Mother, a female horse?

If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ve had several encounters with the word (hǎo). On the left side of this character is the character (nǚ) , which means “female”. On the right side is the character (zi) , which means a seed, an offspring, a small thing, or a person. Naturally, a female person connotes goodness. (hǎo) is the Chinese word for “good” or “well”. So, 好吃! (Hǎo chī!) means good for eating, or delicious; 您好 (nín hǎo) means “Wishing you well” or “Good day!”; and 新年好(xīnnián hǎo) means “Wishing you well in the new year”. So, what does 好人 (hǎo rén) mean? That’s right! A good person.

Now, put the characters for female and horse together:

(nǚ) + (mǎ) = (mā)

The new word means “mother”. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Some people say, (mā), others say, 妈妈 (māma) – not unlike the English word, “mama”.

You know that (nĭ) means “you”. Replace the left side of this character with (nǚ female), and you’d get the word for a “female you”, (nĭ). It’s all right if you just use (nĭ) across the board and never bother with making the distinction between a male and a female “you”, as (nĭ) is a modern term, without which the Chinese have been doing just fine for ages. Ditto for the Chinese characters for he and she. By the way,  (nín) is the polite form of “you”. It applies to both genders.

(nǚ) is one of many so-called “radicals” of the Chinese characters. Each radical is shared by a group of characters, and provides a hint to a common characteristic of the words represented by those characters. Look in your Chinese text book or dictionary for additional examples of words containing the radical (nǚ). All of them have something to do with the female gender (for example, she, sisters, aunts, etc.). I hope you will pick out a few simple ones and learn them by heart.

What’s the Chinese word for “Hi!”?

The word “Hi” was not part of the traditional Chinese vocabulary. Following the teaching of Confucius, the majority of rulers endeavored to maintain an orderly and structured society in China. Consequently, within any group, no matter how small, there was a “pecking order” to be observed. The subjects would greet the rulers first, before the ruler would nod his approval. The students would say “Good morning.” to the teacher first, before the teacher would reciprocate. In a family, the son or daughter would greet their parents first, and not the other way around. In the same way, an elder brother would expect his younger siblings to salute first. And, of course, an employee would be remiss in not greeting his boss first. The subordinates would employ such standard greetings as: 早安 (zǎoān Good morning.), 你好 (nĭ hǎo Good day; good afternoon.), and 晚安 (wǎnān Good night.). A casual “Hi!” just wouldn’t do. That would be too democratic.

In fact, (Hāi) is a contemporary term borrowed from English. It is mostly used among the young and not so young people who have adopted the Western ways. Similarly, 拜拜! (bái bái) is the Chinese transliteration of “Bye-bye!”. The word (bài) actually means to make obeisance to one’s elders or to perform a religious worship. You could regard this character as representing two hands brought together in worship.

The more courteous form of 你好 (nĭ hǎo) is 您好 (nín hǎo). The lower part of the word (nín) is (xīn), which sounds exactly like the word (xīn new) in 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year!). (xīn) is the heart. It is added to (nĭ you) to represent sincere respect.

Until next time, 再见! (zàijiàn See you! Good-bye!).

How many Chinese characters do you know?

Even if you’ve never studied Chinese, I’ll bet you can claim to know a few Chinese characters right after reading this post. Take a look at these three characters:  yī ,   èr ,  sān.

They stand for “one”, “two” and, “three”. No kidding. However, unlike the sticks and slashes tally system, this logic does not carry to the higher numerals in Chinese. For example, the number “four” is presented by:  四 sì . This still makes sense as you can count a total of 4 corners in this character. Doesn’t this character look like a window with the curtains gathered to the sides? Here is a video of kids showing you how to count to 10 in Chinese along with the hand gestures used in Taiwan. And here is blog post that shows you how to write the Chinese characters that represent the numbers from 1 to 10.

Now, look at this character: rén. Imagine the two slanted strokes being the legs of a walking human being. That’s right. This character stands for a “person” or a “human being”.

All right! Now you know 5 Chinese characters. But how many characters does one need to learn to be able to read a typical contemporary Chinese novel? There is not a consensus, but the answer lies somewhere between 3000 and 5000.

Please don’t let this large number overwhelm you. You will be able to work with many documents after you have learned the basic set of about 2000 Chinese characters. In fact, you should be able to compose a simple letter after learning just 1000 characters. How to get from 5 to 1000? My calculator tells me that if you pick up 3 new characters a day, you will reach this goal in 334 days, i.e. within one year. What’s more, the learning process will get easier and easier as you become more and more familiar with the Chinese characters. This is because many Chinese characters actually share some easily recognizable parts, which are referred to as the “radicals”. For example, do you see the in the following two words?

仁  rén means “kindness”, and  nĭ  means “you”.

The shared “人” radical is compressed somewhat to make room for the other part of the character. Yes, each Chinese character in a normal string of Chinese characters occupies roughly the same amount of space no matter how many strokes it contains. This adds to the challenge of writing those complex characters that contain more than, say, 16 strokes.

Of course, if your objective is to just learn how to speak Chinese, then you don’t need to worry about reading and writing the Chinese characters. A good audio instruction program plus classroom interaction will suffice. Still, it will be advisable for you to learn the pinyin system so that you may be able to sound out the words in other helpful printed instruction material that provide the pinyin phonetic aid.

For the rest of you, maybe you will add this to your 2011 New Year’s resolution: Learn 3 new Chinese characters every day.

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