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Tis the season for learning
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By Usha Sankar

Gray skies which a weak sun struggles to break through. Short, short afternoons, as dark evenings appear suddenly with the clock face reading just 4 p.m. The Beijing winter is well and truly here. And, of course, with the year drawing to a close, the silly season too.

In the three years that I have lived in this baffling city, 2007 must rank at the top for its yuletide overdose. Everywhere I look, it's lights, Santas and Christmas trees. Residential compounds catering to expats seem determined to ensure that the few families remaining in Beijing for the holidays do not miss out on anything of the Christmas fervor back home. So, we have life-size Santas swaying to the sounds of "Santa Claus is coming to town,'' at the entrance of one villa, and lights strung on every available patch of concrete and green of another, to those ubiquitous Christmas trees complete with glitter and gloss in the entrance lobbies of each and every compound. Even as I was coming to grips with this "illuminating'' Christmas in Beijing, there was more in store. Conifer trees had sprung up overnight on the airport expressway with, guess what, more of those string lights. Phew! Looks like Santa is not only coming to town--he has decided to take roots.

But just as I thought there was simply no escape from a Beijing Christmas, I discovered a world into which I could disappear--the world of Chinese characters. After struggling with tones and finally accepting that I am tone deaf when it comes to spoken Mandarin, I decided I would venture into the written version after a friend convinced me that it was the magic key to unlocking the "mystery of the tone.''

What I find most interesting about the hanzi (Chinese characters) is their original form. And the book that provides a nice introduction to this is one I picked up at a small language store. It is called 500 Basic Chinese Characters--A Speedy Elementary Course, which is published by Sinolingua and comes with some really fun illustrations. In the introduction, the authors say they want to offer a book that "mobilizes every learning technique, including vision, imagination, association, comparison, analysis and assimilation.''

Of course, I am very much at the "vision, imagination, association'' stage and enjoying it thoroughly. I struggled for two weeks to remember the character for the direction south; my main problem was that I could not recall which stroke came first. And then I looked it up in this book. Every character explanation comes with a "tip''--and the one for this was "imagine the heng-shu as a direction coordinate, the south is obviously at the bottom.''

The character for good is a combination of the characters for woman and child--nice. The character for the number 100 combines the stroke for one (yi) with that for bright (bai)--and the bai itself comes with an additional stroke above the character representing the sun to imply the "white light of the sun''--cool stuff. Then there is zao (morning) shown with the sun rising to the top of the church (represented by a heng crossed by a shu). The book has several more like these--such as the character bi (compare) that looks like two people comparing their heights, and ming (bright), that combines the characters for sun and moon--who can deny that that's an awful lot of brightness?

Of course, some hanzi defy such simple logic. Take yao (want) for example. It combines the characters for west and woman and the book explains it as "what he wants is a Western woman!" I guess this is the "imagination" technique the authors mention in their introduction. Before embarking on a more serious study of hanzi, I honestly thought "radicals'' referred to some kind of grammatical rule and put off having to encounter them--what a pleasure it is to discover that they are just generic symbols that signal that a particular character has to do with people, speech, mouth, water, and so on.

I know I am still in the early stages of learning, but something tells me there is an inner logic to this whole system of writing that is not at all apparent in the spoken version. My teen son disagrees and says the illogic will soon become apparent. You wait, he challenges.

Maybe, but it will pale, I am sure, to that of this--the silly season.

The author is an Indian currently living in Beijing

(Beijing Review January 9, 2008)

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