in his native language it's just stunning. Another song of Jackie's I really like is called "Open Sky" - it's an uptempo song on Jackie's Edition of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics - unfortunately I couldn't find a video of the song so instead I'm sharing a beautiful song called "Guo Jia", also by Jackie.

From action star to singer is what you probably think now, eh? Sorry to disappoint, Jackie has actually recorded and released over 20 albums, including some of the soundtracks to this movies, in his native China since the early 1980s so he's always sorta done both. Unfortunately we don't really get to see his musical side, which is somewhat of a shame. Because all good things come in threes, here's a beautiful and tender song by Jackie called "Bao Bei". He sang part of it in the movie "The Spy Next Door" which is actually a hiliarious movie yet the song and the scene are just beautiful. The song was originally used in Jackie's 2006 movie Rob B Hood.

On another note, if you'd like to give Chinese Mandarin a try, he's a pretty good karaoke video with Pinyin (and Chinese characters). Have a look if the pronunciation of the actual words match way you'd have pronounced the word. If it doesn't don't be put off, Pinyin pronunciation can be quite tricky, epecially if you aren't acquainted with the different tones...I was fairly baffled too at first but then, when my teacher explained it to me, it sorta started making sense. :-)

And because one song just isn't enough, I'll leave you with another song by the beautiful Faye Wong (you probably have heard of of her if you have heard of the Final Fantasy games). This song is called "Chuan Qi" which translates into 'Legend' - it's a beautiful song and if you check out the video on YouTube you will find the English translation of the lyrics.

I guess that's yet another random fact about me...I've a slight obsession with the beautiful country that is China and also its language. I've quite a journey ahead of me still, I know that, but I wanted to put down my thoughts on the beginning of its journey. I've no doubt that if you follow me on Twitter (@Selly06) you witness the one or other meltdown as I attempt to learn the language...speaking it doesn't seem to be the problem, it's memorising the characters. Art has never really been my thing so we'll see how that works out.

In the meantime I leave you with this proverb:

"Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself."

My teacher quoted this to me and she's got a point...it's up to me to make this work. :-)

Now on a scale from one to ten just how bored are you? Have you fallen asleep yet? ;-) Kudos if you haven't!