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I learned my early Chinese from ChinesePod, and they talked about 互相 (hùxiāng), but I just learned that 相互 (xiānghù, reversing the characters) also has a similar meaning, namely "each other" or "mutual".

(See e.g. Expressing "each other" with "huxiang", from the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which has some ChinesePod influence, talk about 互相 and not 相互.)

One example from YouDao (who sourced it from here) is:

我们应该相互帮助
We should help each other.

I feel like I could simply change this to

我们应该互相帮助

without changing the meaning. The other examples I looked at are similar (i.e., 互相 and 相互 are interchangeable), so I can't see much of a difference. But the fact that ChinesePod seems more focused on 互相 over 相互 seems to imply something.

Question: What's the difference between 互相 and 相互?

  • Both terms are new to me but a quick search on my end shows that 互 and 相 both share the same meaning and so the combination of the two (in whichever order) could just be a case of stretching the word into two syllables (which I've learned the Chinese are quite fond of doing) chinese.yabla.com/… – 小奥利奥 Sep 30 '19 at 0:46
  • 互相 means each other, 相互 usually means interact / interactive / interaction, but can also means each other in few cases. – 賈可 Jacky Oct 21 '19 at 9:48
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Many Chinese compound words are made up of two characters contain a similar meaning. In those cases, you can reverse the order of the compound words and the meaning would not change.

Example:

  • Both "痛" and "苦" has the meaning of "pain", And the standard compound word for "pain" is "痛苦". Since the two characters have the same meaning, it is acceptable to reverse the order and say "苦痛" instead. ("不堪苦痛" means the same as "不堪痛苦")

  • Both "冷" and "清" has the meaning of "unpopulated", And the standard compound word for "unpopulated" is 冷清. Since the two characters have the same meaning, it is acceptable to reverse the order and say "清冷" instead. ("埸面清冷" means the same as "埸面冷清")

  • Both "互" and "相" has the meaning of "mutually", And the standard compound word for "mutually" is "互相". Since the two character has the same meaning, it is acceptable to reverse the order and say 相互 instead. ("相互攻擊" means the same as "互相攻擊")

As for the reason for doing so? I think it is a way to showcase one's literary knowledge, make you sound more refine. You need to know which compound word is made up of two characters that have the same meaning. Less knowledgeable man may make a fool of himself by reversing the order of a wrong compound word. For example, saying "用信" instead of "信用", or saying "殺謀" instead of "謀殺" is unacceptable.

More example of common reversible compound words:

鬥爭 --> 爭鬥 (fight) e.g. 一場爭鬥 = 一場鬥爭 (a fight)

愛情 --> 情愛 (love) e.g. 一段情愛 = 一段愛情 (a romance)

空虛 --> 虛空 (empty) e.g. 內部虛空 = 內部空虛 (empty inside)

淒慘 --> 慘淒 (miserable) e.g. 慘淒下場 = 淒慘下場 (miserable end)

抗拒 --> 拒抗 (resist) e.g. 無法拒抗 = 無法抗拒 (cannot resist)

解辯 --> 辯解 (explain and defend) e.g. 無法辯解 = 無法解辯 (cannot explain and defend)

找尋 --> 尋找 (search) e.g. 尋找消失的國度 = 找尋消失的國度 (searching for the disappeared kingdom)

Since not all compound words are reversible, it is safer to just use the standard forms. Reverse the order only when you know it is acceptable for sure.

Notice: Some compound words with two characters having the opposite meaning can also be reversed. e.g. 不顧死生 = 不顧生死; 不論赢輸 = 不論輸赢

  • Sorry to bother you, but do you know if 适合 vs. 合适 another example? – Becky 李蓓 Oct 1 '19 at 8:30
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    @Becky 李蓓 No, although both 适 and 合 has the meaning of "suitable" but "适合" is coined an adverb (e.g. 适合当老师 - suitable for being a teacher) , meanwhile, 合适 is coined as an adjective (e.g. 合适人选 - suitable candidate). When the same two characters in reversed order had been assigned to different meaning, it became a different compound word instead of merely a variant. – Tang Ho Oct 1 '19 at 9:03
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    Another example is 狼毒 (vicious), both 狼(wolf like) and 毒(poisonous) has the mean of "vicious", but 毒狼 can be interpreted as "poisonous wolf", thus, become a different term and not a variant. of 狼毒 – Tang Ho Oct 1 '19 at 9:11
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    Meanwhile 狠毒 can be changed to 毒狠 because no other meaning is assigned to 毒狠 (毒狠之人 = 狠毒之人) --Notice: 狼 and 狠 look similar, but they are two different characters. Another case is 產生 and 生產; 產生 means "produce"; 生產 can mean "manufacture" or "give birth" , so, they are different words – Tang Ho Oct 1 '19 at 9:34
  • @Becky李蓓 适合 and 合适 sometimes can mean the same thing. E.g 我们两个不适合。VS 我们两个不合适。However, 适合 can be used as a verb, while 合适 can't. E.g 你不适合我。We don't really say 你不合适我. – dan Oct 1 '19 at 9:58
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I'd say 相互 adds a bit emphasis on the mutual effect. It may be because the reversed order draws more attention. E.g. 我们应该增进相互了解. 尊重是相互的。

互相 is more casual. e.g.我们应该互相学习. If you say 我们应该相互学习, you express a bit stronger necessity of learning from each other.

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@Tang Ho made a good point, but it is worth mentioning that 相互 is more a adjective.

In such cases 互相 is inappropriate.

相互作用力

增进相互的了解

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My personal feeling is that 互相 is a verb/noun and 相互 is a noun

我们应该互相帮助
We should help each other

我们的相互帮助可以...
Our mutual cooperation enables...

but it's my personal preference, I'm not sure this should be always the case

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