right here at Shanghaiist!
Previously we talked about the character 生 shēng, which is a main character in the word for one’s “life”, or 生活. The second character 活 is quite cool. First of all, its the name of an awesome Chinese movie “To Live”, but secondly the character itself is packed with meaning.
The right side component in the character is 舌 (shé), which by itself means “tongue”. The left side 氵means “water”, so that’s pretty awesome seeing as water is the source of all life that we’ve been able to find so far. If you were dehydrated to the point of thinking your “life” might be over, you sure would be tickled pink when that water 氵touched your tongue 舌.
So what words can it be used in? First let’s look at these three:
▷We already mentioned 生活 above, it literally translates as “give birth to life”, and it refers to one’s experience of day-to-day life. How’s your 生活？Wonderful, thank you.
▷The second word, 复活 translates literally as “duplicate life” or “return to the original state of life”, and thus the word means “come back to life”. This is why Easter is translated into Chinese as 复活节 (jié), or “resurrection festival”.
▷激活 means “to activate”, which makes perfect sense considering that 激 means “to stimulate or excite”, so “stimulating life” is effectively “activating” it.
In the running for our favorite word in Chinese is “活该” (gāi). The literal translation would be “to live should”. Well that doesn’t seem to mean anything, until you realize what kind of word structure it is. Some words in Chinese start with a verb as the first character (in this case 活) and follow it with a result (in this case 该 or ‘should’). Essentially, this word is saying that the result of the way someone has livedis what should have happened, which is why this word means “to serve somebody right”, aka their misfortune is deserved based on the way they lived. Cheat on your significant other? Him/her breaking up with you is 活该.
Couple of other useful words to know: 活力 (lì)– your life power, aka “vitality” and 活动 (dòng)- lively movement, aka “to move about or exercise”. It can also be used as a noun to refer to an “event or activity”, which is essentially just a short-hand for all of the “lively movement” going on at a specific place and time.
No matter how long you 活, you’ll be happy you took the time to give each Chinese character its due. Who knows, you might even 激活 a new level of excitement for the language you never imagined you’d have!