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If It Is neither “东 (dōng) East” Nor “西 (xī) West,” then What the Hell Is It?

Sep. 21, 2011

If you know some Chinese or you have been to China before, you may know that the Chinese words "东 (dōng) east" and "西 (xi) west" are both direction words. But did you know that together they make the Chinese phrase "东西 (dōngxi) things" which is frequently used in daily life, for examples:
买东西 (mǎi dōngxi) buy things


吃东西 (chī dōngxi) eat something


Do you know why the direction words "东 (dōng)" and "西 (xi)" are used to express "things/goods?" During the Han Dynasty, "洛阳 (Luòyáng) Luoyang" and "长安 (Cháng’ān) Chang'an" were the two biggest commercial cities. People at that time commonly referred to "洛阳 (Luòyáng) Luoyang" as "东京 (dōngjīng)." "东 (dōng)" is a direction word which means "east," and "京 (jīng)" is the short form for "京城 (jīngchéng)" which means "city." Thus, "东京 (dōngjīng)" means "the city in the east." In the same way, they referred to "长安 (Cháng’ān) Chang'an" as "西京 (xījīng) the city in the west." People would often go shopping at "东京 (dōngjīng)" and "西京 (xījīng)," so they would say, "买东 (mǎi dōng) shopping in the east" or "买西 (mǎi xī) shopping in the west." The Chinese word "买 (mǎi)" means, "to buy." Over time "东西 (dōngxi)" became a commonly used word, meaning "goods/merchandise." Today, when people are talking about going shopping, they will say "买东西 (mǎi dōngxi) to buy goods."

For example:
Wǒ xiǎng mǎi diǎnr dōngxi.
我    想    买    点儿    东西。


I want to buy some things.

However, this phrase "东西 (dōngxi)" should not be used when referring to people, as can be seen in the following story. A Chinese language student went to his teacher and said, "I saw two Chinese people quarreling on the street. One was saying '你不是个东西 (Nǐ búshì ge dōngxi),' I know 东西 (dōngxi) means goods, but what does this sentence mean?” His teacher laughed and explained: "东西 (dōngxi) cannot be used to describe a person. This phrase will offend people because it is saying that the person is inferior. '你不是东西 (Nǐ búshì dōngxi)' means 'what the hell are you?' So please do not use this word when describing someone."

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