Mother, a female horse?

If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ve had several encounters with the word (hǎo). On the left side of this character is the character (nǚ) , which means “female”. On the right side is the character (zi) , which means a seed, an offspring, a small thing, or a person. Naturally, a female person connotes goodness. (hǎo) is the Chinese word for “good” or “well”. So, 好吃! (Hǎo chī!) means good for eating, or delicious; 您好 (nín hǎo) means “Wishing you well” or “Good day!”; and 新年好(xīnnián hǎo) means “Wishing you well in the new year”. So, what does 好人 (hǎo rén) mean? That’s right! A good person.

Now, put the characters for female and horse together:

(nǚ) + (mǎ) = (mā)

The new word means “mother”. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Some people say, (mā), others say, 妈妈 (māma) – not unlike the English word, “mama”.

You know that (nĭ) means “you”. Replace the left side of this character with (nǚ female), and you’d get the word for a “female you”, (nĭ). It’s all right if you just use (nĭ) across the board and never bother with making the distinction between a male and a female “you”, as (nĭ) is a modern term, without which the Chinese have been doing just fine for ages. Ditto for the Chinese characters for he and she. By the way,  (nín) is the polite form of “you”. It applies to both genders.

(nǚ) is one of many so-called “radicals” of the Chinese characters. Each radical is shared by a group of characters, and provides a hint to a common characteristic of the words represented by those characters. Look in your Chinese text book or dictionary for additional examples of words containing the radical (nǚ). All of them have something to do with the female gender (for example, she, sisters, aunts, etc.). I hope you will pick out a few simple ones and learn them by heart.

How to write Chinese characters?

Now that you have learned a few Chinese words, perhaps you would like to try and write the corresponding characters. Some people talk about “drawing” the Chinese characters, and I don’t blame them. Each character does look like some kind of a symbol.

There are simple characters, like (yī one), (èr two), (sān three) and (rén person). And there are complicated ones, like (bí nose) and (dài a black pigment). By the way, one of the main characters in the famous classical Chinese novel, Dreams of the Red Mansion, is named 林黛玉 (Lín Dàiyù). (Lín) is a last name that means woods, (yù) is jade. 黛玉 (Dàiyù) means black jade.

When making a drawing, you can pretty much start wherever you please, although I would usually start with the head when I’m drawing a person. When doing a Chinese character, you will need to follow a given sequence, and that is for your own good. For one thing, if you start from a different point each time you write a character, it will be harder to remember that character than if you always execute the strokes in the same order. Compare that to typing on the QWERTY keyboard. You barely have to think when typing some English text. Your fingers “remember” the locations of the letters on the keyboard. In the same way, you can train your hand to “remember” the way to write a character by repeated execution of the same sequence. Secondly, many Chinese characters take on shared radicals. It will be wise to take advantage of the knowledge of these radicals rather than wield your pen haphazardly.

The book, “Reading & Writing Chinese” by William McNaughtan and Li Ying, shows you the definition and the sequence of the strokes for over 2000 commonly used Chinese characters. Both a Traditional Character edition and a Simplified Character edition are available. If you choose to learn the Traditional Characters, you could get the Traditional Character edition. Where a Simplified Character is available for a Traditional Character, this book also shows the corresponding Simplified Character on the side. Use the Alphabetical Index at the end of the book and your knowledge of pinyin to locate the group of characters with the same pinyin notation. Then look for the character that you are after.

There is a link to a nifty free Chinese character animation on Erik E. Peterson’s web site: From the home page, select “Learn Chinese”. Under “Tools for Learning Chinese”, select “Learn to Draw Chinese Characters”. Under “Links for Learning to Draw Chinese Characters”, select “Characters with Animation”. The direct link to Tim Xie’s page is:

You will notice that, in gneral, the strokes on the top get written before those at the bottom, and the strokes on the left side come before those on the right side of the character. Why not look up the following Chinese characters and practice writing them on paper? Yes, yes, you will need to write each character many, many times until you can do it with your eyes closed.

(nĭ you), (hǎo good), (zǎo early, morning), (wǎn late, eveneing)
(xīn new), (nián year), (kuài fast, quick, pleasurable), (lè happy)
(mǎ horse), (niǎo bird), (zài again), (jiàn see, look)

What’s the Chinese word for “Hi!”?

The word “Hi” was not part of the traditional Chinese vocabulary. Following the teaching of Confucius, the majority of rulers endeavored to maintain an orderly and structured society in China. Consequently, within any group, no matter how small, there was a “pecking order” to be observed. The subjects would greet the rulers first, before the ruler would nod his approval. The students would say “Good morning.” to the teacher first, before the teacher would reciprocate. In a family, the son or daughter would greet their parents first, and not the other way around. In the same way, an elder brother would expect his younger siblings to salute first. And, of course, an employee would be remiss in not greeting his boss first. The subordinates would employ such standard greetings as: 早安 (zǎoān Good morning.), 你好 (nĭ hǎo Good day; good afternoon.), and 晚安 (wǎnān Good night.). A casual “Hi!” just wouldn’t do. That would be too democratic.

In fact, (Hāi) is a contemporary term borrowed from English. It is mostly used among the young and not so young people who have adopted the Western ways. Similarly, 拜拜! (bái bái) is the Chinese transliteration of “Bye-bye!”. The word (bài) actually means to make obeisance to one’s elders or to perform a religious worship. You could regard this character as representing two hands brought together in worship.

The more courteous form of 你好 (nĭ hǎo) is 您好 (nín hǎo). The lower part of the word (nín) is (xīn), which sounds exactly like the word (xīn new) in 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year!). (xīn) is the heart. It is added to (nĭ you) to represent sincere respect.

Until next time, 再见! (zàijiàn See you! Good-bye!).

Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese?

Sorry, there is not such a thing as a simplified Chinese language. When we talk about Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, we are strictly referring to the written Chinese characters.

As you have seen, the Chinese characters are formed by one or more of various types of strokes. Many contain over twenty strokes. To help reduce illiteracy in China, the Chinese government adopted the Simplified Character system in 1986.

Take, for example, the word (mǎ horse). Do you recognize the manes on a horses long neck, and doesn’t the remainder of this character resemble the horse’s body and its four legs?

The simplified Character for (mǎ) is (mǎ). You can see that quite a few details have been left out in the simplified version, but the general shape of the character has been retained. Similarly, compare the Traditional and Simplified Characters for the word “bird”: (niǎo), (niǎo).

In fact, before the Simplified Characters were made official, it has been the practice of the Chinese public to simplify some of the strokes when they need to write down something in haste or when they are writing to family and friends. The Chinese government took this evolution a step further and made it a revolution. Drastic changes have been made to a number of words, making them unrecognizable by a person trained on using Traditional Characters. In addition, in some cases, the same character is assigned to words that have totally different meanings, giving rise to ambiguity, and potential confusion for the beginning learner.

I will mention one example here. The Traditional Character for noodles is (miàn). On the left side of this character is the radical that means “wheat”, providing information that this food item is made from wheat. The character for the face or a facade is (miàn). In Simplified Chinese, (miàn) is used to represent both words. Granted, these two words are homonyms, but what has the face to do with noodles? Noodles in the face, perhaps?

To the purists in the Chinese communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, the Simplified Character system is an attack on the Chinese culture. It has caused much damage to the beautiful written language that can be likened to a premium wine that has been slowly aged by history. Fortunately for them, the majority of Traditional Characters have been left intact. On the other hand, from the perspective of a foreigner who is trying to learn to write in Chinese, this is unfortunate because the simplified characters are indeed easier to learn to write.

If you haven’t already looked up the Chinese character for rabbit, it is (tù). It is written the same way in the Traditional and Simplified systems. The story posted at this blog site for bilingual children shows both the Simplified Characters and the Traditional Characters. You will see that most of the Chinese characters are identical in the two versions.

You might ask, “If I learn the Traditional Characters, will it be easy for me to read the Simplified Characters?”, and vice versa. I’d say that learning the Traditional Characters will give you an edge. It would be easier to figure out what’s missing from a complicated Traditional Character than to try to recreate a complicated Traditional Character from an over-simplified character. However, you must also consider where you plan to use the Chinese you have learned. As of this writing, the Simplified Character system is used in Mainland China and Singapore, and Traditional Character system is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Please read this article for information about usage of Chinese in Singapore and Malyasia. The advocates and users of the Traditional Characters are obviously outnumbered.

Should you learn the Traditional or simplified Characters? It is up to you to make the informed decision. Of course, if all you want to learn is how to speak Chinese, then you will only need to pay attention to the pinyin phonetics, and not worry about this issue at all. I’m not totally in favor of the Simplified Character system but I find it tolerable. In view of the fact that Simplified Characters are generally easier to write, I will show the Chinese characters in my future posts as Simplified Characters. Many on-line dictionaries now provide both Simplified and Traditional Chinese chracters. Therefore, I suggest that if you are learning to write a Simplified Chinese character then eyeball the corresponding Traditional Chinese character to become somewhat familiar with it, and vice versa.

Sticky New Year?

Call it the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Hare, as you please. The Chinese Lunar New Year begins today. Let’s hope that this will be a peaceful year. And, of course, we want more. We also want the new year to bring us well-being, happiness and prosperity. In fact, the most popular new year’s greetings among the Chinese are:

新年好 xīnnián hǎo Be Well on New Year

新年快乐 xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year

恭禧发财 gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations on Auspiciousness and Prosperity

You already know that (hǎo) means “good”. You could have guessed that (xīn) means “new” and (nián) means “year”. It’s a cinch to say 新年好 (xīnnián hǎo). You could also try 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year), where 快乐(kuàilè) means “happiness”. 发财 (fācái) means to get rich.

More often than not, when the Chinese people make the rounds to visit their relatives and friends on this day, they will wag their clutched hands in front of their chest and holler jubilantly:
恭禧恭禧! (gōngxǐ gōngxǐ Congratulations!), or 恭禧发财! (gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations! Hope you’ll get rich!)

And, don’t forget about promotions. (People’s wants and desires have no bounds.) It’s customary for the Chinese to serve a sweet rice cake on the first few days of the Lunar New Year. This 年糕 (niángāo New Year cake) is made of glutinous rice flour. Unlike a sponge cake or even a dense pecan pie, this is a viscous, sticky mass that cools down to a rocky hard slab. What’s the significance of eating this particular cake? Well, the word for cake is (gāo), which sounds exactly like (gāo), the word for high or height, which indicates a high position. The word (shēng) means to rise or to elevate. So, 高升 (gāo shēng) means to be elevated to a high position. Therefore, 年糕 (niángāo) is taken to represents the phrase 年年高升 (nián nián gāo shēng), or “promotion year after year”. The Chinese believe that things you do on the first few days of the Lunar New Year have important bearing on the rest of the year. The hope is that by eating this cake at the start of the year, you will be more apt to get a promotion this year. By the same token, there are also things that one should not say or do during these crucial days for fear that they would bring bad luck. This is, of course, pure superstition.

As it turns out, (nián year) is a homonym of (nián), which means “sticky”. You can use it as a mnemonic for sounding out the more complicated character (nián). Actually, the word (zhān) has the exact same meaning as (nián). Many Chinese use these two characters interchangeably.

Please don’t get me wrong. The sticky sweet rice cake is actually a delicious treat. You’d cut it into small wedges or sticks, dip the pieces in beaten egg then deep fry them in hot oil. Take a small bite. When you try to pull the remainder away from your mouth, it will draw out like stringy melted cheese. The sweet, warm, soft and moist interior part of the rice cake, combined with the rich aroma of the deep-fried exterior, rewards your palate and heart with an indescribable fulfilling sensation.

I have a simple recipe for making the sweet rice cake but I won’t give it to you. For one thing, it’s about as wholesome as a glazed Krispy Kreme donut. Secondly, it’s so sweet that most likely one small wedge of it will satisfy your sweet tooth, and you’d wonder what to do with the leftover. Last but not the least, it’s a potential choking hazard for those of you who are uninitiated and fail to take small bites of this sticky dessert and chew well.

Instead, I’ll give you an assignment – Look up the Chinese character for rabbit in your dictionary, textbook or supplemental Chinese instruction book. (The answer will be in my next weekly post.)

May you all have a new year filled with peace, health, happiness, prosperity, and promotions, too!

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