Grammar issues with China’s mandatory student military training

It’s time for all the university sophomores in Tianjin to do their mandatory military training. According to my students, this means they have to buy a super-low-quality blue camouflage uniform (the seats split on several of my student’s classmates when they sat down) and march around in formation all day for a week or two. According to what we hear and see out our windows in the sports field beside our apartment, it means a lot of goose-stepping and yelling one-two-three-four. My students didn’t like doing it but said it made them more patriotic.

I didn’t set out to go get a picture, but we were out taking a walk happened upon a … squadron? … doing their drills. Here’s a shot of the young ladies:

I asked my students about it and this immediately led to a common and annoying language problem that plagues both English speakers learning Chinese and Chinese speakers learning English.

Basically, in everyday Mandarin it’s context rather than grammar that determines the difference between “they made me” and “they let me.” My EFL students routinely say things like, “My boss let me work late yesterday” or “they always let us work overtime” because in their heads they’re thinking in Chinese, and in Chinese they’d use the same verb to express both of the above concepts (ordering sb. to do something and allowing sb. to do something). A student today tried to tell me that the drill sergeants “let them” stand very still for a long time, so I hammered out some sentences with her and double-checked with my Chinese coworkers:

The military training officer doesn’t let us () talk or look around.

教官不我们说话或者左顾右盼。
jiàoguān búràng wǒmen shuōhuà huòzhě zuǒgùyòupàn.

The military training officer makes us () goose-step for a long time.
教官让我们踢很长时间正步。
jiàoguān ràng wǒmen tī hěn cháng shíjiān zhèngbù.

Sure, people could use other words to say it more specifically, but they don’t! They just say “让” and expect you to know what they mean from the situation. If I try to use more specific words when speaking Chinese, it comes off sounding funny because usually they wouldn’t bother in most situations. Like much of China, that’s just how it is; you can like it, you can leave it, but you’re not gonna change it.

6 thoughts on “Grammar issues with China’s mandatory student military training”

  1. I have also wondered about this 让 thing. As far as I can make out, the whole point about 让 is not whether it’s to your advantage or not, but rather because your superior wills it, in a “make it so” sense. I think it’s similar to the notion of serving or being held “at her majesty’s pleasure”.

    I have a totally unscientific theory (a heuristic?) which says that in a homophone-rich language such as Mandarin, the importance of a word can be determined by how many homophones it has. According to my dictionary, ràng has no homonyms.

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