Figuring out Chinese: Finding out about “何”

I ran into this sentence while trying to read a little bit from a Chinese blog.


The sentence intrigued me because it was using 「何」, a character I’m sure most of you learning Japanese are already familiar with. I was curious to see how it was used in Chinese and decided to do some digging. In the process, I thought it would be a neat idea to outline some of the steps I take when trying to figure this kind of thing out for any language including Japanese.

Breaking down “何”

I first looked it up in Dict.CN and came up with the following.

1. why
2. which
3. what
4. carry
5. how

Wow, it looks like ”何” can mean just about every question word there is. How is it that I don’t see it more often? As usual, the English definitions are pretty much useless for clarifying anything. Unless I’m looking up very simple concepts or objects such as “friend” or “car”, I don’t even bother with the English definitions. Instead, the real value is in the example sentences. Here are a few samples.

1. 你这次考试的结果如
How did you do on your test?

2. 你跟你的新上司处得如
How are you doing with your new boss?

Ok, in this case, all the examples seem to be referring to another word “如何”. Looking at the sentence, it seems pretty clear that it means something like “how is”. My first thought is, how is that different from “怎么样”? But since this is a whole other direction, I decided to drop it and go back to finding more information about “何” by itself.

So this time, the example sentences from Dict.CN didn’t turn up much. Ah well, time to whip out my trusty Wordtank G90. The definition and example sentences given by the G90 were a lot more useful and seemed closer to what I was looking for.


That explanation was further broken up into 1.何、2.どこ、and 3.どうして with examples for each. Here are just a few samples.

1. 他为不来?

2. 你有高见

I interpreted these examples to mean that “何” is a general question word to increase the level of questioning similar to but probably not as strong as 「一体」 in Japanese.

Now, example sentences are great but I like to have a little more context. So I tried searching “何” in ChinesePod. It turned up a bunch of Media and Advanced lessons which I was too lazy to dig through, one Elementary lesson that had no mention of “何” at all (maybe a bug?), and finally a promising Upper Intermediate lesson called Drinking Ability. And sure enough the dialogue had the following line, referring to a manager out-drinking the whole company.

Way more than one table. It was the whole company!

Ok, so this usage didn’t seem to fit with my initial interpretation. In Chinese, because what constitutes a “word” is so flexible, you have to always be careful to consider whether you’re looking at a combination of characters or a set phrase. So I looked up “何止” in my Wordtank to make sure it wasn’t a set phrase. And sure enough:

【何止】 ・・・にとどまらない。ただ・・・だけではない。

So this was different from just “何” and my original interpretation was safe. By the way, Dict.CN returned no results for “何止” so you definitely want to get the best dictionary you can with the most comprehensive coverage. (My G90 C->J dictionary has about 150,000 entries.)

Breaking down “何为”

Now that I had a general idea of how “何” works, I took a closer look at “何为” from the original sentence that started this whole thing. I noticed an interesting, and as it turns out, deceptive similarity between my original sentence and one of the example sentences for “何” in my dictionary.


Since the first example came with a Japanese translation, I concluded that it was roughly equivalent to “他为什么不来?” but with a more questioning tone like, “Why in the world isn’t he coming?” But “为什么感觉?” doesn’t really make much sense by itself or in the context of the original text.

I guessed that the key was in the difference of order between “为何” and “何为”. My hunch was that the first, “为” is an abbreviation of “为什么” while the second “为” is an abbreviation of “为了”. The translation “What is the feeling for?” seems to fit the context of the original text better.

I searched Google and Baidu for “何为” to verify my hunch and found this page. It looks like “何为” can be a person’s name as well? I don’t really know. At this point, I’m was starting to get frustrated. Who said Chinese was easier than Japanese?? (Oh right, that was me.)

A little more digging up turned up an article titled 何为Hibernate. Alright, I know about Hibernate (it’s a Java O/R mapping framework) and the title “What is Hibernate for?” seems to make sense. I found another article 小泉三次参拜靖国神社意欲何为?. Again the title, “What is Koizumi’s intention for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine?” makes sense. I was too lazy to actually read the articles to verify so in the end I just went and asked a Chinese coworker to confirm my hunch. I seemed to be right though he did mention that the use of “何为” was very high-level and not common.

According to your comments, 何为 is another way to say “what”. so “何为感觉” means “What is feeling?” And “意欲何为” comes from Classical Chinese meaning “干什么”. I admit, I still don’t get it really but I’ll just leave it at that for now.


This is pretty much the approach I take when I run into anything new that can’t be easily learned from a dictionary and when I’m too lazy or impatient to just ask a native speaker. It gets a lot easier to go through all the example sentences and search results as you get better in the language. But the difficulty just means that you’re learning more since you know less.

Today, I learned some useful and perhaps not so useful stuff about “何” in Chinese. Spending so much time digging around for information really helps me remember it better than any flashcard and presents opportunities to learn about other stuff such as “如何”, “何止”, and “为何”. All this extra work will also ensure that I won’t forget that the reading for “何” is “hé” for a long time. While I still don’t completely understand all the nuances yet, I’ll be able to recognize it in the future until I can eventually get a feel for how and when to use it.

And hey, what do you know. I just ran into “何” again for today’s 每日学口语 (8月2日).

What’s the point of going to college?

In conclusion, I’d like to say that Chinese is a um… interesting… to put it politely. Sigh… Again, please feel free to make any corrections if I’m getting any of this wrong.

12 thoughts on “Figuring out Chinese: Finding out about “何”

  1. Hahah it’s quite interesting what you went through to find out what 何 means and how it’s used — very like a linguist.

    Here’s my take on things, which should not be taken as authoritative as it’s largely based on native speaker intuition (and some background of linguistics).

    何 essentially means “what”. But as you said, English translations don’t do too well in helping one understand Chinese. This accounts for why 何 can also be found in other words classified as wh-words in English. Chinese does so by combining 何 with the thing in question (I think Japanese does that too to some extent):

    何人 – who
    何时 – when (jap. 何時, though does this only mean “what time”?)
    何处 or 何方 – where
    为何 or 何为 – why

    But more often than not, you’ll hear native speakers use the following words:

    谁 – who
    什么 – what
    什么时候 or 几时 -when
    哪里 or 什么地方 – where
    为什么 – why
    怎么 – how

    Today, you’ll usually only see or hear 何 and the related question words in written text (semi-formal to formal) and in period dramas/movies, and in formal speeches (think Yang Jiechi or Liu Jianchao from China’s foreign ministry) or news broadcasts.

    You may also come across it in less formal media like blogs or even in speech, though 何 is usually employed to evoke some rhetorical effect, as it can sound philosophical/poetic.

    If I’m not wrong, 何 was much more commonly used in Chinese used some centuries ago (I hesitate to say Classical Chinese as it’s probably too loose a description) — which is why you see it in period dramas, and in Japanese. I have however no idea when the more modern forms came about.

    Re your more specific questions.. I think I won’t clog up your blog by posting long ass posts here. Let’s see what the rest say.

  2. I agree with K:

    Today, you’ll usually only see or hear 何 and the related question words in written text (semi-formal to formal) and in period dramas/movies, and in formal speeches (think Yang Jiechi or Liu Jianchao from China’s foreign ministry) or news broadcasts.

    The notable exception is 如何, which is still pretty common in normal conversation.

  3. wow, interesting
    the comment above sums up quite well( are you Chinese?), that’t abou it: “何” semms like just a question mark “?”, and it attaches a qestion to whatever near it.

    specifically, “何为” generally mean “what constitute” “how…works”, so i guess your interpretation of “what is the feeling for” for “何为感觉”is misled. i understand it should simplely be “what IS FEELING?”.Hmmm, sounds like a philosophical question..

    and for the more archaic use “意欲何为”, things are different. as in CLASSIC CHINESE( though many usage of which still lingers), “何为” is in a reversed pattern as i understand. it is actually “为何”, thus tranlates into “干什么”.

    good for you, you didn’t ask “为”,this word seems like more flexible. but again, those nuances mainly exists in 文言文, now we use words such as 谁,什么,什么时候 more, as mentioned above.

    yeah, what’s the point anyway? i don’t get it

  4. 勝手に日本語直すマン参上!


    See ya!

  5. @K and safarinew

    Thanks for the clarification!

    Ok, so it sounds like 何为 and 为何 are pretty much the same and are more literary style of 为什么?

    And so maybe 何为感觉 means something like “why do we feel?”, very philosophical indeed.

  6. Hi, this is my 1st reply on your blog.

    The meaning for “何为感觉” is “what is feeling”, just like what safarinew explained, but i seldom heard or read this sentence because i think everybody know what is feeling, right?

    If someone who never fall in love before ask “何为爱的感觉?” will make sense.

  7. Another phrase that is commonly used is ”何必“.
    It is used when one is commenting on an action that is unnecessary given the circumstances.

    (This one’s a saying: Knowing the consequences that will occur now, why did you proceed with your actions (in the past) then?

    (Is a necessary for you to do this?)

  8. @pctsh
    Ok, I added a correction to the post. Your explanation fits the context of the original text. I’m still a bit confused but decided leave it as is for now.

    Thanks, that’s a good tidbit to know.

  9. 何为感觉? 何 translates as “What”. 为 means “is”, 感觉 mean “feeling”
    何为爱? translate as “what is love”
    Here is a piece of a classic chinese poem
    问世间情为何物,直教人生死相许. 何 also translated as “what” in here.
    What we know about the true love in this world is the life to a life promise only!

    1. 你这次考试的结果如何?

    如何 translates as “how” in English. If you breaks down 如何, it would become “如“ and ”何“。 In chinese,”如” has many differnt meanings, but in this word it means “like” in English, and “何” still means “what” in English。

    如何 can be direct translated as “like what?”
    1. 你这次考试的结果如何?
    so, this sentence can be translated as :
    how is the result of your exam (like) ?

    1. 他为何不来?
    In this sentence, 为 means “for” in english. 何 still means “what”
    为何 –> for what or (why)
    Why he is not coming? (English and Chinese is very similar in grammer)

    2. 你有何高见. 何 mean what。
    what opinion do you have?

    In this sentence, 何止 means “not only”。 This is a special case, but most of the time 何means “what”。


    意欲何为 is classic chinese. It means (what is the intension? or just simplely means why) It is not too hard to understand if you break it down into character by character.
    意 —> 意图 means “intention”
    欲 —> means “desire”
    何 —> means “what”
    为 —-> means “for”
    上大学有何用. 何 means “what”。 用 means ”the use“
    directly translation would be:
    what is the uses for going college? (why going to college?)

    Conclusion, 何often means ”what“, but in the special case, ”何止“, 何 means ”Not”

  10. One of the hard parts of Chinese is figuring out when a usage you see is a classical or idiomatic usage, and furthermore the register at which a word or expression is used. Once you pass a certain level in Chinese, where the grammar makes sense, and the ways that Chinese abbreviates high-level grammar, for lack of a better term, things get less opaque. But until you figure all these things out, it’s very difficult to look at a word and know how abbreviated or literary it is.

    So, 何. In Classical Chinese, this word meant “what, or how.” (Note that, as a previous poster alluded to, as “Classical” Chinese was used for almost 2000 years, I use the term very loosely here.) In Classical, its syntax is a bit strange, but the only point you need to know is relating to 为何. 为 in classical meant ten million things, but the most common were “for,” “to do, “to be.” These and other meanings are all context-based, it sucks, etc…basically, be glad you’re in Modern land. The reason 为何 ofter means “why” is because it can be analyzed as “for what.” But it can also mean “do what,” or “be what.” Context is hard. These examples you’ve found are literary and archaic-feeling, and thus don’t analyze very simply as their meanings are often ossified in the specific usage or saying in which they occur. You will learn to differentiate these examples with time, but it does take time.

    And it can also be written 何为. Essentially, they don’t have a general difference in meaning. (I can explain it with classical syntax but I don’t want to get too arcane here.) The more common classical usage is 何为, but luckily, the difference doesn’t matter to you 🙂

    So how can you go about looking at these things? Chinese can actually, sometimes, be broken down by individual character meanings, but in order to do that, you need to know or be able to find the individual meanings. In this case, a dictionary might not actually help you, as the modern language doesn’t always work on an individual-character level. (Interestingly, as Japanese uses many classical meanings for characters, you may be able to cross-reference with the Japanese meaning of individual characters. As modern Chinese words are mostly binomial, this is harder to pin down from only the modern language.) K wrote that English translations are not always helpful for understanding Chinese, and this is often true. As others have said, the best way to proceed is to atomize meaning, as you have been doing. Example of such atomizing? Your old friend 何止. Kevin says “not only,” and he’s right, but you can analyze it more simply, and more helpfully: “why stop (at),” with a rhetorical-question flavor. Ta-da. Maybe Chinese does make some sense.

  11. ”何“ is an expression inherited from classical Chinese. refer to this Japanese 漢文入門 for its use as a question word.

    Classical Chinese and modern standard mandarin are completely different (grammar, use of words, or even characters in some regions). ppl sometimes use some words or phrases in classical Chinese to emphasis or to sound polite or formal, rarely more than one or two words.

    in 意欲何为, 为 is a verb, read in the 2nd tone. 为 in Classical Chinese is a much more complicated word than “何”, which is simply questioning.

    In China, mandarin in various regions are “localized” a lot, and some expressions are only understandable in certain regions. i think it is better to study formally written articles like reports from Xinhua News Agents ( i give 100 for their language, 0 for their contents) it you want to understand the “grammar”

Comments are closed.