In the 1981 novel “Red Dragon” — the first Thomas Harris thriller featuring archvillain Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter — the Sino-Japanese ideograph 中 (read naka or chū, and meaning center or middle) makes an appearance. It is composed of a rectangle with a line going through its center. Graphically it represents an arrow striking the center of a target.

In the game of 麻雀 (maajan, mahjong) the tile bearing 中 is inscribed in red on a white background, and nicknamed “Red Dragon.” To tie it in with the book’s title and narrative, author Harris uses it as an 糸口 (itoguchi, clue) that helps investigator Will Graham track down a serial killer. This tile, represented by the Chinese character “zhong” — which similarly means center or middle as represented by the symbolic arrow striking its target — therefore is also used to signify success or achievement.

As we shall see, 中 is not only an easy character to recognize, but applies well to all sorts of situations. We hear it in everyday speech when people say 真ん中 (mannaka, in the center of something) — sometimes emphasized as ど真ん中 (domannaka, smack dab in the middle) — in 中では (naka de wa, among the others); and その中 (sono naka, amongst).

It also appears in a lot of Japanese surnames, including 田中 (Tanaka), 中村 (Nakamura), 中本 (Nakamoto), 中西 Nakanishi) and 安中 (Annaka), to name just a few.

As the modifying suffix chū, the character relates to a current or ongoing condition, which is why you’ll find it in terms such as 工事中 (kōjichū, under construction); 使用中 (shiyōchū, in use); 故障中 (koshōchū, out of order); 運転中 (untenchū, now running); 治療中 (chiryōchū, undergoing treatment); 開発中 (kaihatsuchū, under development); 喪中 (mochū, in mourning); and 放送中 (hōsōchū, on the air, i.e., something being broadcast).

In the study of history we have 中古時代 (chūko jidai, middle ages) — not to be confused with 中年 (chūnen, a middle-aged person). Other time-related uses include 中旬 (chūjun, the middle third of a month); 一年中 (ichinenjū, throughout the year); and 今日中 (kyōjū, within today) as in 今日中に出来上がる (kyōjū ni dekiagaru, it will be finished or done within today).

Around this time of year, shops sell お中元 (o-chūgen, mid-summer gifts); but at one time chūgen specifically meant the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. Exactly one month later comes another lunar holiday, 中秋節 (chūshūsetsu, the mid-autumn festival), during which people engage in お月見 (o-tsukimi, moon viewing) and eating a traditional confection called 月餅 (geppei, moon cakes).

The expression 四六時中 (shirokujichū, round the clock, all the time or constantly), originates from the old system of keeping time, which was based on the 12 astrological stems.

Combining 中 with other characters and する (suru) will form various verbs, including 中止する (chūshi suru, to cancel or stop doing something); 妊娠中絶する (ninshin chūzetsu suru, to terminate a pregnancy, i.e., to perform an abortion); and 中退する (chūtai suru,), an abbreviation of 中途で退学する (chūto de taigaku suru, to drop out of school before graduation).

When watching foreign films I often see the word 連中 (renchū) in the Japanese subtitles, which is used to mean an affiliated group of people, or more colloquially “that bunch” or “those guys.”

中 can also be found in a whole slew of descriptive terms, including 中心 (chūshin, the center), 中核 (chūkaku, core), 中立 (chūritsu, neutral), 命中 (meichū, a bulls-eye or dead center) and 中毒 (chūdoku, addiction or intoxication). Food poisoning, for example, is 食中毒 shokuchūdoku, literally “eat-center-poison). And then there’s 中途半端 (chūto hanpa or “mid-way, half-end” i.e., something that’s incomplete or half-baked).

In geography class, chū is all over the map. Probably the most ubiquitous would be 中国 (Chūgoku, China, literally the “middle country”) and by extension 中国人 (Chūgokujin, a Chinese person), 中国語 (Chūgokugo, the Chinese language) and so on. An alternate name for China is 中華 (chūka, literally “central flower”), as in the official name of the People’s Republic of China, 中華人民共和国 (Chūka Jinmin Kyōwakoku) and also found in 中華料理 (Chūka ryōri, Chinese food) and 中華街 (Chūkagai, Chinatown).

Elsewhere on the globe are 中近東 (Chūkintō, the middle and near east), 中南米 (Chūnambei, Central and South America) and 地中海 (Chichūkai, the Mediterranean Sea), the kanji for which are a direct translation of the Latin “middle of the land.”

Japan, by the way, has a 中国 (Chūgoku) of its own, the name given to western part of the main island of 本州 (Honshū) consisting of Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Tottori and Shimane prefectures. Moving eastward we find 中京 (Chūkyō, the region that includes Kyoto and Nagoya), and 中部地方 (Chūbu chihō, the region centered around Nagoya).

Some cities like Tokyo have a 中央区 Chūō-ku, Chuo Ward) near their geographic center, while others like Yokohama have a 中区 (Naka-ku, Naka Ward). Kyoto even has a 中京区 (Nakagyō-ku).

Another useful word to know is 中流階級 (chūryū kaikyū, the middle class). Based on government surveys conducted around 1970, the pundits observed that 日本人は中流意識が強い (Nihonjin wa chūryū ishiki ga tsuyoi, Japanese have a strong perception of belonging to the middle class).

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