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From death matches to child’s play

古代汉语中,“戏”字多用来表示角斗。到了后来,由于一些格斗比赛 不是真的厮杀而是一种表演,“戏”字才有了演戏的意思。

By HUANG WEIJIA (黄伟嘉) Revised by HUANG DEKUAN (黄德宽)

You probably recognize the character 戏 () as a word of whimsy, but its origins are not so innocuous. It fi rst appeared over 3,000 years ago inscribed on bronze ware. In its original form, the left side of the character was a phonetic guide and the right side of the character 戈 (, a spear or sword) hinted at its meaning. Why would a word now known as “play” or “theater”

have a weapon in it? Because in ancient days, 戏 referred to wrestling or fi st fi ghting matches to the death. When leisure and entertainment became more civilized, these competitions were enacted instead, so the character 戏 came to mean “performance”. In some matches, wres- tlers looked like they were playing around, so 戏 took on even broader, tamer meaning as “game” and, eventually, “joking”. These days, 戏 is everywhere in the performing arts: theater house (戏院 ), stage (戏台 ), Peking Opera (京戏 , also known as 京剧 ), Huang- mei Opera (黄梅戏 , “Yellow Plum Opera”, a genre popular in Anhui), a buff (戏迷 ), or an actor (戏子 , a derogatory term from the days when people looked down on thespians). 戏 can transcend its literal meaning and do some idiomatic heavy lifting. Originally, 逢场作戏 ( ) referred to spontaneous performances that itiner- ant entertainers staged wherever they found a suitable place. Now, the idiom just means “to play along” (a kind of “acting” that we all do). In another idiomatic turn, 戏 can pit rivals against one another. Long ago, 唱对台 戏 () described rival troupes doing similar shows concurrently to steal each other’s business. Now, any action in opposition to another can be a form of 唱对 台戏. In daily life, you might occasionally fi nd something particularly dramatic or unexpected; then it has a lot of “theatrical characteristics” (戏剧性 ). Even more fun are 戏’s incarnations as “play”. 嬉戏

() is to frolic, 戏耍 () is to tease and 儿戏 () — which literally means “children’s games” — can be a metaphor for something trivial. If your boss regarded your professional ambitions thus 视同儿戏 (

 )

— then you’re in trouble. You would need to convince him that what you’re pursuing is 非同儿戏 (), or a serious matter that isn’t to be treated lightly. Back to “joking”. 戏弄 () is to make fun of, 戏谑




() is to banter or ridicule, 戏称 () is a comi- cal nickname, 戏言 () are humorous remarks and 戏说 () is an amusing narrative (as in the popu- lar renditions of The Three Kingdoms and of Emperor Qianlong). The TV shows or stories about ancient history might be amusing, but what is never meant to be funny is current military aff airs. A common saying goes 军中 无戏言 () — there’s no joking around in the military. The best uses of 戏 are in colloquialisms. The character can be a measure of success. If someone says, 这事儿有戏 (), they mean “This thing has hope; it could work out”. By contrast, if someone says 没戏 (), there’s no chance in hell it’s going to happen. Nosey people or those with schadenfreude might perversely delight in 戏. The sinister sentence often uttered from the slips of a movie bad characters goes 这下可有好戏看了 ( ) — “stick around for the show”.

— Translated by Michael Fitzgerald (吴灿城) CURSIVE



Pronunciation:  Strokes: 6

Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworld-


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