Chinese is famously daunting to learners, particularly those new to Asian languages. Written Chinese relies on characters that convey a combination of sounds and meaning rather than on an alphabet, and the spoken language in fact consists of a group of not always mutually intelligible “dialects” in which tone or inflection is a prime determinant of meaning. Nonetheless, so many good tools are available now to help even the casual student of Chinese politics or culture learn how to pronounce names and places correctly (and figure out how “Peking” became “Beijing”), that this task has gotten much easier.
An excellent place to start looking for web and prints resources related to Chinese language is Marjorie Chan’s China Links, at Ohio State University. http://chinalinks.osu.edu/. This site concentrates on resources for language learning and teaching, Chinese computing, and linguistics, but there are numerous links to full-text databases of Chinese classical texts, as well as resources for culture in general.
中文 (Zhongwen).com - http://www.zhongwen.com/.
A handy site with an online dictionary (Chinese-English and English-Chinese, with multiple search methods), introduction to the Chinese language, vocabulary lists and e-texts, chat groups, and links to further resources for language study and reference. One nice feature of the dictionary is that each entry links to more specialized online dictionaries for those wanting to trace a character’s usage or origins a step further, as well as to hear the character pronounced.
Ting – Chinese English Dictionary and Study Center, Marilyn Shea, University of Maine, Farmington. http://hua.umf.maine.edu/Chinese/welcome.html. This is a wonderful online resource that offers a customizable Mandarin pronunciation and written Chinese reading tutorial, with sound files of phrases and words read by a variety of native speakers. Users are able to create accounts in which they can save the expressions and words they want to practice. Extremely user-friendly – includes instructions for viewing Chinese fonts and using sound files.
One endless source of confusion for anyone who reads about China in another language is how to render the sounds of Chinese words in a recognizable form. For most Westerners, this means somehow using an alphabet, hence “Romanization” (there exist other, non-Romanization methods of representing Chinese syllables, such as Japanese kana and the zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 system, popularly known as “bo po mo fo,” used largely in Taiwan until recently).
The problem is, preferences in Romanization systems have changed over time, and so what was once rendered “Peking” is now more frequently written “Beijing,” but is still the same city. The system most frequently encountered in general now is Hanyu pinyin -- usually just referred to as pinyin for short – which was officially adopted in the People’s Republic of China in 1958, and is now also used by the United Nations, the Library of Congress, and most major foreign media outlets. Yet one still often comes across the system in most common usage prior to pinyin, Wade-Giles (named after the British diplomat-linguists who formulated it), or still other methods. The result is a welter of mispronunciations and miscommunications that simply needn’t be. Here are some helpful guides for making your way through the maze:
Library of Congress FAQ – What’s the Difference between Wade-Giles and Pinyin? http://www.loc.gov/catdir/pinyin/difference.html. A very handy guide to telling which one it is you’re looking at.
Conversion Tables, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Library. http://library.ust.hk/guides/opac/conversion-tables.html. Many East Asian library websites provide tables converting syllables in one Romanization to another, but this one is nice for having all the information on a single page.
Try the Romanization Converter at Online Chinese Tools at http://www.mandarintools.com/. This is a nice little applet that allows you to input in any of eight different systems (including “bo po mo fo”) and get any of the eight back. The site also offers software, fonts, macros and tools for everything from making flashcards to getting a Chinese name.
For those who are interested in learning more about the history of romanizations, consult the Wikipedia entry on the topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization. Scroll down to the section on Chinese for links to articles on the variety of historical and current systems.
Political and cultural considerations have made the Romanization situation in Taiwan particularly complicated, to put it mildly. An evenhanded summary of this history, with links to resources, can be found on the website of Professor Karen Steffen Chung of National Taiwan University, at http://homepage.ntu.edu.tw/~karchung/. The site is well worth browsing for other information and links on linguistics and language too.
Access to classical and modern Chinese literature – for both the casual and the scholarly reader – has suddenly become far easier with the availability of e-texts in various formats. The summer of 2004 even saw a Chinese author, Qian Fuchang, introduce the world’s first novel delivered by text-messaging. Yet these resources should be viewed with the same critical eye as all web publications – e-texts in particular can vary in terms of accuracy, editions, degree of censorship, and so on. The following sites provide reliable scholarship and useful links.
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center, Ohio State University http://mclc.osu.edu/. As its name suggests, hardly restricted to literature, but a vast clearinghouse with full-text links; bibliographies for author and media studies; image banks and more.
Renditions http://www.renditions.org/renditions/. The homepage of the journal and publishing company devoted to translations of Chinese literature, this site has a handy biographical index of authors and translators.
Chinese Text Initiative, University of Virginia http://etext.virginia.edu/chinese/. Full-text original versions of several classical texts, some with English translations and/or search capabilities. The site also provides the original Chinese texts that correspond to major works of Chinese literature in translation (such as Selected Stories of Lu Hsun).
Hanquan (寒泉), National Palace Museum, Taiwan http://126.96.36.199/s25/. A full-text, searchable database containing numerous classical texts and text compilations, including poetry, the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, and general works.
Guoxue 国学 .com http://www.guoxue.com/. Access to indices, full texts and discussions, with an emphasis on classical literature and history. Texts in simplified Chinese. Registration required for some features.