Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

I'm following up on the promise I made in the my last Learning Mandarin post about the Qixi Festival. I said I'd talk about the legend behind it, and that's the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
(Awesome main image from

The Legend

Niulang was young and poor but he was kind-hearted. His biggest possession was an old ox. He's the one referred to as the cowherd. (I always hear them say cowherd but that sounds odd to me. I think they should say cowherder. He's not a herd !)

Zhinü was the seventh daughter of a union between a goddess and the emperor. She's even sometimes described as a fairy.

Curiously, the ox had a history. In some versions of the tale, it used to be the God of the cattle but broke the rules and lost the position.

Either way, Niulang saved the ox when it got sick, and in return, the ox helped Niulang to meet Zhinü who then fell in love with him.

Briefly happy

They married and were really happy. Soon they had two children: a boy and a girl.

The problem is that they married in secret because they knew that Zhinü's mother wouldn't approve of her marrying a mere mortal. After all, her mum was the Goddess of Heaven.

Eventually of course, Zhinü's mum found out about the marriage and was really upset. Celestial soldiers turned up and took Zhinü back to heaven. Niulang and his children went off to heaven to find his wife.  (In an odd twist to the tale, he'd killed the ox and wore his skin. Apparently that's what the ox wanted).

Just before Niulang found his wife, Zhinü's mum used her hairpin to make a river appear between them.

Celestial story

This story has a celestial story as well. The star Altair represents Niulang, and the star Vega represents Zhinü. The river between them is the Milky Way as shown here:

Awesome image from

But where's the happy ending?

These stories usually have a happy ending, and this one's no different.

Niulang and his children were so sad that the magpies felt sorry for them, and flew up to Heaven to make a bridge between the two lovers. They could then meet on the bridge.

Apparently, the Goddess also felt sorry for them and allowed them to meet on the bridge on the 7th day of the 7th month each year.

OK, so not the happiest ending !

Does China have a Valentine's Day ?

After I posted recently about boyfriends (男朋友们 Nán péngyǒumen) and girlfriends (女朋友们 Nǚ péngyǒumen), someone asked me about Valentine's Day in China.

It's not a simple question to answer. More and more young Chinese do get involved with the Western Valentine's Day (February 14th). Other Western festivals are also being adopted. Even though Chinese New Year is still the most important, many Chinese now celebrate Christmas (圣诞节 Shèngdàn jié).

Qīxì Festival

Traditionally, the equivalent of Valentine's Day is 七夕节 (Qīxì jié) or the "Qīxì Festival". It means "Evening of Sevens".

You'll also hear it referred to as 乞巧节 (Qǐqiǎo jié) or the "Qi Qiao Festival". That means "Beseeching skills".

The festival is held on the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese calendar. Because of this, you might also hear it called the "Double Seventh Festival". The naming of that is similar to the naming of "Double One Double One" for "Singles Day" on 11th November.

St Valentine isn't associated with this festival. It's originally from a romantic legend that's called "The cowherd and weaver girl". It telsl the tale of Niulang (the cowherd), and Zhinü (the weaver girl).

China isn't the only country with this festival. Japan has the Tanabata festival, and Korea has the Chilseok festival, based essentially on the same story.

The main participants in the associated rituals are young girls, and the original aim of the activities was to "pray for skills". At the time, they were talking about making handicrafts, needlework, and offering fruit sacrifices. That's where the "Beseeching skills" name came from.

There's a celestial aspect to this as well. The two lovers were represented by the stars Vega and Altair in the Milky Way, and another star forms a "bridge" between them. The "bridge" represented a flock of magpies in the original story.

I'll write more about the cowherd and weaver girl in my next post.

Boyfriend – Girlfriend – Characteristics that matter – Part 2

I mentioned in my last Mandarin post that over the years, I've found that you can learn a lot about a culture, based on which things the people in that culture think matter. I had a quiet chuckle when I saw the quiz in the main image above. In the previous post on this quiz, I covered the first four columns. If you didn't read it, you can find it here. In today's post, I'm covering the last two columns.

Fifth Column (Not as surprising)

The fifth column is 性格 (Xìnggé) which in this case means "character".

The choices are:

幽默 (Yōumò) in this case means "humorous"

可爱 (Kě'ài) is "cute" or "amiable"

安静 (Ānjìng) is "quite" or "calm"

认真 (Rènzhēn) is "serious"

Sixth Column (Expected)

The sixth column is another expected one. It's 爱好 (Àihào) or "hobby".

The choices are:

运动 (Yùndòng) can mean many things but here means "sport"

看电影 (Kàn diànyǐng) is "watch movies"

音乐 (Yīnyuè) is "music"

做菜 (Zuò cài) is basically "cooking"


It was good to see the choices in this quiz, even though I think it's a "politically correct" version of a quiz. Not that long ago, I would have expected to see "income", etc. in the list of characteristics.

Boyfriend – Girlfriend – Characteristics that matter – Part 1

I've found over the years that you can learn a lot about a culture, based on which things the people in that culture think matter. I had a quiet chuckle when I saw the quiz in the main image above.

The heading says:

(Nǐ lǐxiǎng zhōng de nán/nǚ péngyǒu shì shénme yàng de? Wèishéme?)
which means "What is your ideal type of boy/girlfriend? Why?"

First Column (Easy)

The first column is likely obvious:

身高 (Shēngāo) which means "height" (literally "body tall") and the choices are as expected.

Second Column (Also easy)

The second column is obvious from the English as well:

体重 (Tǐzhòng) which means "weight" (literally "body weight") and again the choices are obvious, if not just a little on the light side for many Westerners 🙂

Third Column (Fair enough)

The third column is 头发 (Tóufǎ) which means "hair" (literally "head hair"). The choices are:

长发 (Chǎng fā) – which Google Translate unfortunately translates as (Zhǎng fā) – same first character but different meaning. It means "long hair".

短发 (Duǎnfǎ) for "short hair".

直发 (Zhí fā) for "straight hair".

卷发 (Juǎnfǎ) for "curly hair".

Fourth Column (Surprising)

The fourth column is 眼睛 (Yǎnjīng) for "eyes". You might have guessed that eyes would come into it, but in Western countries, you'd guess the choices were colours like "Blue", "Green", "Brown", etc.

Not in this quiz. The choices are:

大眼睛 (Dà yǎnjīng) for "big eyes".

小眼睛 (Xiǎo yǎnjīng) for "small eyes".

单眼皮 (Dānyǎnpí) for "single eyelid".

双眼皮 (Shuāng yǎnpí) for "double eyelids" (literally "pair eye skin").

In the next post, I'll continue with the other two columns. See if you can guess what they'll be.


Learning Mandarin: Horse horse tiger tiger?? Or perhaps not

I've found that one of the real challenges in learning Mandarin is understanding idioms. If you aren't familiar with the term "idiom", one dictionary defines it as "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words". In Mandarin, the word is 成语 (Chéngyǔ) which is literally "become" or "make", then "language". The term also applies to proverbs in some contexts.

A good example of this is the expression:

马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ)

Literally that means "horse, horse, tiger, tiger". But if you check the Google translation for that, you'll see it means "sloppy". From how I've seen it used, I'd put it closer to "careless". I've had feedback that it's closer to "just so-so".

But why?

The basic story that I've heard is about a painter who was painting a tiger and was asked to paint a horse instead. He was too lazy to start another painting, so he just changed it to a horse. When one of his sons asked what the painting represented, he said that it was "a tiger", but he answered "a horse" when another son asked.

Now I've heard variations of that story but it's a good example of an idiom. And note that most of these idioms are four characters long.

The trick is that most of these stories are already known to the majority of the Chinese population. They typically relate to well-known stories or historical quotations.

With 马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ) , I've asked about how often it's used today. I get different answers. My teacher and others say they use it in daily conversation, but I've heard others say that it's only new learners that ever say it. It's not an age thing. My teacher is in her thirties and has very current language.

Like with any language, even short expressions are often shortened again. You'll find the two character version 马虎 (Mǎhǔ) commonly used for "careless".

Modern Chinese punctuation

One of the things that really surprised me when I started learning Mandarin was that the punctuation currently used in Chinese was so familiar. I was wondering how long they'd used the punctuation.

By the way, the word for punctuation is 标点符号 (Biāodiǎn fúhào) which is literally pretty close to "mark, point, symbol, number".

I spent 5 years learning Japanese many years ago and at the time, we learned to write it vertically, and of course that was from the Chinese doing the same. If you look at the following old writing though, you can see some punctuation:

Origin unknown

Someone has kindly rewritten that in clearer text:

Origin unknown

You can see the punctuation highlighted. Note that it's mostly used to break up sentences and paragraphs, not like we use punctuation today.

The punctuation that's currently used is from a combination of both Western and Chinese sources. The common items are these:

逗号 (Dòuhào) literally "tease number" is a comma (,). It's used much the same way that we use them, except for items in a list.

顿号 (Dùn hào) literally "pause number" is another type of comma (、) used to separate items in a list.

句号 (Jùhào) literally "sentence number" is a period (。) but note that it's a small circle, not a dot.

问号 (Wènhào) literally "question number" is a question mark (?) and used just like we use them.

感叹号 (Gǎntànhào) literally "sense sigh number" is an exclamation mark (!) and used just like we use them.

前括号 (Qián guāhào) literally "before include number" and 后括号 (Hòu guāhào) literally "after include number" are opening and closing round brackets ().  They are used pretty much as we use them.

方括号 (Fāng guāhào) literally "square include number" are both opening and closing square brackets 【】.

前引号 (Qián yǐnhào) literally "before lead number" and 后引号 (Hòu yǐnhào) literally "after lead number" are opening and closing quotes " " and are used like we use them, except for titles of things like books.

书名号 (Shūmínghào) literally "book name number" are used instead of quotes for things like book titles and look like this: 《 》

省略号 (Shěnglüèhào) literally "province slightly number" is the name of an ellipsis. Note that in Chinese, these are written with 6 dots, not 3: 。。。。。。

破折号 (Pòzhéhào) literally "broken fold number" is the name of a single dash (-). It's used like our dashes – often to add info to a sentence.

If however, you are connecting two things, a double-dash called 连接号 (Liánjiē hào) literally "connect catch number" is used.  For example:

这是北京—上海的火车。(Zhè shì Běijīng—Shànghǎi de huǒchē.) – Note the double-dash. This means "this is the Beijing to Shanghai train".

冒号 (Màohào) literally "risk number" is a colon ( : ) and used pretty much like we use them.

The silent i

I recently wrote a short series on pinyin, starting with this previous post, and today I want to just mention one of the common exceptions, and that's the silent letter i.

In the following words, the i sound is pretty much silent:

(Chī) which means to eat
(Cì) which means a number of times or an order/sequence
(Rì) which means day
(Shì) which means is or yes
(Sì) which is the number four
(Zì) which means a word
(Zhǐ) which means only

Now there are other variants of the above sounds as well but they're the same pinyin letters. For example: (Sǐ) which means death (and it's because it sounds a bit like the number four, that four is considered unlucky). Same for (Zi) which relates to a child.

Pinyin finals

In a previous post, I described the basics of Pinyin, and mentioned that words are made up of Initials (starts of words) and Finals. There are only a predefined set of each. Then in my most recent Learning Mandarin post, I described the Initials (or starts of words). In today's post, I want to look at Finals (or the ends of words).

a sounds like the a in mama
ai sounds like eye
an sounds like arn
ang sounds like ung
ao sounds like oww

e sounds like er
ei sounds like the name of the letter A
en sounds like un
eng sounds like ung
er sounds a bit like a pirate ARRGH

i sounds like the name of the letter E but can also sound like a short er
ia sounds like eeah
ian sounds like eeyan
iang sounds like eeyoung
iao sounds like ee-oww
ie sounds like air
in sounds like like "in" in English
ing also sounds like "ing" in English
iong sounds like ee-yong
iu sounds like ee-yo

o sounds like or
ong sounds like ong
ou sounds like oh

u sounds like uuww
ua sounds like wa
uai sounds like why
uan sounds like wan
uang sounds like wong
ui sounds like whey
un sounds like ewe-n
uo sounds like or

ū sounds like ewww
ūan sounds like ewww-en
ūe sounds like ewww-air
ūn sounds like oon

Words are basically made up of one of initials I mentioned last time, and one of the finals above. And that applies to people's names as well.

Now that's quite a list, but you do get used to them pretty fast, if you spend time listening carefully to someone speaking.

Pinyin initials

In a previous post, I described the basics of Pinyin, and mentioned that words are made up of Initials (starts of words) and Finals. There are only a predefined set of each.

What confuses many new learners is that while these look like our characters, they are often pronounced differently.

The character initials that are pretty much the same as ours are:

p, m, f, t, n, l, k, h, j, s, zh, sh, r

These are almost the same:

b, w, y

But the ones that are quite different are these:

d is closer to the t in stay, than the d in dog
g is closer to the k in skill than the g in gender
q is like the ch in chosen
x is like the sh in she
z is like the ds in buds
c is like the ts in cats

As an example, I previously mentioned:

(Cǎo) which means "grass", "C" is the initial, and "ǎo" is the final.

It's pronounced more like "tsow" than "cow".

Getting started with Pinyin

When first learning Mandarin, there are two significant challenges. First is obviously learning a whole range of new words, but the second is learning to understand the large number of characters. Unlike English, where we basically use 26 letters from our alphabet, Chinese is estimated to have anywhere up to about 30,000 characters. Fortunately, only about 2,500 of those are in common daily use.

To avoid the challenge of learning both a new set of words, and a new set of writing at the same time, a common starting point is to use what's called 拼音 (Pīnyīn). The first character basically means to spell, and the second character refers to sound.

Pinyin uses pretty much the same alphabet as we do, with a couple of exceptions. It doesn't use the letter "v" and it does add "ū" (which has a umlaut, and is a type of "eww" sound with a curled lip – and pretty familiar in many European languages).

Not all combinations of letters make sense. Words are based on an initial and a final, and there are a defined set of each. For example, in the word:

(Cǎo) which means "grass", "C" is the initial, and "ǎo" is the final.

As another example:

(Céng) which means "floor" (as in a building floor), has the same initial "C" but a different final "éng".

But not all words that start with "C" have the same initial. For example:

(Chī) which means "eat", has the initial "Ch" and the final "ī".

Note also that the other strokes above the letters, different to the umlaut I mentioned before. These represent tones, and I'll talk more about them soon.

You might also wonder why the Chinese don't just use pinyin all the time, as the characters are easier to write, than their normal characters. The primary reason is that many words have different written characters, but the same pinyin.

(Mǎ) means "horse" and (Mǎ) means "code" but they have identical pinyin representations, including the same tone.

In the next two posts on Learning Mandarin, I'll write about Initials, then write about Finals.