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Qing 青 is Blue-Green in Mandarin

August 3, 2014

Blue-Green in Chinese 青
By Theodore W. Palmer, May 12, 2012

The character 青 is radical 174 with 8 strokes. (The 214 Chinese radicals allow one to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary. The number of strokes needed to write each radical is the first consideration in their traditional order. It also governs the order of all characters in the dictionary.) This character denotes the colors green or blue and is pronounced “ching” with a steady high tone (1st tone) written qing in the Pinyin system now in general use. It also incorporates the idea of young and verdant in relation to a plant, a person or an animal.

The top of the character is derived from the radical 100 生 sheng (also 1st tone), meaning life or birth. The bottom looks exactly like the character for moon (radical 74) but is actually derived from the character for a well 井. So suggests the new grass or plant growth near a well.

In English we think of green and blue as distinct colors but many languages including Mandarin do not distinguish them.

Two uses of this beautiful word and character have been in my mind recently. I suspect that Qinghai is one of the Chinese provinces least known in the west. The name means Blue Lake and the province is named for the largest lake in all of China. In Mongolian its name Koko Nur also means blue lake. It is a saline lake important in world wide bird migration unfortunately its surface area and depth are shrinking.

The province of Qinghai has been a borderland for millennia. The Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) controlled the eastern part of the province, but is has been controlled by Tibet during periods when that small nation was strong. (Tibet was militaristic until tamed (beaten down?) under Tantric Budhism.)

Mongols also invaded and controlled the area at times. Both the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644 to 1911) controlled much of the area. During part of the era of the Republic of China (1912 to 1949) it was one of the best governed parts of China under the local strong man Ma Bufang 馬步芳. Qinghai’s population density is about equal to that of Idaho in the USA and is lowest of any province in China other than Tibet.

On the north Qinghai province is bounded by the Silk Road provinces of Gansu (NE) and and Xinjiang (NW). On the south it is bordered by Tibet (SW) and Sichuan (SE). Sichuan 四川 means four rivers and has been a remote bread basket of China for millenia. The Three Gorges Dam (first proposed by USA engineers in 1912) is making the proverbially difficult journey to Shu (the ancient name of Sichuan) easier than ever before.

I am thinking of Chinghai because of the amazing railroad connecting Lhasa, Tibet to the outside world which travels a long distance through the province. Sun Yat Sen proposed such a railroad before 1920 but it could not be built until modern engineers devised a way to cross hundreds of miles or permafrost which melts at the surface each summer. The railroad sits above the surface on deeply embedded posts with aluminum screening to reflect the sun and refrigeration systems to keep the permafrost frozen. There are several relatively long sections high above the surface to allow free passage to migrating animals.

Where the railroad crosses Tanggula Pass (5,072 meters, 16,640 feet) it is the highest railroad in the world. Because of this and more than 960 kilometers (600 miles) above 4,000 meter (13,123 feet) elevation, the cars are pressurized with a higher oxygen content than normal air.

By 1959 Xining 西寧, the capitol of Qinghai (and now a city of over 2,000,000) was connected to the outside world by rail. The 815 kilometer extension to Golmud 格尔木 in Qinghai was opened in 1984. The enormous engineering and construction challenges delayed the 1,142 kilometer construction from Golmud to Lhasa until 2006.

My second interest in the character qing is the poetic name Mao Zedong gave the remarkable and beautiful young woman with whom he fell in love and married as his fourth wife in 1938; Blue River, Jiang Qing 江 青. As noted already the second word also denotes youth and she was 24 while he was already 45. She was never particularly popular with many Party officials and was almost universally demonized as leader of the Gang of Four at the end of her life.

Jiang Qing secretly gave Roxanne Witke extensive interviews about her life. Professor Witke came to Eugene for the symposium connected with the Eugene Opera production of “Nixon in China” on the 50th anniversary of the President’s visit. I read most of her book “Comrade Chiang Ch’ing”. (Ch’ing is the way I learned to transliterate qing many years ago.) In the end I decided Comrade Jiang Qing had greatly exaggerated her work with the Communists while she was still a popular movie star in Shanghai. Thus I have not finished reading the interesting book.


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  1. Bojan Kuzma permalink

    Dear Professor.

    I would like to point out one little inaccuracy in your blog: Ivan Vidav was not a Romanian but a Slovenian mathematician. You can check it on Wikipedia

    Yours sincerely, Bojan Kuzma

    • Dear Bojan Kuzman,

      I already approved your information for posting and thanked you for supplying it. I am being asked to approve it again. Perhaps a problem with the program our perhaps I was supposed to perform one more step. If you write my email ( I will quibble with one thing about the information on Professor Vidav.

      Thanks again,

      Theodore W. Palmer
      Professor Emeritus of Mathematics
      University of Oregon
      (Proprietor of T. W. Palmer Books
      259 West 23rd Avenue
      Eugene, OR 97405-2855
      (541) 343 6536)

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