Chinese Language Blog

The Different Usages of the Character 白 Posted by on Mar 18, 2019 in Vocabulary

It-白.png by Arlas! it on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

When learning a new language you should begin with the basics: numbers, directions, colors, etc. And this is how I was introduced to the character 白 (bái). A simple five-stroke-character meaning “white”. While pursuing my Chinese studies I occasionally encounter this character. Sometimes it maintains its meaning as white, but sometimes it means something else. To learn more about this character, here is a list of 5 useful words using 白:

白日梦 (bái rì mèng, daydream)

Whenever I get bored I drift off in a daydream, so this is a sentence I frequently hear: 你别白日做梦了 (nĭ bié bái rì zuò mèng le, stop daydreaming). In this three words phrase – 白日梦 (bái rì mèng), 白 means bright, 明亮 (míng liàng). Together with time unit words like日 (rì, day), it means daytime. This is also true of other phrases like 白天 (bái tiān) and 白昼 (bái zhòu). It also appears in the idiom 真相大白 (zhēn xiàng dà bái), meaning the truth appeared in daylight.

明白 (míng bái, to understand)

明白 (míng bái, to understand) is one of my favorite verbs. Easy to pronounce and very useful.

你明白了吗? (nǐ míng bái le ma?) = do you understand?

我明白了 (wǒ míng bái le) = I understand

But I never stopped to realize that 白 in this phrase actually means clear, 清楚 (qīng chǔ). As in other words, like the adjective 浅白 (qiǎn bái), meaning easy to understand, in which 浅 stands for easy and 白 for clear. Another example is the word 辩白 (biàn bái), which the Chinese dictionary stresses the importance of the presence of 白. While 辩 means to debate, 白 donates clear. Together it means to plead innocence, to clear oneself.

白手起家 (bái shǒu qǐ jiā, to build from scratch)  

白 means empty, 空的 (kōng de). You’ll find it in words like: 空白 (kòng bái), meaning blank; 白地 (bái dì), meaning a land that is not farmed or occupied;  and 白卷 (báijuăn), meaning unanswered examination paper. For example:

  • 听到这个消息他脑中一片空白了。

Tīng dào zhège xiāoxī tā nǎo zhōng yīpiàn kòngbáile.

Hearing this news, his mind went blank.

  • 他把考试交了白卷。

Tā bǎ kǎoshì jiāole báijuàn.

He handed in the exam unanswered.

The idiom in the title – 白手起家 (bái shǒu qǐ jiā) is literally translated as to establish a house from an empty hand, and it means to build up something from scratch.

白吃 (bái chī, to eat without paying)

One of 白’s many meanings is free of charge, 没有付出代价的 (méi yǒu fù chū dài jià de). In the famous book Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by the author Yu Hua, the protagonist Xu Sanguan is introduced to the villagers’ way of making money – selling their blood. Xu Sanguan is told that selling blood to the city hospital is preceded by a blood test. 35 Yuan is paid out for every blood “donation”, but not for the blood test. 是白送给医院的 (shì bái sòng gěi yī yuàn de), the blood test is freely given to the hospital. With the same meaning goes the word 白吃, and the phrase 白吃白喝 (bái chī bái hē), meaning freeload.

白白 (bái bái, in vain)

白 also means in vain, 徒然 (tú rán). The word 白白 (bái bái) means in vain, and it can be abbreviated to one character. 白 can be added to other verbs to indicate that a certain action was pointless. For example:

  • 他白忙了半天。

Tā bái máng le bàn tiān.

He got to a lot of trouble for nothing.

  • 跟他说好话是白说了。

Gēn tā shuō hǎo huà shì bái shuō le.

Kind words are wasted upon him.

  • 他白等了。

Tā bái děng le.

He waited in vain.

  • 所有的工作都白做了。

Suǒ yǒu de gōng zuò dōu bái zuò le.

All the work was done for nothing.

That was only 5 examples but believe it or not 白 has many other meanings. Check the dictionary, explore the internet, and let us know what other definitions you find.




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