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Special Words to Express Ages in Chinese Language

It is a common sense that we express different ages with numbers. For those foreign learners who learn Chinese in China, they may know that we use not only numbers to express that ages in Chinese language, but also apply some special quantifiers and nouns and other words. That is what we will learn in this essay.

It is a basic knowledge point that learners should master in the elementary level to know how to express ages by numbers. However, during the process when they learn Mandarin, they will be confused by the special words that express the corresponding ages. They don’t know it can express the ages so vividly and correctly.

At the very beginning, foreign learners should know that this kind of special way to describe ages was originated from the long-lasting Chinese history and culture. Those who study in China may wonder why we call the period of childhood “总角之年”. The reason is that the juveniles in Ancient China bundled their hair into the shape of “牛角(ox horn)”.

In the ancient times, the southern China was rich in cardamom. People described the thirteen or fourteen year’s old girls by the beautiful flower of the cardamom. Therefore, Chinese teacher from summer program in China would tell you that the girls of this period was called “豆蔻年华”, meaning the ages as beautiful and the cardamom flower.

According to the ancient rituals, when the male are twenty years old, it indicates they are the adult. At that time, certain ritual should be held to celebrate. But the man of this period is not so strong, so foreigners who learn Chinese may know why the male of twenty years old called “弱冠之年”, meaning the adult period not so strong. Later, people made a general reference of the young man as “弱冠”.

In order to learn more about the expressions for ages, foreign learners in Chinese learning programs should know what Confucius ever said :”吾十有五而志于学,三十而立,四十而不惑,五十而知天命,六十而耳顺,七十而从心所欲,不逾矩”. It defines the features of each period of age.

According to what Confucius said, learners who study Chinese can get the information that “而立之年(years people should succeed)” means the ages of thirty years, “不惑之年(the wise years) ” indicates the year of forty and we can describe the a person of fifty years “知命之年(ages of knowing the destiny)” and express the ages of sixty as “耳顺之年”, meaning ages of judging correctly.

Westerners who come to learn Mandarin Chinese may know the famous poet Du Fu in Tang Dynasty. One famous sentence from his poem is ““人生七十古来稀”, carrying the meaning that people can live to the age of seventy are very rare. Accordingly, people regard the people of seventy years as “古稀之年”.

In the ancient book “Zuo Zhuan”, it says “老夫耄矣,无能为也”, meaning “I have already around eighty or ninety and unable to do things”. One sentence in “the Book of Songs” says “今者不乐,逝者其耋” expressing the similar meaning. When you study Mandarin Chinese, teachers would tell you that we combine “耄” and “耋” to express the very old ages as “耄耋之年”.

For those who have internships in China may ask how to say someone is 100-year old. In ancient times, people held the opinion that one-hundred-year is the limit of people’s life, so the later generations should take care of them carefully. To answer the question, “期颐之年” is applied to say people who live one hundred years.

“期” is a phonogram. The meaning element “月” indicates the time. The whole character means to meet by appointing a time, being extended for the limit of life. While “颐” is an ideographic character, the two parts indicate the chin and head. When being combined, “期颐” indicates people of a hundred years.

All above are the special words used to indicate ages in different periods. If learners can understand from the original meanings, they will find it is very interesting and easy to remember. 

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