The other day, a Chinese coworker saw me on my way to Chinese class and said “Hao hao xuexi tian tian xiang shang – do you know what that means?” *
I thought for a moment. I knew all of those words, though they were being used in a way that was unfamiliar. The literal translation is the title of this blog entry. I said, “Study well every day and you’ll get better.”
She said I was close enough. I mentioned it in class and my teacher said it was an old slogan of Chairman Mao’s to encourage children to do well in school. I would be written in big letters in classrooms.
It’s a feature of Chinese that repeating a word can intensify it (reduplication can have other meanings, but this is pretty common). I already knew about tian (day) and tian tian (every day, though you can also say mei ge tian where mei means every). I’ve also seen ren ren (person person) to mean everybody, though I’m told that’s only used in writing – nobody says it anymore.
Shang is a very interesting word, as is its opposite xia. Shang can be translated as over, above, on, before, board, get on, ride, top, up, start, and lots of others. The basic concept is being above or moving above, so if you get onto a bus you use shang. In terms of time, in Chinese you have to think of time as being kind of like a river – it flows downhill, so above is the same thing as before, and below is after. Shang ge yue means last month; xia ge yue is next month. There are also the common phrases shang ke (start class) and shang ban (start work). The upper part of class is the first part, when you start it. And of course, up can also mean better, as it does in the sentence that started this whole thing.
Incidentally, while reduplication is not very common in English, there are many languages around the world that do it – Chinese is not at all unusual in this respect. We do use it in a few cases, like “I live in a house house (as opposed to an apartment).” There are even some languages that feature syntactic triplication.
OK, enough for today’s Chinese lesson. Check back soon for another post about…food!
* - Corrected from my misheard original.