I understand that in Chinese each syllable is a word with its own meaning but that often, two individual words can be put together to form a compound word, which is often rendered in pinyin as one word. Hànzì script, however, preserves the distinctness of each character-syllable. How does this work, for example in the Dàodé of the 道德经?

If I take each of the syllables separately,道 = Way, 德 = ethics, and 经 = classic or sacred. Dào dé then would be "the way of ethics." But I have seen a dictionary translate Dàodé as morality generally. Can I use that expression in Chinese? Can I use the term "Dàodé" to refer to morality generally?

  • In a modern context, 道德经, could be translated as "A Moral Code" Mar 30 at 1:57
  • Ah, that's very interesting.
    – Gerry
    Mar 31 at 19:15

3 Answers 3


The meaning of the words - "道", "德" and "道德".

  • 道 - law; rule.

  • 德 - ethics; morality; virtue.

  • 道德 - morals/ethics, which represent the rules and laws of standard social behaviors.

道德经 - A book that serves as a standard of morality/ethics/social behaviors.


Some words consisting of the same characters may not have the same meaning in ancient and modern times. 道德 can mean morality in modern time, but it might not mean the same in the time of Laozi.

Another interesting thing is about 老子, which could mean the name of an ancient philosopher Laozi, but which could also mean "myself" as in "老子天下第一"(I am No. 1 in the world), or "你敢动一下老子试试”(I dare you to touch me) to show the self-importance.

  • 老子 may also mean 父亲 Apprently only as I, me for men: 老年男子的自称。即老夫。
    – Pedroski
    Mar 31 at 6:48

By combining words we can create different meanings. A greenhouse is neither green nor a house!

Thus, 德国 is Virtueland and 英国 is Heroland! (Not really.)


1: 社会意识形态之一,是人们共同生活及其行为的准则和规范 [morals, ethics]
1: an ideology in society, (concerning) people's collective life and their behavioural norms and standards.

2: 合乎道德的[moral]
2: accord with morality

Young people these days have no morals.

I set aside moral concerns.

Some doctors are suspected of having behaved unethically.

  • So if I understand this, in modern parlance, there is no difference between 德 and 道德. Both refer to ethics or morality generally speaking.
    – Gerry
    Mar 31 at 0:58
  • It seems 德 can be an abbreviation of 道德: 道德,品行 [virtue;moral character;integrity] virtue: from Latin vir "man" The Romans apparently thought a gentleman should have "moral strength, high character, goodness; manliness; valor, bravery, courage (in war); excellence, worth" That didn't seem to stop the slaughter! The character shows: 从彳(chì) and惪 ,表示与行走有关。本义:登高,攀登 同本义[ascend] : 德,升也。——《说文》 I would translate the 道德经 as: The Way of Virtue (which should lead one to enlightenment)
    – Pedroski
    Mar 31 at 6:39
  • In translating the names of Western countries, Chinese people show their greatest sincerity and friendliness by giving the best Chinese characters they can ever think of, like 英,德,法,意,美,加, yet most of these countries have let China down to some degree. Mar 31 at 15:06
  • I see, hence 美国, but it also seems that characters are chosen that approximate the native pronunciation, e.g., 德国 for Deutschland and 英国 for England. Japan is an interesting one in that there's no phonetic link between the Chinese and Japanese, but the countries' script are related and are thus written the same way in both languages,日本. Chinese is not in this case trying to emulate native pronunciation.
    – Gerry
    Mar 31 at 19:31
  • In the case of 美国, the closest pronunciation of America in Mandarin might be 阿灭里可, which has nothing to with the good word 美 now in use. Most of the older generations of Chinese people have good impression of America, as far as I know, due to their helping establish the Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and to their selfless help in the Anti-Japanese War during 1940s and in the Sino-Vietnam War from 1979 to 1990. Apr 1 at 3:30

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