By Qin Sun Stubis
Though attracted by its exotic sound and rich history, many hesitate to tackle Chinese, daunted by the sheer volume of its pictographic characters, the need to combine those alien-looking images into meaningful word groups and then, finally, their required assembly into expressions and sentences.
It is said that there are roughly 10,000 commonly-used Chinese characters. And, there are probably ten times that number if you’re counting every word ever created during the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization.
For those who are used to juggling twenty-some alphabetic letters, the idea of learning Chinese may seem like climbing the Mount Everest. But if you’d dare to take on that challenge, you would soon discover that learning this ancient language can be an eye-opening experience every step of the way.
As we know, a language holds the key to the true understanding of that culture, people, and even history. Studying Chinese could certainly place that key of understanding in your hand, leading you down a path of amazing discoveries.
Fundamentally, written language in China evolved around observation and visual logic. Learning how characters came about can help your memorization process. For an example, some words are known as pictograms, mimicking the physical looks of things. “Da”(大) – “big,” for an instance, looks like a person with arms and legs extended outwards while “xiao”(小) – “small,” looks like someone standing straight with their arms down. Another character category is the ideogram, representing ideas, such as “yi” (一) “one” and “er” (二）“two,” or “zhong” (中) meaning “middle,” with a line splitting the center of a rectangle.
Chinese pronunciation can be tricky and fun, as well, knowing that each sound is often shared by several different characters. Only when you make clusters of words will it become apparent as to what written form that particular sound will take. The sound of the word “yin” is a perfect example. While most Westerners associate “yin” (阴) with “yin and yang” (阴阳), few realize that “yin”, in a different written form (音), represents our audible world in general, from wonderful music – “yin yue” (音乐) to unpleasant noises – “za yin” (杂音).
Chinese believe that “yin” (“sound”), represents voices and the expression of all living things. How deeply you understand this world depends on how much you observe “yin.” It is no surprise that of all the gods and goddesses, “Guanyin” (观音), “The Goddess Who Can Hear Sounds,” is known to the West as “The Goddess of Mercy,” the one most often chosen for worship by the Chinese. For thousands of years, from ruling emperors to poor peasants, people of the Middle Kingdom have prayed to Her for health and wealth, forgiveness and understanding because She who hears, understands and provides.
Last, but not least, “zhiyin” (知音), “knowledge of the sounds,” is a supreme sign of friendship in China, separating those you know from those who truly know you, for a real friend is someone who understands, not only what you say, but also your inner voice when you choose to remain silent.
When you think about each new character you learn, I hope you will remember the other meaningful words associated with them. How Chinese words crisscross and morph may entice you to learn more about them. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself with a rich collection of idioms and expressions that will impress even native speakers.
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Qin Stubis is a regular columnist in The Santa Monica Star. She lives in Bethesda, MD.