Okay, you’ve gotten off the plane, peed in the right restroom, and arrived at the train station. Now it’s time to board your thirty-six hour train ride.
The next most important characters you need to know are upper, lower, and middle. Because these will be printed on your train ticket. Fortunately the Chinese use Arabic numerals and that goes a long way in helping you locate your car and seat. But long distance trains have sleepers, not seats.
Soft sleepers and hard sleepers:
Soft sleepers cost about 30-40% more than hard sleepers, have a fancy tablecloth, and each cabin has two levels of bunks, upper and lower. Hard sleepers have three levels: upper, middle, and lower.
It’s good to know these characters so you can glance down at your ticket while you’re still at the counter and see the agent sold you the upper bunk instead of the middle one you asked for, so you don’t spend the next thirty-six hours with your head sandwiched between a pillow and the roof of the car.
It’s especially easy to remember 上 if you land in Shanghai, because you’ll see 上 everywhere. It’s the shang in Shanghai: 上海.
Where I lived, in Dali, I saw 下 all the time, because the main city was called 下关, or Xia guan. Guan means shut, but it can also mean a mountain pass, and it was south of Dali, so I always thought of 下关 it as “Downtown”.
Personally I see the 上 as a stalagmite facing upward and the 下 as a stalactite facing downward. [And if you fell asleep in geology class, the “T” in stalactite points down and the “M” in stalagmite points up.]
You don’t have to use your imagination much for middle. I mean, it’s a box with a line down the middle.
Of the three, 中 is the character you’ll see most. In Chinese, the name for China isn’t “China”. It’s called China after the Qin (Chin) Emperor who unified the country back in the 3rd century B.C.
In Chinese, it’s called 中国 (Zhong guo), which means Middle Kingdom.
Some say it’s called the Middle Kingdom because the Chinese traditionally saw themselves as the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. I’ve also heard it said that when the Qin Emperor unified the five kingdoms that made up China, his was in the center. And successive dynasties carried on the tradition of referring to the whole thing as the Middle Kingdom.
Congratulations. Now you can read half of your China Mobile phone card logo. Now that you know 中国, you’ll see it everywhere. 中 might be better translated as “center” or “central”—as in Central Park—than as “middle”. We sometimes think of middle as meaning not so great, not so bad. But in the Chinese sense, the middle is where it’s at. Everything else is just the periphery.