Plain rice or fried rice?

As you know, rice is the staple food in many parts of southeastern Asia. (mǐ) is uncooked rice. (This character is also used to represent the distance unit, “meters”.) Cooked rice is called (fàn), which sounds quite similar to “fun”. Plain cooked rice is 白饭 (báifàn), and stir-fried rice is 炒饭 (chǎo fàn). Please don’t go around announcing that you like to 吃白饭 (chī báifàn) as this expression can also be interpreted as the equivalent of 白吃 (bái chī), which means eating without paying, or bilking others. It is safe to say:

Wǒ xǐhuān chī bái mǐfàn.
I like to eat plain rice.

Another expression to be careful about is 吃软饭 (chī ruǎn fàn eat soft rice), which means to sponge off women. It is safe to say:

Wǒ xǐhuān chī bǐjiào ruǎn de fàn.
I like to eat rice that’s on the soft side.

Having thousands of years of history behind them, the Chinese, have taken the plain rice grains and turned them into a large variety of delectable food products. Rice porridge is called (zhōu congee) or 稀饭 (xīfàn). When the rice is cooked to a paste, then it’s called (hú). This word can also be used as a verb, i.e. “to glue with a paste”.

(fěn) is a powder. When rice is ground into powder and made into a vermicelli, it is called 米粉 (mǐ fěn rice flour noodles). On some restaurant menus, you may find 炒粉 (chǎofěn), which refers to stir-fried rice noodles.

Rice powder can also be used to make a variety of rice cakes, generally referred to as (gāo). As I mentioned before, the sticky rice cake, called 年糕 (niángāo), is customarily served for the Lunar New Year. On the other hand, 蛋糕 (dàngāo cakes) usually refer to cakes made from wheat flour. What happens when you’ve added too much sugar, or (táng), into the cake?

Zhègè dàngāo tài tián le!
This cake is too sweet!

Please refer to the book,”Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”, for the names of other food items. There you will also find a song sung to the tune of “Hot Cross Buns”.

(lì) are grains or granules. It is also used as a unit of counting small round items.

(cū) means coarse, grainy, thick or wide.

(hé) refers to the rice plant. This character is a radical found in many other Chinese characters. For example, you’ve most likely seen the word (hé) used as the conjunctive “and”. As an adjective, this word means to be gentle or congenial. As a noun, it means the sum. As a verb, (huò), means to mix, and is pronounced in the fourth tone.

When you harvest the rice by cutting the pants, profit will be gained. So, when you add the刂(dāo knife) radical to (hé), you will get (lì), which means sharp, beneficial, a profit or an interest (from savings or investment).

Lián běn dài lì yīgòng sān qiān liù bǎi yuán.
Including principal and interest, altogether it’s 3600 yuan.

便利 (biànlì) means convenient. 顺利 (shùnlì) means going smoothly or without a problem. 利用 (lìyòng) is a verb that means “to make good use of” or, in the negative sense, “to exploit”.

(dào) are the rice plants in the paddy.
(xiāng) means fragrant or savory. As a noun, it refers to incense.
(chèng) are scales. It can be used as the verb “to weigh”.
(shuì) are duty and taxes.
(jì) are the seasons.

Yī nián yǒu sìjì.
There are four seasons in a year.

One sweltering day during the Tang Dynasty, a farmer was laboring in his rice field. A poet, named 李绅 (Lǐ shēn), happened by. He took sympathy on the farmer, and the inspiration resulted in this well-known poem:

Chú hé rì dāng wǔ,
Hoeing in the rice field at midday,

Hàn dī hé xià tǔ.
Sweat dripping past the rice onto the soil.

Shéi zhī pán zhōng cān
Who’d have known the food on the plate,

Lì lì jiē xīnkǔ.
Each and every grain means toil.

To hear a reading of this poem, please click here.

May you all see the fruit of your labor in the coming year.

Xīnnián kuàilè!
Happy New Year!

The versatile bamboo

Bamboo painting by my mother with verses added by my father

It was freezing wintertime, and this kid’s mother was gravely ill. She asked for a bowl of bamboo shoot soup. The kid, whose name was 孟宗 (Mèng Zōng), and whose father had died a few years before, wanted to please his mother, but everyone knew that bamboo shoots normally cease to sprout during winter. In spite of it, he went outside, hoping to find any bamboo shoots that might have come up early. The bamboo stems stood proud and firm against the winter wind that rustled the slender bamboo leaves. The heels of the bamboo plants were buried under deep snow, and no bamboo shoots were to be found. 孟宗 (Mèng Zōng) felt sad and helpless. He started to cry. The copious tears melted the hearts of the gods who let the snow melt at a few spots to expose the early bamboo shoots. 孟宗 (Mèng Zōng) dug up a few bamboo shoots and made a delicious soup for his mother. Miraculously, after drinking the warm bamboo shoot soup, his mother got better and eventually recovered from her illness. This story is known as 孟宗哭笋 (Mèng Zōng kū sǔn). You probably already know that (kū) means to cry, and you may have seen the word (sǔn bamboo shoots) on the label of a can of bamboo shoots.

So, we have 孟宗 (Mèng Zōng) to thank for being able to enjoy what’s known as 冬笋 (dōng sǔn winter shoots), which are smaller and crunchier than the regular summer shoots. There is a city in Taiwan, named 新竹 (Xīnzhú), that’s famous for its 贡丸 (gòngwán pounded meatballs) and its fresh bamboo shoots. If you ever visit 新竹 (Xīnzhú) in the summer, be sure to fetch a few young and tender bamboo shoots from the local market. Simply boil, peel and slice the bamboo shoots then add a dollop of mayonnaise and enjoy the incredibly fresh, sweet taste. A bowl of soup that incorporates both the 贡丸 (gòngwán) and the bamboo shoots is something to dream about.

Chopsticks were traditionally made from bamboo, hence the name, 竹筷 (zhú kuài babmoo chopsticks). To refer to chopsticks in general, just say: 筷子 (kuài zi). Quality chopsticks make an auspicious gift for newlyweds as (kuài) sound the same as (kuài), and the implied message is: “Have a son soon!”

Bamboo is also used in making a wide variety of other products, notably writing slips, the body of calligraphy brushes, brush holders, flutes, arrows, conduits, crates, furniture and even dwellings. Naturally, most of these words take on the bamboo word root, as shown in the following examples. Notice how this word root looks a lot like the bamboo leaves in the painting displayed above.

(jiǎn) means simple, as in 简单 (jiǎndān) or brief, as in (jiǎnduǎn). It also refers to the thin bamboo slips on which letters or notes used to be written.
簿 (bù) refers to notebooks. Bookkeeping is called 簿记 (bùjì).
(piān) refers to a piece of writing or a chapter in a book.

Nǐ xǐhuān zhè piān wénzhāng ma?
Do you like this article?

(bǐ) is a pen. 毛笔 (máobǐ) is a calligraphy brush.

(tǒng) is a section of bamboo. The bamboo stem is hollow in the center and sectioned at intervals by dividers. Each section makes a perfect pencil holder or brush pot, 笔筒 (bǐtǒng).

(dí) is a flute.

(jiàn) are arrows, and 箭筒 (jiàntǒng) is a quiver.

(guǎn) is a tube or pipe. It also refers to a wind instrument. As a verb, it means to manage or to bother about something.

Bùyào guǎn tā.
Let him be. (Never mind him.)

(xiāng) is a box, a chest or a trunk. 箱子 (xiāngzi) is a general term of a box. A leather suitcase is called 皮箱 (píxiāngi). A refrigerator is called 冰箱 (bīngxiāng ice box).

(lán) is a basket. This character looks similar to (lán), which uses the grass word root instead of the bamboo word root.

竿 (gān) is a pole, and 钓竿 (diàogān) is a fishing rod.

Shèngdàn kuàilè﹗
Merry Christmas!

(Click here and read the 12/6/11 blog post to get the pattern and instructions for making beauatiful poinsettia napkin ring holders to brighten your holiday dinner table.)

The water radical

(shuǐ water) is a most important element that sustains living organisms. The Chinese have assigned the “yin” property to water as water is perceived as being soft, cool and ever changing. A Chinese saying goes like this: “The magnanimous take to the mountains; the wise and witty take to the waters.”

Of course, we know that water can wreak havoc when it accompanies a storm. And even little drops of water could cause damage if applied constantly. Hence the Chinese idiom:

Dripping water can wear holes in stone.

Here is another way to put it:

An iron rod can be ground down to a needle.

The corresponding English adage is: “Little strokes fell great oaks.” Therefore, unless your are capable of instant permanent memory, a reliable way to learn a new Chinese word would be to read and write it repeatedly today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and again next week. Also think about how you might use the word in a sentence in a conversation or a composition. Granted, there are words that you will rarely if ever use in the ordinary course of your life. For those words, it suffices to become just familiar enough with them to be able to recognize them when you hear them mentioned or see them in print.

口水 (kǒushuǐ mouth-water) means saliva.

好香! 我流口水了.
Hǎo xiāng! Wǒ liú kǒushuǐ le.
It smells so good! I’m salivating
(i.e. water is flowing in my mouth).

(huò) means disaster or misfortune. 车祸 (chēhuò) is a traffic accident. Many Chinese historical plays depict the downfall of kings and warlords who overindulged in wine and women. The heros are not blamed for their own faults. Instead, we are led to believe that their ruins were brought about by their beautiful concubines. This same logic is adopted by the plebeians, hence the unfortunate general reference to women as 祸水 (huò shuǐ distasterous waters).

水土 (shuǐtǔ water and soil) refers to the climate (and foods) of a new place.

他不服水土. Or, 他不服水土不服.
Tā bùfúshuǐtǔ. Or, Tā shuǐtǔbùfú.
He is not yet acclimatized.

山水 (shānshuǐ mountains and waters) refers to a scenery with mountains or hills and lakes or rivers. On the other hand, 风水(fēngshuǐ wind and water)is a Chinese system of geomancy that claims to be able to divine the most auspicious location and orientation of dwellings and tombs based on the surrounding natural features.

The water radical can appear as the whole character 水(shuǐ) or three representive droplets of water. Following are a few wods that take on the water radical.

泉水 (quán) is spring water.
(bīng) is ice, and (hé) is a river. 冰河 (bīnghé) means glacier.
(hú) is a lake.
海洋 (hǎiyáng) are oceans and seas.
(shēn) means deep or profound.
(qiǎn) means shallow or easy.
游泳 (yóuyǒng) is to swim.
(chén) is to sink.
(fú) is to float.
(yóu) is oil or grease, and 汽油 (qìyóu) is gasoline.
(xǐ) is towash.
(lòu) means to leak or to leave out.

Wǒ xiě lòu le yī gè zì.
I missed one character while writing.

To hear a song in praise of the beautiful scenery on the Ali Mountain in Taiwan and the natives who live there, please click on this link. 高山青 (Gāoshān qīng) was the theme song of a movie filmed in Taiwan. The lyrics were penned by 張徹 (Zhāng Chè) and the music was composed jointly by 周蓝萍 (Zhōu Lánpíng) and 邓禹平 (Dèng Yǔpíng). This song is often referred to as 阿里山的姑娘 (The Girls from the Ali Mountain).

Woven into the song are lines sung in the native language. However, you should have no problem picking out the Mandarin in the first stanza:

高山青, 涧水蓝.
Gāoshān qīng, jiàn shuǐ lán.
The mountains are green; the ravine waters are blue.

Ālǐshān de gūniang
The girls of Ali Mountain

Měi rú shuǐ ya,
Are pretty as the waters.

Ālǐshān de shàonián
The young men of Ali Mountain

zhuàng rú shān a!
Are strong as the mountains.



The gold or metal radical

Many Chinese people believe that if a baby was born deficient in one of the five elements in his or her fate (as determined by a fortuneteller), the parents could try to make up for it by naming the baby with characters containing that element. Therefore, when you see a name like 金枝 (Jīnzhī golden branch), 金钏 (Jīnchuàn golden bracelet), or 宝钗 (Bǎochāi precious hairpin), you might surmise that it wasn’t solely given to wish for the riches.

(jīn), or 金属 (jīnshǔ), stands for metals in general. (jīn) is also the word for gold. To remove the ambiguity, you could say 黄金 (huángjīn) or 金子 (jīnzi) when you are referring specifically to gold. And, of course, there is no question that you are talking about gold rather than a miscellaneous metal element, when you say 金戒指 (jīn jièzhi golden ring), 金婚 (jīnhūn golden wedding aniversary), 金牛座 (jīnniúzuò Taurus, the golden bull constellation), or 金发美女 (jīnfǎ měinǚ a blond beauty).

When talking about one’s integrity or strength of character, you could borrow this Chinese saying:

真金不怕火炼. (or 真金不怕火.)
Zhēn jīn bù pà huǒ liàn. (Zhēn jīn bù pà huǒ.)
True gold does not fear the refiner’s fire.
(True gold is proofed by fire.)

You have probably heard of a few Chinese people with the lastname, (Jīn), and know many more Korean people with the surname Kim, which is the Korean pronunciation for (Jīn). This is because at one time China was invaded and ruled by the descendents of the Jin Dynasty, founded around the 12th Century by Manchurians in northern Korea. The government established in China by these invadors was called the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), or 清朝 (Qīng Cháo).

I’d say the most popular character that takes on the (jīn) word root is (qián copper coin, money). (qián) is also used as a Chinese unit of weight, but 金钱 jiīnqián) specifically refers to money.

In fact, (iīnqián) appears in many words as a shortened form of 金钱 (jīnqián), as shown in the following sentences:

Miyuè zūjīn duōshao?
How much is the monthly rent?
(Each month’s rent, how much?)

Bǎozhèngjīn shì sānbǎi měi jīn.
The earnest money is US$300.

(chāo) is paper money. 美钞 (měi chāo), 美金 (měi jīn) and 美元 (měiyuán) all refer to the U.S. doallar.

(yín) is silver. It is also associated with money. 银行 (yínháng) is a bank.

Wǒ yào qù yínháng tíkuǎn.
I want to go to the bank to withdraw some money.

(xiù) is the result of oxidation of a metallic product. 铁锈 (tiě xiù) is rust in a product made from iron. (xiù) can also be used as a verb.

Tiě dīng xiù le.
The iron nail has rusted.

(tóng) is copper. 铜锈 (xiù) is the bluish copper oxide that is often seen on bronze statues.

To the Chinese, the five basic metals, 五金 (wǔjīn), are: gold, silver, copper, iron and tin. 五金 (wǔjīn) also refers to hardware in general.

Wǒ yào qù wǔjīnháng mǎi yīxiē tiě dīng.
I want to go to the hardware store to get a few nails.

Have you ever eaten a kind of dried day lily flowers in a Chinese dish? Those are called “golden needles”, or 金针 (jīnzhēn), because of the golden color and slender shape of the flowers in their fresh state.

The needles used in acupuncture are also called 金针 (jīnzhēn gold needles) although nowadays these are made of stainless steel, or 不锈钢 (bùxiùgāng).

(gāng) is steel. Pianos are called 钢琴 (gāngqín) because the piano strings are made from high-carbon steel.

刚强 (gāngqiáng) means strong as steel, or firm and unyielding. Some dietary minerals, such as (gài calcium) and (měi magnesium), are believed to help us maintain strong bones.

To see the names of all the metallic elements, consult a periodic table printed in Chinese.

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