Da - "big" - Chinese character profile

A closer look at the character Da ("big"), its meanings and usages

Tablet of Beijing University
The character 大, as in 大学, can be seen second from the right in this sign for Peking University. Sino Images/Getty Images

On a list of the 3000 most common Chinese characters, 大 is ranked 13. It's not only a common character in its own right, used to mean "big", but it also appears in many common words (remember, words in Chinese often consist of two characters, but not always).

In this article, we're going to look closer at the character, including how it's pronounced and how it's used.

Basic meaning and pronunciation of 大

The basic meaning of this character is "big" and it is pronounced "dà" (fourth tone).

It is a pictograph of a man with outstretched arms. The word is mostly used for physical size, as can be seen in the following sentences:

tā de fángzi bú dà
His house is not big.

dìqiú hěn dà
The earth is big.

Note that simply translating 大 into "big" isn't going to work in all cases. This is why speaking Mandarin accurately can be a challenge.

Here are some examples where you can use 大 in Chinese, but where we wouldn't use "big" in English.

nǐ duō dà?
How old are you? (literally: how big are you?)

jīntiān tàiyang hěn dà
It's sunny today (literally: the sun is big today)

In other words, you need to learn in which cases you can and should use 大 to indicate a high degree. Other weather phenomenons are also okay, so the wind is "big" and rain can be "big" too in Chinese.

Common words with 大 (dà) "big"

Here are a few common words that contain 大:

  • 大家 (dàjiā ) "everybody" (lit: "big" + "home")
  • 大人 (dàrén) "adult; grown up" (lit: "big" + "person")
  • 大学 (dàxué) "university" (lit: "big" + "study", compare 小学)
  • 大陆 (dàlù) "continent; Mainland (China)" (lit: "big" + "land")

These are good examples of why words are actually not that difficult to learn in Chinese. If you know what the component characters mean, you might not be able to guess the meaning if you've never seen the word before, but it's certainly easier to remember!

Alternative pronunciation: 大 (dài)

Many Chinese characters have multiple pronunciations and 大 is one of them. The pronunciation and meaning given above is by far the most common one, but there is a second reading "dài", mostly seen in the word 大夫 (dàifu) "doctor".  Instead of learning this particular pronunciation for 大, I suggest that you learn this word for "doctor"; you can safely assume that all other cases of 大 are pronounced "dà"!