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Recently, I read a story that said “于是他让弟子们搭起大棚”。 I translated this roughly to "ordered the kids to set up a tent". But this had me confused. Isn't 帐篷 also tent? And can't you also 搭起帐篷?

What is the difference between 帐篷 and 大棚? If they are very similar, when is used while the other isn't?

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大棚 could be:

  • Commonly short for 蔬菜大棚, a warm house for growing vegetation, usually very large. 蔬菜大棚

  • sometimes, a tent-like structure, not fully enclosed, often used as a mobile kitchen and dining area.

    路边摊大棚

帐篷 is more of a closed tent which has a roof and has cloth walls all around it. It's built for people to sleep in. Campers and refugees may reside in 帐篷s.

  • 大帐篷 大帐篷

  • 小帐篷 小帐篷

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In short, 棚 is a canopy, so 大棚 is a "large"(whatever size that means) canopy. 帐 is a tent while 篷 is the piece of cloth covering the camp. With the modularity of Chinese words, 大棚 and 帐篷 can have many variations in meaning, but you'll know which is which by identifying if something is more like a canopied structure or a tent.

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