In English among many other things one can “receive” a piece of mail, and one can “receive” good or bad emotional news. In each case, the verb is “to receive,” and we think of those two acts as in some way the same. But Chinese has two characters that are frequently used to mean “to receive.” They are 收 (shōu) and 受 (shòu). For many years, I have struggled to keep them straight. While through sheer brute memorization I do a lot better now, I still occasionally make mistakes, although recently Chen lǎoshī has worked hard to straighten me out. That the two characters have the same sounds (although different tones) has always made it that much harder.
收 has a phonetic component on the left and a radical that stands for “hand” on the right. 受 has a radical on top that means “claw.” Beneath it are ones for “on top of” and “again.” It suggests two hands joining together.
But the problem starts when you realize the English range of “receive” is pretty broad, and it covers both of these characters if not more. One can receive a letter or receive an injury, but 收 is the proper character for the first meaning, and 受 for the second. How many times have I been corrected, mostly by teachers, when I have used one when I should’ve used the other! Presumably lurking in the background were the many times I used one incorrectly yet my correspondent was too nice to point it out.
My understanding long came more through trial and error than from trying to master a set of rules. Chen lǎoshī has recently explained to me that 收 is used to refer to the moment of transfer of possession. 受 is not usually used to refer to that, but often is used when there is a long process of gradual receipt, or when one is not so much interested in the moment of transfer as in the results that prevail after receipt. Thus, 收 is commonly used for anything relating to information or documents containing it – email, a report, things of that sort. Packages fall into this category. “I received your gift,” for example, is 我收到了你的禮物, Wǒ shōu dào le nǐ de lǐwù. But he recently received military training (他受到了軍事訓練).
But based on this way of looking at it 受 , in contrast, is more often used for abstract things. A particularly popular phrase is 受歡迎, shòu huānyíng, “to be welcomed.” This exact phrase is sometimes the appropriate translation in English, but in Chinese 受歡迎 is also used to mean (referring to a new product, idea, etc.) “to be popular, to gain widespread public acceptance.” Notice that here there is not really a specific moment at which the product or idea “receives” welcome. I can also be influenced by you (“receive your influence,” 受到你的影響, shòu dào nǐ de yǐngxiǎng) or “earn your respect” (“receive your respect,” 受到你的尊重, shòu dào nǐ de zūnzhòng).
Perhaps most confusingly, the verb 收受 also exists. It also translates as “to receive,” but has a negative meaning involving things like “to receive bribes” (收受賄賂, shōushòu huìlù) or “to receive political donations” (收受政治獻金, shōushòu zhèngzhì xiànjīn).
In the end, while when writing Chinese, it’s important not to mix these two characters up. They are somewhat different ideas in the minds of native Chinese speakers, even if they are the same to English native speakers.