Behind the Words: Mandarin Lessons for Your Future Travels

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As the Middle Kingdom protects and heals itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, we want to share stories with you of the real people of China – the people that make this country so beautiful. Before we can welcome you back here in person, we want to bring the people to you. These stories illustrate the deep complexity, humanity, and beauty that resides across this vast nation, and we hope that by sharing stories of people with you, you’ll get to know a different side of China. This is #OurChina, from the #PeopleOfChina.

Although we can’t welcome overseas travelers here just yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t share insights into what you can expect when we can show you the Middle Kingdom. Read on the learn more about how Mandarin impacts daily life in China, and get ready to remember some phrases that will make your future journey remarkable. 

“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is…” – Marcel Proust 

We travel to explore cultures that make our common sense feel not-so-common. We travel to learn that the world can turn differently without falling off its axis. We travel to discover how far from the truth our stereotypes of other cultures are.    

Languages affect cultures, which affect our viewpoints – our conclusions, beliefs, values, and behavior. The way we view a common concept could be completely different in another culture just because of the language we speak. This is a glimpse of Chinese culture through the eyes of its national language. 

Finding Mandarin Within the Daily Chinese Culture

Chūnjié, China’s Spring Festival that is sometimes referred to as the Chinese New Year, is based on the lunar calendar. A moon-based viewpoint of time will be cyclical as the moon goes through its different phases, whereas the solar-based viewpoint of time simply considers whether the sun is up or down. Although modern Chinese culture has no problem understanding the Western linear viewpoint of time, the traditional Chinese concept of time is cyclical. 

Behind the Words: Mandarin Lessons for Your Future Travels

Fireworks celebrating the Spring Festival. Image by Daniel Lal

If today is Monday and you ask someone in English, “Are you free on Tuesday?”, they will likely respond: “You mean tomorrow?” Our view of immediate time includes yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Beyond that, we’re pulling out our calendars. 

If today is Monday and you ask someone in Mandarin, “Are you free on Wednesday?”, they will likely respond, “You mean the day after tomorrow?”, and they’ll respond that way for the exact same reason. 

In English, “the day after tomorrow” isn’t a concept that needs to be classified with one word. In Mandarin, each day in a week-long window has its own word: 

  • Three days ago dàqiántiān (大前天) 
  • The day before yesterday qiántiān (前天) 
  • Yesterday zuótiān (昨天) 
  • Today jīntiān (今天) 
  • Tomorrow míngtiān (明天) 
  • The day after tomorrow hòutiān (后天) 
  • Three days from today dàhòutiān (大后天) 

This is just one example of how language can affect cultural norms. Here are some other ways that Chinese culture can be seen through Mandarin, and vice-versa. 

Mandarin Moments for Your Travel Photos 

1. Héxié (和谐) – usually translated as “harmony” but generally referring to peaceful coexistence.  

The concept of héxié has thoroughly influenced Chinese culture for centuries. In medicine, it is eating foods that maintain a heat-cold balance. In religious beliefs, it accepts fate as an undeniable universal force. In architecture, it is symmetry in design and with nature.  

Photo: Grab a shot of people interacting with nature, or of a building in a natural setting, some of the clearest versions of héxié you’ll find. 

Behind the Words: Mandarin Lessons for Your Future Travels

Woman feeding seagulls. Image by Daniel Lal 

2. Jítǐzhǔyì (集体主义) – collectivism, the importance of a group over the individual. 

Chinese culture revolves around a sense of belonging and sharing, so while lumping an individual into a group is potentially offensive for Westerners – for example, nǐmen wàiguórén, literally meaning “you foreigners,” as if we’re all the same – the thinking behind that type of phrase carries no disrespect.   

Photo: Grab a shot of people eating family-style even though they aren’t from one single family.  

3. Xiàoshūn (孝顺) – a high regard for parents and ancestors, roughly translated as “filial piety.”  

It’s said that if a person has to choose between caring for parents or children, they must choose the parents. For this reason, many young parents work long secular hours so they can care both for their children and their parents. As a result, grandparents often raise the children.  

Photo: Grab a shot of grandparents caring for grandchildren, a common sight in China. 

Grandma and granddaughter (1)

Grandma and granddaughter. Image by Daniel Lal

  4. Miànzi (面子) – a word that literally means “face” or “surface” but also implies “appearance” or “reputation.”  

If you say anything at all in Mandarin, your Chinese will receive very high praise because miànzi is important and not necessarily because you’re Mandarin is good (sorry). The compliments elevate you (called giving miànzi), and if you reject the compliment by saying nǎli nali, which literally means “Where? Where?”, implying there is no one within earshot deserving of those compliments, you will increase your miànzi 

Photo: Say ‘hello’ nǐhǎo, then grab a shot of someone excitedly complimenting you, an instance of receiving miànzi. 

5. Rénqing (人情) – the principle behind hospitality and relationship building that involves balance and virtue.   

Most people within Chinese culture are genuinely kind and unselfish, so don’t read this next thought the wrong way: rénqing is a social credit system. The ‘balance’ part is the balance between two parties, not within society. Even when someone does something nice for you without hoping to get something back, the concept of rénqing says you owe them.  

Photo: Grab a shot of street vendors who go out of their way to help someone, hoping for a purchase in return. 

Extra credit: If they say something to you in English, give them miànzi by saying: nǐ de yīngwén hén hǎo, which means “You’re English is good,” even if it isn’t. 

Behold Chinese Culture Through Mandarin Eyes 

To travel is to reach out to other humans and understand the world and its variety of cultures the way they really are. The long and illustrious history of Chinese culture is best understood and appreciated within its original context, so why not read more about the language here before setting yourself the task of learning just a little bit more? 

Get in touch with us today if you’re dreaming of visiting in the future and we can talk you through everything you need to know. If you’re already in China, we can help you to travel sooner, so ask us a question anytime.

Article and photos by Daniel Lal. Follow him on Instagram: @indiandan04
Cover photo by Dongrui Yu