Un­der­stand­ing Chi­nese Char­ac­ters: 明

Un­der­stand­ingChi­ne­seChar­ac­ters

Special Focus - - Contents - Zou Xin­sheng & Huang Lu

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.

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