Mastering polyphonic characters is one of the biggest challenges in learning Chinese, yet it is often overlooked at the beginner stage, leading many students into years of confusion, or in my case, almost completely obliviousness to them in the first two years studying the language.
Students naturally like to think they can learn the pronunciation and tone for a certain character, then use them that way for any situation in the future.
Unfortunately, while many characters do indeed have a single pronunciation, there is a considerably large number of characters where you will need to remember multiple ways to pronouce them depending on the kind of meaning you intend to express.
Looking on the bright side, you can benefit from my mistake by tackling these characters head on right from the start.
The strategy you must implement is to understand that a same character is being used for different words, and so you need to be thorough by reading through all the listed meanings and distinguishing between them clearly.
send out; give out; launch; discharge
Here, you can see clearly that the character 发 as a level tone is a verb that means to send or give out. As a falling tone, it simple means hair. These are different words that share the same character.
So, what is a polyphonic character exactly?
Basically, it’s one individual character that can be pronounced in different ways according its meaning.
Allow me to give you a common example.
The character 都 has two general meanings. It means ‘all’ when pronounced as dou, as in ‘they are all happy 他们都开心. A second completely unrelated meaning is ‘city’, in which case it’s pronounced ‘Du,’ as in capital city首都.
Sometimes, the same character is pronounced in a completely different way. 行 can be ‘hang’ to mean a line of work or industry, as in banking 银行(Yin hang). When used to mean travel or movement, it’s ‘xing,’ as in 旅行 （lvxing)
In other cases, the difference is so subtle you will barely even notice them as a beginner. 数 as a falling-rising tone means ‘to count,’ as a falling tone, it means ‘number.’
Most characters will fall into the categories mentioned above, but there are a select few that have three or more possible ways to pronounce it.
差cha – falling tone – Bad My Chinese is bad 我的中文很差
差Cha – level tone – lacking, insufficient I am 10 Yuan short 我差10块钱
差Chai – level tone – job, task I am on business 我在出差
参差不齐Ci – level tone – uneven. Our levels of Chinese are uneven我们的中文水平参差不齐
The top three pronunciations are used often in everyday Chinese, but the fourth is a so called bound form, which means it is only spoken that way in that particular expression.
Taking the right strategy
I let you have it straight. Expect polyphonic characters to be a long term cause of errors and misunderstandings in China. However, it’s most important to pay attention to these straight from the start, as being aware of them and gaining a decent grip of them early will pay dividends in the future, and save you the hassle of relearning characters you always thought you spoke correctly, but didn’t! Trust me on personal experience, that will happen a lot to you.
On the Mandarin section of my blog, I will teach you polyphonic characters one at a time, and I hope that focusing on them this way will allow me to explain their meanings and different sounds in a more thorough manner.
Also, I will choose characters that are most commonly used, but also relatively simple to write, and this will hopefully maximise how much you remember. Finally, you can find well written books on polyphonic characters with explanations in English in many of the large bookstores in China.
Finally, since Chinese has so many polyphonic characters and homophemes, it’s a perfect language for making puns. Let’s finish with one.
Do you understand this image?
The character 还 can be pronounced either ‘hai,’ which means still, as yet, or ‘huan,’ which means return, or give back.
Under the main character is the phrase 欠款1.8万元, meaning ‘to owe 18,000 Yuan.’
The man uses ‘huan,’ meaning the woman should return him 18,000 Yuan. The woman says ‘hai,’ and expresses anger at the thought she still owes 18,000 Yuan, despite having given it back, presumably.