Happy First Dawn!

Happy First Dawn!

by Min Xiong

It’s hard to believe the year is almost over! This is the perfect opportunity to show you how to say New Year’s Day in Chinese. Here it is:

元旦 (yuán dàn).元旦

元旦 means the first day of the new year in the western calendar. It is used to refer to January 1, as opposed to the first day of the Chinese New Year, 新年 (xīn nián).

元旦 is an official holiday in China—holiday is 节 (jié)—and the whole day is called 元旦节 (yuán dàn jié).

To explain the makeup of this word, let’s start with the second character 旦 (dàn). 旦means the start of a day, or dawn. It is an ancient character, first appearing in the Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry), dating back to the 11th century B.C., around the same time as the Homeric Hymns.

Since many Chinese characters are image-based, let’s look for the hidden picture inside the character 旦. Can you see it? The upper part, 日(rì), means the sun. The lower part, 一 (yī), represents the horizon. Combined, they form a sun coming up from the horizon.

Now let’s look at the first character, 元 (yuán), which means “first,” “primary,” and also, interestingly, “dollar.” When 元 is put in front of 旦, you get the first dawn, hence, the first day of the year.

Now for your Chinese challenge. Remember the concept of compound characters from “How Do You Build Your Chinese Vocabulary?” Both 元 and 旦 can be used to create compound characters. Can you find the Chinese characters incorporating 元 and 旦 to mean “but,” “far,” and “garden?” Don’t stop there! Find some more compound characters using 元 and 旦 and post them in the comments below. Compound words are good too. We can’t wait to see what you find. 再见!


Min Xiong is a journalist, Chinese teacher, and cultural ambassador in Washington DC.

6 thoughts on “Happy First Dawn!

  1. I found the compound word 元首 (yuánshǒu) head of state.

    And the compound characters 园 (yuán) “garden” and 但 (dàn) “but.”

    To get 园 (yuán) “garden,” I see that you put 元 (yuán), which means first or primary, inside 口 (kǒu), which means mouth.

    And to get 但 (dàn) “but,” I see that you add 人 (rén), which means person, to 旦 (dàn), which means day or dawn.

    I can’t really follow the logic on 园 and 旦, but it’s SO FUN building so many words with the few characters you’ve already introduced us to.

    Now, can anyone find and explain how to build “far?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ingrid, good job! In the case of 园, the logic is to borrow the sound of 元 and the image of 口 to make a garden and mark its pronunciation. I am not sure of the full logic behind 但, but I’m sure the right particle was used to represent the sound:)


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