Maria Holland

The Church Suffering

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2009 at 8:25 pm

I felt alright this morning, but skipped class just to be on the safe side.  Despite all the sleep I got yesterday, my body still wanted more, so I indulged.  Anyway, my stomach is still occasionally clenching in a threatening way, so I think I made the right choice. 

I didn’t leave my room until after 5 today, venturing out to get dinner before going to Mass.  I had 拉面, the hand-pulled noodles from the northwest.  These noodles were served in a ‘soup’ of hot water and diced green onion, so I’m pretty sure they’re the most simple thing I could have found to eat.  But try telling that to my stomach . . .

I missed Mass yesterday and, since daily Mass is in Minnanhua, I would not normally go until next Sunday.  But today is All Soul’s Day so they offered three Masses in Chinese.  I went, but kind of wish I hadn’t.  I am finally getting the hang of Mass in Chinese, but today was different because it was a feast day and it totally threw off my groove.  They skipped a bunch of parts that I kind of know (the Gloria, the Apostles’ Creed) and added in things that I didn’t know.  The worst thing was that they used different music!  Luckily, before Mass an old woman came over to me and handed me a missal opened to the day’s readings, so I was able to follow those pretty well.  Between hearing it once and reading over it twice, I managed to figure out that the first reading was from 2 Timothy:

我 们 若 与 基 督 同 死 , 也 必 与 他 同 活 ;我 们 若 能 忍 耐 , 也 必 和 他 一 同 作 王 ; 我 们 若 不 认 他 , 他 也 必 不 认 我 们 ;我 们 纵 然 失 信 , 他 仍 是 可 信 的 , 因 为 他 不 能 背 乎 自 己 。

If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.  If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

After this weekend, I’m ready to share my first big thought on the Church in China: it’s hard being Catholic in China.  There are a lot many reasons for this.  It’s not just the fact that Catholics or other Christians are a tiny minority.  It’s not just the government control of churches, preachers, and believers.  There’s also the way 60 years of communist rule have stripped Sundays of their special status, resulting in situations like we had back in November where everyone had to work or go to school on Sunday.  There are logistical difficulties, like the fact that my city of 2.5 million people is cared for by ONE priest, which means that some people may live prohibitively far from a church.  (Sometimes I feel like I live prohibitively far from the church – for instance yesterday, when I certainly couldn’t handle a one-hour-each-way trip.)

  I find it hard to separate these difficulties, which I am experiencing along with Chinese Catholics, from the difficulties that I experience as a foreigner, like the language barrier or the lack of a community.  I’m hoping that, as my stay here continues, I’ll begin to overcome some of these things, especially by understanding more at Mass.  As for the rest of them . . . well, I remember my priest telling me before I came that it might be a good opportunity for me to experience the Church Suffering in a new way.  

I obviously didn’t do a whole lot today, but I did come across some interesting articles on Chinese language learning that I would like to share.  They say some things that I’ve been thinking, so this saves me the trouble of formulating my ideas into words and sentences. 

Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language

Chinese has anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 different characters depending upon whom you ask, however the majority of them are archaic and would only be recognized by scholars of ancient Chinese. For more practical numbers, it is commonly believed that a college educated Chinese can recognize roughly five to six thousand characters and that general literacy can be achieved with two or three thousand.

From a purely quantitative standpoint, 3,000 characters may sound like a lot, and it is if you’re planning to master Chinese over the course of a single semester or a three month backpacking trip. But if you’re like most people, your path towards mastering Chinese will require somewhere in the neighborhood of two solid years of studying. At this rate, mastering 3,000 characters amounts to learning 5 characters a day, every day, for roughly a year and a half; hardly an excruciating task, so long as a consistent study plan is maintained.

But learning Chinese characters isn’t always as easy as it sounds, even if you are only learning 5 a day . . . The first few character lessons for any student of Chinese can be agonizing. For me personally, I’d liken my first 300 or so characters to memorizing arbitrary strokes of chicken scratch. Sure, 口looks like a mouth, and 山 appears vaguely to resemble a mountain, but ideograms as blatantly obvious as these are few and far between, and rarely as common as characters such as 我 (I) or 是 (”to be”) which bear little overt resemblance to the concepts they represent.

Thus, Chinese character learning must begin by rote. . . . However, at around the 300-500 character mark, a point of epiphany occurs and all of the chicken scratch and rote memorization begins to coalesce into an increasingly logical order. To give an example, let’s look at a character, 证, which I encountered last week while I was interpreting at an arbitration hearing. 证 means prove or demonstrate and is used in the Chinese words for testimony anddeposition. 证 is composed of two parts: 讠and 正. The former means speech or words while the latter denotes the concept of straight or upright. This hints to me that 证 will likely have a meaning similar to straight words. Furthermore, the pronunciation of 正 is identical to that of 证. Thus, even had I never before seen the character 证, I would probably have a pretty solid idea of both what it means and how to pronounce it.

Before anybody gets the wrong idea, most characters do not work out as seamlessly as 证. Also, the hints are rarely dead giveaways.

Skeptics are going to [say that] English vocabulary, just like Chinese characters, is also constructed of logical bits and pieces, these being root words.  English as we use it today, consists of primarily old Germanic words for much of its every days speech mixed with bits and pieces of Latin and Greek (just to name a few) which compose much of its higher and more sophisticated vocabulary. Chinese on the other hand, constructs the majority of its vocabulary out fragments of Chinese, combined together in different permutations. Simply put, Chinese is bound by a self-contained system of logic, whereas in English, centuries of wars and invasions have rendered the language into linguistic miscegeny of highest order. In English we have hepatitis. In Chinese, we get liver inflammation. In English when we eat the meat of a pig it’s called pork. In Chinese, it’s pig meat. And in English when you have a problem with your toilet, you find a plumber. In Chinese you call the water pipe worker.

In effect, when one studies English, they are actually studying the vocabulary of several languages. On the contrary, once one has gained a working knowledge of Chinese, vocabulary building occurs by repeatedly using the same set of linguistic constructs, only parsing them together in different combinations.

Another result of this is that Chinese has a far less extensive vocabulary than English. To illustrate this point, consider the following conversation I had over QQ with my Chinese friend “Jeremy,” a college educated insurance salesman in Fuzhou, regarding my recent GRE studying.

Jeremy: How’s your studying going?
Ben: Good, just a lot of work. I’ve been spending a lot of time on vocabulary words.
Jeremy: Vocabulary? What do you mean?…Chinese Vocabulary?
Ben: No, English vocabulary.
Jeremy: Why are you studying English vocabulary? You’re American.

This conversation might sound ridiculous when taken out of context. Among English speakers, it is virtually impossible to reach a saturation point where one can read widely and still fail to encounter new vocabulary words. But the vocabulary of the Chinese language on the other hand, is far more constrained. Constrained to the point that other than specialized nouns and jargon, an educated Chinese will rarely if ever encounter new vocabulary words. With this understanding, it makes sense why Jeremy was surprised that as a native English-speaking, college educated American, I was still expanding my vocabulary.


There is a common myth that 2000 or so characters are all you need to read a newspaper. This is a lie, a foul, vile, devilish untruth, but it’s spread for a reason, and that reason is this: the nature of Chinese words . . . is such that most of them are comprised of two or more zi – characters. This doesn’t sound like a big deal – after all, if you know the characters that comprise a word, you must know the word itself – until you realise that for a hypothetical foreign speaker of English, knowing the words “size” and “down” doesn’t necessarily mean that they will know the meaning, or appreciate the connotations of, “downsizing.” (Or, to paraphrase David Moser, from whom I’m kind of stealing this point anyway, knowing “up” and “right” isn’t the same as knowing “upright.”)

Thus, while a native speaker of Chinese may only need to learn 2000 zi . . . to read a newspaper, that’s because they already speak the language. You, as an outsider to the language, without the spoken lexicon that would give you the necessary background, will need to learn both the word-elements and the words themselves, which requires much more work and time.

  1. Wow!!! I really think those of us who are following your blog should get some academic credit:) Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been sharing my new found knowledge of the Chinese language, culture and numbering system with my colleagues. Believe it or not, reading your blog has qualified me as an expert on all things Chinese (in my circle of friends). Glad your recovering and thanks again for sharing your amazing experiences with all of us.

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