Look here! – A look at 看 kàn

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Hey there, look here!

看 02

This is a pretty basic word that most beginners would pick up very soon after embarking on their Mandarin learning journey. Typically translated as ‘look’, ‘watch’, ‘see’, ‘read’. If you have a good look at the ancient form of the character, it depicts a hand over an eye.

看 03

Simple enough! Very vividly tells you that this is something you do with your eyes. There’s more to this than meets the eye though. Sometimes it’s a little confusing. Other times, you might be in for a surprise at discovering some other quirky flavours to its character.

So today let’s look at this guy.
Lái kànkan ‘kàn’ zhè ge zì!

As you can see above, this character can be read both as kān (1st tone) and kàn (4th tone). Thankfully though, most times it is in the 4th tone, kàn. So this is the one we’ll be focussing on today.

看 kàn

1) the basics

Since this is a verb that talks about things that you do with your eyes, naturally you use it with some common activities like:

kàn shū
read a book

kàn diànyǐng
watch a movie

kàn diànshì
watch TV

Or just simply:


And how about this:

Nǐ kàn shénme ya?
What are you looking at/ watching/ reading?

Whether to translate 看 kàn in this sentence as ‘look’, ‘watch’ or ‘read’ would really depend on the context.

2) a step up

Now let’s look at another common use of this word.

kàn péngyou
visit a friend

Tā bìng le, wǒmen qù kànkan tā ba.
He’s sick. Let’s go visit him.

Bié wàng le cháng lái kàn wǒmen a.
Don’t forget to come visit us often.

3) know who you’re talking about!

The next one is sometimes confusing. But if you think of it as an extension of the second definition, it makes sense. You just have to pay attention to the context.

kàn bìng

病 bìng means illness, and when we use 看 kàn with it, we mean treating it, or to have it treated. This is where you have to be careful, as this phrase could mean a doctor examining and treating a patient, or a patient visiting and consulting a doctor.

Tā kànbìng qu le.

A simple sentence like this can be ambiguous. He has gone to 看病 kàn bìng. If you don’t know who this 他 tā (he) is, it’s rather hard to translate it correctly. Perhaps he has gone to visit a doctor (because he’s sick). Or perhaps, (he is a doctor and) he is off to treat a patient. Another reason why context is so important!

4) so you think you know…

What do you think of this next example:

Nǐ kàn zhège zěnmeyàng?

看 kàn here means ‘to think’, ‘to consider’. So the above sentence means ‘What do you think of this?’

Wǒ kàn shìqing méi nàme jiǎndān.
I don’t think the matter is so simple.

Wǒ kàn tā búhuì dāying de.
I don’t think he would agree to it.

5) now it depends!

Whether you can guess the meaning of this one depends on… your imagination, perhaps?

A: Nǐ míngtiān lái ma?
A: Are you coming tomorrow?

B: Kàn xīnqíng.

心情 xīnqíng means ‘mood’. So what does 看 kàn here mean? What is B saying?

B: ‘Depends on (my) mood!’

Here’s a few more:

Zài kàn ba.
We’ll see. (It depends. We’ll look at the conditions then.)

Yīfu néng bu néng liànggān, yào kàn tiānqì.
Whether the clothes will dry depends on the weather.

Chénggōng bu chénggōng, yào kàn gèrén nǔlì.
Success depends on hard work. (Whether one succeeds or not depends on one’s hard work.)

6) a must-try!

Another use of kàn is to affix it after verbs (typically reduplicated verbs) to mean ‘to have a try’. It’s not hard to imagine the logic behind this. Do something, and see how it goes!

Wǒ xiǎngxiang kàn.
Let me think about it.

Nǐ shìshi kàn.
You give it a try.

Yòngyong kàn.
Try using it.

7) watch out!

The last one is my favourite (though I don’t really know why it is).

Kàn chē!

Well, 车 chē means ‘car’, or ‘vehicle’, but here, we’re not talking about looking at cars, but to ‘watch out’, to ‘be careful’. Parents tend to automatically tell their kids to 看车 kàn chē when crossing the road.

Zǒu lù yào kàn lù a.
(When walking) Look where you’re going!

Here’s an adorable baby to illustrate this sentence.



After looking at so many examples, you’ve got to give some of them a try!
Kàn le nàme duō lìzi, yídìng yào yòngyong kàn o!

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