The Curse of the Convergent Concepts

We’ve talked a little bit before about concepts that are distinct in English but are the same in Chinese. Some of the examples I’ve given (I think) were:

  • jiè = to borrow / to lend
  • ràng = to make / to let / to ask someone to do something

In one of my English classes last week, I ran into two that never got sorted out. Perhaps some of you can shed some light.

Jump / Dive

The student wanted to talk about the Olympic sport of diving. That seems to be:

  • tiàoshuǐ 跳水 = to dive / diving (the sport)

The confusion came when I said, “Doesn’t that “tiào” just mean “jump?” Yes it does. So how would you say “jump into the water?”

The class was split. Some of them said something like:

  • “tiào jìn shuǐ” 跳进水 = to jump into the water

But others insisted that tiàoshuǐ 跳水 could have both meanings. In the end, the dispute (between the students) came down to the height of the platform the person is diving from. Since I thought that HAD to be irrelevant to my original question, I was reduced to drawing pictures (for which I’ll substitute shamelessly-stolen Google Images here) and saying:

1. If your head touches the water before your feet, that’s diving.

image source

2. If your feet touch the water before your head, that’s jumping into the water.

image source

So how do you say number 1 in Chinese, and how do you say number 2 in Chinese? There still wasn’t agreement. Anyone like to add your opinion?

The Olympic Torch

I was infinitely confused when my students told me that the Olympic torch was in Guangzhou on Wednesday and from there went the top of Mt. Everest on Thursday. The reason this confused me was other students were insisting it was in Huizhou Thursday (many hundreds of miles from the top of Everest). I asked, as anyone would in such a situation, “So you mean there are two torches?”

I was shouted down with a resounding, unison, “NOOOOOO!”

Rather than trying to figure out why they seemed offended at the idea of two torches, I decided to focus on how the torch seemed to be violating the nature of the universe and existing in two places at once. I got nowhere until, again, I drew a picture.

image source

They immediately seemed relieved and eagerly cleared up the misunderstanding.

1. shènghuǒ 圣火 = sacred flame / Olympic flame (which there is only one of)

2. huǒjù 火炬 = torch (which there are two or more of)

And I should have left it there. But I had to ask, “So when I originally asked ‘Are there two torches?’ what word, in Chinese did you think I meant?”

Some tried to deny it, but they all had to admit they thought I was saying huǒjù 火炬.

“So WHY did you say there was only one, but now you’re saying there are multiple huǒjù-s ?!?!?!”

They couldn’t answer that and kept muttering things like, “It’s a cultural difference” and “It’s a language difference” and I simply gave up and went on with the class.

If anyone would like to attempt to explain either of these two confusing convergent concepts to me, but especially what in the world happened in the torch discussion, I’m all–um–eyes.


  1. Interesting! I got to attend the opening and closing ceremonies for the Haikou leg of the relay on May 5, and was quite surprised to learn that there ARE many official Olympic torches. Apparenty each torchbearer gets to keep one! I also read online (I forget where, sorry) that the torch that went up Everest was a specially designed torch, separate from the official torch relay. They also carry the sacred fire in a little lantern device sometimes…anyway I know this doesn’t help one bit with the language issues you were discussing, but if you want to see what I’m talking about with the lantern, I got some pictures of it in Haikou:

  2. haha – you dared blasphemy the ‘sacred’ flame? 😉

    I’m guessing this ‘lack of definition’ or whatever we want to call it, is going to be a continual theme as we get deeper into Mandarin. still annoys me, because in English “he made me…” is significantly different from “he let me…”.

  3. According to my wife, these are both 跳水, and if you want to be more specific, you’d have to say “head first” or “feet first”.

    It’s common in every language that words have a broad range of meanings, which are then made specific by adjectives or adverbials. If Chinese is a bit more abstract than English, it’s only because Chinese people are high-context speakers (i.e., they’re comfortable with a higher level of abstraction than English speakers).

  4. I happened to think of the word “carry”. In English we can carry things in our arms, in our hands, on our backs, over our shoulders, on our heads, and even in our heads. What an amazing lack of definition in English (our Chinese students must think) that a single verb has to suffice to describe such a wide variety of actions!

  5. The Olympic sport of diving : dive = tiàoshuǐ﹛here, it is a proper noun in Chinese.﹜
    Jump into the water : tiào jìn shuǐ / tiàoshuǐ (including tiàohé跳河jump into a river, tiàojiāng跳江jump into a(large)river , tiàohǎi跳海, or tiào jìn chítáng跳进池塘 jump into a pool, etc. It depends on the circumstances.)

    When you say torch, people definitely know that what you mean is huǒjù.
    In my little opinion, that confusion has nothing to do with a language difference or a cultural difference.
    Surely there are two or more torches. But certainly the Olympic flame is unique.

  6. [ still annoys me, because in English “he made me…” is significantly different from “he let me…”.]

    Yes, but is not the only word in Chinese for these concepts. They can easily be differented, for example by saying 他迫我… (he made me) and 他允许我… (he let me).

  7. Sure, no doubt there’s plenty of ways to specify the meaning if someone wants to. Problem is, when people are talking they usually don’t bother and just use , expecting you to understand from the context.

    I routinely get this problem in reverse from my students when they talk about things like “My boss let me work late yesterday.”

    Know of anywhere to read a really good explanation of when and how people actually say that difference (other than just by using and relying on the context)?

  8. The issue with does not exist in Dutch. Laten (to let, are to make something happen) is the verb in Dutch. Also the issue is non-existing in Dutch. Lenen aan or lenen van mean lend and borrow. The difference is made by the preposition or by the personal pronoun the follows the verb.

    Still think Chinese is hard? You should try Dutch!

  9. @Sjaco,

    Very interesting indeed! It’s fun sometimes to think about the “bare necessities” that any language would NEED to have to be really useful. Dutch and Chinese prove that the “borrow / lend” distinction is not super necessary. What’s English’s problem making things to complicated?! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *