The Profound Chinese Language (Episode 10): Elephant (象)

Da Qiong (Colossal Firmament)

PureInsight | January 16, 2006


An opening poem recitation by a group of children:

Big and small elephants are both robust.
They have long trunks and a lot of talents.
They use their big ears as fans to keep them cool.
They dislike heat or filth, but they love bathing.
They have a big heart so they do not like to fight.
Because elephants are kindhearted, they have a long lifespan.

Teacher Wang: Class, do you know what the largest land animal is on earth?

Ying Ying and Yuan Yuan: The elephant!

Teacher Wang: Correct. Let's see how large elephants really are. There are two kinds of elephants: African elephants and Asian elephants. African elephants are larger. An African elephant is about as tall as two grownup men and weighs more than five cars. Its ear measures one yard wide and its trunk measures two yards long.

Ying Ying: Wow! Elephants are huge! They must be very strong!

Teacher Wang: Indeed! Even tigers and lions will leave elephants alone. Elephants are very useful because they are incredibly strong. They can pull a large tree that weighs nearly a ton. In ancient times, men relied on them to transport lumber.

Yuan Yuan: What is the function of an elephant's long trunk?

Teacher Wang: An elephant's trunk is as handy and agile as a human hand. With its trunk, an elephant is capable of simple or heavy tasks, such as picking fruits and leaves from trees, eating, drinking, bathing, having water fights, clearing a path for humans and even pulling trees. Each elephant is like Hercules.

Ying Ying: But I find elephants' long tusks a bit frightening!

Teacher Wang: There is no need to fear elephants. They may be strong, but they have a good temper. Elephants have a good heart and they do not bully smaller animals. In the dry season when all the animals are thirsty for water, elephants can detect an underground water source and dig for water with their long tusks, trunks and large feet. They will share the water with other animals. Elephants are so generous that they share water with those tigers and lions that sometimes bully baby elephants. In ancient China, there was a sage king named Shun. Before he became a king, his stepmother and stepbrother often bullied him, but Shun continued to pay filial respect towards his parents and look after his brother. Once Shun was plowing the field at the foot of Li Mountain alone. The elephants in the mountain were moved by Shun's kindness and diligence, so they came to help him plow the field.

Yuan Yuan: Are there any elephants in China?

Teacher Wang: Indeed there were many elephants in ancient China. In fact, there were many variations of the character for elephant in oracle-bone scriptures. Why don't we ask Grandpa Brush Pen to explain it to us?

Grandpa Brush Pen: Unfortunately elephants have become extinct in central China, but they were a lot of elephants during the Shang Dynasty when the Chinese people wrote in oracle-bone scriptures. Therefore, the ancient Chinese people observed elephants well before they created a character for elephant. Even after 3,000 years, today's Chinese people can know intuitively it is a character for elephant. All the variations of the Chinese character for elephant in oracle-bone scriptures had a long trunk, long tusks, big ears and a prominent tummy. In ancient inscriptions on bronze, the character for elephant even included a dent on the tip of an elephant's trunk. In Small Seal, the character had very prominent ears and a distinctive long trunk.

Teacher Wang: Since the ancient times, elephants have been very popular animal among the Chinese people. In the Three Kingdoms period from 220 to 280 A.D., the King of the Wu State, Sun Quan, once gave an elephant as a gift to the King of the Wei State, Cao Cao. Cao Cao actually went through a lot of trouble to measure the exact weight of the elephant!

The Chinese culture is very profound and intricate. One can get a rough idea by the creation and evolution of Chinese characters. This concludes today's lessons. See you next time, children!

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