As human civilization has undergone dramatic changes throughout the centuries, languages have adapted and new words have been coined to meet the needs of our evolving societies. In Chinese, one of the ways that this process of lexical derivation has manifested itself is in the (re)duplication of characters.
Commonly applied to both basic and complex characters regardless of part of speech, this morphological procedure is a boon for Mandarin learners. In practical terms, it means that each time you memorize a single character, you may be able to add not one but two new words to your active Chinese vocabulary! To better understand how the doubling procedure works, let’s go over five illustrative examples:
The character人 (rén; person) is easy to memorize because it looks exactly like a person walking with their legs stretched wide in mid-stride. And if duplicated? Person (人) plus person (人) implies everyone! This demonstrates how duplicated nouns can be used to refer to ‘all of’ something or all members of a group.
This second example similarly involves the duplication of a noun. 天 (tiān), which depicts a person with arms and legs outstretched as if to embrace earth and sky, has multiple meanings including “the heavens” and “fate/destiny” but in this case refers to “day.”
Unlike 人人 (everyone) which functions as a collective noun, 天天 can be used as an adjective or adverb to denote “everyday” or “daily.” To convey the same idea, i.e. ‘all of’ the days, you could also use 每天 (měi tiān), which translates to “every day.”
天天 (tiān tiān) every day; everyday; daily
Ordinarily, the character 木 (mù) signifies “tree” or “wood.” This makes sense because it abstractly resembles a thriving plant growing skyward with roots branching out beneath the ground’s surface. Unlike other nouns such as 人 and 天, 木 functions as an adjective when duplicated and is used figuratively to describe a dim-witted or idiotic person.
To convey the same idea, you could also use 木头木脑/木頭木腦 (wood + head + wood + brain; blockhead) or even 呆 (daī; slow-witted/stupid). Did you notice the ‘empty box’—like an empty noggin—perched above 木 in the character 呆?
On a more positive note, the character 木 is also found in the original name of the ancient heroine Mulan: 花木兰/花木蘭 (flower + wood/tree + orchid). An inspiring figure who embodied courage, humility, and piety, she was nobody’s fool!
木木 (mù mù) dim-witted; idiotic
An interesting example, 炎 (yán) is in itself a duplicated form of 火 (huǒ), which denotes “fire.” Whereas 炎 can refer to “scorching heat” or “inflammation of the body” by extension, once duplicated all emphasis is put on the thermal connotation and the term equates to “blazing!”
赤日炎炎 (chì rì yán yán; red/naked + sun + scorching) = blazing sun
夏日炎炎 (xià rì yán yán; summer + blazing) = blazing hot summer
炎炎 (yán yán) blazing
This final example represents a duplicated pair of closely related pictograms: 日 (rì), meaning “sun” or “day,” and 月 (yuè), meaning “moon” or “month.” Do you see the connection between each character’s alternate meanings? The Earth rotates on its axis with respect to the sun once a day (日), while the moon completes one revolution around the Earth roughly once a month (月)!
Put together, the characters for these two celestial bodies form 明 (míng), which means “bright” or “clear.” And doubled up, 明 becomes 明明, which takes on the figurative meaning “plainly” or “clearly,” for example as in “You clearly don’t trust him.” Because if something is doubly bright, it’s plain for all to see, right?
明 is also found in the word for “tomorrow,” 明天 (míng tīan). That’s comforting because, if you’re not having the best day, it’s nice to imagine that tomorrow will be “brighter”!
明明 (míng míng) plainly; obviously