Written by Rebekkah Mallicoat, (University of Texas at Austin) Student Correspondent CET Shanghai, Summer 2018
It is highly likely that most people looking at these characters have no idea what they mean. They may correctly guess that it is Chinese, but beyond that there are no identifying markers, no clue as to their meaning. If you have some basic knowledge of Chinese, you may know that the first part is either pronounced cháng or zhǎng, depending on the context, meaning something about elongation – either as a verb, getting longer/taller/growing, or just an adjective, long. The second character has two parts, meaning “soil/earth” and “finished/completed” respectively.
With some basic Chinese, you can know all this, but it is still unlikely that you can guess this phrase’s meaning.
These characters, you may be surprised to learn, mean “Great Wall”. The phrase appropriately highlights the true Great Wall of China, no longer just a barrier on the ground, but a Great Lingual Wall. If you don’t know Chinese, you don’t know China.
That may sound a bit harsh, but it is nevertheless true. Chinese characters are the evolution of ancient hieroglyphics, systematized and organized into the vast, precise modern Chinese language that holds within it the key to a culture thousands of years in the making. Our Chinese peers can read original documents that are thousands of years old; they can directly access one of the longest histories in existence.
There are thousands of Chinese characters, thousands of words to learn, each with a tone and a history that make them individually complicated. It is an extraordinarily difficult task.
It is also an intensely striking and fascinating journey into an entirely different way of thinking, a different way of seeing the world and ourselves within it.
Given that China is the second largest economy in the world, and especially given the tumultuous times we live in, understanding China and the many ways in which it differs from the West (and everywhere else) is an important part of future cooperation. If you are considering traveling abroad, and especially if you are considering doing so in China, it is likely that you understand the importance of such an undertaking.
If you are going to dedicate yourself to the task of learning Chinese and understanding China, you should know that it will require true perseverance. CET provides every single thing you can possibly think of to facilitate your effort: you live with a native Chinese speaker, take classes from Chinese teachers on a local college campus, in the middle of some of the densest cities on earth, filled with people.
If you bring along a determined mind you will leave with an entirely new, completely unexpected insight into one of the most mysterious countries on earth.