Chinese Character: Dragon in the Home

August 16, 2009 / Culture / 19 Comments

Despite being mostly ethnically Chinese, Chinese has always been a second language. I never really learned how to read until I was in university where, I forced myself to enrol in those excruciating classes for 4 consecutive years. I’ve never been fond of the language since I have to struggle to memorize the thousands of pictographs; the worst thing is that I’m no good at it. So naturally, since I graduated a year ago, I haven’t read a single Chinese word…until last night.

I saw a sign saying “禁带宠物” (that means “do not bring pets”).


The character 宠 really caught my eye. It’s pronounced as “chong”. As a standalone character it’s the verb “to spoil”, as in “to spoil your kids”. Pets are known as 宠物 or “spoiled animals”.

The character really shines when you analyze how it was made.

The hat-looking radical represents the roof of a house, I like to think of it as a roof by the Bell Roofing Company, which is my favorite. The radical in the bottom is the character for dragon. So the ancient Chinese equated “to spoil” with keeping a dragon at home.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with ancient Chinese culture, dragons were highly revered animals – revered highly enough to represent the emperor. So having a dragon at home would most definitely mean that you would spoil it. Alternatively, it could mean that to spoil is to be the dragon’s (or emperor’s) favorite.

That’s just ingenius!

Guess that was just one of those fleeting moments where my awe at the beauty of the language temporarily overcomes my hatred for memorizing pictographs.

[edit] Lookie what I found! A site dedicated to Chinese Etymology![/edit]

Do you have any particular word or character (in any language) that you fancy? Do share!

  • Yeah, I fancy the Korean phrase “Aigoo Chamna” 😀 Hence my domain name for it. And while it’s not a phrase or a single word, I love the South Jeolla province accent! . . . Even if the Seoulites sees it as backwater and country, I still prefer the former because it sounds effing cool compared to stiff and formal Seoul’s “YO/NIDA” ending!

  • Being someone who isn’t really arts/culturally-inclined, the only language I can fully appreciate is English. 🙁 Although I did learn Chinese during my 12 years of formal education, I am not a master of it. (It didn’t help that Chinese Language was my most hated subject back then.)

    I don’t have any word that particularly strikes me, though. Unlike the Chinese language, English words are not flowy, beautiful or have any striking strokes. It’s all just made up of standard characters.

  • Smart analysis of the character, Ivy! I studied almost 12 years of Chinese as well but then I didn’t really go to the depths of analyzing what the word means – while teachers usually explain how simple Chinese characters get their shape from (e.g. the Chinese character, “日”, literally meaning sun, looks like a sun indeed), complicated words are usually omitted 😛

    I guess that’s what makes Chinese characters so deeply attractive? 🙂

  • JJ

    The only cool word I can think of right now is Korean, but of Chinese origin: dae-poong, meaning “hurricane” or “typhoon”. The word is actually Chinese and the Koreans borrowed it, taking the characters for “big/great” (大) and “wind” (風). Korean pronunciation of the characters is dae-poong (대풍).

    Erm, my spelling might not be entirely correct there as I’m practically illiterate in Korean. I’m biracial (Mum Korean, Dad white) and while I spoke only Korean in the house growing up because my grandmother raised me, I never really learned to read because I hated Korean school I quit when I was very young. The other kids made fun of me for being half and besides, I hated giving up my Saturday mornings.

    (P.S. I’m actually pretty fond of etymology, in all languages. I’m a huge dork that way.)

  • Gel

    It’s interesting to see that each Chinese character has its own story behind it and with your blog entry, i’m even more amazed with the Chinese for being able to memorize tons of pictographs like that. I couldn’t imagine myself having all those knowledge stuck in my mind or something. That’s amazing.

  • This reminds me how often I’m fascinated with foreign languages, and what the characters mean – such as peoples tattoos, what kind of meaning it has, especially for them. And, they’re also beautiful.

  • @JJ: 태풍 is the correct spelling and pronunciation. ^^;; Just letting you know.

  • I love the word “tranquility.” (apparently called “an”) It’s a mixture of a hat and a woman — so house women are tranquil? Lol. 😀

  • There’s so much history in the creation of characters. So interesting!

  • Ivy

    @Tara: Haha, it’s like Kansai-ben isn’t it? Nida/yo lacks the flavor I guess. Since I spent most of my time learning the Nida form in school, I’m actually more comfortable speaking in the nida level than yo level. Hahaha.

    @Brenda: Well, it would be possible to dissect English words like Chinese characters but noticing the etymology of English words can be quite fun too! It comes in particularly useful for the SAT and GRE! 😀

  • Ivy

    @Teddy: Yups! That’s the beauty of Chinese words but it also makes learning Chinese a bit of a pain – especially in the simplified form since many of the characters lose its original meaning from cutting down all the strokes.

    @JJ: You’re not alone! I love etymology of all languages too! It’s really good substitute for memorizing vocabulary! It’s cool I can read Korean. Spend one year studying it in university so I could confidently get the ahjummas in K-town to cut my hair and serve me gam ja tang. 😀

    @Gel: Thanks! Yeah, I’m really amazed by those native Chinese speakers as well. I can’t memorize everything. No way. Not this lifetime anyway.

    @Cynthia: 安 right? Yeah, I guess ancient Chinese thought having woman at home meant contentment and tranquility. 😉

    @Phil: There’s a lot of meaning behind English words too. 😀 Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  • Liz

    Thanks for this post. I love reading about how Chinese characters are composed. It seems like so much reasoning went into them.

    I was wondering, is it common to be taught how the characters came about in Chinese classes? Seems like it should make them easier to remember. Although maybe there are just to many of them for it to be practical?

  • I never really divulged what the characters symbolizes, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it’s pretty much almost the same. That’s pretty chill and cool!! Hahaha, too bad vietnamese characters are basically almost the same as the english dictionary and french as well.

  • I love how Chinese words can be taken apart and interpreted, it makes learning the language a lot more interesting. My favorite is the interpretation of endure (忍): a knife over the heart describes the more-often-than-not heart wrenching process of endurance.

  • Ivy

    @Liz: Hmm, I think it really depends on the school, your teacher and which script you decide to learn (the traditional or the simplified version). My first professor for my Chinese class taught us the common radicals and explained how they were used to create new characters. She also taught a few others that were more interesting like country, which I explained in the guest post I did for you. 🙂 But that was it. After her, the other professors didn’t teach the meaning of characters anymore. Then again, we were learning at a very accelerated rate where were were expected to learn about 30 – 60 words per week so there really was no time for them to explain it to us anymore.

    But I do find that characters are much easier to remember by understanding how it was formed. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the best way to learn it since simplified characters have lost its original construction of radicals.

    P.S. I just realized my reply to your email is still in my drafts folder. Will get to it soon.

    @Destiny: Vietnamese words intimidate me. There are lots of accents all over.

    @Mimi: Ren is one of my favorite characters too! Thanks for sharing!

  • as a chinese who was born at Indonesia…honestly i can’t speak or write chinese character fluently. I had class to learn Mandarin when i was at university n i think was so hard to learn it..

    i just can write wo, ni, na, zuo etc…*forget mode on* or some short conversation of it!

    i think i have to increase my chinese language immedietly!!!

  • Ivy

    @evelynpy: Yeah, it’s very unfortunate that Indonesia banned Chinese language learning during the Suharto era. But it’s never too late!! I didn’t start learning until I was 18. Hahaha. 😀

  • Hi, came to your site from As a Singaporean I too have a love-hate relationship with chinese. And my biggest regret is not having made use of the time in school to master the rudiments of chinese (or at least memorise what I could, lol). Right now I have rediscovered the beauty of the language but have to idea how to go about “re-learning” a language. A situation I think alot of Singaporeans who rediscovered a language they grew up with are in. Officially, chinese here is considered a “mother tongue” but personally, I consider English to be my mother tongue since it was the language I was educated in and brought up with, not to mention it is the language I express myself most fluently in. And it feels awkward for me to start “picking up” chinese where I left off because it’s now a language that feels familiars yet estranged, much like riding a bicycle again after 10 years – technically you cannot “forget” how to balance, but it all seems so wobbly!

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