Character Anecdotes

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我知道我的新帖子来晚了, 真不好意思. 考完我大学一年级的考试以后我以为没有那么大的压力, 不过我最近的情况是比较特别的啊. 但是没问题,我乐于接受挑战!今天我写的是今年上课的时候听见的一些汉字故事~ 你们已经知道我对语言有兴趣, 所以今天写的帖子就是原来如此… I’m not sure exactly how to describe what I’ve planned for today’s post, but as you can see from the title I have rendered it as ‘character anecdotes’. 可是 what does that actually mean? As you may very well be aware, I am very interested in the stories behind Chinese characters (or general linguistics) and so when my teachers have gone off on anecdotal tangents during lessons I wrote down some of the main points of interesting stories. Today I will share some of these that relate to the Chinese language.

  • 睡觉 ‘eyes coming down’ + ‘consciousness’ = sleep.
  • 坐 means ‘sit’. The radicals show two people on earth (人+土).
  • 贝 Shell radical, usually used in words to do with money. This is because shells were an ancient form of money. This radical is also used in the word noble (贵), can you guess why? Also the character meaning ‘to congratulate’ is comprised of radicals meaning ‘add’ and ‘money’; 贺=加+贝。
  • 画 (picture) includes the radical 田 (field) 所以 “Put a field in a frame is a picture”.
  • Ancient Chinese uses less characters to save space.
  • 休 = A person resting on a tree (the radical on the left is one representation of a person, and on the right is the character for tree木).
  • After the sun and moon is another day 🙂 曰+ 月= 明.

Let’s end with a final quote from a teacher of mine… “I know it’s confusing but there is no second way, it is the native way”. The ‘native way’ and ‘Chinese way of thinking’ are things we heard a lot this year; I hope this post allowed you to better appreciate what they actually mean.

For now I’ve lifted notes taken from only one of my notebooks used this academic year. Even with just this I had a substantial amount of material for today’s post and also held back many interesting stories. I’ve created quite a few series on this blog now and so I shall add to it with a continuation of these anecdotes to come some time soon~ ^-^

If you are aiming to adopt ‘the native mind’, good luck 世界。

-Also, I’ve been meaning to address this for a while but I have come to realize that my usual end greeting 从欣妍 – From Xinyan” is grammatically incorrect. 从 is an example of a coverb, which you can understand as a verb that assists the main verb of a sentence. For instance I could say 从学院到我家用五分钟* which means ‘It takes 5 minutes from the college to my house’ (*it’s a basic sentence, but also an untrue statement, fyi). However 从欣妍 on it’s own is incomplete and just doesn’t work. Therefore from now on I shall be ending my posts in the same way that you would end a (formal) letter in Chinese. The format would be slightly different in a letter but 我不关心~ Maybe I can elaborate one day. I decided not to edit the end greetings in my previous posts just to mark progression, but we shall see. 最后。。。

此致敬礼欣妍–From Xinyan.

Person under the sun

太阳之下~

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my main things I love about the Chinese language is the stories you can derive from the characters that constitute a word. Some scholars (such as a Professor of mine this year) would argue against such a ‘pointless endeavor’. I can certainly appreciate that not all the ‘stories’ we share of the construction of a character are true, however it makes a character more memorable; and it’s good fun.

As you would have guessed, today I will be sharing with you a story about another Chinese character. The character I have chosen is very common and also very simple, which ties in to a phrase I have grown quite fond of over the past few years but do not recall sharing here on my blog. The phrase is ‘简单才能快乐’ which can be translated as ‘simplicity is the key to happiness’, or ‘简单=幸福’, ‘simple=happy’ as I sometimes shorten it. 虽然the theme of the phrase is simplicity, 但是I feel that it represents something greater, but it’s not a discussion I have planned for today. The character we will be dissecting is ‘是’.

是 (pinyin:shi) is one of the first characters I remember learning how to write, its very俭朴. 是 simply means ‘to be’ (e.g. 他是大夫 means ‘he is a doctor’), but it is also versatile in that it can be given as standard answer of ‘yes’ to a question rather than using the affirmative form of the verb in a sentence as you would usually have to do in Chinese. Sticking to the initial translation of 是, how does the character composition have any correlation to it’s meaning? It’s simple, a man under the sun.

If you observe the character closely you will notice that it is comprised of three parts, that is to say that it is to say that it is comprised of three radicals. Radicals can look different when used as an independent character so I have shown you the three clearly here: 日下人. 日means ‘sun’, we have encountered the second character in a previous post, it means ‘under’ 下, and the last character means ‘person’ 人. As a whole the character conveys that a person underneath the sun is one who exists, or that a person exists underneath the sun.

I found this 很有意思 the first time I heard this because the logic was quite simple but I overlooked it since it was such a common character. To echo my earlier sentiment, in learning Chinese I think that radicals themselves offer a breadth of knowledge. 简单的说, a lot of people find stories and pictures easy to remember which is why it can be helpful to explore these in relation to characters if that will help you remember how to recognise/read/write them. But sticking to the theme, I have only touched on a simple explanation as to why I find radicals helpful😋

Today was another one of my busy days and it so happens that I have a taxi collecting me at 3:30 for a flight, but I really wanted to post this. Strangely enough, this is the second time I’ve posted something just hours before a flight! xD but I shall leave it to you to find the post I’m talking about~

If this post has somehow made you reflect on existentialism (as it wasn’t my original intention 哈哈),

good luck 世界☀️✈️

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

Stuck between midway

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The thing I love most about Chinese as a language is the stories behind characters in written communication. I’m not sure who coined the term ‘character’, but I think it’s most appropriate because Chinese characters are characters in the story behind the Chinese word.

I have talked about this before, but breaking up a Chinese character into its component radicals can help you understand how the word was formed through the stories that the radicals convey. The radicals that are used in a character can also reflect societal values of the time period that the word was formed in. We can see this in common words such as ‘good’ 好, which is made up of the radical meaning woman 女 (female), and the radical on the right meaning son 子. When the radicals are combined the word means good, to convey that a women is meant to stay with her son (boys were also favoured over girls in Ancient China…and arguably still today).

One of the characters that my teacher recently helped me dissect is卡 ‘ka’ meaning ‘’stuck’’. The character is comprised of two radicals,上 and下. 上 ‘shang’ means “up”, as in ‘on top of the horizon’, and 下 ‘xia’ means ‘’down” as it has the opposite meaning of ‘underneath the horizon’. The line at the bottom of shang and at the top of xia represents the horizon, and then the line above and below the ‘horizon’ conveys that the characters are either above or below. The word ‘ka’ is interesting because it uses both of these ideas together.In the character 卡 you can see that shang forms the top half of the character and xia forms the bottom. As mentioned above, 卡 means ‘stuck’ precisely because it is stuck between the points both above and below the horizon! Because of the phonetic sound of that character, ‘ka’卡is used as the Chinese word for ‘card’. My Chinese teacher also showed us a character that looks similar to卡, which is the surname ‘Bian’ 卞. By following the reasoning for why卡 was formed, perhaps you could offer your own reason for the story behind bian卞, because I’m not too sure. My teacher’s friend has 卞 ‘Bian’ as her surname, but she gets offended when people accidently misspell it as卡because she does not want to be ‘stuck’!

[If you look at these side by side you can clearly see the similarities:卡 上 下卞].

The radical components in almost every Chinese character are something I find interesting. Not all words have extensive stories behind them, however as I mentioned in a previous post people sometimes offer their interpretations and stories behind characters on online forums etc. Now that I have developed my introduction of this concept, I would love to share with you short reasons behind why certain characters were formed (or at least some of the reasons).

If you feel that you are stuck between midway, good luck 世界。

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

P.s. I found some beautiful pictures of horizons that I was going to include at the start of this post, however I stuck with a photo I took at the park last summer as the sunset was emerging (maximizing the use of primary sources!) Great horizon right 😛🌅

Spot the difference

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.30.15 好久不见 (hǎojiǔ bùjiàn) = Long time no see.

I cannot say that my recent lack of posts has given me much respite because I have been preoccupied with work. In addition to my college work, I have been doing a lot of research into various factors of China, which has included efforts to learn more about the Chinese economy and reading Chinese literature. I have been quite keen to share some of my findings, but did not want to provide incomplete facts (…which idiom does that remind you of?). I felt the urge to create today’s post because of something that has taken my focus as of late. This is something that I came across on several occasions during my Mandarin lesson earlier today and had lead to the title of todays post.

If you are familiar with the Chinese language or have been following my posts then you will recognize the contrast in the Chinese language to conventional methods of communication such as the English language. Something that makes me appreciate the complexity of Chinese is the similarity that certain characters share. I remember scenes of being in my Chinese lesson and staring at a character on the white board with certainty of its pinyin, only to find that it is just a character very similar to the one I had been thinking about. At times like that I could not fathom how the composition of the character could so heavily impact its meaning.

Something I often get asked is if I ‘find Chinese hard’. My response is usually that Chinese is one of the hardest languages to master, however I find it enjoyable and thus have managed to cope with its complexity. However recently when I have been asked by my peers to talk about the Chinese language I tell them that although you may never be fluent in any language, it is certainly impossible to be completely fluent in Chinese. This is not a result of pessimism (the glass is always half full as they say), but because even native citizens of China come across characters that they are unfamiliar with. Even so we should not accept defeat in our mastery of Chinese on the basis that Chinese citizens occasionally stumble (the reason is sometimes lack of schooling); but we should be aware of the fact that some characters have a certain pinyin (transliteration) in one sentence, and then the same written character can have an entirely different pinyin in another sentence. If you had only learnt one pinyin reading for a certain character then it is likely that you will make an error when reading the character as you encounter it in a text because you will read it with the particular pinyin that you had learnt, when in fact it is meant to be read with a completely different pinyin. I hope I have not lost you with my explanation, the similarity in characters is a strange occurrence in the Chinese language but it cannot go unnoticed.

Sometimes it is not that a particular character will have a different pinyin reading depending on the sentence; it is in fact more common to find two (or more) characters that may look identical on the first glance, but closer inspection will indicate that there are differences in their radical components. In a nutshell what I have just explained illustrated the title of this post. I suppose I should demonstrate this with ‘an example or two’…So let’s play a round of ‘spot the difference’. I will indicate each example with a number as a prefix, the first character, then a forward slash, followed by the next character, and then a comma before the next example. 准备好吗/Ready?

1说/况, 2处/外, 3废/发, 4去/法/却, 5或/成, 6水/永, 7人/入, 8如/加, 9白/自, 10子/字, 11员/贵, 12不/下, 13大/天, 14免/晚. How did you do?

When you learn your first Chinese characters it can be daunting to be shown such similarities, so to see them openly in a list is quite hard hitting. Today I had experienced denial in my Chinese lesson when I noticed example number 1. Often in lessons or when I am reading, I notice these similarities and they can cause me to pause so that I can confirm a radical. For example, although the difference is not as implicit as the others, today I got confused with example number 5 when being asked to translate a text.

The post would be a bit unfinished for me to provide these examples without explaining how they can be differentiated. Therefore I have created a few tables (like the ones from my post ‘Chinese basics kept basic’) in order to define the characters and show you how they are in fact different although they may look the same.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.04.18 Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.04.33 Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 00.05.49 I do not view this aspect of the Chinese language in a negative manner (after all I did make it into a game), rather I think that it’s interesting and motivates me to focus when translating Chinese texts. If you are familiar with Chinese language then I invite you to provide some of your observations 🙂

If you come across characters that seem identical but actually have a minor difference in their radical components/, good luck 世界.

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

EDIT: Take a look at the character 长. It is an example of a character that can have a different Pinyin and meaning depending on the context of the sentence. 长 can be read as either ‘chang’ or ‘zhang’. I wanted to give some sort of example when I had originally written the post but my mind had gone blank then, perhaps you should wish me good luck! [That also reminds me, the character for wish (zhù) is 祝, and if you compare it with the picture at the start of the post you may find further similarities…].