Taiping Rebellion and War of Canudos – Week 18

The classic Chinese films I’ve watched in Mandarin are mostly historical war epics. Fortunately, I enjoy this genre. Most recently, I watched The Warlords, which happens to be free on Amazon Prime. I enjoyed it, and would call it a good movie, if far from the quality of Hero or even The Emperor and the Assassin. I’m also glad to watch this genre because I gain insights into Chinese history.

The Warlords seems to be historical fiction, but to understand the context, I had to look up the Taiping Rebellion. I will admit that I was completely ignorant about this portion of Chinese history, which is amazing considering that at least 20 million people died in this 19th-century military conflict. This figure is astonishing. Consider that in the American Civil War, which cost more American lives than World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined, about 620 thousand people lost their lives (only 3% the amount in the Chinese conflict). The Taiping Rebellion, also a civil war, occurred in the same historical period as the American Civil War, though it lasted about three times longer.

The Taiping Rebellion also reminded me a bit of a violent internal conflict in Brazilian History, the War of Canudos, though, again, the Chinese conflict completely dwarfs the Brazilian one in terms of sheer loss of life. The War of Canudos was also a 19th-century episode (in this case, end of century) inspired by a spiritual leader who attained the status of a prophet. Antonio Conselheiro, having suffered personal disappointments, wandered the backlands of the Brazilian northeast for many years before settling down and attracting a large community of followers. Eventually, the federal government became alarmed and sent successive military campaigns to destroy the community. The military was rebuffed on multiple occasions by the ragtag group of ardent, if malnourished followers until it finally succumbed to the modern weaponry, including machine guns, of a large and professional expeditionary force.

Similarly, The Taiping Rebellion was initiated by Hong Xiuqan, a poor but studious Chinese man who suffered personal disappointments, in particularly failing to pass extremely difficult imperial examinations, before becoming a prophetic spiritual leader. Hong came into contact with Christian teachings, and a number of visions led him to proclaim that he was the younger brother of Jesus and that God had given him the mission of destroying wrongful forms of worship, including Confucianism and Buddhism. Like Antonio Conselheiro, his tens of thousands of followers rang alarm bells in the central government, which dispatched professional troops to destroy the movement. These troops were handily defeated, as their Brazilian counterparts would be later by Conselheiro’s followers. A key difference seems to be that Hong became a more proactive political figure, introducing social and bureaucratic reforms that appealed to a wider public, and even went on the offensive militarily. As a result, the conflict became much broader and longer lasting.

This post has little to do with learning Mandarin, but I hope it shows how my experimental method can expand one’s cultural and intellectual horizons, in particular through viewing quality Chinese movies.

How to Teach Your Children Mandarin Chinese – Week 17

Are you an expecting parent or a parent with a child under 4 years of age? Do you want to guarantee your child an IQ boost, a competitive edge, and easy access to a millennial culture? Do you want your child to be fully prepared for the 21st century? Would you like your child to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese?

Well, I can tell you how to do it—and it’s probably much easier than you think. And I’ll tell you free of charge! That’s right, no expensive e-books, no exclusive seminars, no pricy memberships. All you have to do is read my blog, which is free and entertaining!

First, let me tell you about my six-year-old daughter. She doesn’t speak Chinese, but she speaks native English, despite never having lived in an English-speaking country or done any schooling in English. She reads and writes at or beyond her grade level in English, and uses the language as fully and creatively as a child who has lived in the United States all her life.

If you knew us personally, you might raise two immediate objections to the implied comparison. First of all, her father is a native English speaker and has used the language with her since birth, while you speak little to no Chinese. That’s true, even though the time she spends speaking with me in English makes up 10% of her day, while the rest is all in Portuguese.

Second, you may say that English is much easier than Mandarin. If you’re a bit more sophisticated about language acquisition, you would say that English is easier for a Portuguese speaker.

That objection is easier to counter, so I’ll start with it. Difficulty in language acquisition is undoubtedly a function of proximity to your native language, but that applies to second language acquisition, and in particular to adults. The whole issue of inherent language complexity or difficulty can be seen as essentially a moot point if you consider that children worldwide acquire their native language at about the same age. Children attain various levels of communicative ability at the same pace, regardless of whether their maternal tongue is English, German, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Zulu, or Mandarin.

In addition, it is extremely common in various parts of the world for children to acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and in many cases those languages are unrelated. For example, a Basque child may learn Basque (a non-Indo-European language*) and Castilian Spanish, while a Burundian child from an educated family might learn Kirundi, Swahili, and French simultaneously. More to the point, undoubtedly countless Chinese American children right now are switching effortlessly between Mandarin and English in their homes.

Therefore, there is nothing special about Mandarin or any other language that would make learning it alongside your native language vastly different from my daughter learning English and Portuguese simultaneously.

Now to the first objection. Let me answer it by telling you about my Brazilian friend and colleague, Mr. Lima. Until recently, Lima and his family had never traveled to an English-speaking country. Although he speaks English, his wife does not, and the language is not used in his home. His daughter has attended exclusively Portuguese-language schools. Nonetheless, when they took their daughter to the United States for the first time when she was 5 years old, her English was so good she had no trouble communicating. Prior to that, they had enrolled her briefly in English language courses for children (including at the Natural Language Institute), but when she entered, she already placed at an advanced level.

So what was Lima’s secret for his daughter? It turns out it was the same secret I have also used to full effect with my own daughter: children’s videos in English. In my daughter’s case, I would say watching English-language videos accounts for at least 30% of her native fluency in English. And in Lima’s case, his daughter’s advanced level of English, prior to enrolling in English courses or traveling abroad, was probably 90% due to watching videos in English.

There is no reason you cannot do the same with your children in Chinese. If you can get your children to watch an hour or two of videos in Mandarin from an early age, I guarantee you that in a couple of years, they will obtain excellent oral comprehension, which you can then build on by enrolling them in classes (preferably with a private teacher or in a very small group) and/or by taking trips to Mandarin-speaking countries.

The reason I recommend this be done with children under 4 years of age is that they will offer little or no resistance. In particular, if you can get your acquiescing 1-year-old infant accustomed to Chinese videos, by the time they are old enough to start complaining and insisting on their own preferences, they will understand enough to stick with it (with a little enforcement on your part—Lima only allowed his daughter to watch cartoons if they were in English).

So, now that you know this great secret, I know what you’re thinking, or at least what’s in the back of your mind. WHAT are you going to get your kid to watch in Chinese? How are you going to get access to videos in Mandarin? How do you know if they are watching quality content that will contribute to their education and morals and not some strange show that will unhinge their Western socialization process and give them recurring wuxia nightmares?

You don’t have the time or energy to do in-depth research on Chinese children’s programming and then mail order DVDs from Beijing, do you? WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Well, I HAVE THE ANSWER FOR YOU. This is where my Mandarin language acquisition experiment comes in!

What if I tell you that by typing two words into YouTube you can access endless videos in Mandarin that are ideal for your small children? That’s right, at zero cost, and with the slightest of efforts on your part, your children have at their disposal years’ worth of quality programming for toddlers. This show is specially designed to get Chinese children to learn Mandarin—including the recognition of many Chinese characters. And—newsflash—your small child’s highly plastic American/European/Brazilian/etc. brain is not essentially any different from the brains of toddlers growing up in Beijing or Shanghai, so they will learn just the same.

So, what are these two magic words? I know what you’re thinking. This is where I require you to click on a series of links, watch some cheesy promotional videos, and finally pay for my exclusive e-book. NO! I already told you! This advice is absolutely free, no gimmicks! So, without further ado, here are the two words:



This show will teach your kids to brush their teeth and they will never forget to wash their hands. They will learn to be friendly, polite, eat fruits and vegetables, and respect their elders. And, most importantly, I give you my personal guarantee that if you get your little kids addicted to this show, such that they watch one or two hours per day of it, in a couple of years they will understand Mandarin quite decently for their age level.

Of course, your job as a parent won’t be completely finished. You’ll still have to teach your kids to ride a bicycle. And you should eventually enroll them in Chinese lessons, get in touch with your local Chinese immigrant community to find opportunities for them to make friends and play in Chinese, and take them on a couple of trips to mainland China, Taiwan, or Singapore. But have no doubts: Qiao Hu will lay the groundwork.

Stay tuned for a future post about using dubbed Disney movies to hone your children’s Mandarin language comprehension skills!


* The origins of the Basque language are unknown, but scholars believe it descended from pre-Indo-European languages present in the Iberian Peninsula.


Mandarin Vocabulary – Week 16

I know some of my readers are curious not only about how much Mandarin I’m understanding—which I’ve commented on regularly and which I’ve made a graph about—but also about what type of vocabulary I’m picking up and consolidating. Therefore, I will dedicate this short post to giving a sample of the words and expressions that I’ve learned.

First, a couple of clarifications. I’m not studying written Chinese, nor pinyin. So the way I write words might seem silly and is probably inconsistent. It’s just whatever comes to my head as a rough way to transcribe the sounds into an English type of spelling.

Second, writing posts is absolutely the only time I write down words. My experiment does not include making any kind of notes. I do this solely for the purposes of my blog, not as part of the learning process (and believe it has a negligible impact on my learning).

Another third point I should reemphasize is that, since my experiment does not allow me to get feedback or check my learning with people who actually speak Chinese, please do not specifically try to teach or correct me in the comments. You can certainly give me an overall opinion of whether I’m doing well or poorly, just not get into specific words. This lack of feedback also means I might be making serious mistakes, but that’s fine and is part of the whole experiment (and the natural learning process).

In watching The Emperor and the Assassin, I learned the word sha, which means kill. With that knowledge, it was easy to understand the full sentence (which I’m really happy about), Wo pu sha nee, since I already knew Wo (I or me or my), pu (no or a general negative) and nee (you). Therefore, this extremely useful phrase (because I can say it to anyone and it might help me in a pinch haha) means I will not kill you. The verb tense was clear from context, and it seems to indicate that verbs are not conjugated in Mandarin (or not always).

I learned many weeks ago that Nee shi shey? means Who are you?, which brings me to a very important word, shi, which is the verb to be. For example, Wo shi Victor would mean I am Victor, or simply Shi wo would mean It’s me.

As suggested above, the pronoun wo seems to serve as a subject pronoun (I), object pronoun (me), and possessive pronoun (my). That is also the case for nee. These are among the first words I learned and have had ample opportunity to confirm and consolidate. Recently, I believe I have learned my third personal pronoun, which is of great importance. I’m still not entirely sure about it, but I believe that ta means he, she, and it.

Dandanmeans wait. Dandan wo means wait for me.

The most used word in Mandarin, with the possible exception of the personal pronouns and shi, seems to be hao, the very first word I learned, and which can have many translations, but is always positive—good, okay, great, beautiful, etc.

I know few verbs, but one very important one I’m pretty confident in is ba, which means go. One of the places I picked this up was from the Frozen song Let it Go, or Sui ta ba in Mandarin, but this of course would not have been sufficient, since I watched this song with my daughter in several languages that I speak, and the specific meaning of the refrain often varies. For example, in Brazilian Portuguese it’s sung as Livre estou or I am free, while in continental Portuguese it’s sung as Já passou or It’s already passed. However, I’ve heard the word ba in various other contexts that appear to confirm that it means go.

Another very important verb is to know. I believe it is (or can be) chi in Mandarin, but I’m not sure yet. And I do know the verb ai (pronounced like “I”), which means love, so that Wo ai nee means I love you.

A very important recent acquisition is ka, which means look or see. I usually can pick this out when used in the form Nee ka, which means Look! (literally, you look or you see).

I know the numbers from 1 to 10, and believe I can continue counting to at least 19.

I know the words for mom and dad, mama and baba, while mother and father are something like muzenand fuzen—the z may be closer to an r.

Sheygua means fruit, and while I watched a Qiao-hu video that teaches the names of several fruit, the only one that stuck so far was Moogua, which means papaya.

Pigu means butt. If I repeat the Qiao-hu video enough times, I should learn several other body parts.

A more useful word is Shie-shie, which means Thanks, to which nee can also be added (Thank you).

I believe lai means here (or in some cases there). La is a suffix added to many words. Lai la seems to mean various things, such as Come here, I’m coming, or Let’s go. Similarly, a is often as a suffix, such that Shey-a? seems to mean Who is it?

Because this list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure there are many words I know pretty well that I am not remembering right now, I can confidently say I have a fairly well consolidated vocabulary of 50 or more words. However, there are many additional words that I am in the process of learning. That means I have heard and understood them in one or more contexts, but need to hear them several more times in other contexts in order to (1) be sure I have gotten the meaning and connotations right and (2) “memorize” them so that I can readily pick them out (and, theoretically, would be able to use them in speaking, although this is not particularly relevant now since my project is exclusively listening).

If you add these words, I would say my fledgling or tentative vocabulary is closer to 100 or 150 words.

Is this good for 70 hours of study (exclusively viewing authentic videos)? Taken on its own, I would say it is not so good. In 70 hours, using word lists, I would guess that I could have truly memorized perhaps 400 words. Hypothetically, I could at that point start to watch videos, but with a larger vocabulary than I have now, and also have simple conversations.

However, that’s a rather poor comparison. The three main points to make are that, first, without the contexts, those words may not have been committed to as long-term memory as the words I’m learning through movies and other videos. Second, I would run the risk of developing a mental translation habit, which can be pernicious and in the long run make it extremely difficult to develop real fluency. Third, my learning is far from limited to this consciously acquired vocabulary. It includes a growing familiarity with the phonetics, cadence, tonality, and even cultural aspects that are relevant to language acquisition.

In sum, I feel good about my vocabulary acquisition, but I don’t think it or any other indicator is enough, at this early stage, to either begin to confirm or refute my hypothesis.

Chinese films – Week 15

I’ve created a new page, called Chinese films – learning Mandarin. It is essentially to provide a spreadsheet of the films that I have watched in Mandarin, all but one of which are originally Chinese movies made in Mandarin (one is half in Japanese). I hope this will be an excellent resource for other students of Mandarin and I expect to update it periodically, so that by the end of my experiment it will include dozens (probably over a hundred) films, with well calibrated ratings, in addition to objective information.

You can access the page by clicking on the Menu button above (3 lines), then viewing the submenu under Sources.

Movies are definitely the video source that I enjoy the most. They’re probably not the most effective learning source – I would give that prize to Qiao Hu, for reasons I explained in my Week 13 post. But I’m not sure I could even sustain this experiment if I had to watch a ton of Qiao Hu, because it’s no fun, whereas I fully enjoy watching movies. It’s been particularly interesting and enjoyable to delve a bit into Chinese cinema, in particular some of the classics. Though I originally thought I’d be watching a lot of Hollywood children’s movies, since these would be easier for me to understand in Mandarin–and I still plan on giving that a try, as soon as I get my order of Mandarin dubbed DVDs in June–instead I’ve gotten greater insights into Chinese culture by watching amazing films, only one of which I had seen before my experiment.


I am currently watching Red Cliff, which is one movie broken into two parts. They were released and shown separately in Asian cinemas, and if I’m not mistaken combined and shortened for US cinemas. I’m watching the originals, which total nearly 5 hours. I’m watching them without subtitles, so I understand very little of what is said (perhaps 2%, according to my latest estimate). Even so, it’s so well made that it’s maintained my interest and I’ve enjoyed it nonetheless.