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How to measure a beating? A Chinese lesson

July 26, 2010

I have started studying for the HSK: Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Proficiency Test–the language test for foreigners. There are different HSK levels, each with their own set of vocab. We get a chance to take this test towards the end of HBA for free, and if I pass, it could prove to be a nice tool when applying for jobs and such.

So, I started making electronic flashcards about an hour ago for the HSK level 1 vocab, and I came across something hilarious. But before I tell you, I need to explain a little bit about measure words.

You know how in English we might say a gaggle of geese, a bushel of corn, or a glass of wine”? We don’t really think about these words, and we consider them nouns, but in function they measure a quantity in a certain way. A bunch of flowers, a stack of papers, etc.

The Chinese, however, call these words measure words or classifiers. The Chinese use measure words for every noun, when describing a quantity of that noun. So, you not only have three gaggles of geese, you also have three somethings of tables. The measure word for table is zhang (张). So, a restaurant might have 20 zhang of tables (the Chinese don’t have an “of,” though).

Measure words also apply every time you would use an indefinte article – azhang table in my dining room. This is because the Chinese don’t actually have indefinite articles. Instead they always say “one” of something. So, to say “a table,” you actually say, “one zhang table.” When you refer to “the table” or “my table,” you do not need to use a measure word, because it’s a definite object, so no quantity involved. Sort of get it? It sounds harder than it is.

So there are many different measure words. Often, similar types of objects use have the same measure word. Zhang, for instance, is the measure word for flat rectangular things, like tables, beds, and sheets of paper (sheet is an English measure word – Chinese people say one zhang of paper instead).

Some things, like days, or years, or times (that you’ve done something) are their own measure words (you just say “one day” in Chinese, too). There is also a generic measure word, ge (个), and if you say “one ge table” most people will understand what you mean. The word some (xie) is also a measure word. But it’s better to use the right measure word, although very annoying to remember them all.

Some of the most unexpected things have special (i.e. not ge) measure words, like tears or rules. Well, sometimes, the same special measure words are used for two very seemingly disparate things, and they can be pretty entertaining to find. The reason I wrote this whole post was to explain one of these funny measure words.

While studying for the HSK, I discovered dun (顿), which is the measure word for meals–oh, okay, lovely–and for beatings. I just love that beatings has a special measure word. It tells you something.

Well, I guess if I ever need to tell someone I had 3 dun of beatings yesterday, I’m in good shape! I knew studying for the HSK would be worthwhile.

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