A highly tangled character

Updated: 2013-03-01 16:56

By Lao Huang (China Daily)

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 A highly tangled character

Webs and nets, tangled and untangled, are a part of everyday life. Clockwise from top: During training in Beijing, a fireman becomes Spider-Man; A spider's handiwork; A technician works on cables in Xi'an, Shaanxi province. Photos Provided to China Daily

Life began simply enough for 网, on a fishing trip, then things became a little more complicated ...

These days you're more likely to use the virtual net than handle a real one, but the character 网 (wǎng) remains a handy reminder of the days when more fish slipped the hunter's net than savvy Internet users jumped over firewalls. But 网 still bears a strong resemblance to its original, bone oracle form. Originally drawn to look like the nets used for hunting and fishing, its structure has actually rounded from simple to complicated, and back to simple.

Things started getting knotty when the pronunciation aid 亡 (wáng) was added below 网, turning it into 罔 (wǎng). The confusion was heightened when 罔 also came to be wrongly used as a negating word meaning 没有 (don't have) as seen in the idiom 置若罔闻 (zhì ruò wǎng wén), which literally means "to act as if there is no news", or more colloquially, "to turn a deaf ear to".

To avoid confusion, the radical 糸 (mì) was added to 罔's left side, to form 網 (wǎng). 糸 means "thread" or "silk yarn", and was used to indicate the kinds of silk nets that were used for hunting and fishing. Meanwhile, the 罔 without a 糸 continued to be used to express 没有 as well as "deceive".

Though the meaning was now clear, 網's strokes had multiplied like bunnies in heat, making it a huge pain to write. The movement to simplify Chinese characters in the 1950s provided the perfect opportunity to rectify the unnecessary complexity, and 網 reverted to the elegant simplicity of 网.

Just as in English, there are a ton of fishing-related expressions that use 网. To wit: 张网 (zhāng wǎng, to throw out your net), 落网 (luò wǎng, be caught by a net), 漏网之鱼 (lòu wǎng zhī yú, the fish that slipped through the net, or "the one that got away"), 鱼死网破 (yú sǐ wǎng pò, the fish dies and the net gets torn, a lose-lose situation), 一网打尽 (yī wǎng dǎ jìn, to catch all in one net, to round up in one fell swoop), 网开一面 (wǎng kāi yī miàn, leave one side of the net open, give the wrongdoer a way out). Another one is 临渊羡鱼, 不如退而结网," (lín yuān xiàn yú, bùrú tuì ér jié wǎng), which means, "Standing near the water and admiring fish isn't as good as going back and weaving a net." Though 网 was originally a noun, it also came to be used as a verb. For example: "网到一条大鱼," (wǎng dào yì tiáo dà yú), which means to net a big fish.

The metaphorical meanings were expanded through sayings like, "天网恢恢,疏而不漏," (tiān wǎng huī huī, shū ér bù lòu). This literally means that "the net of heaven has large meshes, but it lets nothing through", meaning that evil cannot escape punishment. And then there are your more prosaic nets, like 蜘蛛网 (zhīzhūwǎng, spiderweb), 铁丝网 (tiěsīwǎng, wire netting), 排球网 (páiqiúwǎng, volleyball net) and so on. Things that resemble the criss-cross organization and structure of nets are also called 网. For example: 水利网 (shuǐlìwǎng, irrigation network), 交通网 (jiāotōngwǎng, transportation network), 通讯网 (tōngxùnwǎng, communications network), 商业网 (shāngyèwǎng, trade network), 关系网 (guānxìwǎng, interpersonal network) and so on.

Since the Internet, or 网络 (wǎngluò), burst onto the scene, more and more "virtual nets" have been popping up in people's lives. For example, 社交网 (shèjiāo wǎng, social network), 婚恋网 (hūnliàn wǎng, marriage network), 购物网 (gòuwù wǎng, shopping network), and so on. There are also a lot of web-related words like 网吧 (wǎngbā, Internet café), 网址 (wǎngzhǐ, web address), 网页 (wǎngyè, webpage), 网速 (wǎngsù, Internet speed), and 网警 (wǎngjǐng, Internet police). These days, even if you are not a 网虫 (wǎngchóng, "Internet bug" or Internet addict), you are probably at least a 网民 (wǎngmín, a regular Internet user); even if you haven't had a 网恋 (wǎngliàn, cyber romance), you have a few 网友 (wǎngyǒu, Internet friends). If you have a white-collar office job, you definitely like 网购 (wǎnggòu, online shopping). You can use 网银 (wǎngyín, Internet banking) to manage your finances; in your spare time you can study at a 网校 (wǎngxiào, online school).

In short, there is no aspect of the tangled web of our online lives that this character does not reach.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com

The World of Chinese

(China Daily 02/22/2013 page17)