Introduction to 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.
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.
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:
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.]
'Fire' 'Vehicle' = train. In the 19 century, trains looked like fire vehicles to the frightened Chinese.
'Public' 'Use' 'Electric' 'Speech' = Public telephone.
'Steam' 'Vehicle' = car. I guess Stanley Steamers were the first cars in China.
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:
"Small" "Heart" "Fire" "Vehicle" = Caution, Train Crossing.
[It was my first guess...]
Another set of signs (arrows) caught my interest at a 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? Play it safe
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!"
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?
The top four characters
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
Motion Sickness and Sea Sickness
Diarrhea and Its Cures
Travel Tips for Europe
Useful Travel Tools
Electronic Travel Applications
Audio Tours for museums and cities