Tonight's the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar (look out your window - the moon's completely round!) and therefore it's Mid-Autumn Festival, a time for mooncakes, lion dances - and lantern riddles. So, in honour of Mid-Autumn Festival, I'm going to give a little exposition about lantern riddles. In particular, word riddles, or 字谜 (zi4 mi2), my favourite kind of riddle, in which the answer takes the form of a single Chinese character.
Probably the closest equivalent to the Chinese word riddle in English is the cryptic crossword puzzle clue, which can involve (1) breaking a word down into its component morphemes; and (2) breaking a word down into its component letters (e.g. by scrambling them). In Chinese, these would correspond to (1) breaking down a character into its component radicals, and (2) breaking a word down into its component strokes, respectively. One major difference, however, is that cryptic crossword clues always contain a clue to the meaning of a word; this is, in general, not true for (at least one major strain) of Chinese word riddles. There are also Chinese word riddles that are entirely to do with semantics. I don't find these as interesting, so I shan't discuss them here.
Disclaimer: I'm no expert on Chinese riddles, nor even Chinese itself. Probably native speakers of Chinese would have a totally different conception and method of solving word riddles than I. I'll just give a few choice examples to illustrate how ingenious and fun to solve they are.
Let's start with some easy examples of the second type, which involve thinking about characters at the stroke level.
(1) 九点 jiu3 dian3 lit. “nine dot”, or “nine o'clock”
This riddle basically involves noticing that the second word, 点, is actually the name of a stroke in Chinese. The riddle is basically giving you complete instructions about how to write the character. The answer is to write the character 九, then a dot. The answer, therefore, is 丸.
Now for a variation on the first riddle.
(2) 十二点 shi2 er4 dian3 lit. “ten two dot”, or “twelve o'clock”
Any ideas? Again, this riddle is telling you exactly what strokes to write: those that comprise 十, then two dots, which yields 斗dou4 “fight” as the answer.
Here's a third simple one:
(3) 田中 tian2 zhong1 lit. “(in) the middle (中) of a field (田)”
Again, think in terms of characters. The riddle is asking for what's in the middle of the character 田. The answer, therefore, is just a horizontal stroke and a vertical stroke: the numeral 十 shi2 “ten”.
Now for a more challenging riddle.
(4) 夫人何处去 fu1 ren2 he2 chu4 qu4
lit. "Mrs. [wife] (夫人) where (何处) go (去)
Since “Mrs” (i.e. this is a term for addressing a married woman) 夫人 is a word in Chinese, most people take it to be a unit, in which case the riddle seems to mean "where did Mrs. go?". But, if you split them up and read the riddle like this: 夫 (the character), 人 (the character) 何处 (where) 去 (go), it means "in 夫, where did 人 go?" (something like that). So – what happens if we take the character 夫 and make the character 人 leave it? We are left with just the two horizontal strokes, which make up the numeral 二 er4 “two”, which is the answer to the riddle.
[I've corrected the explanation to (4) based on the comment from Anonymous. Thanks for pointing out the mistake!]
Now for a few examples of the first type, which really allow for more variation and ingenuity. Radical thinking, one could say.
(5) 挥手告别 hui1 shou3 gao4 bie2 lit. “wave hand (to) say goodbye”
For this sort of riddle, it's crucial that one is familiar with the system of Chinese radicals, and what they're called. The left hand side of the 挥character is called the “hand” radical. The second character, 手, means “hand”. The last two characters indicate that something is going away, or being left out. Putting them together, the riddle tells us to say goodbye to the “hand” part of the first character, 挥, which leaves us with the right hand side, 军 jun1 “soldier”.
(6) 春和秋都不热 chun1 he2 qiu1 dou1 bu2 ri4
lit. “spring and autumn (are) both not hot”
This is one of my favourites. First, let's look at the clue about heat. What gives off heat? The sun, written 日ri4, and fire, written 火huo3. Now look very closely at the first and third characters: 春 chun1 “spring”, and 秋 qiu1 “autumn”. That's right, the lower radical of the “spring” character means “sun”, and the right hand radical of the “autumn” character means “fire”. Now, it says that they're not supposed to be hot, so we take away their heat sources, so to speak, and combine them in the only way possible to yield 秦 qin2 which is apparently a variety of rice. As well as the name of the first dynasty in China.
yen3 = eye kan4 = see tian2 = field shang4 = on zhang3 = grow qing1 = green cao3 = grass
“one (the eye) sees green grass growing on the field”
One thing to seize on is the adposition “on”, whose object in this case is the noun before it, “field”. That's a pretty clear indication that we're supposed to take the character for “field” (or some synonym – but in this case it's just “field”) and put something on top of it. There's “green grass growing” on that field. We can't put any of the whole characters for “green”, “grass” or “grow” on top of “field” to make a proper character, but there is a radical called the grass radical, consisting of one line across and two short lines down (the upper bit of 草 “grass”, which refers to any sort of flora). So, we put that on top of the word for field, which gives us 苗. But we still haven't used the first two words of the riddle. At this stage it's fairly clear that all the first two words can contribute is another radical, which must be the “eye” radical, or 目, which is the left hand side of 眼 “eye” and the lower bit of 看 “see”. It doesn't give any indication of where to put it, but in this case there's only one place that makes sense: to the left of 苗, which finally gives us 瞄 miao2, meaning to stare or look hard.
One last one, which I'm also rather fond of.
(8) 两狗谈天 liang3 gou3 tan2 tian1 “two dogs talking”
This one really requires some lateral thinking, so I'm going to work backwards and give you the answer: 狱 yu4 “jail”. This breaks up into no fewer than 3 radicals: 犭(the animal radical) 讠(the speech radical) and 犬 quan3 (a character meaning “dog”). So: we have one dog, an animal (represented by 犭) and a second dog (represented by 犬), and there's speech going on between them (represented by 讠).
I guess I like these riddles because they require you to think on so many levels. A riddle might look like a perfectly innocuous sentence, but it mightn't give you any clues until you start parsing it in a totally different way, a way that your grammar probably hasn't trained you for. And then you have to go deeper and analyse the characters in terms of radicals - which I suppose one might do on a sub-conscious level, but not in the conscious way required by the riddle. And then you may have to go still deeper and analyse the characters at the stroke level, which I doubt anybody really thinks much about except when they're taking dictation. So it really requires exploration of all the levels of language that we only use subconsciously, which I find rather fun.
(I suppose that if one wants to be pedantic, one might argue that all of language is somewhat subconscious - we don't actively have to think, "Oh, how does one say that?" but somehow I feel that these levels are deeper even than the subconscious, because our ordinary use of language doesn't really call for them.)
By the way, all these riddles come from this website, where you find others (with answers).