What is Etymology and Is it Useful for Learning Chinese Characters? (Part 2)

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), German

金文 imageIn the previous post, I went over the first three aspects of etymology as it relates to learning Chinese characters, namely identifying the functional components in a given character, identifying how the functional components function, and identifying corrupted components. In this post, I’ll go over the remaining three:

  • #4: Identifying the meaning that a given character was invented to represent and its relationship to the character form.
  • #5: Restoring the pictorial-quality of character components.
  • #6: The full story.

Aspect #4: Identifying the relationship between a character’s original meaning and form

Identifying the meaning that a given character was invented to represent and its relationship to the character form, a.k.a. a character’s “original meaning”. This is important because it’s the only meaning that is directly related to a character’s form. Some characters still represent their original meanings, like 人 rén “person”, 火 huǒ “fire” or 山 shān “mountain” for example. Some, represent secondary meanings, like 木 “wood” (originally “tree”), 取 “to take” (originally “to take a ear off a dead soldier after a battle”) or 段 duàn “section, part” (originally “to break into pieces”). And some, are rather distantly related, like 漢 hàn “Chinese ethnicity”, which was originally the name of a river (located in what is now Shaanxi province). Then, it became the name of a Chinese dynasty, and then of the Chinese ethnicity. In situations like this, it’s not important to memorize this relationship. It is, however, important to at least read it. That way, your brain realizes that there is a rational reason for the meaning component of 漢 being 氵shuǐ “water”.

But there are also a significant number of characters whose modern meanings aren’t related at all to their forms. The main reason for this is sound-loan. Similar to, but not exactly the same as writing Malaysia as 馬來西亞 Mǎláixīyǎ. Here, the characters only give sound and not meaning. In other words, the word Mǎláixīyǎ does not mean “Horse-come-west-asia”. It’s just a sound representation of Malaysia. In the same way, because it is difficult to come up with pictures that represent grammatical concepts, the characters used to write grammatical words are very often sound-loans. For instance, 其 “his/ hers/ its” was originally a picture of a basket. The word for basket (now written 箕 ) was similar in sound to the word for “his/ hers/ its”, so the character for basket 其 was borrowed to write “his/ hers/ its”. Since the word basket lost its original character, a new character was invented by adding 竹 zhú “bamboo” to 其 to emphasize the meaning “basket”: 箕. These are rather common, actually.

It is important to know when the character form is not related to its meaning. This is another form of closure. It’s like if you were to do an internet search and then never get a result. It would just leave a nagging feeling in your gut. Getting an answer, even if the answer is “no results for this search” brings closure. It also keeps you from assigning a false meaning to that component and thereby adding noise to the system of meaning representation.

Aspect #5: Restoring the pictorial-quality of character components.

Due to the high degree of stylization in modern Chinese characters, much of their pictorial quality has been lost. However, if you have the chance to compare the modern forms, especially on a component level, to their ancestral forms, much of that pictorial quality can be restored. Or even better, have someone else (uh.. *coughs* someone like Outlier!) do the hard work for you and show you the main nodes of the forms evolution with an accompanying explanation, then it becomes very easy to see. Here’s a few examples:

yòu “again; and; both…”

又 evolution2

(1a) is a fairly typical picture of a right hand from the oracle bone script. It’s also important to note that the ancient Chinese didn’t have three fingers. Rather than being an actual picture of a hand, this is a pictorial-like symbol that captures the important features of a hand (and it’s easier to draw than an actual hand). Though the orientation and space between the fingers vary, forms (1b) through (1e) are essentially the same. It’s the bending of the top finger that starts in (1f), which is then connected to the middle finger in the modern form 又 that makes the modern form difficult to recognize as a hand.

So, the form of “a right hand” was used to express the original meaning “right hand”. It came to mean “again; and; both…” by way of sound-loan. In other words, the sound of the word “right hand” was the same or similar to the sound of another word that meant “again; and; both…”. The word “right hand” came to be written 右 yòu “right- hand side”, which came to indicate “right-hand side” instead of “right hand”. The 口 kǒu is actually just a mark to distinguish 又 from 右, so it does not express a meaning or sound here. Note that the ext b in 右 and 左 zuǒ “left-hand side” have different origins. The ext b in 左 was a picture of a left hand, 又 oracle.

bìng “moreover; and; simultaneously”

並 evolution

Forms (2a) and (2b) show a front view of two people standing shoulder to shoulder. The line on the bottom represents the ground. (2c) adds another line, probably for beautification, since it’s not adding a meaning or sound. In (2d), the two 立 are written so close together that they are touching, giving someone the idea for making their arms a single line as seen in (2e). Note how there is a trade off between ease of understanding and ease of writing. (2a) through (2c) represent their meaning very clearly, while (2e) is the easiest to write, but completely opaque, unless you know the earlier forms.

The form “two people standing shoulder to shoulder” was used to represent the original meaning “to stand shoulder to shoulder”. From this meaning evolved the meanings “to put together”, “to put on par with (i.e., to stand as equals)” and “simultaneous (i.e., to happen side by side in time)”. The meanings “and” and “moreover” most likely evolved from the meaning “to put together”.

bǐng “to grasp, hold”

秉 evolution

In (3a), the left side is a stalk of grain, and the right side is a hand about to grab it for the harvest. The left side of (3b) is a more simple looking stalk of grain that is being grabbed by hand, while in (3c) is a more stylized version of the (3b). The form “a hand grasping a stalk of grain” was used to represent the original meaning “to grasp grain with the hand”, which evolved to mean “to grasp or to hold” in general.

jiān “merge, compatible; simultaneous”

兼 evolution

If you compare (4a) to (3b), you’ll see that (4a) is a single hand simultaneously grabbing two stalks of grain. (4b) and (4c) are more stylized versions of (4a). The form of “a hand simultaneously holding two stalks of grain” was used to represent the original meaning “to put together” and later derived the meanings “compatible (i.e., two things that fit together)” and “simultaneous (i.e., two things done at the same time).

jiān “to supervise, inspect”

監 evolution

The left side of (5a) is a vessel (i.e., a container of some kind), while the right side is a person sitting in a kneeling position. The eye is exaggeratedly large to emphasize the idea of inspection. In (5b), the person appears to be standing up and leaning over the vessel, which has water in it. Ancient people used water as for its mirror-like quality to inspect their own faces. Notice that the eye is now unattached to the body (this type of corruption is called “disintegration” and is explained in an earlier post). (5c) is a more stylized version of (5b). So, the form “a person with an exaggerated eye looking down into a container of water” is used to express the original meaning “to look downwards and inspect”. Later, this meaning evolved to the more general “supervise, inspect”.

As you can see, by observing the evolution of a character’s form (especially when accompanied by an explanation of what is happening), the pictorial quality that earlier characters had can be restored. Strictly speaking, this isn’t necessary for learning characters, but it does make it more interesting. For visually oriented people, it also aids in memorization. Also, seeing exactly what “pictures” were used to represent what types of meanings (as opposed to seeing just an opaque stylized version) gives an window into early Chinese culture and thought.

Aspect #6: The full story.

This is the “real” story of how any given character was born and evolved into modern times. This might be hard to believe, but our posts on character etymology are far from comprehensive. The real stories behind characters can get really complex. The first time I was introduced to actual paleography and saw pre-Qin dynasty characters, I was shocked. So shocked, that I realized that if I want to do a dictionary of Chinese characters that I absolutely cannot do so without first getting some serious training in paleography. The “real” story is most certainly not for the faint at heart. It’s full of twists and turns, and all manner of crazy phenomena that one would never conceive of just having seen modern characters. To research the full story, it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of training (I’ve been training to do our dictionary since 2006). The trick is to understand how characters actually work, use the knowledge of character evolutions that are well understood in order to research out those that aren’t, follow the evidence and not be swayed by your own personal biases.

As far as character learning, knowing the comprehensive story is probably not very helpful, unless you are already a paleographer. However, a simplified, condensed version of that story that emphasizes the important nodes of a character’s evolution, explained in everyday language can be both helpful and interesting to some people.

How etymology will be used in the upcoming Outlier Chinese character dictionary:

Each character form explanation will be split into two parts, part 1 is the minimum amount of information required to master a given character. Part 2 will be for those with an inquiring mind (a.k.a., crazy people), but can be safely ignored by everyone else. It will include a highly condensed version of the “real” story that focuses on the parts of that story that will help you better understand how that character came to be in a way that aids in learning. It will show the basic evolution of the character form and throw in other interesting tidbits, while part 1 will include things such as a breakdown of the functional components, how those components express sound and meaning, a character stroke diagram (but one encourages the learner to think in terms of components rather than just strokes), the original meaning and the basic meanings of the character in modern Chinese, as well as a list of the most common words that contain that character.


Alex asked a question in the comments section, and we’re posting the answer here because it contains images and can’t be posted in the comments.

Hey Alex,

Yeah, I totally agree about 監! It blew me away the first time I saw it, which is one of the reasons I added it to this post. And, you aren’t bothering us! We love questions and comments.

As to the etymology for 黃 huáng “yellow”:

I assume you looked it up in the Shuōwén, which gives this explanation: 黃:从田炗聲,炗古文光. My translation: 黃 (is composed) of 田 tián “field”, 炗 guāng gives the sound. 炗 is the ancient version of 光 guāng “light”.


The Shuōwén tends to be weakest when explaining character forms. This is because Xǔ Shèn [許慎] did not have access to a lot of materials that modern paleographers have access to. He also did not have a concept of character corruption. As we will find out, 黃 is neither related to 田 nor to 炗.

Form explanation:

Note that the broken lines indicate forms that were probably contemporary to one another, while the arrows indicate evolution in time.

You said that it’s hard to believe that the oracle bone script form representing a guy with swollen belly is related to 炗 (光) and 田. Well, in short, they aren’t related by sound and meaning, but only through corruption or coincidence.

The thing that looks like 田 in (6b) is not related to the sound tián nor the meaning “field”. It simply looks like 田. 炗 according to Tu Chung-kao [杜忠誥] is not 光, but another character entirely (杜忠誥2002:《說文篆文訛形釋例》203頁), and it doesn’t appear in 黃!

In (6c) a 口 kǒu “mouth” has been added to the top. Chi Hsiu-sheng [季旭昇] says that this seems to indicate the person looking up at the sky and letting out a sigh (2004:下239-240). (6d) shows that the 口 has been corrupted into 廿.

In (6e), the arms have been moved down below 田. The top part in (6f) is still 口, showing that character form evolution often takes multiple simultaneous paths, and not just a single linear path. (6g) is essentially the same as the modern form. The arms and legs in (6e) and (6f) got confused with 火, which is why the Shuōwén says it’s 炗, but since both the 廿 and the 火 are products of corruption, there is obviously no etymological relationship between 廿, 火 (or 炗), and 黃. And, as mentioned already, the 田 in 黃 isn’t really tián “field” either. So what is 黃? It’s still a picture of someone with an deformed belly (possibly because of starving).


Keep the questions and comments coming!


9 comments on “What is Etymology and Is it Useful for Learning Chinese Characters? (Part 2)”

  1. Alex Reply
    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Hey Alex,
      Yeah, I totally agree about 監! It blew me away the first time I saw it, which is one of the reasons I added it to this post. And, you aren’t bothering us! We love questions and comments.

      I’ve sent my answer to your question to John, so he’ll post it soon. I can’t post it directly here because it involves diagrams.

  2. Alex Reply

    Wow, I’m impressed with the speed and depth of your answer! Thank you very much indeed! I’ll be looking for more updates ˆ_ˆ

  3. Marshall Reply

    Hi Ash,

    Dropped by to see how this fantastic project is coming along. Great to see what you guys are doing! I keenly await the dictionary to come!

    For 黃, can I suggest that the bloated belly is the result of liver problems, which would also have a strong association with yellowing of the skin?

    Your old 同学 under Tu laoshi, Marshall

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Hey Marshall!
      Long time no see! How’s life in Oxford treating you?

      As far as 黃 and liver problems: according to 季旭昇, 黃 is the original character for the word 尪 wāng, which is defined by the 古漢語大詞典 as 1. 瘠病之人; 2.行不正貌 . These are based upon commentary of ancient texts. So, the original meaning that the form 黃 was meant to convey was most likely 瘠病之人. One characteristic of emaciated people is that their bellies swell, which is presumably why the person in the form 黃 has a big belly. I’m not sure if people with liver issues have swollen bellies (All I know about it is by the time your skin turns yellow, it’s all over but the screamin’ and shoutin’ — as my dad was fond of saying).

      Good to hear from you. Let me know if you make it back over to Taiwan!

  4. Philip Ries Reply

    Very interesting explanation. I do wish this post were titled “character etymology” specifically, since plain “etymology” is the study of the origin of words, not characters. Or, it would be great to go deeper here into the history of the words whose meanings have changed over time through being used as a metaphor (“stand together” -> “also”). Among what groups of people did such changes occur first? When was the original meaning forgotten in common language?

    Here are some more examples. Did one sense of 長 lead to the other? Why did their pronunciations diverge? What word was 嗓 getting confused with to give rise to 嗓子–or else why did it come to be? When was it no longer accepted in vernacular Mandarin to pronounce 食 as a word? Does “chai” come from 茶 or the other way around? When was 日本 first attested?

    You don’t see these questions even touched upon in most Chinese dictionaries. What is it about this language that makes sources shy away from doing plain etymology?

    Thanks for the mind-blowing reveal about 監.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      You bring up a very good point. It is very important to distinguish “words” (詞) and “spoken language” (言語) from “characters” (字). Which characters get used to write which spoken words is not nearly as simple a matter as most people think. The etymology of a character form, while related to a spoken word or spoken words, is not the same thing as the etymology of that spoken word or words. This blog mostly focuses on character etymology, which we sometimes shorten to just “etymology”. Some respected scholars feel that “etymology” shouldn’t be applied to character forms. However, these forms do live a life of their own and many of the changes they go through are similar to changes in word meaning and pronunciation. Since generalizing the meaning of a word is a very common way for words to change meaning, I feel that using the term “etymology” to describe character origins and evolution is okay as long as the distinction between written symbols (such as characters) and spoken words is maintained.

      As far as why pronunciations and meanings diverge (like your 長 example), have you looked into the notion that Old Chinese had prefixes and suffixes? A good beginning would be to check out Laurent Sagart’s The Roots of Old Chinese. Some of the examples he gives are problematic, but the overall concept has a lot of explanatory power. A more mature treatment of the same issues are also brought up in Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction by William Baxter and L. Sagart. There are also, of course, other authors that discuss these things. If you’re interested, I can recommend some books in both English and Chinese.

  5. Sara Reply


    What’s your take on someone learning simplified characters and how much your method can help them? Lot of the examples in your posts are traditiona characters, but in simplified form many backgroup stories easily get lost.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      We give examples from traditional characters simply because that’s what we ourselves use more often. Some of the simplified characters have different etymologies than their traditional counterparts, but of course our approach to explaining the etymology is designed to be applicable to both sets.

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