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The order of things in Chinese

For those who study Chinese, they will soon notice that Chinese people have a different order of things. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at four of them. 

The first three are ranked from big to small (or small to big), which is a natural order that we’re all familiar with. For example, we rank the richest people according to their personal wealth. We rank influencers based on how many “likes” or “followers” they have on social media. We rank air tickets from the cheapest to the most expensive. We rank the safest cities based on the crime rate from the lowest to the highest. This is the order Chinese people use to tell time, to write a mailing address, or to express their aspirations. 

The fourth one is based on social relations and I’ll elaborate on that a little bit later. 

Mailing address in Chinese

If you want to send a package to mainland China, the sequence of the mailing address should be something like this: 

China Province City Road Building Floor Flat

For example, 中国河北省廊坊市大中路六十五号广业大厦五楼6

The order starts from the biggest area, the country, then gradually narrows it down to a building, then finally to a flat.

Date in Chinese

Writing date in Chinese follows the same principle, starting from the year and gradually narrowing it down:

Year Month Date

For example, May 6, 2023 will become 2023.5.6.

This sequence doesn’t have room for misunderstanding. It is always the year first, followed by the month, then the date.

I remember a story where misunderstanding of dates caused great regret. It goes something like this:

Two young people were in love, but their families didn’t approve. So they decided to run away. 

That was a time before smartphones or emails. Handwritten notes were the norms. The young man wrote one and secretly passed it to the young woman, telling her the time and the place to meet: “9PM, 5.6.1946, Train station”.

At 9PM on May 6th, with two train tickets in his pockets, the young man waited for his lover, but she never showed up. Disheartened, he caught his train and left.

More than twenty years later, these two former lovers chanced to meet. They looked at each other and saw the once youthful beauty had faded into wrinkles and grey hair.

The old man asked the old lady why she didn’t come on that fateful day. She answered, with a trace of resentment: “I went on June 5. But you weren’t there.”

What a pity. Only if they could have communicated in the Chinese style.

Level of achievements

When it comes to personal achievements, there is also a clear order in Chinese. This time it goes from small to big, as the following words show:

  • 修身 (to cultivate one’s moral character)
  • 齐家 (to manage one’s household)
  • 治国 (to administer the country)
  • 平天下 (to pacify the world)

One must become a good person first, then go on to make one’s household a good place, then go on to make the country a good place, and finally influence the entire world. 

In this sequence, there is no “work/life balance”, the struggle between work requirement and household demands. In fact, in this Chinese order, a well run household is the foundation, or the prerequisite, of achieving bigger goals. 

Therefore, if you’re inspired to bring peace to the world, the take away is to start small, start at where you are, and start with yourself. 

Family titles in Chinese

Many students don’t like learning family titles in Chinese, those daunting and useless words like 姥姥, 叔叔, 堂姐, 表弟 and so on.

Indeed, family titles in Chinese are a system that is one of a kind.

All the intricate relationships have been sorted out and special names have been designated to each and every family member and relative based on age, gender, and which side this person belongs, mother’s or father’s side.

“Older brother”, “younger brother”, “older sister” and “younger sister”, all have their own unique terms. “Uncle” from mother’s side are addressed differently from “uncle” on father’s side. The same goes to “grandpa”, “grandma”, “grandson”, “granddaughter”, and “cousins”.

These words give us a sense of cohesiveness in Chinese society. They are like laser beams, revealing complicated and complex social orders. Each and every one is situated in a tightly knitted and interconnected hierarchy that provides a sense of belonging and, to a certain extent, influences our behaviour at the same time. 

Human beings have always been searching for orders and trying to identify patterns. Chinese have definitely found some of their own.

April Zhang

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