Serendipity. Ethereal. Limerence.
These are just a handful of the most beautiful words in the English language.
What deems a word beautiful? Is it the way it rolls off your tongue?
What about the word pulchritudinous?
It doesn’t exactly have the same lightness and flow as the first three, and it even sounds like it implies something negative. But in fact, it’s a synonym for lovely and gorgeous.
In this case, the meaning makes the word beautiful.
That’s how beautiful Chinese words work, too.
The beauty in Chinese words can be found in the composition, history, intent and meaning of the characters.
These 13 seemingly simple Chinese words are imbued with beautiful meanings, which can be uncovered by looking closely at their characters.
The Building Blocks of Chinese Characters
In order to truly understand the most beautiful Chinese words, we first have to understand the Mandarin Chinese writing system.
It’s often believed that Hanzi (the Chinese writing system) is pictographic, but that isn’t entirely true. While some characters have evolved from pictures, most are pictophonetic, with parts that indicate meaning and sound.
Let’s briefly run through all the elements of characters.
Chinese characters use a variety of singular and compound strokes (basically a combination of singular strokes drawn in one go). There are eight basic strokes that follow a certain order for writing.
Though mostly used as the way to look up words in a dictionary, a radical is a part of a character that may imply a broad category. For instance, 人 (rén), which translates to “person,” is one of the many easy characters that also functions as a radical. When 人 manifests as a radical, it likely pertains to an action or description of a person.
Characters with the radical 人:
坐 (zuò) — to sit
个 (gè) — individual; oneself; general classifier, piece
Components have separate functions from radicals. These are parts of characters that offer contextual clues on pronunciation, also known as sound components.
One example would be the character 马 (mǎ), meaning horse. 马 appears in characters like 吗 (ma) and 妈 (mā), and as you can see, both words are pronounced as ma.
These give hints on the meaning of words. A radical can sometimes double as the semantic component of a character, but that’s not always the case.
Just like 人, another semantic component that also acts as a radical would be 足 (zú) which means foot or leg. Thus, characters including that component would indicate that they’re somehow related to feet, like 跳 (tiào) which means to jump.
Now that the quick lesson on character foundation is over, let’s get on with the beautiful characters in Chinese.
13 Beautiful Chinese Words with Fascinating Hidden Meanings
1. 爱 (ài) — to love; affection
In its traditional form, 爱 includes the character 心 (xīn), the word for heart. The rest of components represent actions, so all the parts together mean to love with your heart and through your actions.
Although 心 doesn’t appear in the simplified version, 爱 does include 友 (yǒu) underneath 冖 (mì), which means bringing a friend into one’s house. In that aspect, the underlying message of affection and bringing a close one to your heart isn’t lost in the simplified character.
2. 串 (chuàn) — to string together
串 is one of those really interesting characters that’s a true visual interpretation of its definition.
What looks like two boxes connected by one stick, it’s no surprise that 串 translates as “to string together” and used as a classifier for things that are either skewered (like barbecue) or strung together (like words).
3. 聪 (cōng) — clever
Intelligence is more than just brains, and this character for “clever” shows just that.
When we take 聪 apart, we have 耳 (ěr) meaning “ear” and 总 (zǒng) meaning “to collect” or “altogether.” 心 also appears in 总, so if you think about it, being smart doesn’t just mean thinking with your head, but it also means that you also have to use your ears and heart.
4. 家 (jiā) — home
The word for home or household can be divided into two sections: 宀 (mián) which represents a roof and 豕 (shǐ) which is the word for “swine.”
It’s weird to think that a pig plays a part somehow in the definition, but in the past, families were considered to be wealthy if they reared pigs. Chinese culture regards the pig as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, so 家 may represent the objective to have a well-off household.
5. 明 (míng) — bright; to understand
明 is made up of the characters 日 (rì) and 月 (yuè), the “sun” and “moon” respectively. While the moon is only visible when sunlight reflects off of it, the reason why the two characters are put together is because light can’t exist without darkness.
Using that philosophy, 明 can also be related to enlightenment and clarity, included in terms like 明白 (míngbai) which means “to understand” and 说明 (shuōmíng) which is “to explain.”
6. 忍 (rěn) — to endure
When we take the components apart, the top portion 刃 (rèn) is “blade” while the bottom portion is 心 or “heart.”
Put together, 忍 can be perceived as a knife piercing the heart to demonstrate the pain associated when one has to endure or to tolerate.
7. 森林 (sēnlín) — forest
As you can see, 木 (mù) meaning “wood” appears five times in this term, so it’s only natural that characters composed of several 木 would mean a forest or wooded area.
The construction of the character is literal and overall very simple, yet there’s such a beauty in this simplicity.
8. 武 (wǔ) — military
武 can be divided into two parts, the first part being 弋 (yì) which was modeled after an ancient weapon and means “to shoot with a bow” or “to arrest.” The second part of this character is 止 (zhǐ), which means to “to stop” or “to desist.”
Historically, the Chinese military believed that the true power came from subduing the enemy without the use of weapons, and that weapons were only to be seen as the last resort.
9. 五 (wǔ) — five
To the average person, 五 doesn’t seem like it’s anything special considering it consists of five lines, but there’s more than meets the eye with this character.
The two lines at the top and bottom make 二 (èr) or “two,” although it also represents heaven and earth. What used to be a cross in the middle later turned into a cross with an extra stroke, meant to symbolize the elements.
All in all, the lines stands for the five elements of Wuxing—wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
10. 永 (yǒng) — forever; perpetual
Having the same origins as its homonym 泳 (yǒng) which means “to swim,” the earliest manifestation of 永 was actually defined as “to swim with the current.”
To give a little background, the character for “water” or 水 (shuǐ) that makes up the bulk of 永, shares the same pictographic derivative as the word 川 (chuān) or “stream.”
Thus, the modern interpretation of the 永 paints a picture of a stream or river flowing endlessly, a stunning visual for the Chinese word for “forever.”
Semantics aside, the composition itself is also quite elegant, as it consists of the eight basic strokes of the Chinese writing system, balancing out all parts of the character without needing to be symmetrical.
11. 众 (zhòng) — crowd
Without knowing what 众 means or how it’s pronounced, a beginner could figure out the definition just by seeing that it’s made up of three 人 (rén), the character for “person.” Three’s a crowd, after all.
And just like with 森林, the literal nature of the character makes it more visually appealing, not to mention, easier to remember in the long run!
12. 忠 (zhōng) — loyal
The top portion 中 (zhōng) can take on many meanings, but in this case, it’s referring to China or 中国 (zhōngguó).
With 心 at the bottom, loyalty and devotion are depicted with the heart and soul being connected to the Middle Kingdom.
13. 追 (zhuī) — to persistently pursue; to woo
When a character uses the radical 辶 (chuò), the word most likely has something to do with walking. Another component of 追 is 㠯 (yǐ), which is an ancient form of 以 (yǐ) meaning “according to” or “with.”
Putting the pieces together, 追 is almost like walking with a purpose toward a goal, essentially chasing after something with determination.
The act of wooing is already pretty romantic, but seeing how all the parts signify persistence really shows what it takes to be able to pursue someone.
Which one of these characters was your favorite? Hopefully this list has given you a new appreciation for reading and writing Chinese!