You move like a rhinoceros! Fun with 漢字


Hi, friends. I hope you’re well.

I have recently started refreshing my Chinese language skills. I’m really enjoying relearning the characters, as well as learning new things about them. It’s like meeting old friends again, and gaining new insights into their personal history and personalities. I thought I would share with you some of what I’m learning.


习 習

These two are the same character–the one on the right is the traditional character, while the one on the left is the simplified character that is now used in mainland China. They are pronounced xi2. (The number in the pronunciation refers to the word’s tone.) You may be able to recognize that in the case of 习, the simplified character is a part of the traditional character.

习 means practice or custom. When combined with 学 into 学习, it means to study. When I was studying Chinese in mainland China, I memorized the character’s simplified form. But now that I can soar through the online dictionaries, I can realize what the character’s nuanced construction is.

習 is composed of 白, which means white, and two 习, which are wings. Thus the character’s symbolic representation is the flapping of white wings, like a flock of cranes taking flight. The represented meaning is that you repeat your customs and habits as automatically and naturally as birds flap their wings to take flight.



参 參

These two are also different versions of the same character, as they are written in simplified script on the left, and traditional script on the right. They are pronounced can1. I learned this character as part of the word 参加, which means to join or participate. I love writing 参, because of its flowing lines. It’s one of my favorites.

I was delighted to learn how 參 is composed. The three small triangles in its top half represent three suns. The flowing lines in its lower half represent a short bird wing, and again mean to take flight. (This component is a phonetic clue in this case.)

The first meaning in the dictionary for 參 is Orion’s belt: three suns soaring overhead. [happy sigh] And I can imagine how Chinese writers a long time ago chose 參 to represent participate or join, a word that probably sounded similar to their word for Orion’s belt: those three suns in Orion’s belt have joined together to participate in their constellation.



迟 遲

Another set–chi2. I learned 迟 as part of 迟到, which means to arrive late. The line around the lower left corner of 迟 represent movement. The 尺 in the simplified character means foot, as in the measurement. 尺 is pronounced chi2, just like 迟 is pronounced. So that makes sense.

But the traditional character is much more fun. 遲 also has the line around the lower left representing movement. But the rest of the character is composed of 犀, which means rhinoceros!  犀 is pronounced xi1, which is similar to chi2, and before a thousand years of language drift occurred, may have sounded exactly like the Chinese word for late. Rhinoceros + move, 遲, means late, tardy, slow, or stupid.

“You move like a rhinoceros, man. You are always late!”



只  只  隻

I do have some complaints. In both traditional and simplified script, 只 means but, yet, merely, or only. It is pronounced zhi3. It is composed of mouthexhaling 八. Okay. I can imagine a person in conversation, who is loathe to disagree but feels they must–they exhale and then say a long, drawn out, “and yet…”

So far, so good. And yet… when the Communists set about simplifying the written script, one of the principles they seem to have infrequently applied was simply trying to diminish the number of characters in use. In this case, they combined into 只 the word 隻.

隻 it is pronounced similarly, zhi1. But 隻 is composed of 隹 bird plus 又 handone bird in the hand–which means single. It is also used as a measure-word for certain animals. That’s like saying a flock of birds, or a herd of animals. Flock and herd are like English’s equivalents of measure words.

So what we end up with, in the simplified script, considered rather narrowly, is that 只 means both only and flock/herd. Practically speaking, the context in which people read the word will probably be enough to prevent confusion, but still! I think I have a new personal swear word.

“*!&!@#* Measure-word-for-certain-animals!”

You know, 只 actually works. Only and single. Like “a head of cattle.” Okay, I went about learning that the long way. Thanks for helping me with that. I will no longer consider 只 one of my personal swear words. I stand humbled.

And now, on to my very favorite!


高兴  高興

Gao1xing4 means happy. 高, which was not simplified, means high, tall, or a high level. It’s composed of 口, in this case meaning room, with a line around it representing boundaries, and topped off with a representation of a pavilion. Yes, buildings can be tall. They are the tallest man-made things. You can only be higher in a fixed structure atop a mountain.

兴 is a quick way of writing the definitely more complex 興. (The Communists’ technique of using cursive forms to simplify such complex characters seems reasonable. I prefer writing the simplified forms when writing by hand–it’s so much faster. When typing, though, it doesn’t make any difference, since I do that phonetically.)

I like writing and reading 兴 — it looks to me like a little starburst in the middle of a sentence. But it’s delightful to understand what it is short for–to understand the meaning that it comes from.

兴 and 興 mean to prosper, flourish, undertake, or enthusiasm. 興 is composed of 舁 yu2, which represents one set of hands reaching down and another set pushing up–to lift. Another character has been inserted into the middle of 舁: 同 tong2, which means together. Thus, 興: to lift together: prosper, flourish, undertake, or enthusiasm.

I love that meaning: when we lift together, we can prosper and flourish. To undertake a project, we also lift together. And enthusiasm: the spirit of lifting together.

Finally we arrive back at 高興 happy: a high level of lifting together. We have a high level of lifting together, of enthusiasm, of prosperity, and that is happiness.

There it is in a nutshell, the secret of prosperity, the secret of a healthy civilization: we all lift together, and we are prosperous and happy.

Don’t dismiss this as Communist propaganda. These words are millenia older than any twisted meanings with which the Communists have abused the world. These are human meanings, as relevant today as they were when our grandparents-many-times worked together for the prosperity of their farms, villages, and towns.

May we all lift together in our own time. I wish you prosperity, enthusiasm, and happiness–may we all feel 高兴。



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