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So why does "森严" mean "strictly protected"? like, ok, "森" Means Jungle and "严" means strict, so shouldn't it means "strict forest" not "strongly protected", right? The full phrase is "宫城森严"

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  • 森 only means forest when it functions as a noun. In the example you gave, it's not a noun but an adjective. In that case, it can mean being full of trees, towering, gloomy, etc.
    – joehua
    Apr 17, 2022 at 16:06

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森严 is a common word. I take it as 像林一样密(as dense as the forest). We picture that forest is so dense that light can't pass through.

Metaphorically, we take that to mean heavily guarded.

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宫城森严 seems kinda literary/archaic where meaning gets condensed, so its a bit hard to decipher. Note that due to the arrangement of 森严, it would be literally "forestly strict" instead of "strict forest," which would be 严森 otherwise.

The word 森 can have connotations of being oppressive/dark, and when 严 is used in the context of a city/palace it can mean well guarded. It might be a cultural thing to note that names for forest can have subtle differences, 森林 can sound more deep/sinister than 树林 for example.

In general 森严 as a phrase is not very common in modern usage, as far as I'm aware.

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    警戒森严/ 戒备森严 (heavily guarded) is a common literary phrase, you can see it often in writing
    – Tang Ho
    Apr 16, 2022 at 23:55

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