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?

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Sharon
    Nov 21, 2011 @ 11:52:42

    Radicals are not usually a popular topic among Chinese learners, but it is a necessary part of learning the language. The better you know the language, the more often you see the pattern, so I just tend to take radicals in stride rather than trying to learn them directly. Maybe others have another way of learning radicals?


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