Etymologies for the Directions 東西南北, Part 1: 東西

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

Long time no see! As you’ve probably noticed, we haven’t posted anything in a while (several months, actually). Well, that’s because there are a lot exciting things coming our way. We should have some really exciting announcements coming up in the next few weeks. In this post, I’ll explain the origins of and 西. Part 2 will discuss why 東西 dōngxī (PRC: dōngxi) means “thing(s)” as well as the origins of & .

東 dōng “East”


Since the following explanation of is rather involved, I’ll start here with a simple overview. Three characters with similar forms, development and meanings: 東 dōng, 束 shù and tuó. Their pronunciations were also much more similar thousand of years ago when these characters were created than they are in modern Mandarin. Each of these characters were originally pictures of bags tied at both ends. 東 dōng and 束 shù were even used interchangeably in bronze inscriptions, while tuó is basically with 石 shí added as sound component (though that isn’t obvious from modern Mandarin). 東 dōng ended up meaning “east” via sound-loan.

The details:

Well, we can’t really talk about without first talking about 束 shù “bind; bundle” and 橐 tuó “a bag”. What does “east” have to do with bags, binding and bundles? We’re about to find out!


According to Chou Fa-Kao [周法高 Zhōu Fǎgāo], is “a picture of a bag that is tied at both ends”.1 Its original meaning was “bind”. So, a picture of a bag that is bound at both ends to represent the meaning bind. Note that in the diagram above, the full lines represent a change in time period, while the broken line represents forms that were contemporary with one another. It was very common for a given character to have several different forms at any given time, similar to how English words would have several different spellings before spelling was standardized.

It is easy to see that the Bronze Inscription [金文 Jīnwén] form (1c) and the Small Seal script [小篆 xiǎozhuàn] form (1d) are the direct successors to the Oracle Bone [甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén] form (1a), while (1b) is an alternate form. There are actually quite a few other alternate forms, but here, I’m trying to keep it simple and just show the main branch. Note that though looks somewhat like a combination of and in modern Chinese. In reality, it’s not related to either or . In Outlier terms, we say that the similarity between and + 中 is a surface structure similarity. That is to say, the similarity is not related to the meaning and sound of the components involved, rather it’s due basically to a fluke of history. probably ended up looking like either by the fact that the three lines on the top part of characters tended to flatten out while those on the bottom didn’t, or by way of analogy with .


Even a quick glance at the forms (2a) – (2e) shows that they are very similar to (1a) – (1d) above, except that (2a) – (2e) have an extra line or lines through the main body. According to Lín Yì-Guāng [林義光], the forms for and were used interchangeably in bronze inscriptions. As such, he proposed that the two forms are actually merely variants of the same character.


So here we have yet another character that has a similar origin: tuó “bag”. The Shang dynasty oracle bone forms (3a) and (3b) look very similar to the oracle bone forms for and . We can see in (3d) that by the time of the Qin dynasty, 石shí “rock” had been added to the character. Though not obvious from a modern perspective, was added as a sound component. Looking at the Mandarin pronunciation, shí acting as sound component for tuó seems ludicrous, but if we look at Cantonese pronunciations, sehk and tok respectively, we see that they share a common ending, –k2. The main vowels in Cantonese are different, but it’s helpful to point out that the sounds of all languages change over time, some slower, some more quickly. During Chaucer’s time (1343 to 1400), the words food, good and blood all rhymed (sounding like goad). Then, during Shakespeare’s time (1564 to 1616), they still rhymed, but by that time they all rhymed with how we now say food 3. Nowadays, they have diverged from one another and all sound different.

If we look at the Old Chinese (OC) reconstructions for these words, *tak and *dak4, we can see that the initials (the t- and the d-) are pronounced in the same part of the mouth, and therefore are very closely related sounds, as are the main vowels and entering tone endings. As such, 石 made a rather suitable sound component for . Don’t let the * symbol scare you, it just means that these sounds are reconstructed and have not been attested directly.

Interestingly, there is yet another character with similar origins, though to keep things simple, I’ll leave it out of the analysis: jiǎn “card, letter; choice” (in ancient times, it meant the same thing as , but had a different pronunciation. In other words, the characters and represented two different spoken words that had the same or very similar meaning).

Looking at the OC reconstructions for *tong and *s-tok5, we can see that they both share the same main vowel “o” and a “t”. Though the endings “-ng” and “-k” aren’t exactly the same, they are pronounced at the same place in the mouth (which indicates that they are closely related sounds). So what is up with the “s” at the beginning of ? The dash after the “s” indicates that it is a prefix. This is similar to English, where we have a series of related words, but differ phonologically because of the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Take the root word “get”: forget, beget, got, gotten, begotten. The words in this series have related meanings which are expressed by differing grammatical affixes (i.e., things which you can attach to root words that express meanings) and changing of the main vowel. Just like the prefixes for– and be– in the word family for the root word get, the OC *s– prefix is attached to the root word tok. Sharing the same root word (though not necessarily the same affixes) was the main requirement for characters sharing the same sound component. This is one of the reasons we see a significant amount of sound variation in Chinese character sound series.

So why does mean “east” if it’s a picture of a bag tied at both ends? Well, because the word for “East” sounded similar to the word that the character represented, i.e., “bag”, so it was borrowed by way of sound loan to write “east”.

In our dictionary, will be explained as follows:

東 dōng east. Originally a picture of a bag tied at both ends, similar to shù “to bind”. Modern meaning “east” is by way of sound loan.

西 “West”


The explanation for 西 is far simpler than the one for . There seems to be an agreement among scholars that 西 is a picture of a bird’s nest. According to the Shuōwén, the connection to “west” is because birds return to their nests at sundown and the sun sets in the West6. This is somewhat confirmed by the fact that the character “resting place for birds; nest” was also often used to write “west”. However, it’s also possible that it is simply a sound loan (i.e., the word for “west” sound similar to the word meaning “bird’s nest”).

Be sure to check back soon for part 2 of this post where we take a look at the theories on why 東西 means “thing(s)” and at the origins of & . We also have several very exciting announcements to make soon, so stay tuned!



1 I’m consulting Chi Hsiu-Sheng [季旭昇 Jì Xùshēng]’s (2014)《說文新證》,page 512

2 Many southern dialects, such as Cantonese, Hakka, and Southern Min retain the entering tone [入聲 rùshēng] endings -p, -t, -k and maintain three nasal endings -ng, -n, and -m. In Mandarin, the entering tone endings have been lost (though some northern Mandarin dialects [官話方言 Guānhuà Fāngyán] retain a glottal stop ending which is a vestige of the -p, -t, -k endings) and -m and -n have merged as -n.

3 Source: Great Vowel Shift.

4 These are over-simplified versions of Baxter-Sagart Old Chinese reconstructions, version 1.1:
*tʰˤak (鐸部) > (他各切) thak read as: {char} *{OC} {(OC rhyme}) > ({fǎnqìe spelling}) {MC}

*dAk (鐸部) > (常隻切) dzyek

I’m using an over-simplified version of the reconstructions, not because they are problematic, but rather to point out to people not trained in historical linguistics the sound similarities between the two words. Explaining the basics of OC reconstruction is a can of worms I’d rather not open just yet.

5 As above, these are over-simplifications of the Baxter-Sagart reconstructions, version 1.1:

*tˤoŋ (東部) < (德紅) tuwng

*s-tʰok (屋部) < (書玉切) syowk

6 《說文》:「西,鳥在巢上。象形。日在西方而鳥棲,故因以爲東西之西。凡西之屬皆从西。

2 comments on “Etymologies for the Directions 東西南北, Part 1: 東西”

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *