Trekking in Shangri-la: Songzanlin Monastery

In late July of 2010, a colleague and friend of mine attended and spoke at an academic conference at Yunnan University in Kunming. Since we were in a wonderful and scenic part of China, we decided to take some time after the conference to do some trekking. We both have interest in Tibet and the border regions of Tibet where about half of all Tibetans live. Yunnan Province in China’s southwest has three Tibetan Autonomous counties. One of my former students had traveled to the Shangri-la region in upper northwestern Yunnan and the region seemed really interesting with a high Tibetan population. My friend had also visited the city in the 90’s.

In 2001, in order to attract tourists, the city of Zhongdian 中甸 zhōngdiàn was renamed Shangri-la 香各里拉 xiānggēlǐlā. The name Shangri-la came to the west from the novel written by James Hilton about a mysterious Himalayan utopia isolated from the world. Several places in the Himalayas have been thought to be this place described in his novel, but only China was brazen enough to actually name a town Shangri-la.

In the old days, (in the 90’s and previously) Zhongdian was a dusty, almost one street town, where it was not uncommon to literally see Kham Tibetan “cowboys” ride into town on their horses. The old town consisted of narrow winding alleys through a large cluster of old wooden frame buildings.  After 2001, that all changed as the Chinese spent millions of yuan “improving” the city. These improvements included completely rebuilding the old city gearing it toward the tourist industry, widening streets, building luxury hotels, restaurants, an airport, and so on.

After our conference, we flew to Shangri-la from Kunming. We had arranged to stay at a small guest house (Kevin’s Trekking Inn) where my former student had stayed. It was also recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The place was run by a Han Chinese guy and staffed with a couple Tibetans. It was a bit of a mixed bag. The rooms were okay, but the water was unreliable, meaning we only had water for a short time each day, and what we did have was pretty weak and very cold. They claimed that their well was low on water, but we suspected there was some politics going on, that and the fact that the guesthouse was on a hillside where it was probably more difficult to get water.

Songzanlin Monastery

Our first objective was to visit the large Songzanlin Monastery 松赞林寺 sōngzànlín sì outside of town. We took a local bus that ran the length of one of the main roads in town up to the monastery. The bus was full of Tibetans. It made a mandatory stop at a new building where we were forced to get off and buy a ticket to the monastery (all part of the tourist plan). From there we boarded another bus that took us up to the monastery. The monastery itself was originally built in 1679, and is the largest and most famous Buddhist monastery in the Kham region of Tibet. It is also known as the little Potala Palace because of its traditional architecture. It sits on the side of a mountain at 10,827 feet. The whole complex consists of the temple, two lamaseries, and a large jumble of small wooden living quarters clinging to the hillside. My friend had visited this monastery in the early 90’s and reported that the monks were very friendly and showed him all around. We were looking forward to this kind of reception but were disappointed that even though we spoke Chinese, we received a pretty chilly reception. They did not seem to be interested in talking to us. I suppose at this point they were tired of all the tourists traipsing around their monastery.

Yak butter candles

Prayer wheels

We spent several hours wandering around the complex of temples and houses. All the structures were made of wood and a maze of narrow alleys cut through the dwellings.

Houses around the monastery

Houses adjacent to the monastery

House facing the monastery

Behind the monastery were many more houses, many of which seemed to be made of rammed earth and wood.

Houses behind the monastery

We walked through this small village and climbed to the top of the hill behind the monastery. There were the customary prayer flags as well as beautiful views of the valley.

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags are inscribed with prayers and mantras and are said to bring good luck. The wind carries these prayers across the countryside. For more information on prayer flags see, From the top of this hill there were nice views of distant Shangri-la, as well as distant mountain ranges, and surrounding farm and grazing land.

Shangri-la in the distance

We hiked off the back of the hill down into another valley with a few traditional Tibetan houses.

Traditional Tibetan houses

Racks for drying the barley crop

At the end of this valley was another small village full of traditional wooden framed Tibetan houses. These houses consist of a gate that leads into a courtyard. The houses are three stories with animals, (pigs, chickens, cows), on the ground floor, living quarters on the second floor and storage on the third floor. These houses were pretty nice. We would later stay in a much more rustic Tibetan house.

Songzanlin Monastery from a nearby village

Typical gate at a traditional Tibetan house

Traditional Tibetan house

After walking around for most of the day, we were really feeling the altitude and were tired, thirsty and hungry. We found a nearby restaurant and had a pretty basic (i.e. not very good) meal. But it was nice to sit and rest a bit before we took a bus back to Shangri-la.

Monks in front of the small restaurant

Feeling the altitude

Tibetan girls in the restaurant

I do not recommend that you go poking around in restaurant kitchens in China as they can be pretty unsanitary. But I couldn’t resist a peak into the kitchen of this place. After all it was right next to where we were sitting. They certainly weren’t trying to hide anything.


Tips for Self Study, Part 2: On Your Own in China

Primary school kids in Nanjing

Merely being in China does not guarantee that you will have a good language learning experience. The number of programs in China that offer Chinese language instruction is mind boggling. Some programs are excellent and some are pretty awful.

This post is for the many students, professionals, and travelers in China that are learning Chinese on their own and are not part of a formal language program. By following the advice below, you will be able to make good use of your time learning Chinese independently.

Take advantage of your environment 

Being in China is a great advantage to your language learning efforts. You have an instant language learning lab just outside your door. You are surrounded by people speaking Chinese; there are Chinese characters everywhere you turn and you are immersed in a living society where people act and react according to Chinese attitudes and standards. This can be intimidating, but you to be a successful language learner you must be bold. You cannot be afraid to speak and use the language that you have learned. Make it a point to use Chinese whenever you can. Take every opportunity to use Chinese, even if you could use English. You will make mistakes, but hopefully you will learn from those mistakes and improve with every language using opportunity, such as riding trains.

For many it is so easy to hang out with other foreigners, frequent the bars and restaurants where foreigners hang out, and otherwise avoid, sometimes subconsciously, using Chinese.

 Be positive and confident 

You must believe that you can learn Chinese and use it on a regular basis. If you believe that Chinese is just too hard, then it is a lost cause. Chinese is challenging for the western learner, but it is not impossible. It will take longer to learn than European, cognate languages, but you can learn it. Thousands of Americans have done it. The more confident you are of your abilities and your potential the more likely you will be a successful learner and user of Chinese.

Set Goals 

Making specific language goals can be a great motivator. Make daily, weekly, and monthly goals about what kinds of things you want to accomplish. It may be as simple as learning and using a few new vocabulary words each day, or as ambitious as  you want to be able to order a Chinese meal on your own by the end of the month. You may also have a goal to read a new newspaper article each week, and talk about it with a Chinese friend or colleague.

Enlist your friends and colleagues 

Ask your Chinese friends and colleagues to correct your pronunciation. This will be hard for most Chinese, so be insistent. You may need to really convince them that you want them to do this. You may offer to help them out by correcting their English. Often we go around saying something thinking it is correct only to discover later that you have been saying something wrong all along. This is usually because Chinese will be reluctant to correct your pronunciation. This results in what we call fossilized errors, that is, errors that are difficult to change because we have been making the error repeatedly over time. Chinese may complement you even if you only said two words to them. Don’t let this go to your head. Tell yourself that you need to study harder and that your Chinese is actually pretty poor. In general, Chinese people in China are usually surprised that foreigners can speak Chinese. No matter what you say, they will be impressed.

Repetition is key

Learning a foreign language really involves over learning. That is, you need to practice enough until it comes fairly naturally. Repetition is essential to mastery. The first time you do something in Chinese will probably be fairly difficult; it won’t feel very natural. But the twentieth time you do it, it will feel smooth, normal, and natural. This goes for speaking as well as reading. The more you use or see a word or pattern in context the more likely you will remember it and be able to reproduce it in a correct way.

Use what you have studied 

Meaningful learning involves contextualization. That is, you must use the material you have studied in real live situations, whether that be reading a newspaper article or having a conversation with someone. When you learn a new word or grammar pattern, try to use it in your everyday interactions. Using it will help you remember it, especially when it is used in a meaningful context. It is amazing how after learning a new word, you suddenly realize that you are hearing it all around you. When you hear a word used by Chinese around you, try to use it yourself. The more you use the language you have studied the faster it will become a part of your everyday working language.

Use a language learning notebook

Get in the habit of carrying around a small notebook. Jot down things that you see and hear. Write down vocabulary items that you have studied and want to use. Write down characters on a sign that you don’t recognize, or items on a Chinese menu. Later you can look these words up in a dictionary, or ask a friend what they mean. When you encounter a situation that you do not understand, jot down a few notes so you can ask someone later what was going on. This simple notebook can be a great language learning tool.

 Be a keen observer

Watch carefully how Chinese interact with each other. Pay attention to what they say and how they say it. Observe how Chinese haggle over prices in a market. Watch how the Chinese greet each other, how they take leave or each other, how they pay for items at a department store, and so on. If you are ever unsure about what to do in a given communicative situation, watch and listen to what the Chinese do, then imitate their behavior.  You will not be successful if you think you can just do things the way you do at home, but using Chinese to do it. You must do things the way Chinese people expect people to do things.

There isn’t always an exact English equivalent 

Get used to the fact that language learning, especially learning Chinese, that there is often no one-to-one equivalent of words and expressions in English. Rather than asking, how do you say “hi” in Chinese, the better question is “how do Chinese greet each other?” The answer then is, it depends on the situation and your relationship with the other person. Understand and accept that the Chinese do things differently; they say things differently than we do in the US. Ordering a meal in China is done very differently than in the US. Learn to play by the Chinese rules of the game. That is, learn how the Chinese get things done and follow suit.

Reading strategies 

Reading a text once is usually not enough. I recommend that you read a given text at least three times. The first time, read for the gist; get a feel for what the text is about. The second time, read for details. Try to understand the grammar and vocabulary. The third time, put it all together and hopefully understand the text better. Don’t write pinyin or English above characters in a written text. This will immediately become a crutch. The next time you see that passage you will immediately go to the pinyin and not the characters. It is better to write pinyin for a word or definition on a separate sheet of paper, or maybe in the margin where you can cover it up when you are reading. This allows for a nice neat, and authentic text and fosters real reading and not decoding. The more you read the better you will get. To really master Chinese characters you must use them. Be consistent and try to read something in Chinese everyday.

Flashcards are just a tool

Be careful how you use flashcards. Instead of just writing the English equivalent of Chinese words, write down the word in a Chinese sentence so you better understand how it is used. Just knowing how to pronounce a character and know it’s English equivalent does not guarantee that you will actually be able to use it in an appropriate context. Remember that flashcards are simply a tool. It is important to know what words mean, but to be successful you must be able to use them in the right contexts at the right time. This goes far beyond flashcards.

Consider hiring a tutor

Hiring a tutor can be very beneficial. You can tailor your learning to fit your exact needs and aspirations. More on this later.

Tips for Self Study, Part 1: Learning Resources

On the Nanjing University campus

Students ask me all the time questions like:

“I’m going home for the summer, how can I keep up my Chinese?”

“How can I improve my listening comprehension?”

“I’m taking a year off from my studies to work, what can I do to maintain my Chinese?”

And so on. There are quite a few resources out there but there is also a lot of junk as well. The internet has a wealth of resources but sometimes its hard wading through all the crap to find the good stuff. Below I outline some resources I have found to be useful.

Chinese Reading and Reference Software

These kinds of programs allow one to read Chinese online by having an instant pop-up dictionary wherever you place your cursor. In other words, when you place your cursor over a character, the definition pops up in a window. This can make reading much faster. They are sometimes called text annotators.

The three main software programs for this are:

Wenlin (

Keytip (

Clavis Sinica (

All three of these are quite powerful and have very good dictionaries. They are also fairly expensive, but sometimes you get what you pay for. Free programs that do much the same thing are around, but have some limitations. They include, Dimsum (which can be found at, and the fairly new Google Chrome Zhongwen Pop up Chinese Dictionary. I have just recently started using the Chrome dictionary and it is pretty good. It allows you to have instant access to a Chinese dictionary when you are browsing a Chinese website. You can find it by going to the Chrome app store and searching for “zhongwen Chinese dictionary.” Firefox also has a free pop up dictionary as well. These free options do not have all the functions of the paid programs, but they are still pretty good. I personally use Wenlin in my own learning and teaching and the Chrome dictionary when I am browsing Chinese sites on the web.

Two Chinese sites that function more as translation tools are:

Chinese Dictionary Apps for your smartphone

The best that I have found and use all the time is called Pleco ( I would pay for the upgrade to be able to write characters with your finger for automatic look up. I’m amazed at how good this feature is, even if you have crummy penmanship.

Online Resources is a clearinghouse of information with links to sites that offer all levels of resources for speaking, listening, reading, writing, proununciation, and just about anything else related to learning Chinese. is a subscription based service that provides all levels of listening comprehension practice. I have known people that have used it and really like it. has more Chinese related resources than any site I know. You can find information on everything from Chinese dialects, schools that teach Chinese, Chinese linguistics, learning Chinese, and everything else. Highly recommended.

Popular online dictionaries can be found at:

These are just a few, but the better resources out there, that can assist you in your Chinese language studies. If you know of other good resources, send them along in the comments section.

Remember that learning a language like Chinese really is a life-long process. It is important that you know how to learn on your own and that you know how to use the resources effectively to continue your studies beyond the classroom.

In a later post I will discuss specific self study strategies, like how to effectively use a tutor.

The Problem with Most Chinese Language Textbooks

One of my areas of research, and where I have published, is in the field of Chinese language pedagogy; that is, teaching Chinese as a foreign language. Part of that is materials development (i.e. writing and reviewing textbooks). I am invited on a fairly regular basis to review new textbooks. Some of these are recently published books and the reviews are published in professional journals, and others are prepublication reviews. That is, a publisher will contact me and ask for a critical review and a recommendation whether I think they should publish it or not. Suffice it to say, I have seen quite a few Chinese language textbooks in my career, and most have pretty significant problems. Of course this is just my opinion, but most of my opinions are based on solid research in Chinese language pedagogy.

1. Too much focus on characters.

The vast majority of Chinese language textbooks have you learning Chinese characters from the very beginning. So you end up learning pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and characters all at the same time. This is a huge overload of information for new learners, especially since the Chinese writing system is non-alphabetic and totally different from Western languages. All people the world over learn to speak and are completely fluent in their native languages before they learn how to read. You do not need to know how to recognize and write characters to be able to learn how to speak Chinese. But most textbooks present dialogues and sentences in characters which means in order to learn how to speak you first must be able to read. Not a very efficient or effective approach. Research shows that if learners first learn how to speak Chinese and have at least a basic understanding of the sound system, they learn characters faster and have better pronunciation than those that learn characters from the beginning. Presenting a Spanish or French dialogue in Spanish or French does not impede a learners progress, but presenting dialogues in Chinese characters does.

2. Lack of contextualization.

Most textbooks present dialogues or other text with little or no context. There is no discussion about the people speaking, their relationship with each other, where the situation takes place, and so on. Learners must then make assumptions about the language and why it is used. Textbooks would be much better if they contextualized the language so learners know why certain language is used. The easiest example of this is with greetings. If textbooks only present 你好, then learners assume it is used the same as “hi” or “hello” in English. Language has meaning only in context.

3. Too much information.

Most Chinese language textbooks seem to have used European language textbooks as their models. This is evident with long vocabulary lists and dialogues. For English speakers, learning 20 or 30 new Spanish vocabulary items in a lesson is not the same as trying to learn the same number of Chinese words. Remember that there are no cognates in Chinese, and the language is both linguistically unrelated and culturally remote. Information needs to be presented in more manageable units.

4. Culture is treated as an after thought.

You simply cannot separate language and culture. Language has meaning only in a culturally rich context. I’m talking about behavioral culture—how people act, communicate, and interact with one another. Memorizing the dictionary and knowing all about the grammar of Chinese will not insure you will be able to communicate effectively. You need to know how to communicate, what language is okay to use with certain people, and so on. Most textbooks treat culture as a separate thing and focus on things like The Great Wall, chopsticks, Beijing Opera, and Chinese paper lanterns. Contextualizing the language entails providing information about things like, how close you stand to someone, what to do with your hands, what kinds of topics are okay to talk about, how you go about greeting someone, do you shake hands, how you apologize to someone based on your relationship with them, and so on. It not just the language that must be learned, but how to communicate, which includes communicative conventions that all natives know subconsciously.

The perfect textbook does not exist, but they are getting better. Most Chinese teachers have spent more time than they would like modifying and supplementing textbooks that they were either required to use, or selected but were not totally satisfied with. There are not too many beginning level textbooks that I would recommend without reservations. However, there are two textbook series that have recently been published that I think are worth looking into. They are:

Kubler, Cornelius. Basic Spoken Chinese and Basic Written Chinese. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing. 2011.

Ross, Claudia, et. al. The Routledge Course in Modern Mandarin Chinese. London and New York: Routledge. 2010.

Both of these excellent textbooks also include workbooks and online resources. In short, what makes these textbooks stand out from all the others, is that they treat the written language separately from the spoken language, the language is presented in manageable units, the language presented is highly contextualized with attention paid to behavioral culture, and they are attractive and easy to navigate. They are both very pedagogically sound and the authors are both highly respected in the field of Chinese language teaching.  They are not really intended for self study, though a motivated learner could probably use them as such. They are much better as part of a formal course in beginning level Chinese.

In the future, I will do a detailed review of each of these textbooks.

Serve the People—A Book Review

A couple years ago I was in the University of Arizona bookstore browsing when I came across this book. I was immediately interested since it addresses one of my favorite topics—food and eating in China. I admit that I really enjoy eating when I am in China. In fact, I seldom (i.e. almost never) go out to eat Chinese food when I am in the States. I am too often disappointed with American style Chinese food. It’s not necessarily bad food, it’s just very different from authentic Chinese food that you get in China. Students often ask where the best Chinese restaurants are in town, and I have a hard time recommending anything. Usually the best Chinese food in town is made at the home of some Chinese family. Fortunately I am able to travel to China enough to satisfy my cravings for good, authentic Chinese food. I do cook Chinese at home on occasion to keep me happy between trips to China and have collected a few pretty decent Chinese cookbooks, some written in English from American Chinese writers and some in Chinese that I found in bookstores in China.

Now for the review.

Lin-Liu, Jen. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 2008.

The author is a Chinese American journalist living in Beijing. It should be noted that she is a fluent speaker of Chinese and it would not have been possible to do the research that she did without good Chinese language skills. I mention this because I think it adds credibility to her research and what she has to say. To be able to interview and interact with people without an interpreter I think is very valuable and will allow one to get stories that would otherwise be unlikely, if not impossible.

The title of the book comes from the socialist slogan coined by Mao Zedong and popularized by the communist party: 为人民服务 weì rénmín fúwù, which literally means “for people serve.” When I first arrived in China in the early eighties you could find lapel pins all over the place with this slogan. Though it is used less these days, you still hear it once in awhile, probably more in official settings.

This book is divided into four parts, 1) Cooking School, 2) Noodle Intern, 3) Fine Dining, and 4) Hutong Cooking. In the first part Lin-Liu describes her experience as a student in the Hualian Cooking School in Beijing, a three month course, Monday through Friday for two hours a day. At the end of the course students take a national cooking exam, are awarded a diploma and can then be hired to work as a cook in a restaurant. This does not mean that you have to have a cooking diploma to work in a restaurant, as I am sure there are countless small mom and pop restaurants all over China where they have received no formal training. The author learns all about Chinese regional cuisines, different kinds of foods, methods of preparation, and so on. She also gives the reader some insight into attitudes and practices of traditional Chinese education. For example, she learned very early in the course, “listen, bow, and copy” and don’t ask questions.

In the second part of the book, Lin-Liu apprentices with a noodle chef from Shanxi Province. She works in his tiny noodle stall in a warehouse district in Southeastern Beijing. Through much hard work she learns how to prepare a variety of different kinds of noodles. I think her goal here was not just to learn how to prepare and cook noodle dishes, but also to experience working in this very vibrant and important part of the Chinese restaurant culture, the food stall, which is really the equivalent of fast food in China.

In Part Three she moves to Shanghai and works in a high end Shanhaiese restaurant on the Bund called The Whampoa Club. Here she learns all about the opposite end of Chinese restaurant culture. The reader gets a glimpse into the high fashion world of Shanghai and the exquisite food that is prepared and consumed by the wealthy, both Chinese and foreigners. It is a completely different world from the noodle shop and yet many of the techniques used are the same.

The book ends with a rather short section on Hutong cooking. A 胡同 hútòng is an alley or lane and is used to identify many of the old Beijing neighborhoods characterized by courtyard houses and mazes of narrow lanes. Unfortunately these historic neighborhoods, which have been around for hundreds of years, are disappearing to new develpment. This part of the book is mostly about these historic neighborhoods and the people that live in them. She also discusses how these friends of hers shop and cook in their small hutong flats. It is an interesting look into these very cool neighborhoods. A couple years ago a friend an I spent a very enjoyable day wandering a hutong neighborhood admiring the architecture, eating at a small restaurant, and chatting with people.

Hutong near the Bell Tower in Beijing

Typical Hutong alley

I really enjoyed this book. Lin-Liu did an excellent job drawing the reader into the world of Chinese food and eating. The book is sprinkled with historical anecdotes and interesting facts, such as how MSG is made and used in Chinese cooking. The reader also sees an intimate portrait of regular Chinese people living ordinary lives in Beijing. Again this would not have been possible without Chinese language skills. I guess my bias as a Chinese language teacher is showing through here, but it goes without saying that learning a foreign language opens all kinds of doors not available to those without foreign language skills. For example, who is going to invite a foreigner to their home if they cannot communicate with them?

I highly recommend this book as a glimpse into contemporary China, particularly with regard to food and eating, which of course, is everything in China.

你吃饭了吗?“Have you eaten yet?”

To say that Chinese life revolves around food and eating is not an overstatement. Food is at the core of literally every Chinese holiday and a multitude of everyday activities. In fact, a very common greeting in Chinese is 你吃饭了吗? nǐ chīfàn le ma? “Have you eaten yet?”  It is an expression of well-being, or concern for the other individual. This seems pretty logical coming from a country that has endured centuries of on and off famine.

Food is so important in Chinese culture that the language is full of food and eating terminology. In fact, a search in the wenlin electronic dictionary for the word 吃 chī “to eat” found literally pages and pages of words and expressions that incorporate this word. A similar result was found with the word 食 shí also meaning “to eat” in many Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese. A sampling of the these terms include:

吃苦 chīkǔ eat-bitterness = bear hardship

吃力 chīlì eat-strength =  strenuous effort

吃醋 chīcù eat-vinegar = to be jealous

吃亏 chīkuī eat-loss = suffer a lose; come to grief

吃惊 chījīng eat-surprise = to be startled or shocked

A couple other food related expressions that are commonly used in everyday speech include:

铁饭碗 tiěfànwǎn       iron rice bowl = to have a secure job

炒鱿鱼 chǎo yóuyú    fry squid = to be fired, as in“他炒了我的鱿鱼” tā chǎo le wǒde yóuyú “He fired me” literally, “He fried my squid.”

吃不了兜着走 chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu

carry away leftovers from a meal = to get into serious trouble; for example if I said, 你吃不了兜着走 nǐ chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu  means that you are in serious trouble. Obviously the meaning in this expression is metaphorical.

China truly is one of the great ancient cuisines, along with France and Greece. It is a cuisine that has survived and evolved for thousands of years. What most Americans do not realize is that Chinese cuisine varies dramatically across the country. In other words, there is not just one kind of Chinese food, but rather many kinds of Chinese food, that use different ingredients, different methods of preparation, and different methods of cooking. There are also popular dishes that you can find all over China.

Below are a few photographs of some dishes I like to eat when I travel to China. In a later post I’ll discuss some of the different kinds of Chinese food.

鱼香茄子 yǔxiāng qiézi; fish flavored eggplant

宫宝鸡丁gōngbǎo jīdīng; Kung Pao Chicken

番茄炒鸡蛋 fānqié chǎo jīdàn; scrambled eggs with tomatoes

I don’t know the origin of the eggplant dish below, but I have only found it at one very small restaurant in Nanjing. It is truly delicious—spicy, sweet, and crunchy.

蟠龙茄子 pánlóng qíezi; coiled dragon eggplant

四季豆 sìjìdòu; green beans

南京盐水鸭 nánjīng yánshuǐyā; Nanjing salted duck

穆斯林羊排 mùsīlín yángpái; Muslim lamb ribs

烤鸭 kǎoyā; roast duck

And finally some dimsum dishes from Hong Kong.

More on Terms of Address

The owner of a small restaurant

A few posts ago I talked about terms of address. I’m afraid terms of address are quite complicated in Chinese. In fact, the complexity of the system is a direct reflection of hierarchy in Chinese society. That is, it is very important how you address an individual based on your relationship with them. If the person you are addressing is in a position above your own, you will address them differently than if they are in a position perceived as below your own.

Familial Terms

This is true for familial titles, or terms for your relatives as well. Basically, if a relative is older than you, you address them by their title. If they are younger than you, you can basically call them anything you want, from their given name to a nickname or anything else.

For a detailed list of familial terms of address, see this website. Be warned that the list goes on for pages.

In reality there are specific terms for just about every relationship you can imagine within an extended family. And the terms are different if you are addressing someone on your father’s side versus your mother’s side. It is incredibly complex. For example, last week I attended my nephew’s wedding, the son of my older brother. I was meeting with a Chinese colleague and wanted to tell him about it, but I first had to look up the term for “nephew” and not just any nephew, but the son of my brother, because the term is different if it is was my sister’s son.

Even in immediate families it is common for younger siblings to address their older siblings by a title, such as 哥哥 gēge or 大哥 dàgē for older brothers, and 姐姐 jiějie or 大姐 dàjiě for older sisters. If you had more than one older brother of sister, you would refer to them in the order of their birth. For example, your oldest older brother would be 大哥 and the others would be 二哥 èrgē,三哥 sāngē and so on.

Familiar Terms Outside the Family

Familiar terms are also used outside the family, even with people you do not know, such as with people that work in stores, restaurants, train stations, or friends of family members, such as your parents friends. For example, children will often address adults with terms like 大哥 or 大姐 for young adults, and older individuals with terms like 叔叔 shūshu (uncle) or 阿姨 āyí (auntie). In Northeastern China, the term 大妹子 dà meìzi can also be used for a young woman. For very old people, one can use the terms 大叔 dàshū or 大爷 dàyě for someone really old, or for women, 阿姨 or for a very old woman, 奶奶 nǎinai.

It is not necessary to memorize all the familiar terms. In fact, even native Chinese get confused and don’t know all the proper terms for all their extended relatives.

Other Terms of Address

A common way to address a child, whether male or female is 小朋友 xiǎo péngyǒu(literally “little friend”).

A fairly common term used to address people in the service industry, or those considered skilled workers or experts, such as drivers, coaches, and so on, is 师傅 shīfu. This term means “master” but is used beyond that specific meaning.

The term 服务员 fúwùyuán is also a term used in the service industry and is specifically used for waiters and waitresses, clerks, salespeople in stores, and so on. The term literally means “service personel.”

If you take the time to learn how to address people in China it will go a long way in showing  respect to those with whom you associate. It will also make those with whom you communicate feel comfortable, especially when dealing with a foreigner. Remember that the goal is for people to feel comfortable communicating with you, for you to communicate the way Chinese expect people to communicate.

Yuantong Temple 圆通寺 Kunming

A couple years ago a friend and I were in Kunming for an academic conference and decided to visit the famous Yuantong Temple. It was originally built in the late eighth century, but like all old structures in China, it has been rebuilt many times. It is a working temple with quite a few resident monks. It is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan Province. Pilgrims come from all over the area to pay their respects.

At the temple there are classes on Buddhist scriptures as well as many oridinary citizens praying. We observed several gatherings of people in the various pavilions singing, chanting, and praying together.

I really enjoy visiting Buddhist temples in China. Usually they are are very peaceful and a welcome break from the frenetic pace of large Chinese cities. I like talking to Buddhist monks about their background, why they decided to become a monk, their daily activities, and so on. I’ve had some very interesting conversations over the years. I remember at a monastery in Xi’an once chatting with a middle-aged monk. We were strolling through a quiet back courtyard with no one else around. Out of the blue he pulled out a handful of kettle corn from somewhere inside his saffron robes and offered it to me. My first thought was, “where did that come from?” I graciously accepted his simple gesture.

Another time at the Lingyin Temple and monastery in Hangzhou I struck up a conversation with another monk. After chatting for awhile he offered to show me around. After a brief tour of the main hall, he ushered me into his office. I was surprised to find a computer, fax machine, and other modern electronics. He offered me a cup of tea and we sat on burnished wood chairs as he explained why Buddhism is important to him.

Below are a few pictures from the Yuantong Temple in Kunming.

I’m not sure why the water is so green, but that is how it really looked. And it was full of fish and turtles.

Tending the incense and wax fire

One of the many resident monks

Detail of stone lion carving


A sleepy little lady

Monk shoes

A Trek on the Great Wall

In the Autumn of 2005, I was directing a study abroad group in China. In mid-October we traveled to Beijing to see the sights. This was a great time to be there. The weather was cool, and there were not too many tourists. If you have never been to the Great Wall, you do need to go; it is pretty impressive. Though there are lots of myths about the Wall, like that you can see it from space (you cannot), or that it was built in 200 BC (only very short sections are that old), and so on, it is still quite impressive and fun way to spend a day.

The vast majority of tourists go to either Bādálǐng(八达岭) or Jūyōngguān (居庸关). This is where the big tour groups will take you. They are also the closest to Beijing. I had already been to both places and was less than impressed. They have been completely rebuilt, there are cable cars, hundreds of souvenir booths, and hordes of tourists, both Chinese and foreign.

I had a friend who had done a trek on a less visited part of the Wall; this sounded much more appealing. I arranged for a bus to drop us off at a section of the Wall called 金山岭 jīnshānlǐng and pick us up at 司马台 sīmǎtái. This would give us a 10 kilometer hike along the wall. It was a beautiful, cool, clear, Autumn day. This section of the Wall is less developed, less rebuilt, has far fewer tourists, and at that time had zero souvenir shops.

We had a great time hiking this section of the Wall. It had a much wilder feel than the other more touristy sections. Some sections of the Wall were literally broken down with bricks laying all over the place.

There were about 37 watchtowers along this 10 kilometer stretch of the Wall. Some of them were very large and functioned as barracks for soldiers.

There are quite a few sections on this part of the wall that are broken down, and have not been restored like in the other popular sections.

I had heard from a friend that on the top of one of the towers in this area of the Wall there is a stone carving of a qílín 麒麟. This mythical beast is sometimes called a Chinese unicorn. It is actually an auspicious beast that has the body of a deer, the legs of a horse, the paws of a wolf, the tail of a cow, and either one or two horns. Apparently not many people know about this stone carving, or where to find it.

As we were hiking along the wall I asked a peasant, who was following us trying sell us some trinkets, about it. He got all excited and said it was in the tower that we had just past. So several students and I ran back to the tower. The problem was that the 麒麟 was on top of the tower and there were no stairs or ladders to get up there. We ended up climbing a vertical wall about twelve to fifteen feet high to an square entrance in the roof. There were cracks and holes where partial bricks were missing that we used for hand and foot holds. The climbing was not too difficult, but was a little unnerving. The view was quite nice from up on top of the tower. The 麒麟 was carved into one of the walls. It’s kind of hard to make out in this photograph.

When we did this trek we had our four year old son along. It was pretty tough going for him but we kept him motivated with small pieces of candy that we would give him when we arrived at each tower. That kept him motivated. I only ended up carrying him for a total of about twenty minutes of the 5 hour hike.

Right near the end of the trek, the wall descends a very steep slope into a narrow canyon. We saw this guy tending his sheep right near the end of this section of the wall.

This was by far the best experience we had in Beijing. It was really nice to get away from the crowds for a change. We only saw one small group of European tourists, and a handful of Chinese tourists the entire day. The only slight drawback were the several peasants who followed us the entire way trying to sell us books about the Great Wall, or t-shirts and other trinkets. The guy that followed my wife and son and I was pretty nice and we had a nice long conversation. Since it was past harvest time, he did this to make some extra money. He was from a small village nearby.

I highly recommend this section of the Great Wall. The only difficult part is the logistics. If you are traveling solo, or with just a couple friends, your best, and maybe only option, is to hire a taxi to take you to 金山岭 jīnshānlǐng and arrange to get picked up at 司马台 sīmǎtái. It is advisable to negotiate a flat rate before you set off. There may be public transportation, but it would be pretty long and potentially complicated. It’s also possible to go with a tour company to handle the logistics. Trips like this can often be arranged through tour companies in larger hotels.

How do you address someone in China?

This may seem like a rather simple question, but it is important, and differs from how we address people in the US. In China, hierarchy is an important part of social interactions. That is, who you are and your position in relation to others determines to a large extent how you address them. This is why, in China, that individuals will always exchange business cards when first meet so they know how to address each other.

Terms of address, or how you address someone, depends on your level of familiarity with the person and the formality of the occasion.  Below I describe various ways to address people.

1. Surname + title

This is the most formal, and safest way to address someone. In Chinese, surnames always come first. This kind of address is appropriate in all formal occasions and whenever you are addressing someone in a position superior to your own or to someone older than you. For example, if you are a student, and your teacher has the surname 王 wáng, you would address her as:

王老师 wáng lǎoshī          Teacher Wang

Or if your boss is a manager, and is surnamed Zhang 张 zhāng, you would address him as:

张经理 zhāng jīnglǐ            Manager Zhang

2. Full name (姓名 xìngmíng)

Unlike in the US, it is very common to address a person by their full name. It does not sound strange at all. Even people that know each other well, may address each other by their full names if they are in a more formal setting. Husbands and wives will even use their full names with each other when they are in public. This term of address is common in the workplace among colleagues, as well as at school with Chinese classmates.

You will most likely use these two terms of address with the vast majority of your Chinese contacts.

3. Given name (名字 míngzi)

You have to know someone pretty well to be on a first name basis. This is quite different from the US where you can meet someone for the very first time and refer to them by their given or first name. In China it takes quite a long time to get to the familiarity level to call someone by their given name. This term of address is reserved for in-group individuals, such as friends, classmates, and co-workers that have a similar social status as you.

4. Nickname

Just as in the US, nicknames are reserved for those with whom you are very familiar, such as family members, close friends, and close colleagues. Nicknames in Chinese are often given based on physical characteristics, or personality traits. These kinds of nicknames are called 绰号 chuòhào or the more colloquial term 外号 wàihào. Here are some examples of these kinds of nicknames:

小胖 xiǎo pàng             “little fatty” for the chubby person

四眼王 sìyán wáng      “four eyes Wang” for the guy that wears glasses

书呆子  shūdāizi          “bookworm” for the person that always has their nose in a book

A Chinese associate of mine explained to me that her nickname among her friends growing up was 老五 lǎowǔ. This name came about because she had four close girlfriends and she was the youngest. In Northern Mandarin 老 lǎo refers to the youngest member of a group. Since she was the youngest of the five, they used this nickname. You could also use this term for a relative. For example, if you had three uncles, you might refer to the youngest as 老舅lǎojiù or your youngest aunt as 老姨 lǎoyí.

Some nicknames are terms of endearment, and are often a variation of a person’s name and are called 昵称 nìchēng in Chinese. I had a friend who was a bit older than her group of friends so they gave her the nickname, 姐姐 jiějie, “older sister” and called her 冯姐姐 féng jiějie(her surname was Feng). Another friend was named 吴小琪 wú xiǎoqí and her parents and grandparents called her 琪琪 qíqí.

You are quite safe addressing Chinese with surname + title or by their full name. Be careful about using given names or nicknames. Relationships in China form and develop much slower than in the US and it may take quite a bit of time to get on those very familiar terms with someone.

One final note: in the US you will undoubtedly meet Chinese who will introduce themselves with their given name, either their Chinese given name or an English name. What do you call them? The rule I generally use, is that if you are speaking Chinese with them, I go by the Chinese practice of calling them by their surname and title or by their full name. If you are speaking English with them, and they have an English name, go ahead and use the English name. If they do not have an English name, I am uncomfortable calling most Chinese by their given name, even if we are speaking English.