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The Chinese Alphabet Letter “Y”

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了 (liǎo) To Know

 

了 (le or liǎo) is one of the most used Chinese characters. It can be pronounced in two different ways. It has many different meanings depending on the context. It could mean to understand, to end, very, or fully, or it can be used to indicate past tense.

 

There is a well-known story and saying that has a word with two 了 (liǎo) characters in it, 了了 (liǎoliǎo), meaning smart.

 

It is a story of a famous minister of the Eastern Han dynasty, Kung Rung (孔融). He was a 20th-generation descendant of Confucius and was very intelligent from his youth.

 

When he was 10, a senior official insulted him one day with, 小時了了,大未必佳 (xiǎoshí liǎoliǎo, dà wèibì jiā), meaning when someone is smart as a kid, it doesn’t mean he will be so as an adult too. On hearing this, Kung Rung immediately replied, “I'll bet you were very intelligent as a youth, right?” The official was speechless.

 

Therefore, to say that a person is very intelligent in youth, 小時了了, literally youth and smart, is to imply that though smart in youth, one will not necessarily have a very bright future.

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