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.
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.
How did you do on your test?
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.
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:
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.