This afternoon, as I was working in my office, an American colleague, who’s new to Beijing, came in an asked me if I knew where he could buy a pair of reading glasses. I told him that there were lots of eyeglasses stores in the area and that I supposed any of them would sell reading glasses. But just to make sure, we asked our Chinese co-worker if the optical stores sold reading glasses. She wasn’t sure what we meant by reading glasses, so we told her that they were cheap pairs of glasses that some people use just for reading—they’re really magnifying glasses with pretty frames, and don’t require an eye exam or prescription. Mostly they’re used by folks who are "getting older" and find that their arms aren’t long enough anymore! "Oh," she said. "We call those lao hua jing."
Hearing her say the word lao, which means old, something told me that I wasn’t going to like this term. I asked her to flesh out the meaning–which Chinese characters were they? I knew the lao (老) meant old and the jing ( 镜) meant lens or glasses, but I didn’t know which hua it was. "It’s the hua that usually means flower ( 花)," she said, " but here it means blurry." In other words, reading glasses are called old blurry lenses. Ah, the straightforwardness of the Chinese language. And here’s some added fun: the character for eyes is also pronounced jing ( 睛), the only difference being the tone with which the word is said. A high, flat-toned jing means eyes, and a jing said with a falling tone means lens. In other words, a person with lao hua jing (old blurry eyes) is in need of lao hua jing (glasses for old and blurry).
But I was still puzzled at the use of hua. It was one of the earliest characters I’d learned, but only with it’s two most common meanings: flower, and to spend. Which brings up another interesting (and slightly maddening) feature of the Chinese language, namely that each character (and there are 40,000+ of them) has more than one meaning. In fact, many characters have multiple meanings and the various meaning may not even be slightly related! So, out of curiousity, I looked up the character hua (花) in the dictionary to verify that it meant blurry, and to see what other obscure meanings it might carry as well. I was stunned. There were a total of 14 (FOURTEEN!!) different meanings listed:
1. flower; blossom
2. pattern; design
4. essence; cream
5. wound (injury)
7. courtesan; prostitute
8. spend; expend
14; randy; lecherous
No wonder some of us have nearly gone mad trying to learn this language. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my old blurry lenses!