The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - - HUANG WEIJIA (黄伟嘉) AND LIU JUE (刘珏)

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.

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