Understanding Chinese Characters: 明
明月几时有，把酒问青天 (míngyuè jǐshí yǒu, bǎ jiǔ wèn qīngtiān. How oft does the bright full moon appear? I ask the emerald sky with a cup of wine.) The poetic verse quoted from Prelude toWaterMelody of Su Shi, a prominent Chinese poet of the Song Dynasty, more than 900 years ago, hits the nail on the head when it comes to the most original and prevalent meaning of the Chinese character 明 (míng, bright) as illustrated in Shuowen Jiezi(OriginofChineseCharacters) , the first Chinese Dictionary known in history.
Chinese people can tell the primary sense of the character 明 from its structure doubtlessly, which combines two parts: the left one is 日 (rì) meaning “sun” and the right part is 月 (yuè) meaning “moon.” In Chinese traditional culture, either sun or moon represents “brilliance.” According to the Recordsof
theGrandHistorian , also known by its Chinese name Shiji, a monumental history of ancient China and the world finished around 94 BC by Sima Qian, an official of the Han Dynasty, the famous idiom 明珠
暗投 (míngzhū àn tóu) is another typical example of that meaning—which literally means “a shiny pearl stealthily thrown away gets attracted by a passerby”— while figuratively, it means “a top talent fails to be valued by superior.” Analogously, the extended sense of the character 明 is “beautiful, splendid,” which is adopted in words like 明秀 (míngxiù, enchanting) and
明艳 (míngyàn, gorgeous).
It is this profound use of connotation that has vitalized Chinese characters for thousands of
years, and the character 明 is one of the best representations. The character 明 can be used as 明白 (míngbái, understand). For example, 愚
者 亦 明 之。 (yúzhě yì míng zhī. Even a fool can comprehend it as well.) The character 明 also means明确 (míngquè, define, clarify) which is verified in
明法度，定律令 (míng fǎdù, ding lǜlìng) quoted from the RecordsoftheGrandHistorian , which translates to “define and establish laws & decrees.” From a dynamic perspective, day alternates with night, as 日 ( rì) symbolizes “day” and 月( yuè) “night,” and a brand new day will emerge consequently, as a result of which the character 明means “next.” For example, 明年 (míngnián, the following year).
Comparably speaking, another sense of the character 明 as “wise” is more widespread than others, which manifests in 小学而大遗 , 吾未见
其明也 (xiǎo xué ér dà yí, wú wèijiàn qí míng yě; I don’t think it is sensible to learn the trivial while neglecting the important), the famous remarks from “On Teachers,” also known as “Shi Shuo” in Chinese by Han Yu, a remarkable scholar and philosopher of the Tang Dynasty, 1200 years ago. Characterized by illumination, the character明 radiates from not only in the literal sense but also beholds anenthusiasm for Chinese culture. Learning the power of such character is the cornerstone to fortify an understanding of China in a global community.