On the character: Perform
Photo Credit: Cai Tao and Wang Siqi
A character that helps you fake it ’til you make it

Many great literary works are created in adversity. According to the Records of the Grand Historian (《史记》), a 2,000-year-old historical Chinese text, “King Wen worked on The Book of Changes in prison (文王拘而演《周易》).”

As the legend goes, the tyrannical King Zhou (纣王) of the Shang dynasty (1600 –1046 BCE) imprisoned King Wen of Zhou (周文王) for seven years because he was afraid of King Wen’s popularity. While in captivity, King Wen deduced (推演 tuīyǎn) the Sixty-Four Hexagrams, a pattern of fortune-telling symbols that forms the basis of China’s divination classic The Book of Changes, or I Ching (《易经》). The principles in the I Ching later evolved (演化 yǎnhuà) to influence various fields including politics, economy, education, and astronomy, while King Wen’s son, King Wu (周武王), went on to overthrow the Shang and found the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 221 BCE).

The character 演 (yǎn) originally meant “flowing (长流),” as indicated by the water (水) radical on its left. Its pronunciation was based on the component 寅 (yín) on the right, according to the Analytical Dictionary of Chinese Characters (《说文解字》) published in the 2nd century. Scholar Mu Hua (木华) from the Jin dynasty (265 – 420), for instance, writes in his work “Ode to the Sea (《海赋》)”: “[The sea]…flows to Ximu in the east, and to Qingzhou and Xuzhou in the west (东演析木,西薄青徐).”

Though 演 has not retained its original meaning, it still appears in modern Chinese words for deduction and elaboration, as in “正确的前提推演出正确的结论 (Zhèngquè de qiántí tuīyǎn chū zhèngquè de jiélùn, Correct conclusions can only be deduced from true premises).” Later, it extended to mean a drill, practice, or calculation based on a set pattern, formula or style. For instance, 演算 (yǎnsuàn) refers to making mathematical calculations, 演说 (yǎnshuō) or 演讲 (yǎnjiǎng) means to give a speech, and 消防演习 (xiāofáng yǎnxí) is a fire drill.

The character 演 also denotes changes, development, and evolution, as in 演变 (yǎnbiàn) and 演化 (yǎnhuà). As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change”; a similar idea expressed in Chinese would be “宇宙间一切事物都是不断演变的 (Yǔzhòu jiān yíqiè shìwù dōu shì búduàn yǎnbiàn de, Everything in the universe changes constantly).”

In the process of evolution, things are often fleshed out and expanded. The term 演义 (yǎnyì), usually found in written Chinese, means to adapt or expand on a literary text. For instance, “这出戏根据《红楼梦》的一段情节演义而成 (Zhè chū xì gēnjù 《Hónglóumèng》 de yí duàn qíngjié yǎnyì ér chéng, The play is based on an episode in Dream of the Red Chamber).” It also refers to a type of Chinese historical novel that titles each chapter with a couplet summarizing the content to come, such as 《三国演义》(Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and 《隋唐演义》(Romance of the Sui and Tang Dynasties).

In modern Chinese, 演 is most frequently used to mean “performance,” as in 表演 (biǎoyǎn, to perform) or 扮演 (bànyǎn, to play a role). Practitioners of the performing arts (表演艺术 biǎoyǎn yìshù) put on shows (演出 yǎnchū), which may consist of singing (演唱 yǎnchàng), playing a musical instrument (演奏 yǎnzòu), or acting in a play (演戏 yǎnxì). Performing in an opera, especially a traditional Chinese opera, is called 唱戏 (chàngxì, singing opera) to highlight the integral role of singing in the performance.

The character also serves as a standalone verb. For instance, 他在电影里演一个坏人 (Tā zài diànyǐng li yǎn yí gè huàirén, He plays a villain in that movie). Those who act are 演员 (yǎnyuán, actors), and people that direct such performances are 导演 (dǎoyǎn, directors).

Good acting (演技 yǎnjì) is necessary not only for professionals, but also for regular people. As a viral online expression goes, “生活不易,全靠演技 (Shēnghuó bú yì, quán kào yǎnjì, Life is hard; it’s all about your acting skills).” Great playwrights have often compared life to a stage—so whether you’re suffering from wrongful imprisonment, or just trying to get ahead in your career, don’t forget to fake it ’til you make it.

On the Character: 演 is a story from our issue, “Upstaged.” 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 Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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