Photo Credit: Cai Tao

On the Character: 鲜

A character that stays fresh through the ages

“On the Yangtze River, each wave pushes the one that came before—so would the new always push the old,” goes a Chinese idiom. The fresh faces of the post-90s generation are gradually taking the center stage of society as young workers, government officials, and parents. In their honor, our character of the day is fresh, or 鲜 (xiān).

Among today’s “artistic youths,” Yue Yun, the eldest son of the 12th century general Yue Fei, is held up as an inspiration. The young general stated that young people ought to enjoy life, but youth was also a time to strive for greater purposes, which, at his time, was to take northern China back from the Jurchen invaders. His description of youth was 鲜衣怒马 (xiānyī nùmǎ), “to be dressed in fine clothes and riding on well-groomed horses.” Tragically, the young general was falsely accused of treason and executed along with his famous father at 23, making him forever an icon to the young and idealistic.

In its original meaning 鲜 referred to a particular item, “fresh fish.” The bronze script of the character, developed 3,000 years ago, had a pictorial form consisting of a “goat” radical, 羊 (yáng), on top and a “fish” radical, 鱼 (yú), below. The goat radical stood for the meaning “delicious.”

In the Dao De Jing, one of the fundamental Daoist texts, the sage Laozi compared administrating a large state with cooking a small fresh fish: 治大国若烹小鲜 (zhì dà guó ruò pēng xiǎoxiān). There were many interpretations to the metaphor; one, proposed by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, was that a fish falls breaks apart if it’s flipped too frequently while being fried. Thus, a state ought to be governed carefully: The ruler must maintain stable laws and regulations, and keep the citizens undisturbed.

Today, xian can still refer to aquatic food, as in 海鲜 (hǎixiān, seafood). When used as a adjective, it has the meaning of “new” and “fresh,” as in the word 新鲜 (xīnxiān). 新鲜水果 (xīnxiān shuǐguǒ, fresh fruit) and 新鲜空气 (xīnxiān kōngqì, fresh air) are among our necessities of life. Some people also can’t live without 新鲜事儿 (xīnxiānshìr), interesting news, so they might ask you for the latest gossip with: 最近发生了哪些新鲜事儿? (Zuìjìn fāshēng le nǎxiē xīnxiān shìr?) People, also, can also be fresh, as in 新鲜人 (xīnxiānrén, “fresh people”), young adults who have just graduated from college and started working.

When paired with a noun, 新鲜 can be shortened into just 鲜, as in 鲜花 (xiānhuā, fresh flowers), 鲜啤 (xiānpí, draft beer) and 鲜肉 (xiānròu, fresh meat). In pop culture, “little fresh meat” or 小鲜肉 refers to babyfaced male idols. Another term, 鲜血 (xiānxuè, fresh blood) is “new blood,” or new members of a group. For instance, 九零后员工给公司补充了新鲜血液。(Jiǔlínghòu yuángōng gěi gōngsī bǔchōng le xīnxiān xuèyè. The post-90s staff added new blood to the company.)

Sometimes, the fresh and new will fade over time. The word 新鲜劲儿 (xīnxiānjìnr) describes a novel, superficial interest. For instance, 再好的玩具,新鲜劲儿一过,他就随手丢了。(Zài hǎo de wánjù, xīnxiānjìnr yí guò, tā jiù suíshǒu diū le. No matter how fun the toy is, after the initial interest passes, he will just chuck it.)

In order to maintain interest, you may need to preserve freshness, which is 保鲜 (bǎoxiān). A trip down to supermarket will reveal more uses of xian, as in the 生鲜 (shēngxiān, fresh produce) section, and the counter serving freshly pressed juice, or 鲜榨果汁 (xiānzhà guǒzhī). For fine cuisine and beverages, fresh harvested ingredients are essential. Tasting an early batch of a seasonal delicacy—like Longjing tea in the spring, or hairy crabs in the autumn—is called 尝鲜 (chángxiān, taste freshness). Metaphorically, it can also mean trying new things. Naturally, things that are 鲜 are delicious, as in 鲜美 (xiānměi) or 鲜嫩 (xiānnèn, fresh and tender).

As with Yue Yun’s fine clothes, freshness is associated with things that are vivid; therefore, xian can also mean “bright,” “brightly colored,” and “beautiful.” To describe flowers with vibrant colors, use 鲜艳 (xiānyàn); to describe flashy fashions, use 光鲜 (guāngxiān). Xian also applies to abstract things; an original, well-defined opinion is said to be 鲜明 (xiānmíng); A lively and vibrant attitude is 鲜活 (xiānhuó, fresh and lively).

Xian has one other meaning— “rare.” The idiom 屡见不鲜 (lǚ jiàn bù xiān), meaning “commonly seen and not rare,” is used for occurrences too ordinary to be 新鲜事儿. Another insightful phrase, 靡不有初,鲜克有终 (mí bù yǒu chū, xiǎn kè yǒu zhōng), means “everything is good at first but stay so at the last.” This is a warning against the passing of 新鲜劲儿, stressing the importance of seeing one’s goals to the end. It’s an apt motto for today’s fresh-faced youths amid all the unprecedented, unusual challenges they face—will they preserve their vivid idealism and change the world? Only time will tell.

On the Character: 鲜 is a story from our issue, “The Noughty Nineties.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


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