The World of Chinese - - Contents - 探:搭建未知与已知的桥梁

When fa­mous Three King­doms-era gen­eral Lü Meng (吕蒙) was just 15, he ran away from home and se­cretly joined the Wu state’s mil­i­tary cam­paign against moun­tain ban­dits. Re­turn­ing home af­ter­wards, Lü pointed out to his fu­ri­ous mother that his life-threat­en­ing ad­ven­ture had granted him fame and for­tune, ask­ing “不探虎穴,安得虎子?” (“How can one catch tiger cubs with­out ven­tur­ing into the tiger’s lair?”)—that is to say, “noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained.”

From a per­sonal ad­ven­ture to a na­tional ex­pe­di­tion to outer space or the deep sea,探 ( t3n) is the word for the ex­plo­ration of any un­fa­mil­iar or lit­tle-known field. In pic­to­pho­net­ics, the left “hand” rad­i­cal rep­re­sents its mean­ing, and the right, orig­i­nally gave the char­ac­ter its pro­nun­ci­a­tion, al­though this changed over time.

Ac­cord­ing to the Han dy­nasty dic­tio­nary Ex­plain­ing and An­a­lyz­ing Char­ac­ters《说文(解字》), 探 refers to ex­tend­ing one’s hand to reach for some­thing. For ex­am­ple, “探囊取物”( t3n­n1ng q^w&) means to take some­thing from one’s pocket. The ex­pres­sion later be­came a proverb to in­di­cate an easy task, since it takes no ef­fort to reach into one’s own pocket.

Other things are bet­ter hid­den, and may take more time and en­ergy to find. For ex­am­ple, 探矿 ( t3nku3ng) means to prospect for min­er­als; 探案 ( t3n’3n), to in­ves­ti­gate and find out the truth in a crim­i­nal case; 探秘 ( t3nm#), to probe into se­crets or ex­plore un­ex­plained phe­nom­ena; and 探险 ( t3nx­i2n), to ven­ture into the un­known. In par­tic­u­lar, the last two are com­monly un­der­taken in re­mote and in­ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tions, as in 深山探秘( sh8nsh`n t3nm#, ex­plor­ing re­mote moun­tains), or 南极探险( N1nj! t3nx­i2n, ex­plor­ing the South Pole).

探 can also be paired with other verbs to de­scribe dif­fer­ent types of ex­plo­ration. For ex­am­ple, 探索 ( t3nsu6) means to ex­plore and seek, and is of­ten used in sci­en­tific con­texts, as in­人类不断地探索自然界的奥秘。( R9nl-i b%du3n de t3nsu6 z#r1nji- de 3om#. “Hu­mans are con­tin­u­ally ex­plor­ing the se­crets of na­ture.”) 探究 ( t3nji$) means to probe deeply and re­flect. For ex­am­ple: 这本书探究的是人生的意义。( Zh- b0n sh$ t3nji$ de sh# r9nsh8ng de y#y#. “This book probes the mean­ing of life.”) How­ever, it’s usu­ally im­por­tant to look at mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives and so­lu­tions in an ex­plo­ration; there­fore, 探讨 ( t3n­t2o) means to ex­am­ine and dis­cuss a topic. For ex­am­ple:最近经济学家在对经济体制改革做进一步的探讨。( Zu#j#n j~ngj#xu9ji` z3i du# j~ngj# [email protected]# g2ig9 zu7 j#n y! b& de t3n­t2o. “Re­cently, econ­o­mists are fur­ther ex­am­in­ing the ques­tion of struc­tural re­form.”)

Apart from reach­ing with one’s hand, 探 also im­plies putting the rest of one’s body for­ward. The com­mon us­ages in­clude 探头( t3n­t5u, pop one’s head in), as well as 探头探脑 ( t3n­t5u t3n­n2o, pop one’s head in and look about furtively); the lat­ter is of­ten used pe­jo­ra­tively to mean “snoop­ing.” For ex­am­ple:小偷儿进了大楼后探头探脑地四处张望。( Xi2ot4ur j#n le d3l5u h7u t3n­t5u t3n­n2o de s#ch& zh`ng­w3ng. “The thief looked around furtively after break­ing into the build­ing.”)

In this sense, some 探 ex­pres­sions can be ex­tended to mean visit, call on, or see. 探望 ( t3n­w3ng) is to visit some­one from afar. For ex­am­ple: 路过北京,顺道探望一下老朋友。 ( L&guo B0ij~ng, sh&nd3o t3n­w3ng y! xi3 l2op9ngy6u. “While trav­el­ing through Bei­jing, I dropped by to visit an old friend.”) Sim­i­larly,探病 ( t3nb#ng) means to visit pa­tients at the hos­pi­tal or in their homes; 探亲 ( t3nq~n) is to visit one’s par­ents or rel­a­tives; and 探监( t3nji`n) is to visit in­mates in prison.

Not all ex­plo­rations are car­ried out in the open: 探听 ( t3nt~ng, in­quire about) usu­ally means to find out in­for­ma­tion covertly, as in­已经有好几个人来探听新所长任命的消息了。( [email protected]~ng y6u h2o [email protected] r9n l1i t3nt~ng x~n su6zh2ng r-nm#ng de xi`oxi le. “Sev­eral peo­ple have nosed around for news about the ap­point­ment of a new di­rec­tor.”) The verb 刺探 ( c#t3n, spy on) par­tic­u­larly refers to scop­ing out a ri­val, or op­po­si­tion re­search. For ex­am­ple, 敌军在刺探我方军事设施。( D!j$n z3i c#t3n w6f`ng j$nsh# sh-sh~. “The en­emy is spy­ing on our mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion.”) The char­ac­ter can also be used in nouns re­fer­ring to the per­son sent out to col­lect the in­for­ma­tion, such as 侦探 ( zh8n­t3n, de­tec­tive),探子 ( t3nzi, scout), or 密探 ( m#t3n, spy).

Through­out his­tory, hu­man be­ings have con­tin­u­ally ex­plored the outer lim­its and un­known spheres of na­ture and so­ci­ety, from the med­i­cal tests of Shen­nong (神农, a leg­endary pre­his­toric ruler of China, some­times known as the fa­ther of Chi­nese medicine and agri­cul­ture), to the mod­ern search for the “wild man” of Shen­nongjia For­est. As long as hu­man be­ings have cu­rios­ity, am­bi­tion, and a need to sur­vive in the uni­verse, the urge for ex­plo­ration will doubtlessly per­sist.

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