character study

Guess who got up at 4:47 today to ensure she had time to do everything she needed to before class at 12:00? yup that’s me. Green tea power.

I am waiting at the airport now, and I wanted to write about some of the characters I had to learn this morning, which have stuck in my head since I first met them yesterday.

First, how misleading Chinese characters can be. A lot of the time you can guess the pronunciation and/or the meaning of a word based on the composition of the character.


The radical here is the same for both characters, the little box on the left-hand side with a line through it. That radical is the sun radical, and so I can already guess the word will have something to do with light, especially as both characters carry it.

The other parts of the character are most likely going to be there to indicate the sound but may be related to the meaning of the word. The first character’s right-hand element may look familiar even if you have never studied chinese in your life, because it is ai — love — one that pops up all the time in (bad) tattoos and cheesy calligraphied clothes and wall hangings.

The second character’s right-hand element is wei (pronounced way). On its own it means “not yet” but as a character element it is pronounced “MEI” and is most frequently see with a female radical to compose the character mei, little sister.

So I know that the word is related to light, and is probably pronounced aimei, which sounds like “love-little sister”, and looks like it too. So what does it mean? Well in fact the first character means “dim” and the second means “dark”. Together they form the word “vague, unclear”. Nothing like what it looks or sounds like. Oh.

Sometimes, the reason a character sticks in my head nothing to do with the word itself, but the way the teacher decides to explain it. This is HENXIN:

hexin means coldhearted, callous. Because all the definitions are in Chinese, sometimes this means that the teacher will need to give several explanations and examples to get the meaning across, so that all of us understand without having actually translated the word into our own language.

The first character, hen, means fierce. It’s actually the character for wolf, only pronounced differently (normally it’s LANG). The second character is xin (another popular one in the West), which means heart. Together they mean heartless, but whilst its nefarious meaning is obvious, the subtleties needed to be explained further. 

So our teacher explained to us that it meant someone who would do something very evil and not care. Such as, according to her, a woman who would have an abortion, because it is very cruel to kill an unborn child. 

MMMmmm had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue on that one! Some battles are not meant to be held in a small classroom with a teacher who has the power to make or break you. But for someone who is so passionately pro-choice as myself, it was so hard to let that one go. I wanted to yell, AM I DOUBLE EVIL THEN SINCE I HAD TWO ABORTIONS?

So yes, I will always remember henxin.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s