Learn Chinese characters that look so darned similar (1)

We’ve often come across English words that differ only by one letter but are worlds apart in meaning – “Pray” and “prey”, “real” and “reel”, “sweet” and “sweat”, just to mention a few. And in tiny font, “rn” may be indistinguishable from the letter “m”, particularly if you are myopic. You will encounter a similar problem with Chinese characters. A detail-oriented person will be able to quickly spot the minor difference between two very similar characters. However, the untrained new pair of eyes may easily mistake one for the other. We’ already encountered a few, such as (rén person) and (rù enter), (tiān sky, heaven) and (fū husband, man), and (wáng) and (yù). Let’s look at a number of other examples.

(gōng) means labor, worker or craftsmanship. Work is called 工作 (gōngzuò).

We know that (tǔ) means soil, land, indigenousness or provincialism. We’ve discussed its use as a word radical.

Reverse the length of the two horizontal strokes (tǔ), and one gets (shì), which represents a guard, a polite title with which to refer to a person, or a piece in Chinese chess that operates like a bishop in western chess. 士兵 (shìbīng) is a solder (a private). 人士 (rénshì) is a personage or a public figure.

Zhè jiàn shì yǐnqǐ le shèhuì rénshì de tóngqíng.
This incident has aroused sympathy from the people in the society.

(qiān) means a thousand, or “a great number of” something. Make the top-most stroke a straight horizontal stroke, and one gets (gān dry, to be concerned with) or (gàn a trunk or the main part of something; to do).

Zhè bù gān wǒde shì.
This matter does not concern me.

Add a slanted stroke on the left side of (gān) to form (wǔ noon). And if you let the vertical stroke stick out, you’d get (niú an ox or a cow).

Tilt the top-most stroke of (tiān) a little, and it becomes (yāo), which means to die young. This character is most often used in the terms 夭折 (yāozhé to die young) and 逃之夭夭 (táozhīyāoyāo to flee).

Nàge xiǎotōu yǐjīng táozhīyāoyāo le.
That thief has already run away.

Put a curve in the last stroke of (tiān) and it becomes (wú nothing, without). Note the difference between (wú) and (yuán), which means “first”, “principal” or “fundamental”. It is the name of a Chinese dynasty. It is also a unit of currency.

So, you see that, in writing Chinese characters, the relative lengths of two stroke often make a difference. It matters whether a stroke protrudes beyond another stroke or not. It also matters whether two strokes originate from the same point or not.

(dāo) is a knife. It is also a unit of one hundred sheets of paper. (rèn) is the edge of a knife or a sword. It also means to kill with a sword.

(lì) means strength, power, or making a great effort. Add two drops of sweat to it to get (bàn), which means to do, to tackle or handle a matter, or to punish by law.

Zhè jiàn shì bàn de hěn hǎo.
This matter was handled very well.

(qī) is the number 7. (bǐ) is an ancient type of spoon, while 匕首 (bǐshǒu) is a dagger.

(jiǔ) is the number 9. On the other hand, (wán) is a pellet or a ball, such as 肉丸子 (ròuwánzi meatball).

As an adverb, (yòu) means once again.

Tā yòu kū le.
She is weeping again.

As a conjunctive, (yòu) is used in duplicate and means “both … and …”, such as in 又快又好 (yòukuàiyòuhǎo done well and speedily) and 又高又大 (yòugāoyòudà tall and big).

Add a tine to (yòu) to obtain (chā), which is a fork. 刀叉 (dāochā) means knife and fork, while 交叉 (jiāochā) is to intersect.

More to come later. In the mean time, try to make a sentence for each new term you have learned today.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anthony Bogadek
    Dec 07, 2012 @ 04:25:46

    Hi dear Ms Lin,
    As usual a great lesson. I’ve got a few points you might look at again:
    1. Re. tone mark; tong1qing2: the dictionary gives tong2qing2
    2. spelling: in “qian1 manes a thousand.” I guess it is “means” a thousand
    3. word out of place? In “….to kill with as sword. Add” The word “Add” seems to be out of place. It is used again in the next line, where it makes sense.
    4. spelling: “As an adverbe”. Should be “adverb”. Right?
    Looking forward to the next lesson.
    Best regards and thanks,
    A. Bogadek


    • likeabridge
      Dec 07, 2012 @ 14:55:36

      Hey Anthony,

      Good to hear from you, but it often means I’ve made some boo-boos. 🙂
      You are right on all counts, and the corrections have been made.
      Thanks for the diligent proof-reading.


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