Whether you’re spreading rumors or legends, you need 传

It’s said that a legend is simply a rumor with stamina. Immersed in the mundane details of the everyday, people need a virtual, magical word for sweet respite. An imaginary universe, heroic characters, magic, and exciting adventures—there’s no limit to the wizardry of escapism. In Chinese, the word for legend is 传奇 (chuánqí), with 奇 (qí) meaning “strange, unusual, or extraordinary,” but it’s with the passage, or 传 (chuán), of these legends that we shall concern ourselves.

The traditional version of 传 is 傳, which was originally a noun, pronounced as zhuàn, referring to postal carriages in ancient times. It is a pictophonetic character, with the “people” radical “亻” indicating the meaning, the postman, while 專 serves as the pronunciation guide.

Gradually, this term was extended to serve as a verb, meaning to hand something from one person to another, or from one generation to the next. This leads to the term 祖传秘方 (zǔchuán mìfāng), a secret prescription handed down from an early ancestor of the family; or 传经送宝 (chuánjīng sòngbǎo), to pass on one’s valuable experience. On a sports team, there is the term 传帮带 (chuán bāng dài), which consists of three one-character verbs: pass, help, and lead, which refers to the tradition of veterans helping rookies. The idiom 传宗接代 (chuánzōng jiēdài) means to have a son to carry on one’s family name.

Passing or handing down information with the character 传 can be broader; for this meaning, we have the word 传播 (chuánbō, spread, publicize, disseminate). For example, 传播谣言 (chuánbō yáoyán) is “to spread rumors,” while rumor itself can be translated into 传言 (chuányán). It is said that bad news has wings, and Chinese has a similar proverb: “好事不出门,坏事传千里。(Hǎoshì bù chūmén, huàishì chuán qiānlǐ. Good news never goes beyond the gate; while bad news spreads far and wide.)”

传 can also mean “express” or “convey.” Language isn’t the only way one might express oneself. Lovers convey their feelings through eye contact, which is called 眉目传情 (méimù chuán qíng, flash amorous glances); vivid imagery in writing and painting can also express strong emotions, so it is called 传神之笔 (chuánshén zhī bǐ, pen that conveys spirit). If something is too subtle or profound to be conveyed, you can say 其中奥妙,不可言传。(Qízhōng àomiào, bùkě yánchuán. What lies within defies all description.)

In modern Chinese, we have the word 传染 (chuánrǎn, infect, be contagious). It can be used for disease, as in, 她怕把病传染给孩子。(Tā pà bǎ bìng chuánrǎn gěi háizi. She was afraid of giving the disease to her child.) Emotions, feelings, and atmospheres are also contagious. You can say, 他的热情传染给了和他一起工作的每一个人。(Tā de rèqíng chuánrǎn gěile hé tā yīqǐ gōngzuò de měi yīgè rén. His enthusiasm infected everyone who worked with him.)”

As zhuan, this character is a noun with three meanings. The first meaning is “commentary on classics.” For example, Confucian classics and the scholarly commentaries on them are called 经传 (jīngzhuàn). The second meaning refers to biographies, which, as part ancient Chinese history texts, are called 列传 (lièzhuàn); autobiography is 自传 (zìzhuàn) and a profile or biographical sketch is called 小传 (xiǎozhuàn). The last meaning is “novel or story written in a historical style.” One example is the book 《水浒传》 (Shuǐhǔ zhuàn), one of China’s four great classics, translated as Outlaws of the Marsh.

Proverbs involving zhuan include 言归正传 (yánguī zhèngzhuàn), meaning “to come back to the story” or “return to the subject”; 树碑立传 (shùbēi lìzhuàn, to write a biography and build a monument for somebody) refers to actions that boost one’s prestige and popularity, often used pejoratively, as in, 他那半真半假的回忆录不过是给自己树碑立传而已。(Tā nà bàn zhēn bàn jiǎ de huíyìlù bùguò shì jǐ zìjǐ shùbēilìzhuàn éryǐ. His memoirs of half-truth and outright invention were just to build up his own image.) If you refer someone as 名不见经传 (míng bù jiàn jīngzhuàn, name not found in the classical canon), you mean that he or she is not a well-known figure, or more directly, is a nobody.

So, with a little help, you now know how to tell legends, encourage teammates, and write an autobiography—not bad for a little character about an ancient postal service.

On the Character: 传 is a story from our issue, “Wildest Fantasy.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Huang Weijia (黄伟嘉)

Dr. Huang Weijia is a senior lecturer in Chinese language at Boston University and a distinguished research fellow at Shaanxi Normal University. He has taught courses in modern and classical Chinese and Chinese culture at Harvard University, Brown University, and the Middlebury College Summer Program. Dr. Huang has authored a series of successful textbooks and reference books in the US, Chinese mainland, and Hong Kong, including the Readings in Chinese Culture series. He has also written numerous articles on cross-cultural and Chinese studies for newspapers and magazines in the US and China.

author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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