Looking at the Etymologies for 面, 友 and 匯

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Understanding Corruption in Chinese Characters, Part I

This is the first of several posts on the topic of character corruption (see the second here). If you really want to understand how Chinese characters work, you cannot overlook corruption and the role it plays. What does it mean for a character to become corrupt? Basically, it means that the character changes form in such a way that the original form intended by the inventor of that character is altered.

Take 面 miàn “face” for example:

面 evolution

The oracle bone form (a) is a picture of an eye inside of a larger frame — a face. According to Lǐ Xiào-Dìng [李孝定], of the face’s sensory organs, the most representative of a face is the eyes, hence form (a). Form (b) is from a Qín dynasty excavated text, where the eye [目] has been replaced with head shou (an earlier form of 首 shǒu). Forms (d) – (g) are from Hàn dynasty steles (stone tablets) (杜忠誥2002:138-143). In (d), you can see that the top line has really been exaggerated and this is the origin of the top stroke on the modern form for 面. Since this stroke was not intended by the inventor(s) of this character, it is a form of corruption. An uncorrupted form of 面 may have looked like this: mian.

So, the diagram above is roughly in chronological order from left to right with the exception of the four Han dynasty graphs, (d) to (g), which probably more or less co-existed (for more about variants, click here). Also note that graphs (a), (b) and (c) have their own variants, but they are not shown here. The purpose of this diagram is to show roughly how this character evolved (a comprehensive diagram would take up a huge amount of space and not be as informative).

Sometimes these changes that occur via corruption are neutral; in other words, they don’t affect the character’s functional components (sound components or meaning components), but oftentimes corruption actually causes damage to a character’s ability to express sound and/or meaning.

Why is this important?

Why is character corruption important? One reason is that if you’re trying to understand a character form, and part of that character is corrupted, then any explanation you give to it (other than that it’s the result of corruption) is going to be inaccurate. Another major reason has to do with being able to spot spurious etymologies (there will be a future post dedicated solely to explaining how to spot spurious etymologies). If any given author or book never mentions character corruption in their etymological explanations, chances are very good that you are reading or hearing spurious etymologies. That’s not to say that all characters are corrupted, but a significant amount are. Let’s take look at the etymologies of some common characters to better understand the different ways that characters can become corrupted.

I’m going to be following along Tu Chung-kao’s [杜忠誥] book Examples of Corrupted Forms in the Shuōwén’s Small Seal Script1 [《說文篆文訛形釋例》]2 since he does an excellent job of outlining the different types of corruption. According to Prof. Tu, the main two reasons for character corruption are:

  1. the actual process of writing characters and
  2. misunderstanding their structure [書寫與誤解] (杜忠誥2002:32).

When manuscripts are being copied by hand, it is easy for mistakes to happen either because the manuscript being copied isn’t clear to begin with or if the scribe isn’t being particularly careful3.

Corruption by way of writing (i.e., copying manuscripts)

Some background info that might help.

Prof. Tu gives an example related to 友 yǒu “friend(s)”:

友 was originally a picture of two right hands together (two 又), indicating friendship (oracle bone script [甲骨文]: 4). 又 yòu also acts as a sound component.

The Shuōwén [說文] lists 5 as one of 友’s ancient forms [古文]6. Though it looks very similar to 習 “to review”, the two are not related.  actually evolved from this Bronze Inscription [金文] form 7, which was also used in the Chǔ script [楚系文字] of the Warring States period, as can be seen in these examples 8 (I love the Chǔ script!). According to Chi Hsiu Sheng [季旭昇], the bottom half of  is 一 and 白 (but pronounced like 自, not bái), which is a corruption of an earlier 甘 gān9. Had it survived into modern times, it may have looked like this 10, the 甘 gān “sweet” component presumably emphasizing the pleasurable feeling of having a good friend. Prof. Tu (杜忠誥2002: 33) shows a possible path of the corruption from “two hand” to “wings” in the ancient [古文] form of 友:

Each step in this diagram shows a step towards corruption. (a) and (b) are still easily recognizable as a pair of hands, but then the roundness of the outer fingers becomes more and more square in (c) and (d), such that (d) is already completely square and looks like something in between the “two hands” form and the form for “wings” [羽]. Later scribes then interpret it to be something similar to “wings” and help it along by making it look more like “wings”, until finally in (e) and (f), all resemblance to “two hands” is lost. This is one of the ways that character corruption happens (see 杜忠誥2002:33-34).

Character corruption by way of misunderstanding a character’s form

An example of corruption that stems from misunderstanding a character’s form would be 滙, which is a variant form [異體] of 匯 huì “gather together”.  The Shuōwén analyzes it as 从匚淮聲 (This is a common formula used by the Shuōwén. “从X” means that X is a meaning component; “Y聲” means that Y is a sound component). According to the book Tracing the Origins of Simplified Characters11 [《簡化字溯源》]12, the 滙 form is a very late form, appearing first in the Qīng dynasty [清朝]. It is most likely the result of someone not understanding that 淮 Huái “name of a river” is the sound component for 匯. Being used to seeing the meaning component 氵shuǐ  “water” appear on the left side, that person got nervous by it being inside of the 匚, so they “helped” out by putting it on the left side (this type of process is called analogy)13. The modern simplified form 汇 goes a step further by getting rid of the 隹, which at this point was just hanging out not doing anything useful anyway. Here, we can see that 匯 loses its sound component to corruption.


By looking at parts of the etymologies for 面, 友and 匯, we learned a little about the most two common reasons for character corruption, the process of writing itself and the writer misunderstanding a character’s form. Stay tuned for our next post which will explore the various types of character corruption by way of explaining the etymologies of 黑、粦、折 & 制!

Please note that the etymological entries in our dictionary will be more of a summary. Here, we’re trying to make the most of the blog format to get people interested in paleography and to show some of the behind-the-scenes research involved in developing the dictionary.

1. The English translation here is my own.
2. 杜忠誥,《說文篆文訛形釋例》,台北市:文史哲出版社,2002年。
3. This obviously doesn’t apply to the process of listening and copying, which is subject to its own set of problems.
4. This oracle bone character form was taken from Academia Sinica’s 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).
5. This form was taken from Academia Sinica’s 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).
6. The Shuōwén defines ancient forms [古文] as all characters created before the forms that appear in the Shǐzhòupiān [史籀篇] (according to tradition was written during the reign of King Xuān of Zhōu [周宣王; 827 to 782 BCE]).
7. This character comes from the 毛公旅方鼎. The digital image used here was taken from Academia Sinica’s 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).
8. #1 comes from 《江陵天星觀1號墓卜筮簡》, #2 from 《荊門郭店楚墓竹簡‧六德》 and #3 from 《荊門郭店楚墓竹簡‧語叢3》; their digital images come from Academia Sinica’s 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).
9. 季旭昇《說文新證》上冊,藝文印書館印行,第196-197頁。
10. Note that the 甘 gān “sweet” and 曰 yuē “to say” forms are very similar and are often confused for one another historically. Both forms derive from 口 kǒu “mouth”, showing something in the mouth; “something sweet and pleasant” for 甘 and a “symbol showing movement” for 曰。季旭昇《說文新證》上冊,藝文印書館印行,第379-381頁。The Chǔ forms shown above are 从曰.
11. The English translation here is my own.
12. 張書岩、王鐵昆、李青梅、安宁 編著,《簡化字溯源》,北京:語文出版社,1997.11,256頁。
13. This is my own explanation. Though I don’t have any direct proof, it is nevertheless very likely this form came about by the process of analogy. Earlier generations understood it to be 从匚淮聲 which makes sense phonologically, meaning-wise and form-wise, while the 滙 form doesn’t make sense from a meaning-component or sound-component perspective.

5 comments on “Looking at the Etymologies for 面, 友 and 匯”

  1. Lawrence J. Howell Reply

    Before anything else, gentlemen, allow me to express admiration for the level of research and the quality of writing and exposition you bring to this project, which is the best thing to happen in the field of Chinese character studies for many a year. May your crowd funding campaign be a huge success. Moving on to the point in hand: “If any given author or book never mentions character corruption in their etymological explanations, chances are very good that you are reading or hearing spurious etymologies.” I think the phenomenon you label “character corruption” is better described in less disputatious terms, with “substitute” or “replace” being perfectly adequate. You yourselves use the first of these in a later post where (speaking of 美) you write, “The component 羊 substitutes for the headdress …” Further, the word “corruption” in this context is loaded. Employing it compels us to defend as fact the supposition that animal bones and turtle plastrons are the earliest writing media upon which the characters were recorded. Are you possessed of evidence that the oracle bone forms equate with the earliest forms of the characters, as opposed to being merely the earliest extant media? If so, do tell. Again, best wishes for this project.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Thanks for the complements and for contacting us! As to “corruption”, this is merely a translation of the Chinese term 訛變, which is the standard way this type of change is referred to in the literature. It’s called corruption because the intention of the inventor(s) of a given character gets re-interpreted by later generations, often breaking the original form’s structure. Taking 美 as example: the original form *person wearing a headdress* being used to represent the concept of “beauty” gets changed into “big sheep” equals “beauty”. The latter explanation has never set well with me and I was very relieved to find out that the ancient Chinese weren’t so into sheep that they used them as the very representation of beauty. The physical medium that any given character was first written on isn’t relevant per se as different characters first appear at different times throughout history and thus on different physical media. I think what’s really important is what meanings/sounds (i.e., spoken word(s)) were represented by any given form in the context that it first appears (regardless of whether that was turtle shells/bronze/bamboo/wood/cloth/whatever).

      • Lawrence J. Howell Reply

        Right. We concur about the existence of 訛變, and I don’t dispute that “corruption” is the standard English rendering in scholarly writing. To reiterate, my concern here is that readers of your post who proceed to examine character interpretations in which the 訛變 phenomenon is described with terms other than “corruption” may conclude on this basis alone that they are dealing with spurious etymologies. I wish to clarify that the 訛變 phenomenon can be equally well established (or, on account of the consideration described below, is better established) via the use of nomenclature carrying less freight than “corruption.” As for “The physical medium that any given character was first written on isn’t relevant per se …”: Absolutely. However, my point hinges not on the particular medium of the earliest extant forms of the characters but rather on the liability for the rendering “corruption” to lead students to reason: “In order to speak of corrupt forms, there must of necessity also be uncorrupted forms. The uncorrupted forms must be identical with the earliest extant forms.” In fact, given the sketchy state of evidence for pre-oracle bone forms, this conclusion is unsustainable. For that reason I submit it is preferable when writing in English for a non-specialist readership to render 訛變 with more neutral descriptors such as substitute, replace, transform, alter etc.

        • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

          The comment you are referring to isn’t focused on terminology, but on substance. One of the characteristics of spurious etymologies is that they ignore the phenomenon of corruption. It doesn’t matter what term you attach to the phenomenon. What matters is that you take such things into account. Since “corruption” is the standard term, that’s the one we use here.

          Paleographers aren’t unaware of the possibility of earlier forms. In fact, I think it’s well known that it is likely that the Shang used bamboo or something similar to what was used in Warring States (I’m going by memory here, so be kind). I don’t think it logically follows that if there are uncorrupted forms they must be the same as the earliest extant forms. In fact, there are quite a number of oracle bone characters that paleographers have yet to crack. It could very well be that some of these are corrupted versions of earlier forms. It could even be that some of the earlier forms that we do understand are corrupted versions of even earlier forms that we don’t have access to. I don’t think this is controversial in any way. Just like everyone else, paleographers have to work with the data that they have access to. When new data comes to light, it gets incorporated.

          In addition to “corruption” being the standard term, I also find it a better descriptor than merely saying something is “transformed”. Characters exist to do a job. That job is to represent spoken words. Spoken words are sound-meaning combinations. Therefore, we can judge any given form by how well it does the job of representing sound and meaning. Ex. The 土 in 達 is a corruption of an earlier 大, which was both a form and a sound component. 土, however, is an empty component. It doesn’t give a sound or a meaning. Beyond that, it muddies up the water for the character as a whole. This isn’t merely the changing or transforming of a character form, the form actually suffers damage. I find “corruption” to be an apt descriptor here. Note also that, if memory serves me well, 達 isn’t the earliest extant form. That would be 达. So, whether a given form is corrupted or not does not necessarily hinge upon the earliest extant form. It hinges upon many factors.

  2. Lawrence J. Howell Reply

    Thank you. It is now perfectly clear to me why you favor “corruption.” Nonetheless, and for the very reason that you touch upon in your discussion of uncorrupted forms vis-à-vis the earliest extant forms (lack of certitude of the original forms), I continue to prefer terms less fraught with connotations of purity of lineage. It has been a pleasure discoursing with individuals deeply versed in Chinese characters who express themselves so lucidly, and I await with tremendous anticipation the fruit of your collective labor.

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