The origin and corruption of 穆

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This article is based on a paper I (John) wrote for a course on character corruption at National Taiwan Normal University [國立台灣師範大學] last year. In it, we’ll look at the Shuōwén’s [說文] explanation for the character 穆 [ solemn, calm] and examine the current evidence to test the validity of that explanation. This is a demonstration of some of the research involved in developing our forthcoming dictionary, not a picture of what the dictionary’s content will look like.

The Shuōwén’s explanation for 穆 is: “A type of grain. From 禾 [ grain], sound from 㣎 []. [穆:禾也。从禾㣎聲。] The form given in the Shuōwén is:

穆 seal

At first glance, this seems like a reasonable explanation. Without looking further into it, you could explain the character like this using the Outlier system:

Form: 穆. Meaning component = 禾, sound component = 㣎 [].
Meaning: grain (original) → solemn, calm

Obviously, we would need to account for how the meaning evolved from “grain” to “solemn, calm,” but a detailed account of that will have to wait for another day1. Since this is a post on character corruption, we’ll be looking specifically at how the form evolved over time.

The earliest form of 穆 attested is in the oracle bone script [甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén] and looks like this2:

穆 oracle

The paleographer Yú Xǐngwú [于省吾]3 describes this as a “picture of a grain with husks like Miscanthus sinensis with its ears drooping down” [有芒潁之禾穗下垂形]. Later, another component was added:

穆 bronze

This component nearly always took the form of three or four diagonal lines, as in forms 5 and 7, which Hé Línyí [何琳儀] explains as “ornamental strokes” [飾筆 shìbǐ]4. But in form 6 it is clearly the water component [水 shuǐ]. Another change that happened was that the “ear” of grain ear got separated from the rest, as in form 6 above, 9-11 below, and all subsequent forms. So we can safely say that by the late Spring and Autumn period, the “ear” had split from the rest of the grain through the process of Disintegration [離析 líxī]. Since the stalk without the ear very closely resembles the character usually used to represent grain stalk, 禾 (禾), it was thereafter written that way.

穆 bronze and ceramic

Form 11 above is interesting. It seems that the writer wrote the ear as  目 [ eye], probably mistaking it as a sound component. There is an attested variant of 目 written much like that component in form 11, found on the 45th bamboo strip of the Guōdiàn manuscript Wǔxíng [郭店·五行]:

guodian 目

By this point, the character has now gone from a single entity depicting a stalk of grain to something with three components: 禾 grain, a separated ear that was written in various ways (commonly resembling 日 or 白, often with the husks still attached), and the component composed of three to four diagonal lines underneath the ear which might be a corruption of 水 but are likely just “ornamental strokes” [飾筆 shìbǐ].

The last major corruption was for the husks to separate from the ear. This was attested once in form 10 above (not to mention the position of the husks shifted), but not until the Hàn Dynasty [漢朝] was the change permanent (see 12-14). By way of analogy, the three lines representing the husks became 小 [xiǎo small], and that same understanding of the character is reflected in the form given in the Shuōwén (above).

穆 stamp and clerical

If we were to use the above information to create a sort of Platonic ideal representation of how the character evolved and corrupted over time, it would look something like this:


This character is a classic example of why you can’t trust the modern form when trying to understand why a character looks the way it does. Of all the components the character appears to have from a modern perspective (禾、白、小、彡), only 禾 might be said to have been part of the original form, and even that has been corrupted.

Ash is working on a post about “why you can’t trust your eyes,” but for now maybe this post will serve as an introduction to that idea and show you just how complex corruption can be.

Another important thing to take from this is that meaning is nearly always expressed by form on the component level (that is, what’s important is what the component depicts, not what it means). This character depicts grain, which is its original meaning. Other meanings of 穆 came later, and thus aren’t directly related to the form. The only meaning with a direct relationship to the form of any character is its original meaning. In this case, the later meanings are unrelated to the form because the character was borrowed to write similar-sounding words.

Trying to make sense of why 穆 means “solemn, calm” by looking at the form is an exercise in futility. And you certainly can’t add up the meaning of the components 禾、白、小、and 彡 to arrive at “solemn, calm” the way many people and books try to do. Too often, people try to explain characters in terms of what the components mean (expressing meaning by meaning) rather than what they depict (expressing meaning by form). In its earliest stages, the Chinese writing system was largely pictographic. Using components for their meaning rather than their form was something which came much later (after the Warring States period). I have a forthcoming post called “Getting Radical About Radicals” which explores this idea further and discusses the different functions a component may have.


1. The Hànyǔ Dà Zìdiǎn [漢語大字典] cites the Shuōwén, but notes that in Sound and Meaning in the Collected Classics [《一切經音義》], the Táng [唐] scholar Huì Lín [慧琳] quotes the Shuōwén’s definition of 穆 as “harmony” [和 hé]. The editors of the Hànyǔ Dà Zìdiǎn state that the oracle bone and bronze script versions of the character depicted the graceful manner of a sunflower and that the original meaning should be glossed as “harmonious” [和美]. [《說文》:“穆,禾也。从禾, 㣎聲。”按:慧琳《一切經音義》卷六“穆”下注引《說文》:“穆,和也。”甲骨、金文“穆”原表向日葵的風采,象形。本義當訓和美。] This seems reasonable, but there doesn’t seem to be any other evidence to support it. In oracle bone script, the character meant grain or was used as a place name, and it was likely borrowed later for its sound to represent other meanings like “solemn, calm.”

2. Sources for character forms as follows:

1, 3: 郭沫若《甲骨文合集》
2: 董作賓《殷墟文字甲編》
4: 中國社會科學院考古研究所編著《小屯南地甲骨》
5-10: 中國社會科學院考古研究所編《殷周金文集成(修訂增補本)》
11: 高明、葛英會《古陶文字徵》
12: 羅福頤《漢印文字徵》
13, 14: 漢語大字典字形組編《秦漢魏晉篆隸字形表》

3.于省吾《甲骨文字釋林》,中華書局 2009. Page 168.

4. 何琳儀《戰國古文字典》,中華書局 1998. Page 266.

2 comments on “The origin and corruption of 穆”

  1. Milan Reply

    Might it be that the added lines depict a (calm) body of water by which the plant grows, or husks which have shed? If the plant sheds its entire ear, the forms with a detached ear would be descriptive of an actual disintegration. Shedding of the ear/husks might also explain the use of the character for ‘solemn’.

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