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.

Soup, anyone?

Soups are an important part of Chinese meals. Whereas in western countries soup is usually served at the beginning of the meal, at a formal Chinese dinner the large soup bowl is normally presented as the last course. Sometimes, more than one soup would be served. In some Chinese provinces, people take so much pride in their soups that, when they invite a friend over for dinner, intead of saying:

Lái wǒ jiā chīfàn.
Come to my home to have a meal.

they would say:

Lái wǒ jiā hē tāng.
Come to my home to drink soup.

(fàn) is cooked rice. (mǐ) is raw, uncooked rice.
(chī) means to eat. (cháng) means to taste. 尝尝 (chángchang) is a colloquial way of saying “to taste a bit of”.
吃饭 (chīfàn) literally translates to “eat rice”, but this term genearlly means to have a meal.
(hē) means to drink. 喝水 (hē shuǐ) means to drink water.
(tāng) is a soup. Do you like 馄饨汤 (húntun tāng wonton soup)? (gēng) or 羹汤 (gēng tāng) is a thick soup, like a clam chowder or a bisque. (nóng) stands for thick, dense or creamy (when referring to a bisque).
(guō) is a pot or a pan used for cooking. So, 饭锅 (fàn guō) is a rice cooker, and 汤锅 (tāng guō) is a pot for cooking soup .
掀起 (xiān qǐ) is a verb that means to lift up.
(gài) is a cover or a lid. 锅盖 (guō gài) is the lid of a pot or pan. (gài) also serves as a verb that means to cover an object.
(ràng) means to let or to permit.
(xiāng) means good-tasting or good-smelling.
餐厅 (cāntīng) is a restaurant. 餐厅的 (cāntīng de) means “that which pertains to a restaurant”.
好像 (hǎoxiàng) means “seems like” or “be like”. 一样 (yīyàng) means the same, or equally alike. These two terms are often paired together when likening one thing to another.

Now, read the following sentences. Do you recognize our Sentence Patterns I and IV? If you would like to sing these lines to the tune of the lively “Lift your Veil” song, then repeat the last two lines.

Xiān qǐ nǐ de guōgài lái.
Lift up the lid of your wok.

Ràng wǒ chángchang nǐ de tāng.
Let me have a taste of your soup.

Nǐ de gēng tāng nóng yòu xiāng ya,
Your soup is so creamy and tasty.

Hǎoxiàng nà cāntīng de yīyàng hǎo.
It’s as good as that from a restaurant.
(Your soup is like that from a restaurant, both being equally good.)

When you watched the video for the 泥娃娃 (Ní Wáwa Clay Doll) song referred to in my last post, did you not wish that pinyin were displyed along with the Chinese lyrics? The good news is that, with a little work, you can make your own lyrics sheet to use when singing along with that song. So, here is your homework assignment for this week: Create a lyrics sheet for the 泥娃娃 (Ní Wáwa Clay Doll) song by putting all the relevant Chinese characters into a Windows Notepad file. Follow the above format for placing the lines of Chinese characters and the corresponding pinyin. Type in your own English translation as well. As I mentioned before, you will need to use the Save As function to save the text file in the UTF-8 format. With the printout laid before you, it will be easier for you to practice writing the Chinese characters and sentences by hand.

For the above exercise, you can find all the needed characters in my previous posts, except for (zhe). This character has multiple meanings and uses. What concerns us now is its function to help indicate the progressive tense. For example, 喝著 (hē zhe) means “to be drinking”, and 爱著 (ài zhe) means “to be loving”. Therefore, 我永远爱著她. (Wǒ yǒngyuǎn ài zhe tā) translates to: “I’ll be loving her always”.

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