ON THE CHARACTER
Once upon a time, there was an old man who lived at the foot of two mountains. He hated the mountains for blocking his way and decided to move them one bucket at a time. Determined, the man devoted his life and his posterity to the effort. In the end, the god of heaven decided to move the mountains for him. Imagine how easy a task (and how short a story) it would have been if the old man just moved house instead.
There are many similar stories in Chinese mythology; humanity triumphs over nature. Little did they know that in the future—with melting Poles, sinking cities, and shrinking glaciers—that there would be a price to pay for humankind’s arrogance in nature’s realm.
Faced with global warming (全球变暖 qu1nqi% bi3n nu2n), 变 ( bi3n, change, transform) is the character
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
we all desperately need to learn. From its early, pictorial form, we know this character emphasizes the human element in causing change. The top half of the character is a complicated pattern, consisting of a pair of hands trying to sort through a mess of silk threads. This is the radical , which means “chaos”. The bottom half is a hand holding a stick, which later evolved into the radical攴. So essentially, our ancestors wanted to use a stick to bring order to a mess.
A saying from the I Ching《易经》( , Classic of Changes) stressed the importance of 变: “穷则变，变则通，通则久。”( Qi5ng z9 bi3n, bi3n z9 t4ng, t4ng z9 ji^. When constrained, make a change; change will clear the pathway; a free flow ensures continuous development.)
In modern Chinese, a series of verbs and nouns are based on this character, which can be attached to different subjects. 变化 ( bi3nhu3, change, vary) is used in more general cases, such as, 十年来，城市发生了很大的变化。( Sh! ni1n l1i, ch9ngsh# f`sh8ng le h0nd3 de bi3nhu3. The city went through great changes over the past decade.) But if you want to change a timetable or a plan, use 变更 ( bi3ng8ng, alter, modify). When it’s social transformation you’re talking about, use 变革 ( bi3ng9, transform).
In biology, there’s 变异 ( bi3ny#, variation) and 变种 ( bi3nzh6ng, mutant). Interestingly, the chameleon is literally and quite fittingly called “color-changing dragon” or 变色龙( bi3ns-l5ng) in Chinese.
But of course, 变 is not always for the better. The idiom 变本加厉( bi3n b0n ji` l#) means “worsen, intensify, and become aggravated”, as in他们变本加厉地互相攻击。( T`men bi3n b0n ji` l# de h&xi`ng g4ngj~. They attack each other with intensified severity.)
There are words consisting of 变 that cannot quite be explained by literal interpretation, such as 变脸 ( bi3nli2n), literally “changing face”, which means “to turn hostile”. 变心 ( bi3nx~n), literally “changing heart”, means “to break faith”. Meanwhile, 变态 ( bi3nt3i) usually means “pervert”, but, don’t be alarmed when you have to go to the 变态反应( bi3nt3i f2ny#ng, abnormal reaction) department in the hospital. Here, it’s just a medical term for allergies.
There are also phrases with both literal and figurative usages. For instance, 变质 ( bi3nzh#, change of quality, usually for the worse) can appear in牛奶变质了。( Ni%n2i bi3nzh# le. Milk has turned sour.) And他蜕化变质了。( T` tu#hu3 bi3nzh# le. He has become a moral degenerate.) 变味 ( bi3nw-i, change of flavor, to go bad) can be used on food, as well as to mean a “change in nature”. For instance, 麻将是一种娱乐活动，如果加上金钱就变味了，成了赌博。( M1ji3ng sh# y# zh6ng y%lhu5d7ng, r%gu6 ji`sh3ng j~nqi1n ji& bi3nw-i le, ch9ng le d^b5. Mahjong is an entertainment activity, but if you add money, it changes into gambling.)
Other undesirable changes include 病变( b#ngbi3n, pathological change), 婚变 ( h$nbi3n, marriage crisis), 哗变 ( hu1bi3n, mutiny),政变 ( zh-ngbi3n, coup) and 变故 ( bi3ng&, catastrophe, misfortune). When offering condolences you can use the phrase 节哀顺变 ( ji9'`i sh&nbi3n, reconcile your grief and embrace change).
To be able to embrace change shows flexibility, therefore 变 can form phrases that refer to flexibility. For instance, 随机应变 ( su!j~ y#ngbi3n) means “to act according to circumstances”. Along the same lines, 变通( bi3nt4ng), which means “to make changes according to specific cases”, i.e. stretch a point, is the word you might need when you’re trying to get out of a traffic ticket, as in, “能为我变通一下吗？ ( N9ng w-i w6 bi3nt4ng y!xi3 ma? Could you stretch a point for me?)”
Change may not always be good, but it is inevitable. The challenge of climate change means that, for the first time, the entire human population of planet Earth is going to have to make some serious 改变 ( g2ibi3n, changes) so that there can be a sustainable future for us all.