Friday, 9 March 2018

西 | xī

In Mandarin Chinese, 西 (Pinyin: 🔊) means “west” or “western”. Attention Russian speakers: sounds very much like щи (Russian-style cabbage soup).

Now that we know the words for all cardinal directions, it’s not difficult to guess the meaning of 东西南北 (dōngxīnánběi): east, west, south and north — in other words, everywhere. The shorter compound 东西 is a trickier one. One set of meanings (when pronounced dōngxī) is “east and west”, “nearby” or “everywhere”. When pronounced slightly differently (dōngxi 🔊), it means “thing”, “something”, “stuff”. Applied to a human, dōngxi becomes an insult: it is implied that the object of one’s rage is less than human, as in 不是东西 (bùshì dōngxi), “a contemptible person” or “good for nothing”.

The shape of 西 looks familiar, isn’t it? In my classification of Chinese characters, 西 (which looks like the Greek letter π poking out of the box) sits somewhere between (π hiding in the box) and (π poking out of the box while standing on a bench). From the etymological point of view, however, these characters have nothing in common. has evolved from repositioning of four strokes inside the square while originally was depicting a wine jug. According to Wiktionary, 西 is a pictogram of

a bag or basket, borrowed for phonetic value. Compare (“bundle > east”). Traditionally explained as a pictogram of a bird settling into its nest, which by analogy with the setting of the sun means “west”.
More photos related to west and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

东 | dōng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: dōng 🔊) means “east”; also, “landlord”, “owner” or “host”.

Interesting expressions containing include

  • + = 东风 (dōngfēng): east winds (that blow in spring); figuratively, favourable situation, momentum or driving force
  • + + = 马耳东风 (mǎ ěr dōngfēng): not the least bit concerned. It comes from a poem by Li Bai:

    (Shìrén wén cǐ jiē diàotóu,
    yǒu rú dōngfēng shè mǎ ěr
    “When the people of this world hear this, all shake their heads,
    As if the east wind shot through the horse’s ear.”
  • ... 西 ... : “east ... west ...” a common construction implying some sort of movement from side to side, for example:
    • 东一句西一句 (dōng yījù xī yījù): speak without any sense of coherence
    • 东倒西歪 (dōng dǎo xī wāi): walk unsteadily
    • 东逃西窜: (dōng táo xī cuàn): to scurry from place to place, especially when being chased
    • 东观西望: (dōng guān xī wàng): to look around in observation

is a simplified form of the traditional character . According to Wiktionary,

originally represented a bag tied at both ends (like a cellophane-wrapped candy with the ends twisted), and was later borrowed phonetically to mean “east”. This borrowing may have been influenced by reinterpreting the character as the sun () rising behind a tree (), which is the traditional (though incorrect) etymology, as given in Shuowen.
Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:
A depiction of a sack bound on two ends, with a stick run through it. East is either a borrowed meaning or an extended one, in the sense of the direction of the rising sun (the rays of which figuratively pierce the earth) → (in historical usage) eastern Japan.
More photos related to east and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

南 | nán

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: nán 🔊) means “south” or “southern”. The compound words containing include

  • + = 南北 (nánběi): distance from north to south; latitude span
  • + = 南山 (Nánshān): Nanshan, a common placename
  • + = 江南 (Jiāngnán): literally, “south of the river”; in particular,
    1. Jiangnan (Keang-nan), a geographic area in China referring to lands immediately to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River
    2. Gangnam, a district of Seoul, immortalised in the hit single Gangnam Style
  • + + = 天南星 (tiānnánxīng): rhizome of the Arisaema (an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine.)

According to Wiktionary,

This character has been explained as a pictogram of a hanging percussion instrument, originally identical to the left side of . Under this hypothesis its borrowing for the word “south” is difficult to explain.
Sagart (1988) instead proposes that it is a pictogram of the front of a house. Archaeological evidence confirms that in antiquity, at least in some regions, houses were built to face south.
And we’ve also seen that “north” referred to the back (of the house or otherwise). Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:
The relevant oracle bone form of this character is a depiction of a hut or small storehouse. However, a seal inscription form is grass shoot + an element combining boundary/enclosure and an inverted pierced by two horizontal lines, suggesting sprouts placed inside a hothouse for cultivation → south (← direction associated with warmth, which hothouses were positioned to face).
More photos related to south and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 5 March 2018

北 | běi

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: běi 🔊) means “north” or “northern”. It also could be a verb meaning “to be defeated” or “to fail”. Not surprisingly, there are many placenames containing , such as

According to Wiktionary, is an ideogrammic compound depicting two men back to back:

Originally meaning “back”; the character refers to the original word.
The sense of “north” is derived from “back (of body)”: “back” → “to turn the back to; to retreat” → “north”.
The ancient Chinese value the southern direction and houses are traditionally oriented along a north-south axis, as evident in the fengshui theory and orientation of buildings in Chinese Neolithic sites. North is the direction the back is oriented to when the person is facing south.
Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:
The relevant oracle bone form of this character shows two figures, one with his back turned → turn one’s back to the enemy and flee (along a winding course) → fleenorth (← flee to the north; or, turn one’s back to the cold north wind) → go northward.
Well if you turn your back “to the cold north wind” and walk, I guess you rather will be travelling south — unless you are an enemy from the North, one of the 北狄 (Běidí), i.e. “Northern Barbarians”; then you’d retreat northward still facing your victorious adversary. (That would be ancient Chinese who, naturally, lived in the centre of their Sinocentric universe.) I presume this links the symbol for the north with “to be defeated” or “to fail”.

More photos related to north and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 2 March 2018

行 | xíng | háng

In Mandarin Chinese, is an interesting word with a number of pronunciations and meanings. As a verb (Pinyin: xíng 🔊), it could mean “to walk”, “to go”, “to move”, “to carry out”, “to execute”, “to perform”, “to be good”, “to work” etc. Some compound words of (xíng) include

  • + = 行云 (xíngyún): a drifting cloud
  • + = 行星 (xíngxīng): “moving star”, i.e. planet
  • + = 五行 (Wǔ Xíng): although widely known as “the Five Elements”, it is better translated as “the Five Movements”; historically, the five planets
  • + = 出行 (chūxíng): to set out on a long journey
  • + = 风行 (fēngxíng): to spread or proceed quickly; to be in fashion
As a noun (háng), it could mean “profession”, “trade”, “business”, “place”, “line” (of objects) or “row”. Yet as another noun (pronounced either xíng 🔊 or xìng 🔊) it also could mean “behaviour” or “conduct”.

is derived from a pictogram of a street intersection. According to Wiktionary,

Originally symmetric, it has been simplified asymmetrically; the left half is widely used as a radical, while the right half finds occasional use, and the character can be broken up as + , though originally it was not a compound.
But how “crossroads” came to represent all those disparate concepts? Lawrence J. Howell in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters provides the following connection:
A depiction of straight and crossing roads extending into the distance → go; movement; procession; roadline (of people) → conduct; do; perform (← carry out an action).

tournez à droite, tournez à gauche, tout droit, carrefour, La maison du Matcha, waka waka //
turn right, turn left, straight ahead, crossroads, The House of Matcha, waka waka

More photos related to roads and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

More adventures of sumo wrestler cat @ My leçons de French.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

龟 | guī

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: guī 🔊) means “turtle” or “tortoise”.

The turtle did not make it to the Chinese zodiac. However, it appears in similar Asian zodiac systems:

The Cham zodiac uses the same animals and order as the Chinese zodiac, but replaces the Monkey with the turtle (known locally as kra). Similarly the Malay zodiac is identical to the Chinese but replaces two of the animals with the turtle (kura-kura) and mousedeer (kancil). One of the replaced animals is always the Rabbit, the other being either the Pig or Monkey.

is a simplified form of the traditional character which is a pictogram of a tortoise.

Juan Eduardo Cirlot wrote in his Dictionary of Symbols:

The turtle has a variety of meanings, all of which are organically related. In the Far East its significance is cosmic in implication. As Chochod has observed: ‘The primordial turtle has a shell that is rounded on the top to represent heaven, and square underneath to represent the earth’. To the Negroes of Nigeria it suggests the female sex organ and it is in fact taken as an emblem of lubricity. In alchemy it was symbolic of the ‘massa confusa’. These disparate senses have, nevertheless, one thing in common: in every case, the turtle is a symbol of material existence and not of any aspect of transcendence, for even where it is a combination of square and circle it alludes to the forms of the manifest world and not to the creative forces, nor to the Origin, still less to the irradiating Centre. In view of its slowness, it might be said to symbolize natural evolution as opposed to spiritual evolution which is rapid or discontinuous to a degree. The turtle is also an emblem of longevity. An engraving in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili depicts a woman holding a pair of outspread wings in one hand and a turtle in the other. The counterbalancing of one with the other would suggest that the turtle is the inversion of the wings; that is, that since the wings signify elevation of the spirit, the turtle would denote the fixed element of alchemy although only in its negative aspect. In short, then, it would stand for turgidity, involution, obscurity, slowness, stagnation and highly concentrated materialism, etc. Perhaps this is the explanation of the turtles in Moreau’s painting of Orpheus with their disquieting negativeness.

More photos related to tortoises and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

秋 | qiū

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: qiū 🔊) is a noun that means “autumn”, “harvest time” and, by extension, “year”, “period”, “time”. For example, 千秋 qiānqiū means “a thousand years” (and, figuratively, “a long time”). is found in many interesting compound words and expressions including

  • + = 春秋 (chūnqiū): literally, “spring and autumn” but figuratively a year, year’s time, person’s age, time in general...
  • + + = 中秋节 (zhōngqiūjié): Mid-Autumn Festival
  • + + + = 一日三秋 (yīrìsānqiū): “a single day apart seems like three years”
  • + + + = 春花秋月 (chūnhuāqiūyuè), from the stanza of a poem by Yu Meiren: “the flowers of spring and the autumn moons”; a metaphor for a wonderful time spent in a beautiful location

is an ideogrammic compound of “grain” and “fire”. According to engYes,

In autumn, the Ancient Chinese would burn the fields to kill the locust eggs, in order to prevent them from eating the crops the following year.
Lawrence J. Howell in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters provides rather different explanation:
The relevant oracle bone form of this character is grain/rice + bundle → bundle and compact/shrink harvested crops in autumn/fall. The character was later reinterpreted, as shown by a seal inscription form that is plus an element combining fire and turtle → dry and shrink the size of harvested crops (as turtle meat is dried over a fire; compare ). The present form repositions and while eliminating . Note also the variant form , which combines and .
More photos related to autumn and sea glass @ Shutterstock.