Introduction to Chinese Characters

You can read separate Chinese Characters.

Chinese characters are an interesting part of visiting China. Bill, my stepbrother, gave me a marvelous book called I Can Read That - A Traveler's Introduction to Chinese Characters. It teaches approximately 70 characters, and I will show you some of them.

What's so interesting are the insights they give you into the Chinese mind.

An example is the Chinese figures for the word "China." It's actually spelled "Middle Country," because it considers itself to be the center of the universe.

Chinese figures for the word China. It's actually spelled Middle Country.
This is not unusual for any civilization. The word Mediterranean also means "Middle Earth." Medi = "Middle" in Latin, and terra = "Earth" as in terra firma. (The whole world makes sense now... we are all more similar then we are different.)

Likewise, the European/American world is given the Chinese character for West.

Putting the Chinese charaters for Middle, West, Food together confused me.
So, if a restaurant serves both Chinese and Western foods, it proudly announces in big Chinese characters: MIDDLE WEST FOOD. This confused me at first, being born and raised in the mid-west part of the United States. I began looking for pictures of scrambled eggs and bacon or meatloaf on their menu.

I found none.

"Chinese" food in America has been greatly modified for American tastes. You just don't get the heads and the feet and the broken bones of various domestic animals found in the food served here.

And the "Western" dishes have been modified here in China for Chinese tastes, too. The "Ox Tail Soup" was half bones. The Western Steak was real American beef (shipped here from America,) but it was smothered in some strange Chinese mushroom sauce. Grilled meat served alone is unthinkable in China.

The Chinese might use the Chinese character for West, but that doesn't guarantee Western cooking...


The People's Republic of China uses the simplified Chinese characters developed by Mao, which makes it a lot easier for Westerners like me to read them. The rest of the world, like Taiwan, uses the traditional Chinese system, much more difficult to figure out.


Here are some more revealing Chinese character combinations:

Here are the Chinese charaters for the examples below.

The items on the left are actual Chinese characters and their definitions. The literal English translation is to the right.

'People' 'People' = everyone.
[One character for people = people. Two characters next to each other mean everyone. You'll get the idea.]

'Big' 'Small' = size.
'Turn on' 'Turn off' = Switch.
[Here, the idea is to contrast big and small to indicate the concept of size. Those clever Chinese...]

'Enter' 'Mouth' = entrance.
'Water' 'Mouth' = port.
[Here the ideas modify each other.]

Beijing = 'Bei' 'Jing' = 'Northern' 'Capital'.
Nanjing = 'Nan' 'Jing' = 'Southern' 'Capital'.
Shanghai = 'Shang' 'Hai' = 'Up' 'Sea' or above the sea.
[Directions are prominent in many city names.]

Here are the four Chinese figures for Public, Use, Electric, Speech.  Put together they mean Public telephone.
'Public' 'Use' 'Electric' 'Speech' = Public telephone.
[Phone service.]

Here are the two Chinese figures for Fire, Vehicle.  Put together they mean Train. 'Fire' 'Vehicle' = train. In the 19 century, trains looked like fire vehicles to the frightened Chinese.
Here are the two Chinese figures for Steam, Vehicle.  Put together they mean Car.'Steam' 'Vehicle' = car. I guess Stanley Steamers were the first cars in China.
[Transportation.]

And my favorites:
"Middle" "Heart" = Center, as in center of the body.
"Small" "Heart" = Caution, be careful.
"When" "Heart" = Watch Out, warning.

So if you saw a sign with:
Here are the four Chinese figures for Small, Heart, Fire, Vehicle.  Put together they mean Caution, Train Crossing.
"Small" "Heart" "Fire" "Vehicle" = Caution, Train Crossing.
[It was my first guess...]



Another set of signs (arrows) caught my interest at a construction site:

Signs at a Chinese construction site.
WARNING! Watch out for falling objects, like bamboo poles as big as trees. They will shish kebab you in a heartbeat.

WARNING! Electrical shock!

WARNING! It's easy to fall off this thing, you idiot.

Remember "Small" "Heart" = Caution, be careful, from the above list?
Well, you see the Chinese figure for heart on three of these signs (arrows.) It is the second character from the left on the bottom. The symbol for heart is the one with a backwards "J". The Chinese character in front of it is not "Small." It is something like "Exploding" or "Big" "Heart" to indicate literally "Watch Out" or Warning, a whole lot stronger than "Caution!"

Play it safe in China, if you can.


Finally, let's go out in the real world of China and find another sign to translate. Can you guess what the sign below says?

Top line are Chinese characters that literally mean - escalator.

The top four characters

Here are the four Chinese figures for Up, Down, Electric, Stairs.  Put together they mean escalator.
are ‘Up’ ‘Down’ ‘Electric’ ‘Stairs’ or escalator.

  Remember 'Up' from 'Up''Sea' or Shanghai. Same character.
  Remember 'Electric' in Public Telephone. Again, same character.

I don’t know the first two characters on the bottom of the sign, but the last two characters are ‘SMALL’ ‘HEART,’ which you will remember is ‘caution.’


So my guess is this sign says, "Escalator - Use caution when getting on and off." What's your guess?



You have learned a little about China and Chinese characters
. It gives you a great insight into the Chinese culture and allows you to learn more about the Chinese characters themselves. This will make getting around China a whole lot easier and lot more fun.

It definitely impresses the Chinese, if you can write a few things in Chinese characters.



Here are some important road skills:

Go to page Foreign Languages

on Safety First

What to do about Lost Travelers

Travel Health

Motion Sickness and Sea Sickness

Diarrhea and Its Cures

Travel Money

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Travel Tips for Europe

Travel Phrases

Useful Travel Tools

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