A glimpse of classical Chinese (2)

Now that we do most of our writing on the keyboard or on the touchscreen, we forget that the fountain pen and then the ball-point pen were once a marvelous invention. It used to be that a learned Chinese scholar had to prepare the ink immediately before writing a document and make sure it had the proper viscosity and intensity. Writing was a time-consuming endeavor that many commoners could not afford to learn or enjoy. And I suspect this explains why classical Chinese is so concise and terse in style. Just as we’d like to execute a function in as few taps or keystrokes as possible on our computers, the ancient Chinese sought to express an idea in the least number of characters as possible. Therefore, the written language deviated a great deal from the more natural spoken language. And of course, the classical Chinese poems and lyrics, like the classical English poems and lyrics, can deviate substantially from the spoken language, the word order often altered to conform to the rhyming scheme adopted.

For example, in spoken Chinese, 好像 (hǎoxiàng) means “to seem like”, “to look like”, “as if” or “as though”. The corresponding word in classical Chinese is (ruò), (rú), or (sì).

Take the following line from the song, 高山青 (Gāoshān qīng), mentioned in my 12/14/11 blog post:

美如水呀.
Měi rú shuǐ ya.
Are pretty as the waters.

In spoken language, you would say:

好像水一样美丽呀.
Hǎoxiàng shuǐ yīyàng měilì ya.

似乎 (sìhu) means the same as 好像 (hǎoxiàng). In this expression, (hu) does not carry any particular meaning.

You know that 知道 (zhīdào) means to know or to be aware of, and 自己 (zìjǐ) means oneself. In classical Chinese, 知道 (zhīdào) is just (zhī). As for 自己 (zìjǐ self), you will just see either (zì self) or (jǐ self).

Therefore, one who understands you well, your bosom buddy, is called 知己 (zhījǐ). And the word for being full of oneself is 自满 (zìmǎn). These terms are used in everyday speech.

Those of you who are named Peter have probably adopted 彼得 (Bǐdé) as your Chinese alias. (bǐ) means “that”, “those” or “other”. It is the opposite of (cǐ this). So, 彼此 (bǐcǐ) means each other, or one another.

他们彼此之间没有信赖.
Tāmen bǐcǐ zhījiān méiyǒu xìnlài.
There is no trust between (or among) them.

知己知彼, 百战百胜.
Zhījǐzhībǐ, bǎizhànbǎishèng.
Know thy enemy and know thyself, then thou shall fight a hundred battles and win a hundred battles.

The (dào) in 知道 (zhīdào) refers to 道理 (dàoli a principle, a truth or a way of reasoning). So, if you agree with what another person says, you could say:

有道理.
Yǒu dàoli.
Makes sense.

Otherwise, you could keep quiet, or, if there’s no danger of offending the other person, say:

没道理.
Méi dàoli.
Doesn’t makes sense.

If you hear the following expression, you will know that the other person is really frustrated or furious:

岂有此理!
Qǐyǒucǐlǐ!
Preposterous! Outrageous!
(How can it be this way!)

(qǐ) means “how can it be”, which conveys a sense of negativity. It’s the equivalent of 难道 (nándào), which is a rhetoric that translates to “Are saying that . . .?” On the other hand 岂不 (qǐbù) can be interpreted as “is it not” and connotes an affirmation. Learn to use these expressions, and your Chinese teacher will be really impressed. Following are two examples:

这岂是他能了解的?
Zhè qǐ shì tā néng liǎojiě de?
How could he possibly understand this?

这岂不是自讨苦吃?
Zhè qǐ bù shì zìtǎokǔchī?
Is this not asking for trouble?

这难道是他能了解的?
Zhè nándào shì tā néng liǎojiě de?
How could he possibly understand this?

这难道不是自讨苦吃?
Zhè nándào bùshì zìtǎokǔchī?
Is this not asking for trouble?

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