The soil radical

The Chinese character for soil, ground, or land is (tǔ). Mud is wet soil, or 泥土 (nítǔ), and the territory of a country is 国土 (guótǔ). 土豆 (tǔdòu) are potatoes, which are also referred to as 洋芋 (yángyù).

According to the doctrine of five phases, in the destruction cycle, earth (soil) overcomes water. Therefore, the following sentence will come handy when you wish to declare that you have the confidence to tackle anything that might come your way.

兵来将档, 水来土掩.
Bīng lái jiàng dǎng, shuǐ lái tǔ yǎn.
Come soldiers charging, the general will subdue them;
Come water rushing, the soil will smother it.
(Come hell or high waters, they won’t faze me.)

As the word (tǔ) is associated with land and locality, it also connotes indigenousness, localism or provincialism. You will be able to determine from the English translation which of the following terms are used in a depreciatory sense.

(shēng) means to generate, to give birth to, to be born, or to be alive. (zhǎng), when pronounced in the third tone, means to grow or increase. Therefore, 土生土长 (tǔshēngtǔzhǎng) is a phrase describing someone who was born and raised locally. So, if you came from the Midwest and someone asks you if you were from Sweden, you could say:

Wǒ shì tǔshēngtǔzhǎng de Měiguórén.
I was born and raised in the USA.

土人 (tǔrén) are aborigines.

土匪 (tǔfěi) are bandits.

包子 (bāozi) are filled steamed buns. 肉包子 (ròu bāozi) are steamed buns filled with meat. 素包子 (sù bāozi) are steamed buns stuffed with vegetarian food stuff. On the other hand, 土包子 (tǔbāozi) refers to a country bumpkin. There is no such thing as a 包子 (bāozi) made with a soil filling.

头脑 (tóunǎo) refers to one’s mind or brains. One whose head and brains are made of soil or mud is naturally unenlightened.

Tā kànlai tǔtóutǔnǎo.
He seems rather simple-minded.

土木 (tǔmù) literally means soil and wood, which were used in constructing dwellings. Therefore, this term refers to building construction and civil engineering.

(qiáng) are walls.
(sì) is a temple.
(tǎ) is a tower or a Buddhist pagoda.
(xíng) is a style, a cast, a pattern or a model.
(táng) is a dike or a pond.
(tí) is a dike or embankment.
(zhuāng) is a village or a manor.
(chǎng ) is a meeting place, a plaza, or a scene.
(jìng) is a territory, a phiscal border, or a condition or situation.
(jiān) means strong or firm. In everyday speech, this character normally appears in combination with another character. For example, 坚强 (jiānqiáng) means strong, firm, or to strengthen, and 坚固 (jiāngù) means rugged, solid, or strong and sturdy. Also see the following sentence:

Tā jiānchí yào huíjiā.
She insists on going home.

You already know that (qù) means to leave, to go, or to remove. Add a right-to-left slanted stroke at the top, and you get the word (diū), which means to misplace or to discard something.

The character (zuò to sit) features two persons sitting on the ground, and the character (tù spit, vomit, or reveal) indicates a mouth dropping something onto the ground.

Another Chinese word for ground or land is (dì), which also means the earth, a place, a locality; a position or a situation. The term 土地 (tǔdì) unambiguously refers to the physical land. 地方 (dìfang) is a place. And somewhere in a faraway place is a good maiden with a rosy smiling face and a pair of charming eyes that one sings about in the folksong, 在那遥远的地方 (Zài Nà Yáoyuǎn de Dìfang).

遥远 (yáoyuǎn) means distant or faraway.

帐篷 (zhàngpeng) is a tent, which the nomads use as their dwelling. This song uses 帐房 (zhàngfáng) instead of 帐篷 for the sake of rhyming. Actually, the term 帐房 (zhàngfáng) will be construed in modern days as the accountant’s office.

回头 (huítóu) means to turn one’s head to look back, or to turn around and go back. Colloquially, people use this term when they tell someone to wait until after they have completed the task at hand, as in:

Huítóu wǒ zài gàosù nǐ.
I’ll tell you later.

留恋 (liúliàn) means to be reluctant to leave. 张望 (zhāngwàng) means to look around. 留恋地张望 (liúliàn di zhāngwàng) describes how people would look longingly to catch a glimpse of the maiden.

抛弃 (pāoqì) is to abandon, and 财产 (cáichǎn) is one’s possessions and property. What a romatic notion to want to give up all of one’s riches for that one lovely nomad maiden!

The fire radical

The Chinese call the planets “moving stars”, or 行星 (xíngxīng). Five of the planets were given the names of the five elements: 木星 (mùxīng Jupiter), 火星 (huǒxīng Mars), 土星 (tǔxīng Saturn), 金星 (jīxīng Venus), and 水星 (shuǐxīng Mercury). Therefore, a Martian is called 火星人 (huǒxīng rén).

Nǐ xiāngxìn yǒu huǒxīng rén ma?
Do you believe there are Martians?

(huǒ fire) is a pictograph of a person on fire, with a tongue of flame flickering on each side of the person. This character represents burning energy, such as that exhibited in a rage, or火气 (huǒqì). On the other hand, in Chinese medicine, 火气 (huǒqì) refers to the internal heat generated when yin and yang, 阴阳 (yīnyáng), are out of balance. The excess “fire” in the internal organs can manifest itself as an inflammation, which is often accompanied by bad breath. In fact, in ancient China, it was common practice to put the blame on火气 (huǒqì) for any ailment of unknown cause.

Lǎoye jīntiān huǒqì hěn dà.
The master is in a very bad temper today.

A wagon spitting steam fueled by fire is called 火车 (huǒchē train). On the other hand, the fire engine is called 救火车 (jiùhuǒ chē), where (jiù) means to rescue.

If you remember, in one of the scenes in the film “Red Cliff’, Zhuge Liang was summoning the southeast wind that favored his “fire arrows” war scheme. The fire arrows are called 火箭 (huǒjiàn), which in modern days refer to rockets.

I’m not sure why the turkey is called the “fire bird”, or 火鸡 (huǒjī). My guess is that it has something to do with the turkey’s fiery red wattle.

火锅 (huǒguō hot pot) is a chafing dish that is a favorite at family gatherings during the cold winter days. A traditional hot pot is heated by coal, and an occasional spark, or 火花) (huǒhuā), may escape when the coal is fanned.

Whenever you see the fire radical in a word, you can expect the involvement of heat or fire. For example, (dēng) is a lamp (in earlier times, an oil lamp), 火炉 (huǒlú) is a stove, and the flames are called 火焰 (huǒyàn).

炒的, 炸的, 烤的, 烘的, 样样都有.
Chǎo de, zhá de, kǎo de, hōng de, yàng yàng dōu yǒu.
Stir-fried, deep-fried, roasted or toasted, they’re all available.

火熄了, 但是还在冒烟.
Huǒ xī le, dànshì háizài màoyān.
The fire has been extinguished, but there is still smoke coming out.

Tāng hái tài tàng.
The soup is still too hot.

You know that (huī) is the gray color. This is because it is the word for ash. In the case of (qiū autumn), there is not an actual fire, but the leaves do seem ablaze.

When you see the 灬 symbol at the bottom of a Chinese character, think of the flames dancing on your gas stove. Indeed this symbol is another form of the fire radical, such as featured in (rè hot, passionate), (zhǔ cook), (jiān pan-fry), (zhēng steam), (jiāo burnt, charred) and 燃烧 (ránshāo to burn).

(shú) refers to the state of something that has been cooked and is not raw anymore. This word also means ripe, mature, being familiar with someone, or being, skilled or experienced with something. The following adage is worth remembering:

Shú néng shēng qiǎo.
Practice makes perfect.

I’d like to conclude this post by expressing my appreciation for my family, my friends, my readers, as well as the Internet, which helps to keep us all in touch and provides so much knowledge for us to acquire and enjoy.

Gǎnēn jié kuàilè!
Happy Thanksgiving!

The five elements – the wood radical

木兰 (mùlán) Magnolia

The Chinese philosophy calls upon five essential elements of nature to represent the cyclical changes and progression of things in the universe. The properties of wood, fire, earth, metal and water lend themselves well to modeling the interactions among the various factors in all aspects of life, at times generating and enhancing each other, at other times suppressing or annihilating each other (much like the participants in the food chain). These elements are referred to as the five movements or the five phases, or 五行 (wǔxíng). Therefore, you could think of these five elements as symbols employed in a crude modeling theory, which attempts to describe and explain everthing including the functions of the human body, the evolution of society, and even the fate of individuals or a country as a whole.

Such is the importance of these five elements that many Chinese words contain the corresponding characters as word radicals: (mù wood), (huǒ fire), (tǔ soil, earth), (jīn gold, metal), (shuǐ water).

The word (mù) can mean tree, wood, timber, wooden, or numb. For example, 木材 (mùcái) is lumber, 木制品 (mù zhìpǐn) are wooden products, and 麻木 (mámù) means numb or unfeeling.

A kind of melon that grows on trees is called 木瓜 (mùguā papaya), and an edible tree fungus is called 木耳 (mù’ěr tree-ears). Black tree-ears work well in stir-fries. When braised for a long time with a pot-roast, they confer a gelatinous quality to the dish.

The wood radical is assigned to woody plants and things assciated with wood. Put two (mù) together, and you’d get (lín), which means woods or a grove of trees. Add another (mù) on top, and you’d get (sēn), which means forest, or dark and gloomy. The word commonly used for a forest is 森林 (sēnlín).

Wǒ xǐhuān zài shùlín li sànbù.
I like taking walks in the woods.

The word (běn) contains a short stroke on the stem of the tree to stabilize it. As a nound, it means a foundation, a basis, an origin, a book, or the pricipal of an investment. As an adjective, it is used to indicate oneself, a present period or a local place. As an adverb, it means “originally”, “fundamentally” or “of course”. This word is also used as a unit of measure for counting books and pamphlets.

zhè shì běndì de chǎnpǐn.
This is a local product.

Tā běnlái bù xiǎng lái.
She originally did not want to come.

Wǒ gēnběn tīng bù dǒng .
I basically don’t understand (what was said).

You could think of the character (xiū) as showing a person sleeping like a log. Indeed this word means to stop or to take a rest.

The character (dāi) features a wooden mouth and is used to describe a person who is stunned, inexpressive or dim-witted.

Tā dāi zhù le.
He was stunned.

Like (qiǎo skillful, ingenious), (xiǔ rotten, decayed, senile) also contains a symbol with several bends and turns in it. However, in this case, the messy woodgrains indicate rot and decay.

With (kùn), the word root (mù) is completely boxed in. No wonder this word means to be stranded. The word for difficulty is 困难 (kùnnan difficult, difficulty).

如果有困难, 来找我.
Rúguǒ yǒu kùnnan, lái zhǎo wǒ.
If you encounter problems, come see me.

You should be able to find in your dictionary many names of trees that contain the word root (mù). Have you watched the animated film “Mulan”? 木兰 (mùlán) is the lily magnolia tree. (lǐ) refers to plums or plum trees. It is also a Chinese surname. You may have heard someone introduce himself this way:

我姓李, 木子李.
Wǒ xìng Lǐ, mù zǐ Lǐ.
My surname is Lee, the Lee that’s made up of wood and seed.

橄榄树 (gǎnlǎn shù) is an olive tree. Click here to listen to a beautiful song by the same name. Click on “Show more” to display the lyrics and English translation. The displayed scenes match the lines in the song quite well.

(zhī) or 树枝 (shùzhī) are tree branches. As a noun, (guǒ) means fruits or the result of some action. (gēn) is the root of a plant. It is also a unit of measure for rod-like objects.

Nā gēn zhùzi wāi le.
That wooden post is not standing straight.

For a list of other units of measure and their usage, please see Chapters 6 and 7 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”.

Obviously, the name of products made from wood take on the (mù) radical. Some examples are: (chuáng bed), (tǒng vat) and 梳子 (shūzi comb). In ancient times, some cups, or 杯子 (bēizi), were also made from wood. What are the Chinese words for desks and chairs?

What a coincidence!

You go to a company picnic and find out that the guy sitting next to you has the same birthday as yours. You board an airplane and are greeted by a stewardess who was your first love. You normally don’t carry much money with you, but this day you cashed $500 from the bank and you are mugged. These are coincidences, events that normally have a low probability of occurring at the same time. The Chinese word for coincidence is 巧合 (qiǎohé), which literally translates to “fortuitous concurrence”.

One of the meanings of the word (qiǎo) is coincidence. It can also be used as an adjective, as in the following exclamation:

Zhēn qiǎo!
What a coincidence! (This is truly coincidental!)

The following adverbs all mean “coincidentally”, “by chance” or “unexpectedly”: 碰巧 (pèngqiǎo), 刚巧 (gāngqiǎo), 正巧 (zhèngqiǎo).

Wǒ zài diàn lǐ pèngqiǎo kàndào tā.
By chance I saw him in the store.

恰巧 (qiàqiǎo fortunately) and 凑巧 (còuqiǎo luckily) refer to a favorable coincidence. 恰好 (qiàhǎo) can mean “as luck would have it” or “just right”. In the former sense, it is interchangeable with 恰巧 (qiàqiǎo).

我去的时候, 他恰巧在办公室里.
Wǒ qù de shíhòu, tā qiàqiǎo zài bàngōngshì lǐ.
When I went there, he happened to be in the office.

If the coincidenc is unfavorable, you would say 不巧 (bùqiǎo unfortunately, regrettably).

很不巧, 今天他不在.
Hěn bùqiǎo, jīntiān tā bùzà.
Regrettably, today he is not here.

(qiǎo) also means ingenious, crafty, skillful, artful and cunning, as you may gather by looking at the components of this character. On the left side is the word root, (gōng to work, worker, craftmanship), indicating that some work is involved. And the several bends and turns in the symbol on the right side definitely point to some craftiness.

Rénlèi yǒu cōngmín de tóunǎo hé língqiǎo de shuāngshǒu.
Human beings have intelligent brains and skillful hands.

Wǒ xīnshǎng zhè shǒujī de qiǎomiào shèjì.
I like this cell phone’s ingenious design.

Tā de wǔ bù qīngqiǎo.
Her dance steps are light and nimble.

There is a well known Chinese puzzle game, called 七巧板 (qīqiǎobǎn tangrams). Please click on this link and read the article posted there on 11/09/2011 to find out more about this ingenious and inexpensive game.

The term 乖巧 (guāiqiǎo) is often used to describe a youngster as being cute, clever and endearing.

Obviously, 花言巧语 (huāyánqiǎoyǔ) means flowery language and cunning words.

Bùyào tīng tā de huāyánqiǎoyǔ.
Don’t listen to his sweet talk.

取巧 (qǔqiǎo) means to employ trickery to serve one’s purpose.

Bùyào tóujīqǔqiǎo.
Don’t be opportunistic.

(nòng) means to do, play with, or fool with something. (chéng) means “to accomplish”, “to complete” or “to result in”. (zhuō clumsy, awkward) is the opposite of (qiǎo).

Bùyào nòngqiǎochéngzhuō.
Don’t outsmart yourself.

Please note that 巧克力 (qiǎokèlì) is just the Chinese transliteration of “chocolates”, and this term has nothing to do with coincidence or skillfulness.

The Four Winds

If you are familiar with a Chinese game called mahjong, you will know that in the boxful of at least 136 tiles there are 4 tiles marked with (dōng east), four tiles marked with (nán south), four tiles marked with 西 (xī west) and four tiles marked with (běi north). These tiles actually represent the four winds: the east wind, the south wind, the west wind and the north wind.

The wind, (fēng) is an air movement that manifests itself as a natural force or flow of energy. We can create an artificial wind by using a hand-held fan, 扇子 (shànzi), or an electric fan, 风扇 (fēngshàn).

Following are a couple ways to describe a wind:

Fēn qīngqīng de chuī.
The wind is gently blowing.

Guā dàfēng le.
A gale has started to blow.

Well, when it’s blowing outside, you might want to put on a 风衣 (fēngyī a dust-coat) to help ward off the wind.

风光 (fēngguāng) and 风景 (fēngjǐng) both refer to scenery and landscape.

Zhelǐ fēngguāng hěnhào.
The scenery here is very nice.

风度 (fēngdù) refers to one’s deportment or demeanor, while 作风 (zuòfēng) refers to one’s style of doing things.

In the word, 中风(zhòngfēng), (zhòng) takes on the fourth tone, and means “to hit on target” or “to be hit by”. When a person has a stroke (apoplexy), the Chinese say that he or she has been hit by the (evil) wind. Of course, in the scientific sense, 中风(zhòngfēng) has nothing to do with the wind at all.

Something floating in air is said to (piāo). For example,

Bái yún piāo zài kōngzhōng.
White clouds are floating in the sky.

Although the east wind is sometimes depicted as an evil force in western literature, the Chinese believe it brings favorable conditions and good luck. So, if someone mentions, “只欠东风 (zhī qiàn dōng fēng only lacking the east wind)”, it means that everything is ready but needs to wait for the right moment or a favorable condition.

南风 (nánfēng) are winds that come from the south, which usually invokes an image of a sunny place in the summer, where friendly and happy people sing and dance under the palm trees.

Let’s listen to the third song at this link, which is called “西风的话 (Xīfēng de Huà) Words of the West Wind”, with music composed by 黃自 (Huáng Zì) and lyrics written by 廖輔叔 (Liào Fǔshū). Normally this song is sung at a slow, deliberate tempo. Nevertheless, the exuberance of these cute kids is always a joy to watch. In the song there is no mention of the time of the year. Can you guess from the context what season it is describing?

Last year when I came back,
You had just donned your new gown.
Today I come to see you,
How stout and tall you have grown!
Do you perhaps remember,
The lotus in the pond will turn to pods?
Blooms will be scarce, but we won’t be without colors –
For I shall tint the leaves with red.

Most of the words in the Chinese lyrics should look familiar to you. I’ll just comment on a few new terms. As a reminder, we talked about flowers and trees in my 3/20/11 post, and I mentioned a few colors in my 7/6/11 post.

(gāng) as an adjective means firm and strong. As an adverb, it means “barely”, “just” or “a short while a go”. For example:

Tā gāng huílái.
He has just come back.

穿 (chuān) is to put on or wear clothing.

棉袍 (mián páo) is a cotton-padded quilted jacket

记得 (jìde) is to remember.

Wǒ jìde nǐ bù chī là de (dōngxi).
I rember you don’t eat spicy foods (things).

(chí) is a pond. 池里 (chí li) means in the pond.

莲蓬 (liánpeng) is the seepod of the lotus plant.

(chóu) is short for 忧愁 (yōuchóu sad, be worried).

(rǎn) means to dye.

One of the usages of the adverb, (dōu), is to help emphasize that an action is performed by all of the subjects, or that an action is applied to all of the objects. In the following line, it indicates that the action of tinting is applied to all the leaves.

Wǒ bǎ shùyè dōu rǎn hóng.
I will color all the leaves red.

北风 (běifēng) are the winds that come down from the north. It seems there is a world-wide consensus that the north wind signifies cold, harsh weather. This wind is featured in the well-known Aesop’s Fable, “The North Wind and the Sun”. I think you’ll agree that it’s often better to employ diplomacy and persuation to convince people rather than use brute force and coercion to impose compliance.

At this link there is a pattern for a four-leaf-clover origami that you could make to help you or your child learn the Chinese words for the four directions as well as a number of other terms.

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