The Many Lives of Huo

Danielle brought three square tile-coasters into the office today.  Each has a Chinese character on its face and a groove in the back for hanging on the wall.  Besides being beautiful, they can be functional if used as coasters or wall-hanging.

The first tile bears the word 活

(pronounced huo in the second tone).  Note that 活 (huo) has three dots on its left half.  You know from your previous lesson that three dots on the left usually indicate that the word has something to do with water.

The right half of the word is 舌

(pronounced she in the second tone).  舌 means tongue.

So the character 活 (huo)

suggests that it has something to do with  water and eating.

Like many Chinese words, 活 has many meanings.  Depending on how it is used in a sentence, 活 can be a noun, a verb, an adverb or an adjective.

The two words together (生 sheng  活 huo)

means life or living.


(活huo 动 dong)

means activities.  活 means lively.  动 means movements.

(活 huo 力 li)

means vitality.  活 means lively,  力 means strength.

(活 huo 人 ren)

means a living person.  活 means living, 人 means person or man.

(活 huo 埋 mai)

means to bury alive.  活 means alive, 埋means bury.

(活 huo 水 shui)

means running water.  活means moving, 水 means water.

The fact that a single Chinese word can be used in so many different ways and be a noun, a verb, an adverb or an adjective means that Chinese legal documents are often difficult to interpret.  At the same time, poetry written in Chinese is often sublime and evocative, depending almost entirely on the reader’s own imagination.

For your homework, please type the character huo活 twenty times on your computer.  When you type the letters H U O, a list of Chinese characters appear:

惑  或  霍  火  获  祸  货 豁  伙  钬  活

Look at each character briefly before you choose the character 活.  Don’t be discouraged!  All of these words are pronounced H U O and can be reproduced by typing these three letters.  When I was a child, I had to copy each character over and over again for home work.  How lucky you are that all you have to do is to type the three letters H U O.  Sometime in the future, when you come across the character 火 (which means fire) you might even remember effortlessly that 火 is pronounced H U O.