Classes

If you already know ‘woman', then what do we get if we put two women together? Sadly, it seems, they quarrel. The character showing two women together means ‘argument'.


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You know tree (木), one of our earliest characters. The meaning of 木 was originally from the shape of the tree. Just like most other characters, the meaning of 木 has evolved over the past thousands of years. When you see 木, it could mean ‘tree’ or ‘timber' if it’s used as a noun. When it is used as an adjective, it means ‘wooden texture’. So, when you put 木 together with Chineasy’s famous saloon door (門), we can simply take its literal meaning—wooden door. The simplified form of the character 門 is 门.


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Together mountain (山) and woods (林) form ‘scenery’ or 'landscape' (山林). Some of you may find this phrase a bit challenging to grasp. In fact, it's much easier than you first think. My mother is a calligrapher and painter and I grew up watching her drawing and painting. She specialises in painting flowers. ‘Flowers and birds’ make up a distinctive ‘school’ in Chinese painting. Another popular traditional Chinese school is ‘Landscape’, which are known as ShanShui (山水, "mountain-water") painting. ShanShui painting has long been regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and generally it still is today.


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When you put a mountain and a person together as a phrase, it means ‘hermit’. Mountain (山) + Person (人) = Hermit (山人) Throughout the Chinese history, when a person lives, to some degree, in seclusion from society, is often called as a ’山人’. In Christianity, a hermit was originally applied to a Christian who lives in a reclusive life out of a religious conviction. In ancient China, similar practice (not necessarily connected with religion) tended to take place in the mountains. So when a person went into the mountains to start a reclusive life, he or she had become a ‘mountain person’ (山人 hermit).


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If you are now familiar with the characters composed of ‘tree' (木), woods (林) and forest (森), then let's take these three characters a bit further and see how we can use them in different context. 木 and 木 together as a phrase means dull or idiotic. It's actually not that hard to grasp. 木 is sometimes used (in combination with other characters) as an expression to describe people who are dull, idiotic or awkward. You might sometimes hear people saying (in Chinese of course): ‘Don't just stand there like a log. Grab a chair and join us.' Or perhaps you can imagine a wife shouting at her husband: ‘Are you really a ‘plank'? Can't you see that I need help?' (Blimey! If you do have a wife or husband like this then good luck!).


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What if you put 林 and 林 (Lin Lin) together? You know two trees together as a character means woods (林). When we repeat the character we emphasise the growing number of trees. And so gradually 林林 came to mean ‘a great number' or ‘lots of' something. In fact, 林林 meaning a great number is rarely seen except in ancient Chinese literature. But it does still occur in the phrase ‘林林總總' that you often come across both in oral and written modern day Chinese. ‘總' means ‘sum' and is repeated twice here for the same reason as 林 is written twice - to mean lots of. So 林林總總 as a phrase means very numerous, in great abundance, or 'loads and loads' of something. Is that clear?!


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