this is the archive for the ‘languages’ category:

the thousand character essay

The sky was black and earth yellow; space and time vast, limitless
Sun high or low, moon full or parsed; with stars and lodges spread in place
Cold arrives then heat once more; Autumn’s harvest, Winter’s store
Extra days round out the years; scale in tune with sun and spheres…

from a postcard i’ve recently received, i discovered that the chinese have a rhyming poem with a thousand different characters, which kids used to learn in school, as part of the character-learning process… how weird and wonderful is that?!

it’s called 千字文 and was written by Zhou Xingsi, about 1500 years ago.

a bit of history, from this archived page:

According to legend, Emperor Wu (ruled AD 502-547) of Liang sought a Chinese character literacy text for his son, and to this end had scholars select a thousand non-redundant characters from work left behind by famed calligrapher Wang Xizhi (AD 321-379) to be put to rhyme by the widely learned and talented scholar Zhou Xingsi, who also wrote China’s earliest extant example of a type of historical study known as a Shi Lu or “Factual Record”, the Liang Huangdi Shi Lu. Zhou now applied his heart and soul to the task and created a full rhyming text of four-character couplets, eight characters per line in seven chapters, in only one night; legend also has it that his hair and beard went completely white during those momentous hours. The imperial heir for whom it was written in turn grew up to close the circle by compiling the “Wen Xuan”.

The resulting Qian Zi Wen or Thousand Character Essay was, in the centuries that followed, distributed throughout the Chinese-reading world and has ever since been a major source of inspiration for calligraphers, due in part to its unique feature of non-repeating characters, and for Chinese schoolteachers, tutors, students and general readers as well. This was true especially throughout the ages when a grasp of the classical language was the key to success in traditional China.

hsk4: done!

so, finally, after months of studying, i’ve passed the hsk4! hurray!

the writing part didn’t go too well because of technical problems — there’s a section in which you should drag parts of the sentence into the correct order, and the trackpad of the mac decided not to work at the 11th hour… but even then, 228/300 is a pretty neat result.

level four is supposed to bring you to a level in which you can:

“Discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and are capable of communicating with Chinese speakers at a high standard.”

i’m not so sure about that though… it’s one thing to study for an exam, but conversation and free writing on different topics are a different ball game and i feel like 1200 words is barely enough to scratch the surface of communication. also, the exam does not include a speaking section, and so i’ve neglected my own speaking in favor of writing and reading.

next steps? for now i’d like to relax, start reading more and maybe get back to doing tandem sessions with chinese speakers to improve my speaking. 加油 me! :)

a lack of eyes that find beauty

been doing a few mock exams lately, to prepare for the HSK test and stumbled on this reading passage was in one of them:

“有人说, 很难在自己熟悉的地点发现 美丽的景色。 这说明对 自己越熟悉的东西,往往越没有新鲜感, 也就很难发现它的美丽之处。 所以生活中不是缺少美, 而是缺少发现美的眼睛.”

Some people say that it is difficult to find beautiful scenery in a place you are familiar with. This shows that the more familiar you are, the less fresh it is, the harder it is to discover its beauty. So life is not lacking beauty, but there is a lack of eyes that find beauty.

how distractingly poetic, for a language exam! :|

a chinese text adventure

chinese studies are going well, even if, naturally, no one knows whether the exam will actually take place next july. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ still, this is no excuse to slack on the learning, which at the moment means mostly learning new characters and making sure i don’t forget the old ones.

to do this, i’m revising whatever skritter throws at me everyday, using beeminder to make sure i study characters at least 2 hours/week… but it’s often not enough. to reach fluency in the 1200 characters needed to take the hsk4, one has to practice reading them fast and in context — not just in flashcards.

books like graded readers help, for sure… but progress is slow, and honestly, it’s hard to focus when there’a wall of characters in every page, staring at you.

meanwhile, sometime ago i found out about escape, which is a text-based adventure. remember those? you move a character around with text commands, receive a description of what the character is seeing at every step, and try to interact with the world in order to achieve a certain goal. the twist here is that it’s done in chinese, for people learning the language!

i find it a really clever and unexpected use of these text-adventures, as a story is slowly built in your target language, sentence by sentence. and there’s also an integrated dictionary, just in case.

i’ve died a number of times already on my quest to escape, but it’s been lots of fun. :)


one of the apps i use to practice chinese is called clozemaster. a cloze is a text or sentence with gaps that you need to to fill out with words. it’s a nice exercise, that gives the opportunity to practice reading and understanding words in context.

clozemaster turns that into an old school game, with an 8-bit look and rankings per language. naturally, with so many sentences being tested, some of them are bound to be “interesting”. here are some of my favourites so far:

the texts are always so uplifting!

what’s up with the cat?

and my absolute favourite so far, is this one that i got wrong. i chose “sports are the devil”, but turns out impulsiveness is the devil… i don’t know, i think i’m sticking with my version! :P

it works for lots of languages — give it a try if you’re learning one or just want to practice. :)