As we said in the last post (January 3, 2014) the radical makes up an essential part of a character but there often is a second part, which usually gives further information. The word butterfly, hú dié, hur dier (蝴 蝶) is a great example. The first word in this combination is hú, hur (蝴).
Its radical is chόng, chongr 虫, which means bug. The second part is the character hú, hur, meaning foolish, reckless. In the December 13th blog we found that butterflies were seen as simply flitting around from flower to flower and not working! So you can see how putting together 虫, bug, with 胡, foolish gives the reader an idea of how to pronounce this character, its class (a bug), and even some idea about how the butterfly is viewed—as carefree and reckless (because it doesn’t work).
In modern Chinese, many concepts have more than one character, as is the case with butterfly. And this helps to further clarify for the listener exactly what the speaker means when she says hú, hur. In other words, it helps distinguish between a conversation about butterflies or reckless behavior or something else.
So, let’s look at the second character in butterfly dié, dier (蝶).
Again, it has the bug radical chόng, chongr 虫 on its left side. On the right is the character pronounced die. Fun with Chinese Characters elaborates on this character’s phonetic element, which has embedded in it more than just sound. It also suggests something about the animal itself: The butterfly “owes its beauty to its colourful leaf-like wings, some species even mimicking leaves. Fittingly, its phonetic: [die] is a representation of leaves that reappear yearly—the successive generations (世) of a tree (木).” (p 127). So, this part of the modern Chinese term for butterfly stresses the butterfly’s ability to survive through generations. Always a good thing!
China’s character-based language system, unlike strictly phonically-based language’s words, contain all kinds of information for the knowledgeable reader.
Each character tells a story. Isn’t that an intriguing thought?
Note: In learning about Chinese characters, their parts and the correct stroke order for writing them, you’ll be able to find quite a few books and other resources—some more serious than others. All of them are enlightening and fun.
A really charming series on the parts comprising a Chinese character, which may be hard to find, but would be worth the effort: Fun with Chinese Characters, The Straits Times Collection. It was originally published with Federal Publications in Singapore. I drew on this little series and William McNaughton and Li Ying’s Reading & Writing Chinese for much of the information in this post.