Speech of parts

But in Chinese, apparently, these components fall into two categories, with different words.


Consider the following perfectly acceptable English sentences:

  • “It’s the blending of sweet and tart ingredients that makes that cake so delicious.”
  • “What are the ingredients in that packaged curry powder?”
  • “The ingredients of a good movie are a good script, good directing, and good acting.”

The common element of course is the word “ingredients.” It seems straightforward to me what ingredients are – without consulting the dictionary, I would say it’s something like “parts that were blended together in some way to construct some new item.” The definition is not limitless – it’s hard to imagine someone talking about the “ingredients of that new building,” for example. In that case, we would probably say “materials” or “components.”

Still, when it to comes to food, in English pretty much anything can be an “ingredient.”

The ingredients of that soup can include among other things canned tomato juice, celery, salt and sugar. (I didn’t say the soup would be good.) Sugar of course is also an ingredient in almost any candy bar, as the wrapper will tell you in what it will almost certainly list as “ingredients.” (Check if you don’t believe me.)

But in Chinese, apparently, these components fall into two categories, with different words.

Celery is 食材 (shícái), while sugar in a candy bar is 成分 (chéngfèn).

As for sugar in the above soup? I’m not sure even now. But it is clear, once again, that the different phenomena that make up reality are mapped on to human oral and written communication differently in every language. If the phenomenon is “materials blended to form some new item,” Chinese and English simply divide these phenomena up differently.

To an extent, even now I don’t get the distinction in the ways the two languages draw the line. As best I can tell from the guidance of several native speakers, 食材 means already complete foodstuffs that one adds to some more complex food one is making oneself —the tomato juice above, for example. 成分 in contrast is something more basic that might be used to make a manufactured 食材— the cocoa butter in baking chocolate (or the candy bar), for example, or the eggs in bottled mayonnaise. Based on my understanding, sugar can depending on the context either be 成分 or 食材. It is 食材 in the soup example (or cake, more realistically) and 成分 in the manufactured candy-bar example.

To complicate things further, in non-food contexts often one needs to speak of the more general term 材料 (cáiliào). When discussing the required materials (again probably a better noun in English than “ingredients,” so our language is just as bad sometimes) for an art project in kindergarten, one should probably use 材料. Thinking about words with the 材 character, which are often specific kinds of 材料, in addition to 食材 as an onion or refined chocolate, 素材(sùcái) refers to the inspiration or source of various kinds of arts (religion as inspiration for painting, a particular historical era as a source for scholarship or novels, etc.), 建材(jiàncái) is building materials such as steel rods or steel itself (the things mentioned in the first paragraph that we would never call “ingredients” in English) and 教材 (jiàocái) is the materials for a course — textbooks, CDs, lab notebooks, etc. As noted above, 成分, which is used in many contexts, is more basic. For example, paper might be one of the 成分 in the 教材 that is a textbook.

And to make it worse, 成分 is sometimes written as 成份 (same pronunciation). Chen laoshī assures me that 成分 is the correct usage, but many think that “correct” is whatever enough people are doing. It seems that in ordinary use they are essentially interchangeable, especially online. Fortunately, in my Chinese conversations this question hasn’t come up much – only once in fact. But the one time it did, it was certainly food for thought.


Evan Osborne (歐思博) is a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio. He has studied Chinese off and on for almost 30 years. Once for three months in Taiwan he had Chen lǎoshī as a teacher, and considers her to be the best of the well over 30 teachers he has had in the various languages he has studied.

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