When we hear or read something incomprehensible, we say “it’s all Greek to me”. Naturally, Greeks would use different expression. In Greek, German, Dutch, French, Portuguese and many other European languages, they say “it’s all Chinese to me”. Spanish go one step further: es chino básico, “it’s basic Chinese” (implying that you probably should forget about mastering intermediate-level Chinese). But you know what? We all know a bit of Chinese. Here are ten or twelve Chinese words that you should be familiar already, even if you didn’t realise that until now.
茶 chá: tea. Turkish çay and Russian чай are the variation on this theme. In Min Nan, the same word is pronounced as tê; thanks to the Dutch East India Company, this plant and drink is known in Europe as tea. 烏龍茶 / 乌龙茶, wūlóng chá, literally “black dragon tea”, is oolong tea.
道 dào: a word of many meanings, among them “word”, “method”, “path”, “road”, “way”. Tao (or Dao), “The Way”, is a central concept of Taoism.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
點心 / 点心 diǎnxīn (“to refresh one’s heart”, from 點 / 点 “to light, to kindle” and 心 “heart”): snack, light refreshment, better known in its Cantonese pronunciation, dim sum. It is customary to serve it with 茶.
風水 / 风水 fēngshuǐ (from 風 fēng “wind” and 水 shuǐ “water”): feng shui, the art and philosophical system of harmonising everyone with the surrounding environment.
功夫 gōngfu: another word with a variety of meanings, such as “time”, “effort”, “achievement”, “art”, “skill”. In the West, kung fu is mainly used to refer to Chinese martial arts, also called 武術 / 武术 wǔshù.
荔枝 lìzhī: lychee, Litchi chinensis. Once the delicacy at the Chinese Imperial Court, nowadays it is available in supermarkets all over the world.
麻將 / 麻将 májiàng (from 麻雀 máquè, “sparrow”): the game of mahjong, believed to be developed by nobody else but that bird lover, Confucius.
人參 / 人参 rénshēn (from 人 “man” and 參 / 参 “root”): ginseng, so called thanks to the human-like shape of its root.
颱風 / 台风 táifēng (“big wind”): typhoon.
太極拳 / 太极拳 tàijíquán (from 太極 / 太极 “Great Ultimate” and 拳 “fist”): the martial art and exercise system t’ai chi ch’uan. The symbol for tàijí, ☯, is called 太極圖 / 太极图 tàijítú.
陰陽 / 阴阳 (from 陰 / 阴, yīn “dark” and 陽 / 阳, yáng “light”): yin and yang.
The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.