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Understanding, Honesty, and Waste: Abstract Meanings of 白

We’ve looked before at the very auspicious meanings of 红 (red) in Chinese. Today, let’s examine 白 (bái- white), and explore some of its wide range of meanings.

In an excellent paper from 2008, Janet Zhiqun Xing discusses how colors in Chinese are flexible in their meanings, and are often used in very abstract ways.  She identifies colors in Chinese as having an “original meaning”, “extended meaning”, and “abstract meaning”. is a great example, with both a relatively simple original and extended meaning, and interesting abstract meanings.



The original meaning of 白 is simply “white”, as in 白色 (bái sè- the color white) or 白米 (bái mǐ- white rice).

It’s extended meaning can be “bright” or “day”, as seen in words like 白天 (bái tiān) or 白日 (bái rì), both meaning daytime.

Its various abstract meanings are where things get more interesting, demonstrating the wonderful imagery always present in Chinese, and can give great insight into the development of the Chinese language.  Lets look at 4 abstract meanings of 白, and give some examples of specific words and example sentences.

Abstract Meanings of 白

1. Understanding

明白 (míng bai): To understand, clear, evident

Example A:

大学生创业需要明白哪些事?

dà xué shēng chuàng yè xū yào míng bai nǎ xiē shì

What do college students needs to understand when starting a business?

Example B:

我明白,炫耀这些背景和经历也许有助于找工作

míng bai, xuàn yào zhè xiē bèi jǐng hé jīng lì yě xǔ yǒu zhù yú zhǎo gōng zuò

I understand, bragging about your background and experience could help in finding a job

2. Pure, untarnished

清白 (qīng bái): Innocent, clean

Example A:

数据证实叶诗文清白 她是现象级游泳天才

shù jù zhèng shí yè shī wén qīng bái tā shì xiàn xiàng jí yóu yǒng tiān cái

Data proves Ye Shiwen is innocent; she has phenomenal natural swimming talent

Example B:

她不仅要求被判无罪,还要求彻底还她清白

tā bù jǐn yāo qiú bèi pàn wú zuì, hái yāo qiú chè dǐ hái tā qīng bái

She not only sought to be acquitted, she also wanted to completely clear her name

3. Honesty

告白 (gào bái): Confess, come clear

Example A:

我相信如此大胆浪漫的告白,谁也不会拒绝吧?

wǒ xiāng xìn rú cǐ dà dǎn làng màn de gào bái, shuí yě bù huì jù jué ba?

I believe with such a brave and romantic confession, who would be able to resist?

Example B:

房地产开发商的告白:老百姓为何买不起房子?

fáng dì chǎn kāi fā shāng de gào bái: lǎo bǎi xìng wèi hé mǎi bù qǐ fáng zi?

Real estate developers confess: why can’t ordinary people afford to buy a house?

坦白 (tǎn bái): Frank, candid

Example C:

坦白说,我现在就希望完全退出足坛

tǎn bái shuō, wǒ xiàn zài jiù xī wàng wán quán tuì chū zú tán

Frankly speaking, I’m now hoping to completely retire from football

Example D:

但”90后”们并不是“颓废一代”,而是性格鲜明的创新一代,他们敢想敢干、思路开阔,目标明确、坦白直接

dàn”90 hòu”men bìng bù shì “tuí fèi yī dài”, ér shì xìng gé xiān míng de chuàng xīn yī dài, tā men gǎn xiǎng gǎn gàn, sī lù kāi kuò, mù biāo míng què, tǎn bái zhí jiē

But those born after the 90’s aren’t a “decadant generation”, but are a generation with fresh personalities, bold vision and courage, open thinking with clear goals, frank and direct.

4. Without results, pointless

白说 (bái shuō)- Speak in vain, waste one’s breath

Example A:

市民们最怕自己的投诉和意见没有效果,“我们会觉得‘说了也白说”

shì mín men zuì pà zì jǐ de tóu sù hé yì jiàn méi yǒu xiào guǒ,“wǒ men huì jué de shuō le yě bái shuō”

Citizens fear their complaints and suggestions won’t have any outcome, ” we think we are just speaking in vain“.

Example B:

只有操作系统的安全稳定运行才能确保其他软件的正常工作,否则一切都是白说

zhǐ yǒu cāo zuò xì tǒng de ān quán wěn dìng yùn xíng cái néng què bǎo qí tā ruǎn jiàn de zhèng cháng gōng zuò, fǒu zé yī qiè dōu shì bái shuō

Only with a safe and stable operating system can you guarantee the regular operation of computer software, otherwise it is just a waste.

白忙 (bái máng) – To be busy with pointless matters, “a wild goose chase”

Example C:

开除一名奥运安保人员,因为他居然打“诈弹”电话报警,让警察白忙一场

kāi chú yī míng ào yùn ān bǎo rén yuán, yīn wèi tā jū rán dǎ “zhà dàn” diàn huà bào jǐng, ràng jǐng chá bái máng yī chǎng

An Olympic security personnel was fired for reporting a bomb to the police as a hoax, sending the police on a wild goose chase.

Example D:

拒绝交钱给骗子,那骗子就是白忙了

jù jué jiāo qián gěi piàn zi, nà piàn zi jiù shì bái máng le

By refusing to give the scammer money, the scammer has wasted his effort.

There are a few other, much more abstract uses of (白事– bái shì-funeral), (白匪– bái fěi- bandit), but the above should be sufficient to help interpret uses of you are likely to encounter.

What other colors can you think of which have abstract meanings?

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4 Responses to Understanding, Honesty, and Waste: Abstract Meanings of 白

  1. perfectnumber628 August 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Great post! I think it’s really interesting how so many Chinese characters have a bunch of (kind of related) meanings.

  2. Ben August 16, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    Thanks! I agree, especially with colors (白, 黑, 红, and 黄) in particular, and also with temperature words – see my post about 冷 here- http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/06/the-subtle-darkness-of-%E5%86%B7/

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