In Chinese, the holiday Christmas was referred to as 圣诞. Based on the meaning of the individual characters, it meant “holy birth”, which corresponded to the Christian belief that Christmas day was the day when Jesus, the central figure of the religion, was born. But you will be wrong to think that 圣诞 is a modern Chinese term that was born as a result of Western culture import.
The Mind Blowing Han Characters 《神奇的汉字》is a game show produced by China HunanTV. Together with the onsite experts, the contestants battled over mind-twisting challenges by quoting historical texts and events to explain how the correct answer was derived. At 30 minutes per episode, learning is bite sized. One can watch the program for free on HunanTV’s YouTube channel, known dearly as “Mango TV”.
If you prefer to learn stuff in a relaxed environment, without being resorted to forced learning, The Mind Blowing Han Characters 《神奇的汉字》will be the ideal TV program for your learning preference.
Explanation by Experts in Chinese Language
Although the focus of the game show was on the contestants, there were 2 experts present onsite to lend the show credibility.
Many times, the contestants would verbalise their thought processes to derive at the answer. Some times, they might get some details wrong despite giving the correct choice. These are the times when the experts would step in and correct them.
For example, many Chinese speaking people would be familiar with the quote “山无棱，天地合，才敢与君绝”, which comes from the character 紫薇 《还珠格格》 famous novelist 琼瑶 (Qiong Yao). However, that phrase contained an error. The 3rd character should rightfully be 陵 and not 棱. The former refers to a protrusion from the ground, while the latter refers to sharp edges; not all mountains have sharp edges, but all mountains are protrusions from flat lands. Even though the experts had explained the differences on air, there were times when contestants pronounced the word wrongly when the clause appeared in later episodes. That was one of the many times when the experts jumped out to correct the contestants for mistakes that people would usually overlook.
Or in the video above at 21:50, we learned that 囧 jiong3, which is a term used by young people for describing someone being in a dire situation, was originally defined as “act of opening the window to let the sun in” (which is has a positive vibe compared to the negativity associated in modern times).
He explained further by saying that the formation of the word reflected the action, with the 2 slanted strokes representing sunlight. By the same logic, the word 尚 has 3 strokes above the “window”, which represented sunlight shining from the rooftop, which was the spirit embodied by the word (of a higher class / spirit).
Learn Tone Pronunciations That Could Mean A World of Difference With A Slight Difference in Pronunciation
One of the many advice for learning a new language is to speak with native speakers. If you have trouble remembering the intonations of Mandarin, the native speakers would be able to help correct you.
Except that there are words that even native speakers mispronounce.
The terms could be as simple as 拜拜, which many pronounce as bai1 bai1/bai4 bai4. As explained in the video above (at 14:30), the correct tone is bai2 bai2.
Other than the 4 official intonations, there is one way of pronunciation known as 轻声 (light tone). Where the intonations are applied to individual words, the light tone only appears in a group of words (terms and phrases), and its use was to alter the meaning of the terms.
In the example from the video below (at 23:10), the term 买卖 is commonly pronounced as mai3 mai4. Mai3 mai4 refers to the act of buying and selling. When the light tone is applied to the 2nd word, it becomes mai3 mai, which refers to a transaction/business.
Or the example of 兄弟, in which xiong1 di4 refers to biological relationship of brothers, while xiong1 di is used for friends who regard each other as brothers.
Understand The Culture Behind The Characters, Terms and Idioms
Like many game shows, contestants had to choose from misleading options in their quest for championship. The most straightforward way was based on their direct knowledge of the right answer and they usually justified their choices by quoting the historical event or literature.
If the question was too difficult, they would go by elimination. They would eliminate unlikely choices by referring to historical texts. Sometimes, they eliminated options based on their understanding of Chinese language and culture itself. For example, as China has historically been an agricultural based society, most of the characters related to plants were already invented in the past. Therefore, in questions that asked contestants to select words that were created as a result of foreign culture import, they could easily eliminate words that were related to plants.
If all else fails, there are the experts, who would explain the origins of terms and tales and legends related to famous terms and idioms that we know.
For example, we know that 名字 ming2 zi4 refers to “name”, but they were made up of 2 individual characters which also referred to “names”. In ancient China, people have 2 names: 名 and 字. As explained by the experts in the video below (at 33:00), people with a higher status will address people with a lower status by their 名, while peers call each other by 字. How then do you address people with a higher status than you?
Usually, there would be official terms for people with higher social status – just recall all the different names we have for the elderly in our families (one term for paternal grandmother, one for maternal grandmother, the sister of your father is addressed differently from the sister of your mother etc). In the worst case scenario, we will address someone senior by their more uncommon name 号.
Bite Sized Learning
The final 2 reasons to watch The Mind Blowing Han Characters 《神奇的汉字》are quite straightforward. Each episode is 30 minutes long, which is an ideal duration for learning. Any longer, our brains would literally be blown.
Each episode is further broken down into small challenge segments, which makes this the most suitable program to watch on the go.
Free To Watch
Finally, The Mind Blowing Han Characters 《神奇的汉字》is available on YouTube to watch for free. Admittedly, this is not a variety show as popular as Sisters Who Make Waves 《乘风破浪的姐姐》, but this also mean there isn’t as many advertisements to go through as the latter show!
The Mind Blowing Han Characters 《神奇的汉字》is a bite sized, free to watch game show that was as interesting as it is enriching. The onsite experts not only lent credibility by explaining why answers should be the way they were, and pointing out subtleties in the use of the language, they also provided historical context to the terms and idioms commonly used in the Chinese language.
That being said, there is no English subtitles to the videos. Therefore, one must be confident in reading and listening to Chinese language to have a grasp of the content. However, since it is available on YouTube, it is easy for us to pause and rewatch parts that needed more time for digestion. Additionally, this show helps us understand and use Chinese beyond the basic, monotonous usage.
Quoting a memorable question, after a competition, the winner would say to the loser 承让，承让 cheng3 rang4, which means he owed the success to the loser who gave him some leeway. In response, the loser should reply 佩服，佩服 pei4 fu2, which meant the loser acknowledges the strengths of the winner. It reflects the culture of humbleness in the Chinese society, where winning is not about bulldozing the loser!
For those who are interested to learn and understand the Chinese language and culture, you can start watching the game show from the playlist attached below. If that is not enough, you can search for season 1 of the show on China HunanTV Official Channel on YouTube.
Back to the opening paragraph, 圣诞 is an ancient Chinese term, which was used to refer to the birthday of emperors. It was first coined by Song emperor Song Taizu, who made his birthday a public holiday. It was from Song dynasty (960–1279) that working people got to have more holidays, as the empire prospered and productivity increased.
Song dynasty was a prosperous time in Chinese history, as evident from the appearance of many famous historic characters and literary works. A popular TV series based on Song Renzong (1022 – 1063) of Song dynasty was aired in early 2020. The series was praised for its detail in the remake of costumes, architecture and rituals, reflecting the culture back then. If you are interested in learning Chinese culture, Serenade of Peaceful Joy (清平乐) is a good drama to start. You can start by reading my post based on the TV series, where I picked 5 famous historic characters who have personalities similar to modern people.