(#16) Thing / 东西

If you are like me, and like to answer questions in a vague way, this word is for you.

东西 dong1 xi1 is ‘thing’ in chinese. If someone ask me what did I ate, I will simply say “东西”. If I went shopping and someone asked me what I bought, I will say I bought “东西”.

But it is still a little rude, so try not to use it with an annoyed expression.

On its own, 东 dong1 means ‘East’ and 西 xi1 means ‘West’. Then how did ‘East-West’ came about to mean ‘thing’?

The origins of this phrase is quite unknown. However I was taught that it is because in Chinese, the East side is known as the ‘Earth’ side, the West side is known as the ‘Gold’ side. North side and South side are respectively ‘Fire’ and ‘Water’. When ancient Chinese wanted to say generically say they bought a ‘thing’, they say East and West because ‘earth’ and ‘gold’ is something that can be carried in a basket, but not ‘fire’ and ‘water’.

Quite abstract huh?

Anyway, to represent a ‘thing’, you can loosely use 东西 dong1 xi1. It generally cannot be used to represent people, but, that is not a hard and fast rule. Don’t worry about it now, to begin with, let’s contain the usage to represent a ‘thing’.

我要去吃点东西 wo3 yao4 qu4 chi1 dian3 dong1 xi1 I am going to eat some thing.

这是什么东西?! zhe4 shi4 shen3 me4 dong1 xi1 ?! What is this thing?!

我没空!我在做东西wo3 mei2 kong4, wo3 zai4 zuo4 dong1 xi1. I’m not free, I’m doing (some) things.

下班后,要不要去喝点东西xia4 ban1 hou4, yao4 bu4 yao4 qu4 he1 dian3 dong1 xi1? After work, (do you) want to drink some thing?


New Vocabulary:

  • 我要 wo3 yao4 I want
  • dian3 Some. A bit. (There are other usages, which we will go through in later lessons)
  • 什么 shen3 me4 what
  • kong4 Free (as in time). (Other usages in later lessons)
  • 没空 mei2 kong4 Literally it means ‘don’t have free (time)’. Hence it means ‘not free’.
  • 下班 xia4 ban1 Get off work
  • hou4 after
  • 要不要 yao4 bu4 yao4 ‘want to?’
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