Musings on smallness

小康,小心,小人,小气: all the small things

Back after taking a week off to deal with real world chaos. I was going to visit the ancestral grave of my maternal lineage, but things got interesting very fast. Hope everyone reading is keeping up with the news on the Coronavirus situation and staying healthy.

Picking up where we left off last week, we looked at four little words: 小康,小心,小人,小气

小康 (xiǎokāng) “little abundance”- modestly comfortable living

小心 (xiǎoxīn) “little heart” - careful/cautious

小人 (xiǎorén) “little person” - an amoral person

小气 (xiǎoqì) “little air” - stingy, petty

Of these four words, 小康 “little abundance” is positive, 小心 “little heart” is neutral, and 小人 “little person” and 小气 “little air” are negative. The fact that “smallness” isn’t consistently seen as good or bad is hardly of note, though I do find it interesting that for these four words, when smallness is the result of a choice, it’s largely good, and when it describes intrinsic quality of a person, it’s bad.

Restraint and humbleness are known virtues, and there’s something so precious about choosing to be sensibly small, not getting in anyone’s way, the opposite of unwieldy and intrusive largeness. As I wrote previously about 小康 (little abundance), it describes a state that seems reasonable, achievable, simple, and good. It could be a hopeful goal for people whose lives are filled with struggle, but it’s also advantageous for the ruling class who would prefer subjects who are content with a little, grateful just to have enough. In real life, 小康 is only appreciated if it’s hard fought or tenuously maintained, it’s hard to treasure it when it’s easily attained.

小心 (little heart) is a different kind of preciousness, essentially about being a smaller target, or giving yourself more room to maneuver by metaphorically shrinking yourself. This contracted state is deliberate, a purposefully conservative state of being. I wouldn’t go as far as saying this word has an element of fear to it, but there’s certainly tension, and implied stakes. Its opposing word is 粗心 (cūxīn) “thick heart”, in my mind’s eye I see an overly large heart crashing around an antique shop, knocking everything flying while a small dainty heart picks its way across the wreckage.

For 小人 (xiǎorén) “little person”, and 小气 (xiǎoqì) “little air”, they seem to describe congenital conditions, deficiencies in morals and generosity similar to being born with thin hair, or brittle bones. Even though the “Three Character Classic” says that man is born good, but I think generally in China, we grow up thinking people’s capacity for good or for evil is determined at birth, and people’s actions are guided by their internal moral alignment. A “little person” could never wear a “bigger person’s” shoes (See what I did there? Because “be the bigger person” is like…never mind), your small figurative lung capacity is as unchangeable as your literal lung capacity. 

There’s no real conclusion to draw today, just some musings about the little things.

— f