Word of the week: 知道, 认识, 了解
The other day I was running late on the way to meet some friends at my favourite burger place. I feel I should probably be writing about Chinese food on this blog but the fact is I’ve been in China so long that the prospect of a gourmet burger actually seems more exotic than barbequed chickens’ feet (or any of the other Chinese delicacies I encounter on a daily basis.)
When I arrived I couldn’t believe it, my mate had already ordered exactly what I wanted, the blue cheese burger. 你怎么知道我想吃什么 nǐ zěn me zhī dào wǒ xiǎng chī shén me? (How did you know what I wanted?) I asked, to which he replied. 因为我很了解你。我们认识了很久吧。yīn wèi wǒ hěn liáo jiě nǐ. wǒ men rèn shi le hěn jiǔ ba. (because I know you so well. We’ve known each other for ages)
In the this exchange the English word “know” is actually three different words in Chinese. But don’t be confused, we’ll explain them here.
The word 知道 zhī dào is to have knowledge and know about something. So if someone asks you what time it is you can reply wǒ bù zhī dào (I don’t know).
But Imagine your friend asks “do you know Cristiano Ronaldo?” This question could have two meanings. Your friend could be asking if you know Cristiano Ronaldo personally, or they could (more likely) just be asking if you know who he is.
you know who Ronaldo is, right?
If it’s just about knowing who Ronaldo is (having knowledge of him) then you should use the word zhī dào and say 我知道他是谁 wǒ zhī dào tā shì shéi (I know who he is). But if you actually know him personally then you would need to use the word 认识 rèn shi and say wǒ rèn shi tā (I know him personally).
In other contexts the word 认识 rèn shi could also be translated as “recognise”. So when you’re reading something in Chinese and see a new character you’ve never seen before you can say 我不认识这个字 wǒ bù rèn shi zhè gè zì (I don’t know this character/ I don’t recognise this character.)
It might be tempting for a native English speaker to use the word zhī dào and say wǒ bù zhī dào zhè gè zì but that’s not the most natural way to say it. Having taught in a Chinese primary school I can say that I heard the collocation 认识字 rèn shi zì (know a character/ know a letter) on an almost daily basis. I don’t recall ever hearing zhī dào zì . The phrase 他不认识字 tā bù rèn shi zì (he doesn’t know/recognise characters/letters) is also a way of saying “he can’t read”.
Obviously recognising someone is not the same as knowing them personally. It’s important to remember that if you’re talking about a Chinese character or a famous painting you can translate rèn shi as “recognise” but if you’re talking about a person rèn shi does not mean you recognise someone, it means you know them personally. If you just recognise who someone you need to say 我知道他 wǒ zhī dào tā
I hope that clears things up a little bit, and if it doesn’t I’m going to confuse you even more by saying liáo jiě can also be translated as “know” but the difference here is that liáo jiě is used for people and implies that you understand that person. I don’t just know you, but I know you well. I know that you like the blue cheese burger with extra fries because I’ve known you long enough to understand the way you think. In this situation you can say wǒ hěn liáo jiě nǐ