The Chinese Character for "Above"

Meaning: Above
Sound: [shàng]  

On ancient oracle bones that date back over three thousand years, the Chinese character with the meaning of "above" appears like this:

Chinese Character "Above," ancient form

A short line placed on top of a longer line conveys the idea of "above." Later the character further evolved to look like the following:

Chinese Character "Above," ancient form

The word 上 is often placed after a noun to indicate the idea of something is on top of something else. For example, 桌子上 means "on the desk"; 柜台上 means “on the counter"; 地球上 means "on earth" or "in the whole world."

马上 [mǎ shàng] literaly means "on horse" or "on horseback." In Chinese it has the meaning of "immediately" or "speedily." When a Chinese indicates that he will do something right away, he often says "马上." In ancient times, riding a horse is the fastest way to travel, so "on horseback" acquired the meaning of "instantly" or "in no time."

上 can also be used as a verb, with the meaning of "getting up to" or "getting on top of." 上车 means "getting into a car." 上飞机 means "boarding an airplane." And going to a lecture is called 上课. What's the reason for this last expression? Well, the Chinese traditionally accorded great respect to their teachers, so going to an instructor to learn is going up to a class.

上帝 [shàng dì] is "God." The term literally means "the Emperor Above." When Christian missionaries first arrived in China, they did not like the term 上帝 as a translation of "God." They thought that the word is too closely associated with corporal life in China. But, exactly because the concept is deeply rooted in Chinese life, it can be more easily understood by the people in the country. The term has since remained in use.

“Shanghai" in Chinese is 上海, which literally means "above the sea." That makes sense as Shanghai is a coastal city.

The business district in Pudong, Shanghai (上海) (Photo: Koichi Iijima)