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A non-linguist's, non-sinologist's look at曲折


buanryoh

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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:

Adjective 1:

1) 连接上下两层的是一条光滑、曲折的楼梯,一个两层高的书架在一旁伫立

The two floors are linked by a sleek curved staircase, with a double-heightbookcase running up one side.

2) 这条河的河道曲折,汊流众多。

This river has a zigzagging watercourse and many branches.

3) 沿着池塘有一条曲折的小路。

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:

4) 澳博的上市之路漫长而曲折,厄运和争议始终紧紧相随。

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).

Adjective 2:

1) 这个剧本情节很曲折。

The play has a very complicated plot.

2) 故事曲折有致。

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).

1)经过无数艰难曲折。。。

…experience countless difficulties and setbacks

2) 曲折的生活经历锻炼了她坚强的性格。

3) 在旅途的末尾,会有曲折。

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)

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曲折 gives me the impression of series of 'acute turns' on a path. the smoothier curves uses '弯曲' most of the time. 曲折 also suggest dramatic happenings if used to describe chronological events, like 'turn of the tide' or sometimes even 'anti-climax'... it usually relates to difficult process or undesired, complicated incidents along the way, dont sound like a good thing among native chinese users.

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曲折 gives me the impression of series of 'acute turns' on a path. the smoothier curves uses '弯曲' most of the time. 曲折 also suggest dramatic happenings if used to describe chronological events, like 'turn of the tide' or sometimes even 'anti-climax'... it usually relates to difficult process or undesired, complicated incidents along the way, dont sound like a good thing among native chinese users.

Hi Dumdumdum,

Could you give an example sentence featuring the use of 曲折 as an anti-climax? Would you say the twists and turns of 曲折 are more intense than that of 挫折?

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in common movie reviews or book reviews, sometimes (剧情/内容)错综复杂,曲折离奇 would suggest 'unexpected twist and turns' or even 'anti-climax'.

曲折 usually implies multiple minor difficulties but the objective could be either successful or unsuccessful(usually successful). 挫折 would imply a major setback, and the objective is not met. 挫折 can sometimes lead to final successes too, but i would say it is a worse situation than 曲折, more effort has to be put in to guarantee success. btw 曲折 is an adj while 挫折 is both a noun and an adj, hence usage broader.

a closer word to 曲折 would be 周折, except it sounds more formal/classical.

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Thanks for the detailed reply. I'm not sure about the 曲折 as just an adj though, it appears that 曲折 can also be used as a noun as shown by the examples in my first post.

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