I was watching this video (see below) of some dude reading a Chinese passage. I don’t know about you, but when I hear Chinese spoken in this way it gives me that nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling. Sorry no, it gives me that I-want-to-kick-you-in-the-nads feeling.

I have not met anyone in real life that speaks this way, aside from a few certain people who often have to speak in public. My point is that this sort of “stage Chinese,” with its sudden mouth spasms and the infamous finger-shake — well, it just gets under my skin. This probably explains why I (and so many other people) have a distaste for Dashan.

It’s like listening to John Malkovich talk. He just sounds pretentious, like he’s using an inappropriate level of formality. I’m sure that both Mr. Malkovich and the guy in the video below are great people, and I wouldn’t really want to kick either of their dangly bits. But seriously, this is exactly the kind of thing that led to playground beatings back in grade 3.

While my own Chinese is not outstanding by any stretch, here’s my advice to Chinese learners out there: Try to speak like the native speakers around you. Not like your teachers, or the people you see on TV.

Any other students out there feel this way?


  1. To be fair, Max seems equally animated in both Chinese and English. I know what you’re saying though – that “stage Chinese” annoys the hell out of me too.

  2. Actually I think that when it comes to English speakers trying to master Chinese tones, doing exaggerated accents is a great technique. Tones don’t come naturally to us. By being goofy and overboard you’re stretching your vocal cords and mouth and tongue forcefully into the contours required for making the tones. In my experience it was a lot easier to move from the overboard form of speaking to a more natural style. If you can master running five miles then running one mile will come easier for you. In my teaching experience I would’ve been overjoyed to see one of my Chinese high schoolers strain to sound like Tom Brokaw rather than the “muttering-under-the-breath” or “machine-gun-I-memorized-this-set-phrase-please-don’t-ask-a-follow-up” style talking I usually got.

    And seriously dude, look again at the URL. Youtube. Something over-the-top on youtube? Egads! I doubt this fellow talks like this when he buys a coke at the news stand across the street. Let him eat his youtube cake for chrissakes.

  3. In my experience, dislike for Dashan comes from jealousy, plain and simple. I imagine there are plenty of other reasons why someone would dislike him, but I’m betting the farm on the green-monster every time.

    There’s nothing pretentious about that video either. I’m not sure what about it gets you riled up, other than our old pal jealousy again. I’m not sure what there is to be jealous at. Suggest you not let it bother you.

  4. @ejsun

    No. Not quite jealousy, because to be honest, I don’t really have any desire to master Chinese. I’m happy with conversational. I’m soon leaving China, and have no immediate plans to study Chinese any further.

    I was reading John Pasden’s take on Dashan this morning, where he explains his reasons for not liking Dashan:

    “He’s not the only foreigner to speak perfect Chinese, but he seems to be the only one recognized. He has the monopoly on Chinese skills. I think the Chinese find it amusing and touching that a foreigner can speak such perfect Chinese, but then simultaneously find his singularity somehow comforting. It goes without saying that the hard work and bitter struggle of any Asian that becomes fluent in Chinese is hardly acknowledged.”

    Maybe it’s the fact that he represents a flawed perception of foreigners in China — i.e. that only one of us can master this language.

    Maybe it’s the fact his dictionary empire could never have been built without his white skin. (Could an Asian Canadian have done the same?)

    Maybe it’s his dorky appearance…

    Yes, I’d love to have Dashan’s skills for sure. But that’s not why I dislike him. Similarly, the reason I dislike Barry Bonds is not because I’m jealous of his skills. It’s just because he’s a douche.

  5. >>Yes, I’d love to have Dashan’s skills for sure. But that’s not why I dislike him. Similarly, the reason I dislike Barry Bonds is not because I’m jealous of his skills. It’s just because he’s a douche.

    Agreed, but Dashan has never come off like a douche to me. I’m not a fan of him, but have never encountered anything to make me dislike him.

    Pasden’s opinion seems to be dictated somewhere between jealousy and anger at the Chinese for their recognition of Dashan. As if Dashan should be condemned for the playing the (fortunate) hand he’s been dealt. Perhaps Mr. Pasden thinks Dashan should fight for the acknowledgment of everyone everywhere who has mastered Chinese or English as a second language? Think of the poor language students, Dashan’s notoriety screwing us out of lucrative television deals? If Dashan weren’t around, then Chinese certainly wouldn’t have the flawed perception that only one foreigner can master their language. That is, until the Chinese media/public at large cherry-pick another single foreigner to play the roll Dashan does, because that seems to be what the Chinese public are comfortable with.

    Perhaps Dashan should bring down his dictionary empire because he has white skin. Maybe jealousy was the wrong word, but there is definitely a stench of bitterness.

  6. Hey, I’m Chinese and I thought this was really impressive. I took the mouth spasms to be the mere result of inexperience with the language, but this is otherwise a pretty valiant effort. Cut the guy some slack.

  7. ejsun said:
    “Perhaps Mr. Pasden thinks Dashan should fight for the acknowledgment of everyone everywhere who has mastered Chinese or English as a second language?”

    As odd as this sounds, I think it would be great for someone with Dashan’s skills to step up to the plate and somehow show the Chinese people that there are people of all shapes and colors who can speak Chinese.

    Remember how multi-cultural Sesame Street was?

    I think China could use something like that. Imagine if Chinese kids could watch black people, white people, Chinese people all cooperating and singing songs together on the same street. Hell, why not get a little ambitious and throw in some Japanese, Koreans, and Xinjiang Ren. I know they did some Sesame Street here, but to my knowledge, nothing that dealt with diversity.

    And yes, I admit, I was probably a bit harsh in this post. I’m sure Max is a good guy, and I certainly wish no harm come to his nads. Apologies for the brain fart.

  8. I’m going to have to go with ‘very good’ rather than pretentious. I know what you mean, but in the end, it’s just formal, well-spoken Chinese.

    It’s moot though considering Chinese is essentially the guy’s mother tongue. I don’t think he was really trying to impress anyone. Just chronicling his experiences become literate in Chinese.

  9. I’ll take this “pretentious” chinese over the blurred, er-drenched bullcrap that spews out of the mouths of the lazy youth nowadays. I think the word you’re looking for is proper, not pretentious.

    I hate Dashan, and it’s 20% jealousy, 80% because he’s a spineless coward who sold his soul to Jiang Zemin.

  10. I’m glad others had the same impression as me — I wasn’t especially bothered by this guy’s Mandarin. I agree with the first poster that while learning, it helps to exaggerate the pronunciation and the tones, and then gradually slip into a more comfortable style.

  11. @Klortho/Vincent: The only problem with that argument is that Max isn’t just learning. He’s “Max Laoshi”. So, the question is, should teachers of mandarin use these exaggerated pronunciations – is it of a benefit for mandarin students?

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