Chinese Characters: More Than Words

20 May

A picture is worth more than a thousand words, or so they say. A Chinese character is not like a western word; a set of letters, which together form a distinct meaning. But it is not a painting either, or a picture as such, but like a good painting, a Chinese character contains much more meaning than you would expect at first glance.

A western word is made up letters which can be voiced phonetically and which hold a, most often unique, meaning. The pronunciation and writing is in other words (excuse the unintended pun) rolled up into one component, and the meaning of the word becomes a second component. These together form a complete word.

This makes a western word easier to learn than a Chinese word as Chinese words have three components; written (a character), pronunciation (phonetically this is Romanized with what is called Pinyin) and the meaning of the word.

Furthermore, bear with me here, each meaning have an assigned pinyin formula, and a character, but each character and pinyin formulation can have many meanings. Learning characters is for this reason not a straight path from a to b, it is most often a wayward journey from meaning to pinyin, to written form. For example, the character for tomorrow can also mean bright, but the meaning of bright and tomorrow are only associated with one character. The pinyin formulation for horse can also mean mother, but each meaning is only pronounced in that one way. That was a bit complicated, but maybe you managed to follow me, if not, take this with you: understanding a Chinese word is tougher than understanding a western word. Hidden in that complexity, is however something rather remarkable. Lets start with a simple one.

The character for mother is made up of the radical for a woman (don’t bother about what a radical is for now) and the radical for horse. Like I told you in the messy explanation above, the sound for horse is the same as the sound for mother. So one of the radicals hints at the meaning and one of the radical hints at the pronunciation. This is not true for all words, but it is true for the ones that are most interesting.

To delve deeper into the mysteries of characters we need a bit of knowledge of the underlying structure of characters; their radicals. Like the western alphabet there are in fact underlying symbols. The difference is that most languages have less than 25 such symbols, where as Chinese has literally hundreds and hundreds. A square is a mouth, unless it has stuff in it. Then it is a frame, for example. A stick person kind of holding a kid is a woman, a small stick person is a kid, a stick horse is horse etc. etc. This is what they call radicals. My favorite characters are that of buy and sell, one has a hat, and one of them doesn’t. Guess which one does? Hint: he needs to sell it… That is pretty funny, or at least it was when I heard it the first time. But these meanings go much further than simple pictograms like this. If Chinese characters were nothing more than bad “pictionary” it would not warrant this small article.

I heard a rather unbelievable story about a restaurant in Beijing where you can order the scrotum of snow leopards. It is super expensive and you have to order in advance (or so I hear) because they need to go out and cut the scrotum of a real snow leopard. This story is obviously not true. But what it tells us is this: in Chinese culture people are what they eat. The parts that makes up the whole imbue the product with their individual characteristics. That is what makes characters so interesting. The real juice lies in the old philosophical ones. For the word for wisdom, the three radicals that make up the first character are these: mouth, health and sun. A person who is in good health, has a lot to eat and has lived under many suns is probably wiser than a sick starving young person. Chinese words are more complicated than their western counterparts, but if you ask me, the odyssey is worth it.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language school in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin . If you are interested in more information about Mandarin courses in China, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.


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