Chinese characters – week 3 (絲, 累, 艮, 很, 馬, and 嗎)

The first character for this week is the character for “silk”, 絲 ( ). This character is made up of two radicals which are commonly used in Chinese characters, 糹, and 糸. Because of the common usage of the two radicals of 糹, and 糸, it is really important to learn to write this character properly. This character was initially a pictorial depiction of two silk threads.

The second character for this week is 累 ( lèi ), which means “tired”. The character is formed as a compound ideogram made up of 田 ( tián ) (we covered this character as part of last week’s lesson), and 絲 ( ) (using the 糸 “silk” radical). Culturally, men would work in the fields and women cultivating silk, and hence the compound character comprising of work for both men and women means tired. The character used to be written with three 田s, like this:纍, but this character now has a different meaning to “tired”.

Our next character this week is 艮 ( gěn ), meaning “blunt” as in tactless kind of blunt. This character originally meant “to look away”, and was depicted by a big eye on a person (目, and 人). If you imagine an eye on legs, which is pretty much what the ancient form of this character looks like, you kind of get the idea of looking away, or turning to look away. It is important to learn to write this character properly as this forms components of many other characters in terms of writing, for example characters like 很, 銀, 跟, 根, 恨…

If you change the pronunciation of this character to gèn , then you would be saying the name of one of the Eight Trigrams (八卦) of the I-Ching (易經). The Trigram of 艮 looks like this: ☶.

The forth character this week is a character which has 艮 within it: 很 ( hěn ), which now acts as a modifier of adjectives or adverbs to emphasise the quality they describe. In this sense, you can also generally use this interchangeably with the word 好 ( hǎo ), which we also touched on last week. For example, if you wanted to say something was “very big”, you could say either 很大, or 好大.

The original meaning of this word meant to disobey. It is made up of 彳on the right side of the character, and 艮 on the right side of the character. The 彳 radical is called chì . It is known as the “step” radical. It is also known as 雙人旁 (literally “double man side”) due to it’s similarities to to “man” radical, 亻. I think of this as meaning disobey because it is made up of the idea of someone looking away, as well as walking away, hence the “step” radical. In truth though, 艮 and 很 have developed to mean something so different to their original root that these two characters should probably be learned by memory. I only add the historical background of these two characters out of pure intellectual interest.

The final two characters for this week are 馬 ( ), and 嗎 ( ma ). The first character means “horse”, and the second character is used as a question indicator for sentences, used to indicate a yes / no question. I have put these two together because in terms of writing, once you have masted 馬 from this week, and 口 from last week, you should be able to write 嗎 since it is made up of 口 and 馬. For example, if you wanted to ask if someone was tired, you could ask: 你累

The character for 馬 derived from a pictorial depiction of a horse. With a little imagination, you can still see how it is made up of the mane of the horse, the four legs, and a sweeping tail.