Chinese is a tonal language. Change the tone and you change the word. Here’s a real-life example on how hazardous the wrong tone can be:

Many years ago, one of my Kung Fu brothers shaved his head. I was trying to be clever and said ‘Jièbā’ in my broken Mandarin. Jièbā (ring scar 戒疤) refers to a Chan Buddhist ritual where monks burn incense on their shaven pates. This leaves small circular scars on their heads which you might have seen dramatized in so many Kung Fu movies. Each resulting scar is evidence of a particular vow of asceticism. The practice was banned in China by the communists when they were oppressing religion, but it is slowly making a comeback. My comment back then was to chide to my freshly shaved brother into letting me burn scars into his forehead to improve his Shaolin Kung Fu (he was Catholic so that was unlikely). In retrospect, I don’t know why I said it, probably just to show off, because that classmate didn’t speak Chinese at all.

However, another kung fu brother from Beijing was standing next to us, so Mandarin was his native tongue. He looked at me in shock, spanked me on my shoulder, and exclaimed ‘Where you learn that word?!’ Then he laughed and chanted it derisively whilst pointing at our bald bro. When he said it, I realized my mispronunciation. Jiè has a descending tone. It starts high and ends low. That’s what the tonal mark over the è means. My monotonic pronunciation sounded more like Jībā. The ī in Jībā is a flat tone, akin to a monotone. Jībā (鸡巴) literally means ‘chicken, desire’ but it’s also crass slang for ‘penis’ (it fascinates me that , the Chinese character for ‘chicken,’ can also be translated as ‘cock.’) My Beijing bro thought I was saying that our classmate’s bald pate made him look like a dick. I just went with it. It was hilarious amongst my kung fu brothers, however it was interpreted.

I am not a native speaker of Chinese. I’m American born Chinese – an ‘ABC’ as we are acronym-ed – and my parents only spoke English and Hawaiian pidgin. My dad spoke a little Hakka Chinese, but not well enough for me to learn it from him, and like many immigrants, he focused on English so as not to stand out. Back when I was travelling in China a lot, I struggled with Mandarin. The Chinese are unforgiving on those of us of Chinese descent that have lost the language. My weak tones always betray me. It’s an extra aspect you need to learn to understand Chinese because as you can surmise from my Jièbā/Jībā story, the wrong tone can get you in trouble.

Modern Chinese Fonts

The new editions of Dr. Yang’s qigong books include pinyin tonal marks for pronunciation and modern Chinese fonts. For the uninitiated, this requires some translation, and we’ll start with the fonts because that’s the easier.

If you’re lucky enough to still have some of Dr. Yang’s early books, those were published before Chinese character fonts were readily available. The characters were painstakingly written out by hand and placed into those books as individual graphic files (and if you know graphic design, you can imagine what a task that was). However, Dr. Yang and the YMAA Publication Center has always striven to bring the most information to the English readership, so their inclusion was important.

Today, there is a selection of different Chinese fonts available. This not only gives the characters a clean uniformity, but also provides you the ability to scan and capture them easily. This is incredibly powerful because after you copy them, you can cut and paste them into your web browser and search them on the web. If you think the English web is vast, check it out searching in other languages, especially Chinese. Remember, TikTok is a Chinese company.

China has the largest digital community in the world with about 1.03 billion netizens as of 2021. Compare that to about 307 million netizens in the United States, and that only places us third. We’re also behind India, which has about 836 million. What’s more, the web translators are getting better every year. Although they are still far from perfect, with a little interpretation, they are functional. Searching the web by Chinese characters unlocks a whole new multiverse of information and using standardized font makes this more accessible.

Pinyin Tonal Marks

Pinyin is the international standard for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese. It was developed soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and adopted by the United Nations in 1986, although Taiwan hasn’t committed to it. Some non-pinyin spellings are too deep in the common English vernacular to be converted such as kung fu (pinyin: gōngfu) and tai chi chuan (pinyin tàijíquán). Nevertheless, pinyin romanization is critical to political and scholarly documents where a Jièbā/Jībā error might be catastrophic.

There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese: high flat, rising, dipping, and falling. Some also include a neutral tone, which is flat; it’s monotonic like English. The tonal marks are the little markings over the vowels denote these tones and when voiced, your tone goes the same direction as the mark. Below is an example how the same word – ma – can have different meanings depending upon the tone:

  1. mā 妈 (mom). Begins high and stays high.
  2. má 麻 (hemp). Begins at mid-range and ends high.
  3. mǎ 马 (horse). Begins mid-range, dips low, ends mid-range.
  4. mà 骂 (scold). Begins high and ends low.

Now here is where it gets complicated. Those four words above are only a few of the translations of the word ‘ma’. There are at least twenty other Mandarin words that sound like ‘ma’ if you don’t provide the tones. Using the tone narrows the possible translations. For example, the 3rd tone mǎ can also mean number (码), agate or cornelian (玛), or ant (蚂).

Qīng is another example of multiple meanings for one word with the same tone. The character with the same high flat tone can mean three different things. Qīng can mean clear, clean, and peaceful (清), light, as in weight, (輕), and the color of blue (青). As you can see, all three of these words have different written characters but they are tonal homophones. The same goes for Jīng. This can mean essence (精), channels or meridians (經), and classic or sutra (經). Now here’s where it gets even more confusing. The last two characters are the same. Here they are tonal homonyms as well as homophones. It’s the same word but it has multiple meanings in different contexts. This is akin to ‘spirit’ in English which can also mean essence, as well as referring to a ghost, alcohol, or an attitude. Jīng and spirit are connected by their root words which have diverged in separate distinct meanings as their respective languages evolved. Understanding their old root connections is helpful when interpreting their meanings and how it might apply to your practice.

What’s even more confusing is that the tones can change depending upon where they are placed in a sentence, but we won’t get into that. Just know that without tones, it’s difficult to understand what might be said. And even with the tones, the context is crucial. If these tonal homophones and homonyms are intimidating, don’t worry. That’s more advanced Mandarin. You don’t need to be fluent in Mandarin to practice. The important thing is that you know that these unique qualities of spoken Chinese exist so it won’t confuse you should you encounter some translation glitch on your quest for more wisdom.

To aid you even further, these new editions of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming’s Qigong books are accompanied with an online spoken glossary where you can see the words with their pinyin tonal marks and modern Chinese fonts, as well as hear Dr. Yang pronounce them.

The first step in penetrating Mandarin is to learn the words – the basic vocabulary of the arts – to deepen your understanding. The second step is to be familiar with the tones and through these new editions of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming’s Qigong books, you have the keys to unlock these mysteries more profoundly. I hope that it helps you avoid making a Jièbā/Jībā faux pas like I did.

The above is an original article by Gene Ching, staff writer for YMAA Publication Center.