Why Am I Studying Mandarin Chinese?

When people ask me why I study Mandarin Chinese, I usually give cognitive, utilitarian answers.

But I also get a feeling from studying Mandarin Chinese.

Conceptually, I give myself 100 years on the planet to use my brain’s approximately 100 billion neurons and perhaps a similar number of glial cells. In lockdown in 2020, at age 61, I decided, after a forty-year hiatus, to return to the study of Mandarin Chinese to save my sanity and put more neurons to use. I have the contented feeling that direction and purpose can bring.

First attempt to write Chinese characters

I also have the feeling I have gotten since childhood from organizing words and pictures on pieces of paper.  If given a choice between playing Barbie dolls or paper dolls with my sister, I would choose paper dolls. When my father was a boy, he collected stamps and, in adulthood, my mother added to his collection. I was allowed to have my own collection and spent countless hours giving names to the animals in the pictures and pouring over images of exotic buildings and dress styles.

When I study Chinese characters, I have this same sense of the shapes on paper being absorbing and wondrous. If I ever get to go to China, my first stop will be Beijing, not to see the Temple of Heaven, but to head to a museum to see the first pictures-as-words carved into  bones and tortoise shells: oracle bone script jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文.

I have a hypothesis about bilingual partnership in older, single adults – for me and my anticipated partner, English and Mandarin Chinese – that I have written about elsewhere that fills my heart with longing and excitement.

I have another feeling as well. It is central and moving, bringing tears to my eyes.

In the 300,000 year history of Homo sapiens, among the 100 billion people who have ever lived, among the nearly 8 billion people currently on the planet, among the 100,000 years that people could speak and the 5,000 years people could write, among the four writing systems identified as developing independently, only one is still in use. Written Chinese is documented as 3,000+ years old.

When I attempt to speak Chinese or to read a Chinese character, I feel connected to the swell of hearts and minds of the whole100 billion. I see their mouths opening and their hands holding slim tools. When they could utter words, what did the first humans choose to say? What did they choose to write? I, too, reflect deeply about what to say and write.

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I write about my experience learning Mandarin Chinese in this category.

Please contact me if you have ideas, suggestions or feedback.

I am a beginning student of Mandarin Chinese and also a counselor, able to provide services only to residents of Virginia, U.S.A. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.