Mandarin, Tai-ji and Wushu

I seem to continually forget that the main purpose of coming to China, beyond learning about the culture and to be honest, just coming, was to learn some mandarin. So far, I feel lucky enough to have learnt a little bit but definitely not enough to get around on, meaning we usually have to revert to mimicry and speaking slowly, neither of which particularly help. Even when we attempt to speak in Chinese, we’re rarely understood, however, I think the effort is appreciated!

The biggest battle is communicating with taxi drivers – it helps to get the address written down in Chinese characters rather than attempting to say things phonetically. Pinyin, standard written and spoken Mandarin, is entirely different from English. Unlike most Latin-rooted languages, it is entirely tone-based so if you’re trying to say stop (tíng) or music (tïng), you may have a potentially fatal accident on your hands. Taxi drivers usually enjoy the two odd questions that we’ve learnt: “Are you busy?” (Nî máng ma?) and “Are you tired?” (Nî lèi ma?). (Apologies to anyone if I’ve got the accents wrong – I still get confused!) They often start replying to us in Mandarin, at which point we shrug our shoulders and smile. Not very helpful. Three weeks is far too short to make a substantial headway into a new language, especially one as complicated as Mandarin seems, however, it’s definitely a good introduction and one that has made me want to learn more about the language and the culture.

We spent most of the first few lessons, learning the 4 tones (­, ^, é, è) – I’ve used e to represent the last two tones there, as I can’t seem to find them in the symbol chart(!) – and how to pronounce letters. This sounds really obvious, but the sounds of Mandarin are entirely different to those of English and thus, being a native English speaker, I find it difficult to control the impulse to pronounce something as you always have. The language is as different as I thought it would be, but also surprisingly musical, Chinese class often feels more like singing than learning a language! The teaching style is mostly repeating after the teacher, in order to learn the sounds, practicing amongst ourselves and then creating a conversation based on what we’ve learnt that day. I think most people going on the Study China Programme overestimate how big a part of the programme the mandarin lessons are. Although it is very important and the small parts we’ve learnt about the characters is very interesting, you learn far more mandarin by interacting with taxi drivers, asking directions and buying things in markets (a good excuse to spend far too much money!)

One of the best parts of the lessons was learning “Frères Jacques” in mandarin, which translates as a song about two tigers without tails or eyes. The last line is “it’s strange, very strange.” Strange indeed.

Other than Mandarin, the other main organized activity was Tai-ji and Wushu. Tai-ji as is widely known consists of slow, deliberated movements, which are far more taxing than they seem. It’s also surprisingly relaxing and energizing at the same time. We usually start each lesson with a salute to the teacher, which consists of holding your fist against your palm – you have to be careful which hand is which, as the other way means you want to fight! Although I enjoyed Tai-ji, I found Wushu far more enjoyable. Wushu is a martial art, and therefore far more energetic. The instructor was a small, stockily build man who would shout at us to show him “eyes like a murderer” and growl as he kipped around, positioning people, far beyond their limbs would normally stretch. Over our lessons, he taught us a routine consisting of a lot of “hah’s”, bent knees, stretches and kicks. Definitely fun and something I would actually consider carrying on.

The majority of our slightly over-planned days consist of 2 or 3 hours of Mandarin in the morning, sometimes an hour of Tai-ji before, and often an activity of some sort in the afternoon. As you can probably see from my previous post, usually a night out – sleep is definitely not a priority! As you can probably imagine, it’s made keeping up with this blog difficult, but I hope you enjoy my slightly sparse entries anyway. The lack of a clear stretch of free time means exploring much further out of Hangzhou and Shanghai difficult, however, our travels after will include Xi’an and Beijing, touristy however, places that shouldn’t be missed whilst in China. Apologies for the lack of pictures in this entry, as I didn’t manage to take any of our Mandarin classroom which probably wouldn’t make for particularly interesting viewing anyway – I should make up for this in my next blog, which will be of one of the best theatre performances I’ve seen in my life.


  1. ‘Wo mang ma?’ In fact means ‘I am busy?’, which might be why your taxi driver is so entertained. You’ll be wanting ‘Ni mang ma?’ Likewise with ‘wo lei ma’? (and yes, you’ve got the accents wrong!)

    and perhaps you mean Tai Chi rather than Tai Ji?

    Otherwise though, great to hear about China!

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  2. Sorry, that was more the lateness of the hour than actually having it wrong! I’ve now changed it.

    Also, I always thought it was Tai Chi as well, however, while I’ve been here it’s been spelt as Tai ji everywhere so that’s what I’m following.

    Thanks very much for your comment!

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