As a ”laowai”, remembering characters is one of the most difficult parts of learning Chinese; however, knowing the origins helps a whole lot.
A teacher was frustrated when realizing her students’ grades. They were bad. As she graded the last unit test, she came with the surprise of many red marks on almost every test. Each red mark circling and crossing all the mistakes and wrong answers. Frustration came later, then anger. “How can they answer such basic questions incorrectly? It’s basic knowledge?” She thought.
No matter how bad she reprimanded them; after every other test, her students just kept answering basic questions the wrong way. That failure feeling came.
One day, after another test, the teacher got in the classroom holding the test paper, the students ran to their chairs immediately at the sound of the opening door. Everybody kept quiet as if facing a sergeant.
Standing by the desk, the teacher put down the test paper, turned around, and wrote a big word 聪 (cōng) on the blackboard. Facing the children's surprised eyes, she smiled and asked, "What's this word?" "Cōng!" "Which word comes to your mind first when you see it?" "Smart!" "Today, the teacher will tell you a story about the word "cōng“.
She then proceeded to tell the story from the famous Chinese educator Huo Maozheng 霍懋征 who used to say each one of us has four treasures. As long as we use them well, anyone can be smart. Huo explained the four treasures in the form of a riddle.
The first treasure: There is one on the Eastside, and there is one on the Westside. They both sit separated at the top of the mountain but they can’t see each other.
The second treasure: It has fur on the upper side, fur on the underside, and a black grape at the center.
The third treasure: It’s the red gate of the tower. A fat baby sits inside it.
The fourth and last treasure: A little white child lives in a tall tower. He can’t be seen. He can’t be touched.
“Can you guess what these four treasures are?” the teacher asked. She stared at the children as they thought of some possible answers until one of them yelled “Ears!” “That’s the first treasure!”. As this happened, all the other kids followed and answered “Eyes!” “Mouth!” “Brain!”.
The teacher, happy to hear this, nodded as she smiled, and explained why she wrote such a special character:
For Chinese people, the process of learning mostly requires good listening skills, listening carefully (which is probably the reason why the radical 耳 is the biggest one), but it also requires observation (eyes) to receive information. Learning also requires the mouth to express yourself, to ask, and to communicate, thus, leading to understanding. At the same time, learning requires the use of your mind 心 (xīn). However, it is important to remember that, in Chinese, the character 心 refers to both the brain and the heart, which in a sense, relates to rationality and intuition, both essential for the cognitive process. How about that?!
The reasons addressed above explain why the character 聪 (no need to write pinyin at this point, right?) is part of the words 聪明 (cōng ming), 聪慧 (cōng huì), and 聪敏 (cōng mǐn), all of them meaning “intelligent, bright, clever, smart”.
The students didn’t blink through the whole lecture. Days later, the teacher was glad to see a difference in her students’ grades. They improved, and they improved a lot. Probably, in order to receive and digest any new information, it is important to first, learn how to learn. Learn how to be 聪.