Sunday, February 15, 2015

What does 人人親其親, 長其長, 而天下平 mean?

Literary Chinese has a basic sentence structure of Subject-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object, so a character's position in a sentence usually determines rather it is the subject, verb, or object of that sentence. The following sentence is a clever example of how it works.


()()()()(), ()()(), ()()()().
  • 人人 -- everyone
  • 親 -- parents; to love
  • 其 -- his, her, its, their
  • 長 -- elders; to respect elders
  • 而 -- then
  • 天下 -- the world
  • 平 -- level; peaceful

[If] everyone (人人) loved (親) his (其) parents (親) [and] respected (長) his (其) elders (長), then (而) the world (天下) would be peaceful (平).


The average Chinese character has multiple meanings, and many can function as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb depending on its position in a sentence, even though it is the same character. In the above sentence 人 means "person," but two together means "everyone." When 親 is used as a noun, it means "parents," but when it is used as a verb, it means "to love." When 長 is used as a noun, it means "elder," but when used as a verb, it means "to respect elders." When you see 而 (then), you can usually assume it is an "if...then" sentence and, therefore, add the "if" to the front of the sentence when you translate it, if it is not already there. 天下 literally translates as "heaven's (天) under (下), but means "the world [under Heaven]."

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