There’s An Interesting Background…
As Chinese characters developed over the course of a few thousand years, the representations of them changed drastically. People began to first develop the written Chinese language around 1765-1122 B.C. The words they wrote were descriptors of their everyday life and were recorded on oracle bones. Over time, these words changed into what we have today. One example of this is with the Chinese words for sunrise and sunset.
The Chinese words for sunrise and sunset can be looked at several ways. Language is not just a spoken medium among people, but a written one as well. Understanding the entire meaning behind words is best done by understanding what it means in both the spoken tongue and the written one. Chinese is a particularly interesting language to do this with because its written language contains no phonetic correlation to its spoken one. In English, we have an alphabet that represents the different sounds, but in Chinese, students must memorize a character to accompany the words. These characters contain no phonetic link to the word itself. They are instead based off of the pictographs that once served as the written representation of the Chinese language.
The Chinese word for sunrise is said ri4 chu1. Ri4 chu1 is composed of two separate characters. The first one, ri4, can mean sun when it is alone. In its original form, ri4 resembled a picture of the sun. The horizontal line you see inside shows that the sun is a solid object. The second character that you see started out as a pictograph of a sprouting plant. Sunrise is then the start of the day when the sun rises over the sprouting plants.
Sunset has a slightly different connotation. The Chinese word for sunset is ri4 luo4. Although its first character also means sun, the second character has a far different connotation. The word luo4 is often used with negative things. For example, luo4 hou4 is how you would say that a place is backwards or too country-like. Shuai1 luo4 is used to mean decay. A negative connotation may be suitable
for this word, however. Sunset is the end of the day and so is quite literally the time when the day is decaying.
In order to say these words correctly, keep in mind that Chinese is a tonal language. The first tone sounds high and level and the second tone starts medium and rises to the top. The third tone sounds kind of like a vocal roller coaster–it starts low, goes lower, and then comes back up. The last two tones are the fourth and the neutral tone. The fourth tone starts at the top and falls sharply to the bottom while the neutral town is even and flat.
Taken together, the Chinese words for sunrise and sunset visually show a picture of the day starting. Young plants spring up in the new morning light. As the day ends, the sun sadly falls away with it. Using this story can help you to remember the characters for sunrise and sunset but also the words ri4 chu1 and ri4 luo4.
For more references, visit the site zhongwen.com or check out the book:
Lo Chiung-yu. Chinese Characters for Beginners, Panda Media Co., Ltd., 2009.