1636 The China Venture – Snippet 11

Jim, Martina and Eric were in Martina’s kitchen, rinsing dishes. Jim and Martina had invited Eric over for dinner. Eric’s wife Heather had also been invited, but Eric came alone, saying that Heather had been “indisposed.” The Goss’ boarders had, as a courtesy, gone out for the evening, and Mary was visiting with her husband Arlen at the Assisted Living Center, so it was just the three young people.

Martina put the last dish in the drying rack and hung up her apron. “Actually, I have a particular interest in China. Let me show you why.” He followed her into the living room, Jim a few steps behind.

Martina took out of a drawer a book and a figurine. The main text of the book was in Chinese, but it had many color photographs, and captions in English, French and German.

“Ah,” said Eric. “The figurine represents a general in the terra cotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. You were in Xi’an?” The terra cotta army had been buried in the third century BCE and discovered in 1974, east of Xi’an, near the tomb mound at Mount Li. Its secret had endured for over two millennia.

“Oh, no, I have never been to China. In fact, before the Ring, I had never been out of the States. But while I was at WVU–you know I had to drop out when my father was disabled, don’t you?–I was a volunteer ‘Conversation Partner’ in the Intensive English Program. I would meet for an hour or two each week to give the foreign student I was working with, Liu Feng-jiao, a chance to practice English. Usually in the coffeehouse. Remember Perks? At the corner of Chestnut and Reid?”

“Sorry, I don’t,” said Eric. “Remember, I was at Pitt, not WVU. I did come to Morgantown for some games, but if I didn’t take the first bus home, I’d probably have gone to a bar with Tom and Rita.”

Jim smiled at Martina. “Well, I remember Perks. I met Martina there, sometimes.”

“Anyway, when we first met,” Martina continued, “and at the end of each semester, Feng-jiao would give me a present, like this one. I suppose that she must have packed several sets of Chinese souvenirs to take to America.”

‘Were there a lot of Chinese students at WVU?” asked Eric. “I know they didn’t have a major in Chinese, that’s why I went to Pitt.”

“The IEP representative told us that they were the second-largest contingent of international students at the school, after the Indians. But more of the Indians spoke English already.”

Eric paged through the book, returning at last to the handwritten inscription on the title page: For Martina, may she one day see my beautiful country, as I have seen hers. Feng-jiao.

“So, do you speak any Chinese?”

“Not beyond the ‘hello’ and ‘how are you, fine, thanks’ stage. After all, the whole point was for Feng-jiao to learn English, not for me to learn Chinese. Still, after hearing Feng-jiao talk about China, I’d like to see it before I die. And this mission is a chance to go there at someone else’s expense. And perhaps making enough money to help out my folks, too.”

Eric stroked his chin. “Don Francisco already agreed to let you travel with Jim at the mission’s expense. With a bit of, ahem, selective discussion of your exposure to Chinese culture, I can probably talk the backers into paying you a salary, too. Especially if Ed Piazza would put in a word for you.”

“Not to sound crass, but what are the financial arrangements for the up-time representatives? Jim has been a little vague about it.”

“Probably because the details aren’t completely firm, but you’ll be paid a salary which, if you’re already employed, is fifty percent more than you’re making now, plus you’ll be allotted a certain amount of cargo space for private trading.”

“How much space is that?”

“That’s the detail that still being firmed up. But I think that at least for up-timers, it will be more than the norm for passengers and crew on VOC ships to the Indies.”

Eric offered the book back to Martina.  She put it back in the drawer, and said, “that’s sound promising, but Jim and I will have to see the contract.  And perhaps we should have a lawyer look it over, too.” 

Cheng Home, Grantville

Jason Cheng was gratified to see how many would-be students of Chinese had come to his home. There were young and old, men and women. “Thank you for coming,” he said “It is an honor and a privilege to teach you the beautiful language of my homeland. I ask that you be diligent in your studies.”

He took a sip of water. “I know you are here because you are being sent to China. What you will be learning to speak is what Americans call Mandarin. The Chinese name is ‘guanhua’ and it means, the ‘language of officials.’ It was needed because there are hundreds of different forms of Chinese, and they aren’t all mutually intelligible.

“The original Mandarin was based on the language spoken in Nanjing, which was the first capital of Ming China. Nanjing Mandarin is what would be used in China right now. Unfortunately, by the time I went to school, what was taught was Beijing Mandarin. But my father spoke Nanjing Mandarin. When I can, I will give you the Nanjing version, but you will no doubt have to make some adjustments when you are in China.

“Our first goal will be for you to learn what you might call ‘survival’ spoken Chinese: ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘you’re welcome,’ numbers, asking and understanding directions, money, weights and measures, the names of the goods you’re most likely to need to buy, and so forth.

“My father used to say, ‘the only things you need to be able to say in a foreign language are ‘how much’ and ‘too much’!”

There was a polite titter.

“Of course, you’ll need to learn how to correctly pronounce all those words. In the phrase book that I prepared–a copy has been printed for each of you, and please don’t lose it!–I have written down the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese words in the Latin alphabet using a system known as pinyin with tone marks. I must warn you, pinyin is not yet used in China, so this is just for your own studies. However, it will let you use the pinyin-English dictionary that Eric Garlow will be bringing along with him.

“As we work through the phrase book, I’ll be writing the Chinese characters on the black board, and you will copy them into your book.”

Martina raised her hand. “Why do we need to write down the characters if we’re just learning spoken Chinese?”

“Good question,” said Jason Cheng. “Now, while I hope that you all master Chinese pronunciation, I have to admit that it’s not easy for a foreigner to learn. For example, vowels have tones–high and steady, rising, falling then rising, falling, and ‘neutral.’ The sound ‘ma’ can mean mother, hemp, horse, scold or a question mark, depending on which of the five tones it bears. There are tricky consonants, too. But if you have the character written down, well, at worst you show it to the person you’re trying to communicate with.”

Having covered the blackboard with characters, Jason stopped. “Anyway, that gives you a taste for what written Chinese is like. But for the rest of today’s class, we’re going to work on pronunciation. And we’ll start with the sounds in nÄ­ hăo, which means ‘hello.'”


After the class, Martina said to Mike Song, “It isn’t fair. I have all this studying to do, and you already know Chinese.”

“Don’t complain to me,” said Mike. “After all, I had to learn English in school. And now my uncle says that since I already know Chinese, I have to study Portuguese and Dutch instead.”

“Ouch. Have you spoken to Ashley about her stuff?”

“Yes, she will loan the class all of the ‘learning Chinese’ materials she has acquired since she started going out with Danny. Textbooks, phrase books, dictionaries, flash cards, audio tapes, and so forth. But they can’t leave Grantville.”

“Fair enough.”