When I was 12, I bought a bonsai tree in a green ceramic pot and spent hours laboring over the pot with black paint and a brush trying to reproduce the cool Chinese character I had found on the internet. I had no idea what the character meant, but I wanted it on the pot because it felt cool.
An hour later, my 12-year-old self came out with a droopy-looking character—which I scrubbed off the pot—and a realization that I knew very little about this mysterious language.
Over a decade later, I can now understand lectures on ancient poetry and read newspapers, yet my feelings toward characters haven’t developed past the kindergarten stage that most Chinese friends say my hand-written characters are stuck at.
Yet a tip from a fellow PiA member did lead me to uncover more about how Chinese people feel about characters. A fellow PiA member told me his favorite character was 崇 . “It just looks cool,” he said. After I heard him say it, I started to think the character was pretty cool-looking; if you look at it in the right way, it kind of looks like a sword sitting on a bomber jet.
Yet when I ran this character by my Chinese friends, they didn’t like it. “It’s unstable. It’s too tall. It looks like it’s going to fall over,” one friend said.
I was blown away by the fact that my Chinese friends were all using an aesthetic standard that hadn’t even occurred to me (and that conflicted with the one I had been using). This revelation led me to suspect that Chinese people have an entire set aesthetic feelings towards the characters they’ve grown up with and that these feelings are different from people who haven’t grown up with the language. This could be why masterful calligraphy still looks like scribbles to me, well into my time in China.
So I will relinquish myself from any judgments of the high aesthetics of Chinese characters. However, I will declare that I have found the cutest Chinese character (click on the character to see my crude Paint recreation):
Foreigners often have different feelings toward Chinese characters—and I’ve yet to run into any Chinese person who has come up with as bizarre an interpretation of this character—but it seems pretty obvious to me that this characters is a cute little bug. It’s got two slanted ears on top, two big eyes, and a boxy little body. The boxy-ness on the bottom makes it look it has stripes, just like a cartoon bee:
Who cares that it means “once,” as in “I once saw Michael Jackson live in concert”? My Chinese friends must mistake me for a lover-of-the-past because I can’t help but smile when I read about things that “once” happened or when I read text messages about what my friends have “once” done. I know what the real meaning is, but I can’t I challenge anyone to show me a character cuter than this one.
Of course, a nod must be made to the world’s second cutest character:
This one means exactly what it looks like: person (or employee, crew, etc.). And it looks like a person starting the robot dance while the gun goes off for a 50-yard dash to the side.