The Universal Language of Song

By James Fallows

In case you've been meaning to get serious about your Chinese language study, you'll want to consider eChineseLearning.com, whose motto is "Live Teachers from China." (And, as I will never tire of saying, you can't go wrong with this great book about the process of learning Chinese.) eChineseLearning is, among other virtues, the source of this unmatchable Chinese/hip-hop video:

See web-only content:
http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/07/the-universal-language-of-song/59504/

I love this video in so many, many ways. It's like most of what you see on mainland Chinese TV, in being in spoken Chinese, but also subtitled in written Chinese, because of differences in regional accent etc. (The title, Zhong Guo Hua, 中國話, simply means: "Chinese language" -- though that, and the subtitles in the video, are in Hong Kong/Taiwan-style "traditional" characters rather than mainland-style "simplified" characters.) In general sensibility it's a nice intro to many aspects of modern China too. You won't be disappointed if you watch.

And the lyrics! Full version is available at eLearning's site, but some of the highlights are below (in simplified characters). It starts invitingly:

biǎn   dɑn   kuān   bǎn   dènɡ   chánɡ
扁 担 宽 板 凳 长 (The shoulder-pole is wide, the bench is long.)

biǎn   dɑn   xiǎnɡ   bǎnɡ   zài   biǎn   dɑn   kuān   bǎn   dènɡ   chánɡ   bǎn   dènɡ   shànɡ
扁 担 想 绑 在 板 凳 上 ( The shoulder-pole wants to be tied on the bench.)

biǎn   dɑn   kuān   bǎn   dènɡ   chánɡ
扁 担 宽 板 凳 长 (The shoulder-pole is wide, the bench is long.)

Building toward the big thematic close:

ɡè   zhǒnɡ   yán   sè   de   pí   fū   ɡè   zhǒnɡ   yán   sè   de   tóu   fɑ
各 种 颜 色 的 皮 肤 各 种 颜 色 的 头 发 (People with skin of all colours, people with hair of all colours)

zuǐ   lǐ   niàn   de   shuō   de   kāi   shǐ   liú   xínɡ   zhōnɡ   ɡuó   huà
嘴 里 念 的 说 的 开 始 流 行 中 国 话 (They speak the increasingly popular Chinese language. )

duō   shǎo   nián   wǒ   men   kǔ   liàn   yīnɡ   wén   fā   yīn   hé   wén   fǎ
多 少 年 我 们 苦 练 英 文 发 音 和 文 法 (For how many years have we slaved away at English pronunciation and grammar)

zhè   jǐ   nián   huàn   tā   men   juǎn   zhe   shé   tou   xué   pínɡ   shànɡ   qù   rù   de   biàn   huà
这 几 年 换 他 们 卷 着 舌 头 学 平 上 去 入 的 变 化 (These few years, it's their turn to learn how to roll their tongues and learn the different intonations.) ...

hǎo   cōnɡ   mínɡ   de   zhōnɡ   ɡuó   rén   hǎo   yōu   měi   de   zhōnɡ   ɡuó   huà
好 聪 明 的 中 国 人 好 优 美 的 中 国 话 (The Chinese are such smart people, and the Chinese language is so beautiful)

My wife's original Mandarin textbooks were from the olden days and tended to have "Comrade!" as the first word in every line of dialogue. "Comrade! I need to buy a ticket to Hangzhou..." Maybe new ones will have "the increasingly popular Chinese language" as their refrain.  Thanks to my friend RK of Washington State for the lead.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/07/the-universal-language-of-song/59504/