As an adjective 曲折 can be found to mean both “winding” or “curved” in the dictionary, and is used to describe an object that is winding, such as a road or a staircase; 曲折 can also mean “complicated” as an adjective or “complications” as a noun. First let’s look at some examples of 曲折 in the first sense of the word:
The two floors are linked by a sleek curved staircase, with a double-heightbookcase running up one side.
This river has a zigzagging watercourse and many branches.
There's a winding path following the edge of the pond.
Note: 曲折 can also describe a metaphorical road or path that is winding and tortuous, such as:
SJM's road to market has been a long and tortuous one, dogged by bad luck and controversy.
If you are anything like me, you might be wondering how 曲折 can mean both “winding” and “curved” when they are different concepts in English - I think of winding as something with many curves. After googling “曲折” in the images section, it appears that 曲折 normally describes an object (such as a road or waterway) that is winding, but can sometimes also describe an object that has just one curve. In the above example of the “curved staircase” we cannot be sure if this a mistake in translation or if it is infact a curved staircase rather than a winding staircase - are they the same thing? Can you find more examples of where 曲折 is translated as curved?
One of the mental tricks I employ to remember a Chinese word, particularly when I also have its numerous synonyms in my head, is to fix an English word (winding) to a Chinese word (曲折) and then add a couple of mental caveats to it. I will try to demonstrate my mental processes as I go along. So:
Mental picture: 曲折 = winding (could be curved)
As mentioned before, 曲折 also has the meaning of “complicated” as an adjective or “complications” as a noun. This meaning of complicated can be used to describe a plotline (情节) or story （故事） that is full of twists and turns (充满曲折).
The play has a very complicated plot.
The story with its many twists and turns is very intriguing.
Mental picture 2: 曲折 = adj. winding (could be curved) roadlike object or storylike object
As a noun 曲折 collocates with verbs such as 经历, 经过 and 有；here noun 曲折 refers to the many setbacks (挫折) you might suffer in a complicated situation (错综复杂的情况).
…experience countless difficulties and setbacks
At the end of the journey, there is a twist .
The last example (3) suggests that 有曲折 can refer to just one twist rather than a series of twists i.e. winding. This suggests that 曲折 can serve as either a singular noun or a plural noun depending on the context. Does anyone have a better understanding of this?
Now we have my complete mental picture of 曲折:
Mental picture 3: 曲折 = adj./n. winding (could be curved) roadlike object or storylike object
Can anyone add to this?
Next post: a comparison of 曲折 with 弯曲 and 歪曲 (and maybe others If I have the time)