A versatile character to suit any palate

“Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re drowsy; don’t tire yourself out (饥来吃饭困来睡,莫把身来累),” goes the life philosophy of Liu Xueji (刘学箕), a poet from the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279) who devoted his entire life to travel, and never sought the conventional post of an official.

Today, this carefree doctrine might be echoed by many young Chinese, who, following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions across most of the country, are flocking to enjoy themselves in restaurants, tourist sites, and reopened street food stalls—that is, if they can afford these pleasures, amid the economic pressures that have also resumed with life in China.

The usage of the character 吃 (chī) to indicate eating is a relatively recent concept, though the character first appeared in the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220), when the linguist Xu Shen (许慎) defined it as “a person who has difficulty with pronunciation” in his Analytical Dictionary of Chinese Characters (《说文解字》). At that time, 吃 was the verb form of 口吃 (kǒuchī, stammer), formed by using a “mouth” (口 kǒu) radical on the left and a radical meaning “to beg” (乞 qǐ) on the right.

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On the Character: 吃 is a story from our issue, “High Steaks.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


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 Aaron Hsueh

Aaron Hsueh is a Chinese editor at China News Service and a former intern at The World of Chinese. He graduated from the University of International Business and Economics in July of 2021. Being a travel and culture enthusiast and a sports fanatic, he writes mainly on Chinese culture and language.

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