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Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 is an entertaining weekly dose of interesting words, phrases and idioms from the week’s news for learners of Chinese who want to take their language skills to the next level.
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The different means of ‘me’ in Chinese – 自我 (Zì Wǒ)3 min read

28 February 2021 3 min read

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The different means of ‘me’ in Chinese – 自我 (Zì Wǒ)3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Me” in Chinese is different is quite different than in English.

Chinese does not distinguish between “I” and “me”.

This is the easy one for those who’ve learned even basic Chinese: there is no difference between the self as a subject (I) or as an object (me).

Chinese can be described as a ‘topic’ language – the scene is set before the actors appear. Whereas English tends to be the other way round: it is the actors that take to the stage first. In Chinese, however, the actors (subjects) and the supporting roles or props (objects) can even be omitted altogether – leaving things to be determined by context, background, and guesswork.

The character for “me” and “I” has two parts.

The Chinese character for “me” and “I” is 我 (wǒ). It’s made up of a hand (扌) plus a spear, or gē (戈), which is an ancient Chinese weapon – primarily used for attack, but also defence, which looks like this:

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A gē was a versatile weapon that could be used to disarm an opponent (with its hook), attack from horseback (with its blade), defend against oncoming attack, as well as delivering a decisive blow, or even being chucked as a last-ditch attempt to deal with the oncoming enemy as they advanced at speed.

“I” is also a whole organisation.

From a family, “I – home” (我家 – wǒ jiā), to a company, “I – company” (我司 – wǒ sī), to an entire country, “I – country” (我国 – wǒ guó), “I” is synonymous with the whole organisation.

Often the word for me (wǒ) can even be used to represent the whole on its own – so more context and guess-work needed to understand if its the individual or the group we’re talking about.

Finally, there are two kinds of “me” in everyone.

In Chinese there is the “big me” (大我 -dà wǒ), and the “little me” (小我 – xiǎo wǒ).

“Big me” is central to Chinese thinking on self improvement.

Confucius defines what is a “big me” in contrast to what is a “little me” in the Analects – using another word for “big me”, a 君子 (Jūn Zi). Some consider a Jun Zi as ancient China’s answer to the English gentleman, but I think it means: “the best version of me.” In contrast, “little me” is the fallible, grumpy, selfish, insecure side of the human-being.

In a recent speech at a Beijing-based think tank by Chinese entrepreneur, Li Zhongqun (茅忠群), he explained that British psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who created the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ was influenced by Confucius.

The six levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy are…

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In 1943, Maslow proposed the first five layers, describing people’s needs from the basic, through safety, to what he considered to be at the top of human existence, which was defined as ‘self actualisation’ – a need to realise our potential.

Later on he added a sixth layer of ‘self transcendence’, apparently after being influenced by Chinese philosophy, which described the true height of human existence is to exceed the self, to become a better person, overcome our own weaknesses, and become our better selves – a Jūn Zi or a “big me”.

The journey to self transcendence, in Confucian terms, is overcoming the ongoing internal tension between the “big me”, and the “little me.” This tension sits between the two opposing ‘me’s’ which can best be described as:

君子喻于义,小人喻于利 (jūn zǐ yù yú yì, xiǎo rén yù yú)

Which means:

The jūn zǐ (or ‘bigger me’) is focused on what is moral, the ‘little me’ only on petty profits

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