On my bookshelf sits a book titled How to Read a Book. Yes, you are reading that title correctly. However, the book provided some valuable insights, namely that when you read passively, you often fail to “read between the lines” and miss certain golden nuggets of information.
This is the same with Chinese character riddles. When you are learning Chinese characters, the act of copying and tracing over the characters is pretty straightforward. However, what if instead of being given a complete character to trace, you were just given bits and pieces of it? Not only would you have to construct one single character from all of those pieces, you would also need to read between the lines for additional clues.
So, read on if you are ready to test your comprehension skills. We are going to build on the character riddle strategy that we learned in the last article, and discover three additional riddle types that will challenge you even further.
The first type of riddle that we will look at today is meaning based.
So, let’s break this riddle into two parts. We will look at the second part first, which is 对头. The 对头 refers to a “competitor” or an “enemy.” The character 死, on the other hand, means “death.” Thus, the riddle is asking for the enemy of death, which is 生 or “birth.”
|对头||duì tou||enemy, normal|
|死对头||sĭ duì tou||enemy, nemesis|
The interesting thing about this particular riddle is that 死对头 itself represents another phrase as well. As you now know, 对头 means “competitor” or “enemy.” However, adding 死 gives more intensity to the original meaning. As a result, 死对头 is basically like a “nemesis.”
Another common meaning of 对头 is “normal.” So, how do we go from “nemesis” to “normal”? For this one, you might want to think of 对 as “matching” and 头 as “head” or “mind.” Normally, our actions match our thoughts. So, if something is 不对头 (not matching up to our head/mind), then it indicates that we might be doing something out of the ordinary. Something is not matching up!
For this riddle, we have to look at it from two perspectives. The first perspective is the phrase as a whole.
镜 is a “mirror,” while 镜中 means “inside the mirror” and 人 is a “person.” Thus, 镜中人 means “a person inside the mirror.” If the question were not a riddle, then we might think that 镜中人 was a fancy way of saying reflection. However, since this is a character riddle, we are looking for one single character.
So, let’s break this phrase up into two parts. The phrase as a whole means reflection. But a reflection of what? Right after 镜中, we have the character 人. So, in the mirror, we see the character 人. However, since we are looking at a mirror, what we see is a reflection. To create the reflection of 人, we have to flip the character 人 horizontally, which gives us the character 入!
|镜中人||jìng zhōng rén||man in the mirror|
The first character riddle style that I introduced in the previous article was the rearrangement style, which often requires you to combine some (if not all) of the given characters to create the riddle answer. However, we can use the opposite strategy as well. Now, instead of constructing a new character, we will deconstruct a given character in order to form the solution to the riddle.
田中 literally means “inside the field” or “the middle of the field.” However, for this riddle, we don’t literally mean the inside of a field, but instead the interior of the character 田 (which means field). So, we initially start out with the character 田. Then we are told to just keep the middle (中) part of the character. Therefore, by removing the outer strokes of 田, we are left with the character 十.
鱼肚子 refers to the “stomach of a fish,” while 肚子 means “stomach,” or the middle section of something. Here, we start out with the character 鱼. We are then are told to keep only the 肚子 or, in other words, the middle section of the character 鱼. So, let’s remove the top and bottom components of the character 鱼. Once we remove the radical and the bottom character 一, we are left with 田, since 田 is the middle portion of the character 鱼. If you would like to think of 鱼 pictographically, 田 is often the part where we draw the center or stomach of the fish.
|肚子||dù zi||belly, stomach|
In a previous article, we learned several Chengyu (idioms) that related to overcoming obstacles. So, let’s see if you can “overcome” these riddles! By the way, if you missed the Chengyu article, remember to check it out here.
一箭穿心 literally means to shoot an arrow right through one’s heart. So, the meaning of this Chengyu is more or less the same as the English idiom “to hit a bull’s eye.” However, while the riddle itself is a Chengyu, we are actually going to use the constructing technique for our answer.
So, for this riddle, we start out with 一箭, which means one arrow. Then we are told to 穿 something, or “to shoot through” something. The something we are shooting through is 心. So, we are shooting an arrow right through the heart. Thus, we get 必.
|一箭||yī jiàn||one arrow|
|穿||chuān||to shoot through, to wear|
For this Chengyu, there are several different variations. The most common one is 百里挑一, which literally means “to pick one out from a hundred.” The symbolic meaning of this phrase indicates the rarity or uniqueness of the one that is picked out. Other variations of this expression replace the 百 with 千 or 万.
This riddle has two parts to it. 千里挑一 literally means “to pick one out from a thousand choices,” and is another variation of our idiom. Now, looking at it from the perspective of character creation, 挑一 means to “pick one out.” In fact, it literally means to take the character 一 out of something. That something in this case is 千, being that we are taking “one from a thousand.”
So, let’s take the 一 character out of the 千 character. We are now left with 亻(the 人 radical). Now, we are going to apply the same technique to the second part of the riddle.
For 百里挑一, we are picking one out from a hundred choices. So again, we are literally going to remove the character 一 from something. The something here is the character 百. Thus, we are going to remove the character 一 from the character 百. As a result, we are left with the character 白.
Finally, since these phrases are used together, we are going to combine these two components, which will give us the character 伯.
For this type of riddle, you will need to either construct or deconstruct the characters in order to find the answer.
Before we start, you should note that the following two examples aren’t really Chengyu. Nevertheless, the technique for solving them is similar to the one we have already discussed.
问题一 (wèn tí yī) Question one
问题二 (wèn tí èr) Question two
Note: This is part of a proverb.
问题一 (wèn tí yī) Question one
The phrase 格外大方 as a whole means “very generous.” To find the answer to the riddle, we have to create two images. The first image that we are going to create is 格, as in 格子, which means a “square” or a “grid.” So, we are going to start out with a square, which gives us the character 口.
The next character we have is 外, which means “outside.” So, this means that there is something else outside of the 口.
Finally, 大方 means “generous” or a “big square in here.” This means that we have a bigger square on the outside of our 口. Here, it’s best to think of the meaning of 外 as “to surround,” instead of “outside.” So, putting this all together, we start with a small 口, then draw a bigger 口 that surrounds the smaller one. This will give us the character 回.
|格子||gé zi||square, grid|
Note: 格外 on it’s own means “especially,” while 大方 means “generous.”
问题二 (wèn tí èr) Question two
If you watch any dramas involving revenge, you are likely going to hear 斩草不除根! It is often paired with 春风吹又生. Thus, the whole phrase is 斩草不除根, 春风吹又生. The literal meaning of this proverb is that you must remove the roots when you are pulling out the weeds, otherwise they will grow back once the spring wind comes around. In other words, you have to make sure your solution targets the root of the problem and not just the surface.
|斩草||zhăn căo||to cut grass|
|除根||chú gēn||to remove the roots|
|春风||chūn fēng||spring wind|
|生||shēng||birth, to be born|
First, let’s take a look at 斩草.
The character 斩 means to cut. So, what are we cutting? We are going to cut the character 草 (grass)! But hold on a second because while we are going to the cut the “grass,” we are not going to remove everything!
What we really want to do is 不除根 (not remove the roots). So, think of the radical in 草 as the “grass” (which is on the surface) and 早 as the root of the character. We are only going to remove the radical and leave the “root” alone. If we remove the radical, we are left with the character 早.
So, how did you do with this set of character riddles? These riddles are 百里挑一, carefully handpicked by me. They not only involve you reading the surface message, but they also require you to read the hidden message as well. Were you able to 斩草除根 (beautifully solve all of them)? Even if you weren’t able to, don’t worry because 熟能生巧 (translation). Now that you have been introduced to all four styles of character riddles, let me know which one you like best in the comment below!