The Power of Chinese Characters - 自 zì

自- zì- self, oneself, one’s own

This character is often thought of as a nose, which is what Chinese people point to when referring to “oneself”. Westerners tend to point at their chests, Chinese point at their nose. The meaning of nose is easy to remember, because the only difference between 自 and 目 (which means “eye”) is the little dot on top. That little dot between your eyes? Your nose!

So what words can we look at to understand 自 more fully?

自己 (jǐ)

自己 is the most common usage of 自 in a word, and in this case it is a “Juxtaposed” compound word structure, which simply means that both characters 自 and 己 have equal value, and in this word both of them have the meaning of “self”, so you guessed it, the word means “oneself”. Chuck a pronoun in front of it like 我 (wǒ- I/me), 你 (nǐ- you) or 她 (tā- she/her) and you can get these:

我自己- myself

你自己- yourself

她自己- herself


How about seeing how 自 is used in words that express how we feel about ourselves?

自信 (xìn)

自恋 (liàn)

自卑 (bēi)

自觉 (jué)


All four of these words indicate an emotion or set of emotions related to oneself. 自信 literally means “oneself-believe”, so if you believe in yourself you are confident. 自恋 is a fun word, because it literally means “oneself-in love with”, aka narcissistic. Perhaps you were originally very 自信, but over time that turned you into a very 自恋 type of person, which caused all the people around you to dislike you, and then you became 自卑, which is a combination of “oneself” and “low or inferior”, which could be conceptualized as feeling oneself inferior

The final word 自觉 literally means “self-feel” or “self-aware”, and so people will often use it in the negative by saying “不自觉” (bú zìjué) to describe when someone is very oblivious. It can also be used in the positive to describe someone as conscientious.

Below are a few words where the second character is a verb, and so the first character of 自 is indicating that the verb is done “by oneself”. Let’s take a look:

自动 (dòng)

自助 (zhù)

自杀 (shā)


自动 could be literally translated as “by oneself-take action”, but the much easier word in English for such a description is automatic. 自助 could literally be thought of as “by oneself-help”, and it is most commonly used in places like a buffet restaurant to mean self-serve. 杀 is the character for “to kill” in Chinese, so its unsurprising that suicide would be written as 自杀.

As you continue to learn character-by-character, the process of knowing what to do and how to study will become clearer and clearer, making you a lot more 自信 in the process.

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