The Language Adventures of René in China

In December last year, a large number of people contact me to ask who on earth is René and what exactly I was trying to achieve by writing 'The Language Adventures of René in China: Essential Expressions for Beginners, vol. 1.'

Below is part of the preface from volume 1 which should give readers a good idea of what I was trying to achieve.

Chinese language textbooks devote little space to explaining how the language is used in social situations or why Chinese people express themselves in such a way. This volume attempts to explain a number of greetings, common expressions, not to mention other speech acts, that will allow the foreign learner to understand the language better.

Why greetings and expressions might not be readily understood by foreign learners underscores the erroneous assumption that there are "equivalences" between languages. An equivalent of Ní hǎo can be found in the English "Hello" or "Hi", but there are numerous greetings and expressions that do not have equivalences in English.

Davies and Barmé have rightly pointed out this assumption 'presupposes the existence of a formidable metalanguage that has the capacity to match words, ideas, statements, and idioms across languages, according to some mysterious "law" or universal communication.' [1]

More than half a century earlier, the linguist and songwriter Chao Yuen Ren (1892-1982) expressed something similar:

Any utterance in an actual context can be translated fairly accurately, to be sure, but not necessarily by the same means of expression. Thus, the English phrase 'No, thank you!' can be translated more 'idiomatically' by a smile and a polite gesture than by the recent translation borrowing Duoshieh, buyaw le! [duōxiè, bú yào le 多谢,不要了] "Many thanks, I don’t want any more." [2]

The linguistic diversity of China and the large number of regional dialects that are mutually unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country is aptly summed up in the popular saying 'speech changes every ten li' (shílĭ bù tōngyīn 十里不通音).

This saying highlights issues of comprehension among different regional speakers of the standard language or pŭtōnghuà (普通话) who may come across an initial 'impasse' or 'obstacle' (不通) when hearing standard Chinese spoken by dialect speakers, invariably coloured by local speech habits and accents.

For the foreign learner, accents and pronunciation do cause major practical problems, especially once they leave the classroom setting:

The great majority of Chinese speak standard Chinese with a dialectal accent, which may be so mild as to be scarcely noticeable or so heavy as to make normal conversation impractical. These accented speech variants are usually unknown even to advanced western students of Chinese until they arrive in China and find themselves experiencing much difficulty in communication. [3]

Each entry in this volume contains a common greeting or expression ‘acted out’ by a fictional character called René, a foreigner language student studying in Beijing whose course of study includes a part-time internship in a joint-venture market research company.

René encounters a number of difficulties in communicating with Chinese and makes a number of errors along the way, but he experiences an epiphany of sorts, a moment of understanding, where he realizes that he has expressed himself incorrectly or that a common expression in English finds a different medium of expression in Chinese.Numerous examples could have augmented each entry, but the challenge has been to condense the narrative to one or two pages and allow readers to grasp various aspects of the language quickly and easily.


1. Gloria Davies Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (2001:xi).

2. Chao Yuen Ren Mandarin Primer (1961:50).

3. Liang, DeFrancis and Han, Varieties of Spoken Standard Chinese (1982:1).

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