Stem word and its modifiers

Announcement From Dr. Mah:

I have had several requests from readers for a guide to help them pronounce Chinese characters in pinyin. I have created this pronunciation guide to assist in learning Chinese for those who are interested. You may find the document here.

– Dr. Adeline Yen Mah

From time to time, I will send you something unique and fascinating about the Chinese language. Today, I want to tell you about Chinese stem words and their modifiers.

In the English language, hyphenated words such as absent-minded or cool-headed are occasionally used. Sometimes, two hyphenated words end up merging together and becoming one word. An example of this is the word land mine evolving from land mine to land-mine to landmine.

Although the hyphen is not used in Chinese, it is very, very common for two words to be placed side by side (like a hyphenated English word) in order to express a third concept.

For example, the two words 地理 when coupled together, mean geography. The word 地 by itself means land and 理 means logic or truth, but put the two words 地理 together and the single combination means geography.

Think of 地 as a stem word and 理 its modifier. Among the many other modifiers of the stem word 地 are the words 雷,球,契 and 址。

Taken individually, the word 雷 means thunder. 球 means ball. 契 means contract. 址 means location. Together, the second word modifies the first word 地 to express a third concept.


地理 = land logic = geography

地雷 = land thunder = landmine

地球 = land ball = earth

地契 = land contract = title deed

地址 = land location = address

‘Stem word and its modifiers’ forms part of the basic structure of the Chinese language. The stem word is usually the first word and its modifier the second word but not always.

Other examples are the following:

The stem word 电 means electric or electricity. Some of its modifiers are 话 (talk),灯(lamp),线 (thread),脑 (brain),池 (pond),影 (shadow).

电话 = electric talk = telephone

电灯 = electric lamp = light

电线 = electric thread = wiring

电脑 = electric brain = computer

电池 = electric pond = battery

电影 = electric shadows = movies

The stem word 小 means small. Some of its modifiers are 便 (convenient), 产 (lay eggs, birth), 学 (learn), 气 (spiritual energy), 吃 (eat).

小便 = little convenience = urinate

小产 = little birth = miscarriage

小学 = little learning = primary school

小 气 = little energy = stingy

小 吃 = little eats = snack

There are numerous other examples of stem words and their modifiers. They form part of the basic structure of the Chinese language.

Nine in One (Cont’d)

Scholar Wang Fú during the Han Dynasty wrote that the dragon had the characteristics of nine different animals. It had the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a demon, belly of a clam, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, the soles of a tiger and the ears of a cow

Nine in One

The number 9, the largest single digit, is associated with the dragon as well as the Emperor in Chinese minds. It is a lucky number in China because it is pronounced the same as another word which means a long time or long life. The dragon is supposed to have 117 scales, 81 yang or male scales and 27 yin or female scales. All these numbers are multiples of nine.

Emperor’s Symbol

We now think that the dragon idea may have been inspired by the giant Yangzi alligator, or earth dragon which lives in the lower Yangzi River and can grow to a length of nearly 2 meters 6 feet. The alligator is sensitive to changes in air pressure and appears to know when rain is coming.


Chinese children were told that when the Yellow Emperor died, he became a dragon and flew into Heaven. From then on, the yellow dragon with five claws on each foot became a symbol of imperial power. The Emperor’s throne was called the Dragon Throne and his robe the Dragon Robe. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear clothes embroidered with a yellow dragon. In ancient times, any person who dared to wear such robes without permission was suspected of treason and might even be executed.

This is an excerpt taken from “China Land of Dragons and Emperors” by Adeline Yen Mah. This book is available as a free PDF download when you subscribe to Adeline Yen Mah’s free Chinese Character A Day Chinese Language and History Lessons. To do so, you may click here.