One of the things I tried to do when learning Chinese was come up with mnemonics for my vocabulary words. Most of these were in the form of little stories until I became familiar with radicals and started using them as a memory aid instead. I was reminded of my language studies when I saw these spray-painted characters near Taipei Train Station. 小心 (xiǎoxīn) means “to be careful.” In a trio, however, the word turned into a bilingual poem (小 means “little” and 心 is the character for “heart”):
Even before I moved to Taiwan and started my Chinese courses, I thought 小心 was an intriguing word. Why “little heart”? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the character for “eyes” (目, mù) in there somewhere?
But the more I think about it, the more 小心 makes sense. A little heart sounds small, tender and vulnerable—you have to guard it carefully. But if you are too cautious, your heart may shrivel up like a rotting vegetable. There’s a balance to be struck. You have to be 小心.