Is it difficult to learn Chinese?

With respect to reading and writing Chinese, the answer is yes. Written Chinese is not based on an alphabet. Even though the Chinese characters could be broken down to around 220 radicals, there is not a simple rule to “spell” them in terms of the word radicals.

On the other hand, if you would just like to pick up a few words to make small talks, that should be as easy as learning to speak any other foreign language. You could even try to write down the words by using the Romanized pinyin system.

(kùnnan) and 困难 (kùnnan) mean difficult or difficulties, whereas (yì) and 容易 (róngyì) mean easy, easily or apt to.

Traditionally, the Chinese have adopted the view of 知易行难 (zhī yì xíng nán), viz. it is easy to know about something but often difficult to follow up with action.

On the night of his betrayal, 耶穌 (Yēsū Jesus) said to his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This is akin to the Chinese idiom:

The heart is more than willing, but there is not enough strength or ability to do it.

We know how detrimental tobacco and alcohol can be to our heath, but many try and fail to quit. We may know all the words and material that need to go into a book, but it is not so easy to put everything together to make a finished book.

One could just as well argue for the other case – 知难行易 (zhī nán xíng yì). After you have learned a difficult skill or branch of knowledge, then it is easy to put it to use and complete a task. For example, once you know the commonly used chord progressions and understand the logic behind the harmonization of the scale tones and the chords, you are apt to be able to play a song by ear and improvise the harmony.

Similarly, you are more likely to be able to make meaningful statements in a language when you know the underlying grammar and the conventional syntax. The article at this link provides an interesting example.

As a noun, 今天 (jīntiān today), 昨天 (zuótiān yesterday), 明天 (míngtiān tomorrow) and 后天 (hòutiān the day after tomorrow) can be placed at the end of a sentence. For example,

Nà yào děngdào míngtiān.
That will need to wait until tomorrow.

However, when using these words as adverbs, do not place them at the end of a sentence. You could say,

Míngtiān wǒmén yào qù kàn diànyǐng.
Tomorrow we are going to the movies.

Or you could say,

Wǒmén míngtiān yào qù kàn diànyǐng.
Tomorrow we are going to the movies.

In English, you rarely hear: “We, tomorrow, are going to the movies.” Therefore, when translating Chinese into English, or English into Chinese, you will want to employ the conventional word order rather than doing it verbatim. Please consult Chapter 17 of “Learn Chinese through Songs Rhymes” for the correct placement of adverbs and adverbial phrases in a sentence.

难度 (nándù) means the degree of difficulty. 难倒 (nándiǎo) is to baffle or deter someone.

Zhègè wèntí bǎ wǒ nándiǎo le.
This problem (or issue) has me baffled.

难关 (nánguān) a crisis or a difficult critical juncture. 度过难关 (dùguò nánguān) means to have passed through a difficult juncture.

难过 (nánguò) means to have a hard time or feel bad.

Tā xīnli hěn nánguò.
She felt very bad.

When pronounced in the fourth tone, (nàn) means calamity or disaster. 灾难 (zāinàn) means calamity, catastophe or suffering due to a disaster. Therefore, refugees are referred to as 难民 (nànmín), and a refuge is called 避难所 (bìnánsuǒ).

轻易 (qīngyì) means easily or rashly.

易燃物 (yìránwù) are combustible or inflammable materials.

好不容易 (hǎo bù róngyì) means with great difficulty or effort. Often the (bù) is omitted, and you will just hear 好容易 (hǎoróngyì). One may get confused if one simply takes this phrase at face value.

我好容易来到这儿, 她却不肯见我.
Wǒ hǎoróngyì láidào zhèr, tā què bù kěn jiàn wǒ.
I took all the trouble to come here, but she refused to see me.

(yì) also means exchange or change.

贸易 (màoyì) means trade. Therefore, 自由贸易 (zìyóumàoyì) is free trade, and 国际贸易 (guójìmàoyì) is international trade.

If you have not heard of 易经 (Yìjīng The Book of Changes) before, you can read about it at this link.

What are the things you find most difficult while learning to speak, read and/or write Chinese?

How to say “I don’t know” in Chinese

Zài Táiwān jiǔyuè èr shí bā rì shì jiàoshī jié
In Taiwan September 28th is designated as Teacher’s Day.

The reason is that this day is believed to be the birthday of Confucius, who is highly regarded by the Chinese people as a great educator and philosopher.

One day, after delivering a lesson to one of his students, Confucius asked the student if the latter understood the instruction material. Then Confucius added (in classical Chinese, of course):

知之为知之, 不知为不知, 是知也.
Zhī wèi zhī zhī, bùzhī wèi bùzhī, shì zhī yě.
Know what you understand, and know what you don’t understand. This reflects true knowledge.

(zhī), or 知道 (zhīdào), means to know, to realize or to perceive.

知识 (zhīshí) is knowledge.

知识分子 (zhīshífènzǐ) are intellectuals.

知识产权 (zhīshichǎnquán) is intellectual property rights.

无知 (wúzhī) means ignorant or badly informed (uneducated). This is different from 不知 (bùzhī) or 不知道 (bù zhīdào), which means not to know or not to be aware of something.

Many of us tend to think what little we know is the absolute and whole truth. In fact the sea of knowledge is deep and wide. It behooves us to know that there is a limit to a person’s knowledge and understanding. Then we are more apt to keep an open mind and to try to appreciate other people’s point of view.

通知 (tōngzhī) means to notify. As a noun it means a notice.

获知 (huòzhī) and 得知 (dézhī) is to have received information on something.

Wǒ jiànjiē dézhī tā yǐjīng líkāi Měiguó.
I learned indirectly that he had already left the United States.

不得而知 (bùdéérzhī) means unable to find out about something.

至于他什么时候回来, 就不得而知了.
Zhìyú tā shénme shíhòu huílái, jiù bùdéérzhī le.
As for when he will return, I have no idea.

无所不知 (wúsuǒbùzhī) describes a person who is knowledgeable and seems to know everything.

On the other hand, 一知半解 (yīzhībànjiě) is to have half-baked knowledge about something.

知其一, 不知其二 (zhīqíyī, bùzhīqíèr) means to know only one aspect of a matter and not the whole story.

略知一二 (lüèzhīyīèr) means knowing a bit or two about something.

You can probably guess what 一问三不知 (yīwènsānbùzhī) means. If one says “I don’t know” to every question asked, then he or she probably knows nothing about the subject matter.

一无所知 (yīwúsuǒzhī) is to be utterly ignorant about someone or something.

对于这位知名人士, 我一无所知.
Duìyú zhèi wèi zhīmíngrénshì, wǒ yīwúsuǒzhī.
I know nothing about this celebrity.

Following are a few commonly used four-character Chinese idioms involving 不知 (bù zhī).

不知所云 (bùzhīsuǒyún) translates to “Don’t know what he/she is talking about.” In everyday speech, you would say:

Bù zhīdào tā zài shuō shénme.

不知好歹 (bùzhīhǎodǎi) means not knowing what is good for one. You know that (hǎo) means good. (dǎi) means bad or evil. A scoundrel or ruffian can be referred to as 歹徒 (dǎitú scoundrel) or 坏人 (huàirén bad person).

不知所措 (bùzhīsuǒcuò) is to be at one’s wit’s end and not knowing what to do.

她不停地哭, 弄得我不知所措
Tā bùtíng de kū, nòng de wǒ bùzhīsuǒcuò.
She cried incessantly, causing me to be at a loss as to what to do.

All right. How many Chinese words do you have under your belt now? Do you know all of the characters grouped into phrases at this link?

Directly and indirectly in Chinese

Diameter 直径 (zhíjìng)

Diameter 直径 (zhíjìng)

The opposite of (wān curved or bent) is (zhí), which means straight, directly, straightforward, upright or just.

直接 (zhíjiē) means direct, directly or immediately.

Nǐ kěyǐ zhíjiē hé tā liánluò.
You can contact him directly.

直达 (zhídá) means nonstop. Therefore, 直达车 (zhídá chē) is a bus that will go directly to the destination without making stops on the way.

We have previously (4/9/14) learned that 半径 (bànjìng) is the radius of a circular shape. The diameter is called 直径 (zhíjìng).

直流电 (zhíliúdiàn) is direct current. Alternating current is called 交流电 (jiāoliúdiàn).

直肠 (zhícháng) is the straight section of the large intestine, or rectum. On the other hand, 直肠子 (zhíchángzi) refers to a person who is straightforward and outspoken, or 直爽 (zhíshuǎng).

Tā gèxìng zhíshuǎng.
He is straightforward in personality.

You could also describe such a person by using a four-character Chinese idiom:

Tā xīnzhíkǒukuài.
He is frank and outspoken.

直截了当 (zhíjiéliǎodàng) means straightforward, blunt or pointblank.

Tā zhíjiéliǎodàng shuō tā bù ài tā.
He said pointblank that he did not love her.

As “he” and “she” sound exactly the same in Chinese, it will not be possible to tell whether a man is dumping a woman or a woman is dumping a man if you are not familiar with the situation and just heard someone utter the above sentence.

一直 (yīzhí) means continuously, always or all along.

Tā yīzhí bùtíng de kū.
She kept crying non-stop.

直到 (zhídào) means up until.

我永远爱你, 直到海枯石烂.
Wǒ yǒngyuǎn ài nǐ, zhídào hǎikūshílàn
I will love you forever, until the seas run dry and the rocks are totally eroded.

直觉 (zhíjué) is one’s intuition or gut feeling.

Wǒ de zhíjué shì tā méiyǒu chéngyì.
My gut feeling is that he is not sincere.

正直 (zhèngzhí) means honest, upright and fair.

理直气壮 (lǐzhíqìzhuàng) means acting bold and assured because one has justice on one’s side.

间接 (jiànjiē) means indirect or indirectly.

间隔 (jiàngé) is the interval between two events or the space separating two objects.

房间 (fángjiān) are rooms that are separated from each other by walls.

间断 (jiànduàn) means interrupted or disconnected.

我和他通信多年, 没有间断.
Wǒ hé tā tōngxìn duōnián, méiyǒu jiànduàn.
I corresponded with him for years without interruption.

中间 (zhōngjiān) means in the middle or being between two things or persons. Therefore, a middleman is called 中间人 (zhōngjiānrén), and a spy is called 间谍 (jiàndié).

“Directly” and “directly” are adverbs. You might want to review Chapter 17 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” for the correct placement of an adverb in a sentence.

Sing Chinese Song – Crescent Moon Shines over the Land

There is a Sung Dynasty folk song that starts with these lines:

Yuè er wān wān zhào jiǔzhōu,
The slim crescent moon shines all over the land,

几家欢乐, 几家愁.
Jǐ jiā huānlè, jǐ jiā chóu.
Some families happy and others sad.

九州 (jiǔzhōu) refers to the nine regions of ancient China. This term is still used in songs and poems to refer to China. Please note that 九州 (jiǔzhōu) is also the Chinese word for Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan.

Although the moon graces all the people equally, a few families enjoy prosperity while the majority endure hardship.

This old song was later transformed into a theme song for a movie. I am not familiar with the movie, but from the lyrics of the song and a short movie clip on Youtube, I gathered that it’s about a girl from a fisherman’s family who left her village for the city and later became a famous singer. The glamorous new life also brought her unexpected trouble.

Click on this link to hear 月儿弯弯照九州 sung in a female voice.

At this link is the same song sung in a male voice. At this site there is an English translation of this song. The lyrics are provided in Traditional Chinese characters.

Let’s look at some of the terms used in the first three stanzas of the lyrics, which depict the plight of a fisherman’s life.

(wān) means curved or bent. The crescent moon has a curved shape. (zhào) has a few different meanings. Here it means to shine or to illuminate.

渔船 (yúchuán) is a fishing boat, and 渔家 (yú jiā) is a fisherman’s family.

到处 (dàochù) means everywhere. 停留 (tíngliú) means to stop and stay.

风光 (fēngguāng) is a scenery. 青山绿水 (qīngshān lǜ shuǐ) is a commonly used term that describes green hills and clear green water, i.e. a nice scenery.

Among common folks, the male in a couple may be addressed by the female as 哥哥 (gēgē), and (mèi) is the female counterpart.

吹笛 (chuī dí) is to play a flute, and 梳头 (shū tóu) is to comb one’s hair. Both are leisurely activities.

工作 (gōngzuò) means a work (noun), a job, or to work (verb).

几时 (jǐshí) is another way of saying 什么时候? (shénme shíhòu), which means “When?”. (xiū) means to stop or to rest. In regular parlance, 几时休 (xiū) would be expressed as:

Shénme shíhòu cái huì tíngzhǐ?
When will it stop?

白天 (báitiān) is daytime, and (yè) is night or evening. 摇船 (yáochuán) is to row the boat and, 补网 (bǔ wǎng) is to mend the fishing net.

青春 (qīngchūn) means one’s youth, youthfulness or being youthful.

水里 (shuǐ li) means in the water.

(diū) means to throw, to throw away or to lose something.

风浪 (fēnglàng) are stormy waves. 翻天 (fāntiān) means overturning the sky. It describes the worrisome turbulence of the storm.

使人 (shǐ rén) translates to “causes a person to” or “to enable a person to”. So, 使人愁 (shǐ rén chóu) means “makes one worry”.

Nèi jiàn shì shǐ wǒ gǎndào bùān.
That incident made me feel uneasy.

要吃 (yào chī) means needing to eat; 要穿 (yào chuān) means needing to have clothing to wear. (gù) is to care about or to take into consideration. (xiǎn) are dangers. 哪顾得险 (nǎ gù de xiǎn) means not having the luxury to care about the dangers (of fishing in stormy weather).

可怜 (kělián) means pitiable, pitiful or poor. 流泪 (liú lèi) is to weep. (shuāng) is a pair, or two of something. 泪双流 (lèi shuāng liú) indicates there are two people weeping together.

Some Chinese expressions involving the moon

上弦月 shàngxián yuè First-quarter Moon

上弦月 (shàngxián yuè) First-quarter Moon

It is a Chinese tradition for family to gather together and enjoy the harvest of the year when the moon is at its fullest in the middle of autumn. After a scrumptious feast, it is customary for the party to move outdoors to observe the bright moon, chat, drink some tea and eat 月饼 (yuèbǐng moon cakes).

The moon is commonly referred to as 月亮 (yuèliang). In astronomical science, it is called 月球 (yuèqiú). In literature, one might speak of 月宫 (yuègōng), the palace on the moon where the moon fairly lives. In a moon-lit night, or 月夜 (yuèyè), you will likely see a half-moon shape, 半月形 (bànyuèxíng), or a crescent moon, 月牙 (yuèyá). A lunar eclipse is called 月蚀 (yuèshí).

The word (yuè) also represents the time period of one month. 正月 (zhēngyuè) is the first month of the lunar year. The Moon Festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, i.e. 八月十五 (bāyuè shíwǔ).

岁月 (suìyuè) means years. 经年累月 (jīngniánlěiyuè) means year in year out.

他经年累月努力学习, 终于学会了中文.
Tā jīngniánlěiyuè nǔlì xuéxí, zhōngyú xuéhuì le zhōngwén.
After years of endeavoring in the study, he finally mastered the Chinese language.

蜜月 (mìyuè) is a honeymoon.

Tāmen yào qù nǎr dù mìyuè?
Where are they going for their honeymoon?

The word 满月 (mǎnyuè) can refer to a full moon, or it can refer to a baby’s completion of its first month of life, which calls for a joyous celebration. After giving birth to a baby, a woman in the traditional Chinese society would be confined at home for the entire first month and eat nutritious foods and drink herbal soups so as to recuperate quickly and produce ample milk for the newborn. This is called 坐月子 (zuòyuèzi).

When you see (yuè) in front of another word, it often refers to a monthly occurrence. Following are a few examples:

月历 (yuèlì) is a montly calendar.
月刊 (yuèkān) is a monthly magazine.
月票 (yuèpiào) is a monthly ticket.
月息 (yuéxī) is the monthly interest.
月薪 (yuèxīn) is the monthly salary.

Have you ever heard of 月下老人 (yuèxiàlǎorén)? An ancient Chinese story goes like this: One night, a traveling young man happened on an old man who was reading a book under the moonlight. Out of curiosity the young man ask the old what the book was about. The old man replied, “This is the book of marriages. See that woman who is peddling vegetables over there? Her daughter is only three now. In fourteen years, that girl will become your wife.” The young man did not take to the homeliness of that little girl. He paid a local to stab her to death. Fourteen years later, the young man got married. As was the custom at that time, one would see his bride for the first time on the wedding night. When the young man lifted the veil that covered the face of his bride, he saw a scar on her eyebrow. It turned out that girl was the same one he had previously attempted to get rid of. 月下老人 (yuèxiàlǎorén), the old man under the moon, is believed to be the god who unites persons in marriage. Consequently this term is often used to refer to a matchmaker. Chapter 10 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” discusses the song “Lift Your Veil”, which you can learn to sing by following the demo in the associated audio file.

累积 (lěijī) means to accumulate. 日积月累 (rìjīyuèlěi) means accumulated over a long period of time.

(xīn) means new. (yì) is the classical Chinese word for being different. Therefore 日新月异 (rìxīnyuèyì) means changing with each passing day (and month).

The phrase 风花雪月 (fēnghuāxuěyuè) contains the Chinese words for wind, flowers, snow and moon, which was the subject matter of certain types of feudal literature. Nowadays this idiom refers to shallow sentimental writing that is devoid of content. It is also used to describe decadence and indulgence in wine and women.

海底捞月 (hǎidǐlāoyuè) means to attempt to scoop up the moon from the bottom of the sea, i.e. striving in vain for the impossible or the illusory.

Zhè xiàng shì hǎidǐlāoyuè.
This is a hopeless illusion.

When people gather for the Moon Festival, some may play the game of mahjong, which involves completing a winning hand of tiles by forming sets of three tiles (melds). You could form a meld using a tile that you picked up or by using a tile discarded by another player. In the rare instance where no one has won when the tiles almost run out and you pick up the last available tile to complete a winning hand, you are said to have accomplished 海底捞月 (hǎidǐlāoyuè).

Zhōngqiūjié kuàilè!
Happy Moon Festival!

Chinese word for learning

For some of you, school may have just started after the long summer vacation. It’s time to think less about visits and travels and more about your studies. As this video shows, it is a blessing that we have the capability to learn new things.

The Chinese word for learning or studying is (xué) or 学习 (xuéxí). One is never too old to learn. To put it in Chinese,

活到老, 学到老.
Huó dào lǎo xué dào lǎo.
We live and learn.

(huó) means to live or being alive.
(dào) means to arrive, to reach, or up until.
(lǎo) means old, aged or outdated.

Indeed there is no limit to knowledge and learning. The classical Chinese idiom for this observation is:
学无止境 (xuéwúzhǐjìng)

You should give yourself a pat on the back for taking on the challenge of studying the Chinese language.

Xué zhōngwén bù shì yī jiàn róngyì de shì.
Leaning Chinese is not an easy task.

We’ve previously discussed a few words that refer to learning at school. (See the article posted on 6/1/11.) Following are several additional words and expressions containing (xué), and I encourage you to look up a few more on your own to study.

大学生 (dàxuésheng) does not mean a big student but rather a university student as 大学 (dàxué) is a university or a college. 学院 (xuéyuàn) is a college or an academy.

同学 (tóngxué) is a schoolmate. Specifically, 同班同学 (tóngbāntóngxué) is a classmate.

学问 (xuéwen) means learning or knowledge. 学科 (xuékē) is a study course, a subject or a branch of learning. For example, 文学 (wénxué) is literature, 科学 (kēxué) is science, and 地质学 (dìzhíxué) is geology.

Zhāng xiānsheng hěn yǒu xuéwen.
Mr. Zhang is very learned.

学位 (xuéwèi) is an academic degree. 学士 (xuéshì) is a scholar or one holding a bachelor’s degree.

学费 (xuéfèi) means tuition, and 学分 (xuéfēn) is a credit one can earn by studying at an academic institution.

Jīnnián xuéfèi yòu zhàng le.
This year the tuition has soared again.

学徒 (xuétú) is an apprentice.

博学多才 (bóxuéduōcái) is a phrase for describing someone of great learning and abilities.

才疏学浅 (cáishūxuéqiǎn having little talent and learning) is what you might say of yourself to show humbleness.

不学无术 (bùxuéwúshù) means ignorant and incompetent. This phrase could be used when talking about someone of whom you don’t have a high opinion.

(xí) means to practice, to review or to get used to. 习题 (xítí) is an exercise in school work.

练习 (liànxí) is to practice. 见习 (jiànxí) is to learn on the job. Therefore, a student working as a trainee is called 见习生 (shēng).

Confucius said,
学而时习之, 不亦悦乎.
Xué er shí xí zhī, bù yì yuè hū.
To learn and to review the material from time to time, isn’t that delightful?

演习 (yǎnxí) is a drill or a maneuver.

习惯 (xíguàn) is a habit. As a verb it means to become accustomed to. 恶习 (èxí) is a pernicious habit.

Wǒ yǐjīng xíguàn tā de lěngmò.
I’ve already gotten used to her cold attitude.

Blackberry in Chinese



As the picture on this page shows, I’m not talking about a PDA device but rather the edible blackberry, 黑莓 (hēi méi), which is now in season here. The summer air is filled with the sweet aroma of the luscious berries that are waiting to be picked and popped into the mouth. If one is not careful, one will pay the price of being pricked or scratched by the thorny brier.

As we have discussed previously, (cì) means a thorn. As a verb, it means to pierce or poke into something.

Wǒ de hēi méi cì le.
My thumb got jabbed.

The sting of a bee or a wasp is called 蜂刺 (fēngcì). Fishbones are called 鱼刺 (yúcì). Not surprisingly, a hedgehog is called 刺猬 (cìwèi).

刺痛 (cìtòng) means a tingle. As a verb it means to hurt by stabbing with a small pointed object like a needle.

Other things can sting without making physical contact with you.

Ear-piercing sounds or harsh words may be described as 刺耳 (cìěr grating on the ear). And things that are offending to the eye are said to be 刺眼 (cìyǎn) or 不顺眼 (bù shùnyǎn).

Tā shuō de huà jù jù cìěr.
Every sentence he uttered grated on my ear.

As an exercise, try making a sentence in Chinese that translates to: “His words stabbed my heart.”

A biting wind is often described as 刺骨 (cìgǔ piercing to the bones).

刺激 (cìjī) means to stimulate, to provoke or to upset.

Bùyào zài cìjī tā le.
Stop irritating him.

You may wonder why in the above sentence there is not a Chinese word for stopping. In Chinese, instead of asking someone to stop doing something, you would normally just request that someone to not continue the action. Therefore, this is how you would ask someone to stop weeping:

Bùyào zài kū le.

刺杀 (cìshā) means to assassinate. The assassin is called 刺客 (cìkè).

刺绣 (cìxiù) is to embroider using a needle with a sharp point. As a noun, it refers to an embroidered article, which is also called 刺绣品 (cìxiùpǐn).

As (cì) means to pierce or to poke, it makes sense that making roundabout or secret inquiries is referred to as 刺探 (cìtàn). And it also makes sense that 讽刺 (fěngcì to mock or satirize) also contains the (cì) character.

Now, take a look at the character (là). If you look closely, you will see it is slightly different from (cì) – the little rectangle is closed off and does not have spikes poking down.

(là) means obstinate, pompous or disrespectful, as in 大剌剌 (dà là là with a swagger).

A word that sounds like (là) but is much more commonly used is

(là), or 辛辣 (xīnlà), means spicy hot, pungent, biting or ruthless.

辣椒 (làjiāo) are hot peppers, and 辣酱 (làjiàng) is a hot chili sauce or a hot chili paste.

A woman who is unreasonable, shrewish and attacks people with pungent words would be described as 潑辣 (pōlà).

Tā de qīzi shì gè pōlà de nǚrén
His wife is a shrew.

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