病根 (bìnggēn): disease root

PutongWord of the Day

PutongWords Etc. is the next incarnation of #PutongWords, a daily Twitter column I wrote from late 2018 through 2019. Each day I chose a different common Mandarin Chinese word to pick apart and muse about within the constraints of 280 characters, uncovering the likes of wit, violence, tenderness, and wonder embedded within.

This newsletter expands beyond the short format so I can write about Chinese words and culture without worrying about fitting a single thought into less than one Tweet. There will be 3-5 PutongWord of the Day posts per week under a specific theme, and 1 entry per week discussing said theme. In between, I will dispatch pun-filled doodles and the occasional miscellaneous post on things such as Chinese internet slang, newly invented characters, naming conventions etc.

病根 (bìnggēn) refers to the root cause of a problem, the source of the trouble. Of course, other than its metaphorical use, it is often used to discuss actual diseases and how they have manifested.

根 (gēn) referred originally to the actual roots of plants, and as a metaphor it is both versatile and evocative. Depending on the context at hand, there are so many different plants and fungi that come to mind. Towering banyan trees, choking honeysuckle vines, sprawling moss, clustering mushrooms, each form can mimic a different problem you have at hand, and each completely unique and in need of a different method of uprooting.

But if we extend this metaphor further, and get meta with it, literal roots, in the real world, are not what causes growth. Perhaps a seed was buried by a squirrel in a prime spot and grows to a tree, perhaps heavy rain and humid atmosphere causes mushrooms to proliferate. Different from finding the physical root of a thing, finding a root cause requires ignoring what is obvious before your eyes, and looking deeper, further, in unexpected places, knowing that the truth can be elusive and messy. 

More often than not, when a tricky problem has an easy fix, that fix is wrong.

— f