Fear in Chinese

Dark clouds have gathered overhead, heavy with moisture, ready for Halloween, or 万圣节 (Wàn Shèng Jié). It’s time again to talk about words that relate to terror and fear.

As a noun 恐怖 (kǒngbù) means horror or terror. This word also serves as an adjective. 恐怖片 (kǒngbù piàn) is a horror movie.

我不喜欢听恐怖故事.
Wǒ bù xǐhuān tīng kǒngbù gùshi.
I don’t like to listen to horror tales.

恐惧 (kǒngjù) and 惧怕 (jùpà) both mean fear or dread. (gǎn) is a feeling. Therefore, 恐惧感 (kǒngjù gǎn) is the feeling of fear.

他对于考试有很大的恐惧感.
Tā duìyú kǎosh yǒu hěn dà de kǒngjù gǎn.
He has an immense dread of taking exams.

(pà), or 害怕 (hàipà), means to fear, to dread, or to be worried about something. What radicals make up the (pà) character? Yes, one could get so scared that even the heart turns pale and white.

我最怕蛇.
Wǒ zuì pà shé.
I’m scared of snakes the most.

我不怕他.
Wǒ bù pà tā.
I’m not afraid of him.

To the Chinese, as to many other people, (heaven, sky) and (earth) are both very sacred and powerful. When one wants to exaggerate the dread for something, one would often use the expression: 天不怕, 地不怕, 只怕 . . (Tiān bùpà, dì bùpà zhǐ pà . . ), i.e. “More than heaven and earth, I dread . . “.

In fact, there is a saying that goes like this:

天不怕, 地不怕, 只怕老外说中国话.
Tiān bùpà, dì bùpà, zhǐ pà lǎo wài shuō Zhōngguó huà.
More than anything else, I dread listening to foreigners speak Chinese.

老外 (lǎo wài) is slang for a western foreigner. Also, foreigners are often referred to as 洋人 (yángrén). As these terms have some negative connotations, we do not use them in our family. We usually refer to foreigners by their countries, such as 美国人 (měiguórén Americans) or 澳洲人 (àozhōurén Australians). If the country is unknown, then we’d use 外国人 (wàiguórén).

Click on this link to listen to a humorous self-mockery delivered in perfect Mandarin pronunciation.

If you are still unsure about the five tones used in Mandarin, the video I posted recently on YouTube might help.

怕死 (pàsǐ) means to be afraid of dying. However, 怕生 (pàshēng) does not mean being scared of life. Here, (shēn) is the abbreviation of 生人 (shēngrén) or 陌生人 (mòshēngrén), which is a stranger. Therefore, 怕生 (pàshēng) means being shy of strangers.

Note also that 怕人 (pàrén) does not mean being afraid of people. Rather, it means horrible, or scary to people, same as 可怕 (kěpà).

Just like (ài love) often stands for “to like”, (pà fear) can be used in the sense of “to dislike”.

我怕吵闹.
Wǒ pà chǎonào.
I dislike noises.

只怕 (zhǐ pà) can also mean “I’m afraid that . . .”. In this case, it is used in a similar way as 恐怕 (kǒngpà perhaps, I’m afraid that . . .). The following three statements express the same idea

只怕他不会来.
Zhǐ pà tā bùhuì lái.
I’m afraid that he won’t be coming.

他恐怕不会来.
Tā kǒngpà bùhuì lái.
He will probably not be coming.

我担心他不会来.
Wǒ dānxīn tā bù huì lái.
I’m afraid (worried) that he won’t come.

The following sentence illustrates yet another usage of 只怕 (zhǐ pà). In this instance, this expression translates to “as long as”.

天下无难事, 只怕有心人.
Tiānxià wú nánshì, zhǐ pà yǒuxīnrén.
No task is difficult when there is a determined person.
(Where there is a will, there is a way.)

Taboos, 忌讳 (jìhuì) often arise from people’s fear of death, misfortune and unknown factors. It will be worth your while to search the Internet for and read up on some of the common Chinese taboos, particularly with respect to gifting.

Freedom and Compassion


On this great day, we gladly take a break from work and enjoy a barbecue with family or friends. We may even shoot off some fireworks. But, most importantly, this is the day to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to live in such a free, independent country.

七月四日是美国独立纪念日.
Qīyuè sì rì shì Měiguó dúlì jìniànrì.
The Fourth of July is the American Independence Day.

七月四日是美国国庆日.
Qīyuè sì rì shì Měiguó guóqìng rì.
The Fourth of July is the American National Holiday.

On this day, the Americans declared themselves an independent democracy, or 独立的民主國家. (dúlì de mínzhǔ guójiā). This day is about freedom, or 自由 (zìyóu freedom, liberty).

不自由, 毋寧死.
Bù zìyóu, wúnìng sǐ.
Give me Libery, or give me Death. (Patrick Henry)

Of course, Independence and Freedom for everyone can be possible only if we value Equality and have Compassion towards fellow human beings.

The Chinese word for equality is 平等 (píngděng). Just as you desire freedom, so do all the other people. One person’s freedom cannot infringe upon another person’s freedom and rights.

Compassion can be translated as 同情心 (tóngqíng xīn sympathy) or 怜悯心 (liánmǐn xīn pity, compassion). This is the virtue of (rén benevolence, humanity) that 孟子 (mèngzǐ Mencius) advocated. When we are compassionate towards other people, we will respect their independence and free choice, and are less likely to want to oppress or enslave them.

A story comes to mind about an ant repaying favor to a man who showed compassion toward it:

A young man from the Qing Dynasty on his way to take the imperial exam at the county level to become a 秀才 (xiùcái entry-level scholar). While taking a rest by a brook, he saw an ant struggling in the water, about to drown. The man took pity on the ant and shoved a leaf over to the ant. The ant crawled onto the leaf, and the man lifted the leaf and placed it on dry ground.

At the imperial exam, the young man wielded his calligraphy brush and quickly provided the correct answer to all the questions. However, in the hurry, he missed one of the four small marks in the Traditional Chinese Character for horse, (mǎ). At that time, there was no such thing as Simplified Chinese characters. The Traditional Chinese character for “horse” still contained four small tear-drop shaped marks to indicate the four legs of a horse. In the modern Simplified character, (mǎ), these four marks have been replaced by one horizontal stroke. After returning home, the young man reviewed the exam in his mind and was quite chagrined when he realized the error he had made. He knew that that one minor error like that would cost him his chance of passing the exam.

The examiner graded the papers. When he was working on the exam sheet of the young man, he saw an ant on it and tried to wave it way. However, that ant would not budge. The examiner let it be and continued reading the paper. The young man passed the exam because the ant happened to squat on the missing brush stroke on the “horse” character.

清朝 (Qīng Cháo) is the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911.

考试 (kǎoshì) is an examination or a test. This word also serves as a verb.

我明天要考试.
Wǒ míngtiān yào kǎoshì.
Tomorrow I have an exam to take.

考官 (kǎo guān) is a (government) examiner, and 考生 (kǎo shēng) is a student taking an exam.

通过 (tōngguò) means to pass through or to pass an examination. 考中 (kǎo zhòng) means having passed an exam and gained entry to the desired school or attained the desired position.

年轻人在河边休息.
Niánqīngrén zài hé biān xiūxī.
The young man took a rest by the river.

蚂蚁在水裡掙扎.
Mǎyǐ zài shuǐ lǐ zhēngzhá.
The ant was struggling in the water.

年轻人救了蚂蚁.
Niánqīngrén jiù le Mǎyǐ.
The young man saved the ant.

蚂蚁幫助年轻人考中秀才.
Mǎyǐ bāngzhù Niánqīngrén kǎo zhòng xiùcái.
The ant helped the young man attain the entry-level scholar status.

美国国庆日快乐!
Měiguó guóqìng rì kuàilè!
Happy Fourth of July!
(Happy American National Holiday!)

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