Tag: Chinese characters


May 2005

Multisyllabic Hanzi?

Students of Japanese are quite used to characters (漢字) nearly always having multiple pronunciations, ranging from one syllable to five or more. (Example: in Japanese, depending on the context, the character 侍 can be pronounced as or as さむらい.)

That’s one of the areas in which switching from studying Japanese to studying Chinese came as a relief: in Chinese you can be sure each hanzi (Chinese character) has a monosyllabic reading, and 90% of characters have only one reading.

In my studies, I recently discovered that this has not always been the case. My Chinese textbook gives me three examples that were around until 1977, when a character reform had them eradicated.

– 瓩 qiānwǎ (kilowatt); now standardized as 千瓦
– 浬 hǎilǐ (nautical mile); now standardized as 海里
– 呎 yīngchǐ (foot); now standardized as 英尺

Besides their very existence, I found several things about these characters interesting. First, they’re all for units of measure. Maybe at one point people liked the idea of a single character for each unit of measure? Second, it was an interesting evolutionary turn the language was taking. From a student’s perspective, I’m not sure I like it, but it’s interesting. You can clearly see which part in each character represents which syllable. Lastly, it was the government that quashed this fairly recent orthographic innovation in favor of standardization.

Note: You won’t find this info in Wenlin. I got it from 现代汉语 (上海教育出版社, 2004).

2011 Update: The venerable scholar Victor Mair writes about this subject on Language Log: Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing.


Apr 2005

Respectful Characters

Back in the year 2000 when I first started going to Catholic mass in China, I discovered some interesting interplay between the Church and the Chinese language. I’ll mention just one such example here.

Traditionally, God’s name has been capitalized in English, even in pronoun form. Hence you will find, “for He is our salvation,” “Follow Him,” “Do His will,” etc. The pronoun capitalization is intended to show respect.

An obvious problem appears when one attempts to continue this tradition in Chinese translations of the Bible. Chinese does not lend itself to the “capitalization” of just any character (though there may be an exception or two). I found the Chinese solution to be quite interesting.

To understand the solution, however, you need to first understand a few things about Chinese pronouns. The basic pronouns are (I), (you), (he), (she), and (it). You’ll notice that the characters 你 (you) and 他 (he) have the same radical on the left side: 亻. This radical is derived from the character and means “person.” Notice, too, that it is swapped out for a to convert “he” (他) to “she” (她). Although it’s not done on the Mainland so much, the Taiwanese also sometimes like to make a female version of “you” (你) in the same way: .

While the pronoun “you” (你/妳) is directly related to 尔 etymologically, “he/she” (他/她) is not directly linked to 也. Nevertheless, what the above usages seem to establish is that “you” and “he” each have a “core element” (尔 and 也, respectively) which, when combined with the appropriate radical, produce a gender-specific pronoun. (Interestingly, the use of 亻 — derived from 人, which means “person” — for the male element seems to be the reverse of the West’s former use of the word “Man” or “mankind” to mean “humans” or “humankind.” 人 is normally a very inclusive term, used even in the words for “alien” (外星人) and “robot” (机器人), where the English terms “person” or “human” would not apply. Perhaps the Chinese 人, at its core, means something more like “humanoid.”)

What the Chinese have done is make use of these “core pronoun elements” and . Rather than using either a “male” or “female” radical, an entirely different one is chosen (which seems to be in better keeping with a genderless understanding of God). The radical chosen was 礻.

礻 is derived from the character , which is generally understood to depict an altar. Karlgren states that 示 “occurs as a signific in characters bearing on religion, rites, etc.” (Wenlin). It seems the perfect choice. The pronoun characters you will see in the Chinese Bible when referring to God, therefore, are and .

[Note: 祢 is already claimed as a surname pronounced Mí rather than Nǐ, but the Church seems to ignore this discrepancy. It’s also interesting that the Church rejected the use of for God, which is the standard polite form of 你. I guess “polite” isn’t good enough. To me, at least, 祢 seems to simultaneously convey reverance (by radical) as well as intimacy (by pronunciation), but I have no idea how the Chinese feel about it.]

I also wondered what had been done with the pronoun “I.” True, God doesn’t speak in first person much in the Bible, but it does happen. Exodus is a good example. The issuing of the Ten Commandments contains a liberal sprinkling of God pronouns “I” and “me”. Just one example:

> I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. (Ex 20:2-3)

So I checked this verse in an online Chinese Bible. No luck. It’s just 我. [Not sure if there could be Chinese Bible version issues here…] I was kinda hoping for 礻+ 我 for consistency. I suppose we don’t see this for two reasons. The main reason is that the character apparently doesn’t exist, and never has, even as a variant form. The other reason is that 我 contains no swappable element such as 亻 or 女. Like the English first person pronoun “I,” which comes capitalized right out of the package, it seems to need no dressing up.

Note: Christianity was almost certainly not the first organized religion to make use of “god pronouns” in Chinese. A Google search turns up examples of it in Buddhist literature as well. Being Christian and not Buddhist, I simply discovered their usage in the Bible first.


Apr 2005

One character said to the other…

I was recently introduced to a cute collection of Chinese jokes based on the small differences between similar Chinese characters. Some of them can even be appreciated without much knowledge of Chinese. I’ve translated a few of those below.

> 个 said to 人: I can’t keep up with you youngsters, and I can’t get anywhere without my cane.

> 日 said to 曰: Looks like it’s time for someone to go on a diet.

> 比 said to 北: Come on, now, you’re a couple! No more of this ridiculous divorce talk!

> 人 said to 从: You guys still haven’t undergone the separation surgery?

> 木 said to 术: Don’t think you’re so hot just because you have that beauty mark…

> 尺 said to 尽: The results are in, sis. You’re going to have twins!

> 由 said to 甲: Doesn’t practicing One-finger Zen make you really tired?

(Read the full list in the original Chinese.)


Mar 2005






Feb 2004

Uncreative CNN

John over at Zero Dispance recently linked to a CNN story about the likely decline of the global importance of English and ascendancy of local languages. One language highlighted was Mandarin Chinese.

None of this really surprises me. Aside from just loving the language, practical matters such as future importance in the world market also motivated my academic pursuit of Chinese. So the message of the article doesn’t come as a shock to me.

CNN.com graphic

What did catch my attention was the ugly graphic included in the story. I mean, come on! It’s just dumb. A red box with han zi (“Chinese characters”) written in it. A black background with a fuzzy character tree, clearly taken from zhongwen.com (they call their tree system 字普 — zipu). Random characters reading “speak Chinese” and “individual character,” and a generous helping of just the word CHINESE in English slopped about, along with a “stylish” gray transparent stripe. Weak. What’s most disappointing, though, is that if you click on FAQ at the top of the zhongwen.com homepage, you’re already at the page where everything for the graphic was lifted from. Look at the entry for 字 and the zi pu. It’s all there.

Western media, devoid of imagination, indirectly stealing from Chinese in its news. How ironic.

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