How to in Chinese

When we were young and the teachers tried to cram all the geography, history, mathematics and, yeah, Chinese lessons into us, we secretly wished for shorter school days and less to learn. Now that we’re older and wiser, we’ve come to realize that there is so much that we’d like to know more about; there is so much out there to learn. One way to obtain information is to ask questions. Ask someone who knows, or search for the information on the Internet. Following are a few words that you could use to initiate a question.

To ask what something is, start with 什么 (shénme).

什么人 (shénme rén) means what person or who.

Shénme rén?
Who’s there?

Shénme rén gàosù nǐ de?
Who told you this?

Zhè shì shénme rén de dōngxi?
Whose thing is this?

Please note that the following three sentences could be uttered with a positive or negative connotation.

Zhè shì shénme yìsī?
What does this mean?
(What’s this supposed to mean?)

When someone wants to go out of his or her way to do you a favor, you could make a gesture to refuse it by saying that that would be absurd. The other party would insist on helping you, and you would then graciously accept the good will. On the other hand, when someone says something that is absurd, you could use the very same sentence to express your displeasure.

Zhè shì shénme huà?
What are you saying? (Preposterous!)

什么话! (Shénme huà!)
Shénme huà!
What nonsense!

为什么 (wèishénme) means why.

Wèishénme tā hái méi lái?
Why has she not come yet?

哪个 (nǎge) means which. 哪一天 (nǎ yītiān) means which day. Some people use the short form 哪天 (něi yītiān).

怎么 (zěnme ) and 如何 (rúhé) both mean how. 如何 (rúhé) is the formal form.

怎么做 (zěnme zuò) and 怎么弄 (zěnme nòng ) both mean how to do or handle something.

Zhè jiàn shì zěnme zuò bǐjiào hǎo?
What’s a good way to get this done?

A more formal way to communicate the above would be:

Zhè jiàn shì rúhé jìnxíng bǐjiào qiàdàng?
What’s an appropriate way to proceed with this matter?

Xīfàn zěnme zhǔ?
How to cook rice gruel?

怎么说 (zěnme shuō) can be interpreted in two different ways.

zhègè zì de yīngyǔ zěnme shuō?
How to say this word in English?

Zěnme shuō?
How do you mean? (Could you elaborate?)

怎么样 (zěnmeyàng) also means how or in what manner. It is often shorted as 怎样 (zěnyàng).

Nǐ juéde zěnmeyàng?
What do you think?
(How do you feel about this? How do you feel?)

Bù zěnyàng.
Nothing special. (I’m not impressed.)

Zěnme huí shì?
What’s the matter? (What happened?)

Man, a radical? (continued)

Here are a few more simple characters that take (rén person) as the root.

(nèi inside, internal)
(ròu meat)
(qiū imprison, prisoner)
(liǎng two)
(zuò sit)
(jiá sandwiched between )
(lái come)

It makes sense to call one’s own wife 內人 (nèirén my wife), which, word for word, translates to “inside person”. The general term for “wife” is 妻子 (qīzi). So, 內人 (nèirén), 我的妻子 (wǒ de qīzi), and 我太太 (wǒ tàitai), all mean “my wife”. Some people refer to their wives as 我老婆 (wǒ lǎopo my old woman), which may reflect the speaker’s modesty but does not sound that great when translated to English.

Strictly speaking, some of the above characters contain the character (rù enter) rather than (rén person). With (rù enter), the slanted stroke on the right side extends beyond the slanted stroke on the left side. The printed font exaggerates the difference between these two characters. In reality, (rù enter) is simply the mirror image of (rén person).

Add another (rù) to the character (nèi inside, internal), and you’ll get the word for “meat”, (ròu).

Put a person inside a box, and you’ll get the word for confinement or imprisonment, (qiū).

You know that (èr) means “two”. (liǎng two) is also used to indicate “two”. It appropriately contains a pair of the character (rù).

Similarly, (zuò sit) contains a pair of the character (rén person). It represents two people sitting on the ground. The character for the ground or soil is (tǔ).

(jiá sandwiched between ) contains a person sandwiched between two other persons. 夾子 (jiázi) is a small tweezer. When you use your chopsticks to pick up food, the action is represented by the word (jiá).

The traditional Chinese character for the word “come” contains a pair of (rén). In the corresponding simplified character, (lái come), the two (rén) characters are reduced to a pair of tick marks.

来了 (lái le) can mean “to be coming” or “to have come”. Now, you can add one of the nouns you have learned, and form a sentence. For example, 爸爸来了 (bàba lái le).

While serving a meal to a friend, you could say:
(Lái)! 夾一塊肉吃 (Jiá yī kuài ròu chī).
Come! Help yourself to a piece of meat.

The umbrella is called: (sǎn). Doesn’t this character resemble an umbrella? Please look in your dictionary or textbook for other characters that feature a (rén) at the top.

Many Chinese characters contain the the radical (rén) on the left side. As we mentioned before, in this case, the radical takes on a squished shape to make room for the other parts of the character. You have learned that (nĭ) means “you”. The word for “he” is (tā). This word stands for “she” as well, although nowadays people often use (tā she) instead to avoid the ambiguity.

When two people are together, kindness is called for; hence the word (rén), which means kindness or benevolence.

(shí) is the number ten. A popular hand gesture among the Chinese is to cross the index fingers to represent this character.

Add (shí) to the radical (rén), and you’ll get (shí), which means “assorted” or “miscellaneous”. Understandably, if you get ten persons together, there would be an assortment of physical characteristics as well as personalities. 什么? (Shénme?) means “What?”. So, 什么人? (Shénme rén?) translates to “Who?”

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