Photo Credit: Cai Tao
Here’s a character that’s worth keeping an eye on

Gazing at the night sky, wondering how we are related to the vast expanse above, has been a hobby of humans since primitive times. The ancient Chinese viewed the night sky as a reflection of the Earth. It was divided into different sections, each representing a Chinese state or prefecture. Astronomical phenomenon in a particular section of the sky was regarded as a blessing or misfortune in the corresponding area on land. The brightest stars were deemed representations of prominent living figures.

The most important was the “Purple” or Northern Star. Because all the other constellations seemed to revolve around it, the Purple Star was considered the emperor’s own. Such a notion is behind many of the supernatural plots in the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in which strategists view the sky at night to predict military actions, or determine the fate of emperors and generals. The greatest strategist of all, Zhuge Liang, even predicted his own death based on a faded star, making stargazing, or 观星 (guānxīng), a life-or-death hobby. Even today, a branch of fortunetelling called “purple star astrology” is still going strong, especially in Taiwan.

Monitoring the night sky was not just for fortunetelling, but an important matter of state. Only the careful observations of the sun, moon, and other planets’ daily movements could help ancient Chinese to adjust the calendar and carry out agricultural activities accordingly. Therefore, there’s nothing supernatural about 观 (guān), which means to “look, see, watch, or observe.”

The earliest form of the character appeared in oracle bones and later bronze script, resembling a bird (some say an owl) with a pair of huge eyes. To emphasize the meaning, a radical (jiàn, “see”) was added on the right, resulting in its traditional form, . When simplified, it becomes 观.

Historically, observing the night sky was called 观星 or 观象 (guānxiàng). Imperial astronomers worked from an observatory, or 观象台 (guānxiàngtái). In Beijing’s Dongcheng district, the imperial observatory of the Ming and Qing dynasties is now a museum. Monitoring the motion of stars and planets is called 观测 (guāncè, observe and survey, measure), which can also apply to wind, rain, and general meteorology. More generally, 观察 (guānchá) means “observe.”

Words with 观 are often related to visuals. For instance, to visit a place is 参观 (cānguān), “audience” is 观众 (guānzhòng), a sight or landscape is 景观 (jǐngguān), and “to go sightseeing” is 观光 (guānguāng). And there’s a special idiom for the type of sightseeing done by some tour groups: 走马观花 (zǒumǎ guānhuā), which literally means “looking at flowers while riding on horseback”—to gain a superficial understanding through cursory observation. On your tour, if you spy a beautiful view, you can describe it as 美观 (měiguān); when the sight is particularly magnificent, use 壮观 (zhuàngguān); when it’s a view that’s so improbable as to be out of this world, call it a 奇观 (qíguān).

Besides “observe,” 观 can also be a different kind of watching—“to stand by, not participating.” If you say you are 观望 (guānwàng), it means you haven’t taken any action yet, but are following the development of a situation. The character can have a negative connotation, as in 袖手旁观 (xiùshǒu pángguān), meaning “stand by with folded arms, look on unconcerned.” But sometimes, as suggested in the ancient military text The Thirty-Six Stratagems, it is wise to delay action. The stratagem 隔岸观火 (gé’àn guānhuǒ) literally means to “watch the fire burning across the river”—to let all the other parties exhaust themselves fighting, then pick up the pieces.

Observation leads to thoughts and ideas. Therefore, 观 could also mean “view,” as in 观点 (guāndiǎn, point of view), and 观念 (guānniàn, mentality, concept). When you don’t see eye to eye with someone, you can jokingly say you two “don’t share the same three views,” or 三观不合 (sān guān bù hé). The “three views” refers to views on the world, life, and values (世界观 shìjièguān, 人生观 rénshēngguān, 价值观 jiàzhíguān), notions popularized in China by materialist philosophy. The three views are often invoked when discussing a person’s character. If someone says money is the most important thing in life and you disagree, you might say that he or she has “skewed three views” or “三观不正” (sān guān bú zhèng), though most of the time, the phrase is used in a joking manner when arguing among friends.

When it comes to the viewpoints of oneself and others, 主观 (zhǔguān, self’s point of view) is subjective, while objectivity is 客观 (kèguān, guest’s point view). Along the same lines, optimism is 乐观 (lèguān, happy views), and 悲观 (bēiguān, sad views) is pessimism.

Although observation has increased our understanding about the universe today, we are still quite ignorant because our view is limited, as in the idiom 坐井观天 (zuòjǐng guāntiān)– “observing the sky from the bottom of a well.” Hopefully, the FAST telescope in Guizhou will broaden our view. Who knows but its next discovery could change our entire 世界观? From picturing the huge eyes of an owl to understanding the world, 观 is a word for those who are perpetually curious.

On the Character: 观 is a story from our issue, “Fast Forward.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Liu Jue (刘珏)

Liu Jue is the co-managing editor of The World of Chinese Magazine. She has been working for TWOC since 2012. She is interested in covering history, traditional culture, and Chinese language.

Related Articles