A case of abandonment

The seal character at the left (a) is the most ancient form of 弃 (qì), which means ‘to discard, abandon’. To the right of it (c) is it’s modern form. It can often be seen in 抛弃 (pāoqì), which has the same meaning. The character depicts a situation that was unfortunately rather common in ancient times (and even in not so ancient times) in China and in some other countries when modern methods for birth control were not available. At the top is the inverted form of 子 (, son or daughter), indicating a child that is just born, with the head forward, and therefore turned upside down. Below that are two hands. The meaning is as clear as it is gruesome: a child that is being thrown away. Later a fork or shovel was added (b), which became the basis for the traditional character next to it (d).

An interesting legend is connected with this character, because it was the name of the person who became known as the ‘Lord of Millet’, or  (Hòu Jì), as he is known in China. According to the Wikipedia, there are two versions of the events surrounding his birth. According to one, he was one of the four sons of emperor Ku, who was one of the five sage emperors of Chinese mythology. According to the other, described in some detail on Baike.baidu, he was supernaturally conceived when his mother, while walking in the mountains, found a huge foot print. Greatly amazed by what she had found, she couldn’t resist the temptation to step into the foot print. Just at the moment when her foot sank in the print of the big toe, she felt something stirring inside her, which made her afraid and worried that something bad might have happened. When ten (Chinese) months later she gave birth to a child, and fearing that the child would appear to be a monster (妖), she decided to abandon him. Though she tried three times to leave the child at a spot in the surrounding countryside, each time the child was miraculously saved by animals. At last, when she found it alive and well for the third time, she understood that the king of heaven (上帝 Shàngdì) must have been protecting him, and that the footprint had been his. She decided to take care of the child and bring him up, and gave him the name 弃 (qì).

During his younger years he was fond of working the land and plant and improve crops. He is mostly credited with teaching people to work the land and plant millet, rice, beans, hemp and gourds. It was said that he saved many lives during a famine that lasted seven years just by teaching people these skills. He was made Director of Grains, which position he held during the Yao and Shun periods. It was during that period that he became known as the Lord of Millet (Hou Ji). According to the Wikipedia, however, it was emperor Tang of the Shang dynasty who conferred the title of Hou Ji posthumously on him and ordered rites to be installed to commemorate him. That meant that people would burn incense in his honour and in the hope that his spirit would ensure a bountiful harvest. However that may be, he is mostly known under that name, that we know as the Lord of Millet.

Abandoning newly born children seems a horrible way of solving the problem of overpopulation, but people had few other choices until fairly recent times. When Christian missionaries in the early days of contacts between the European countries and China found that the practice was fairly common in some areas, they sometimes asked the parents to give them the child in order to bring it up by themselves. Sometimes the parents would consent, but not always. One of the missionaries wrote once that the crying of a baby was so heart rending that it could bring a stone to tears.

During my sixteen years of contacts with Chinese students as a teacher in Guangzhou I have found that norms and values are in general not very different from those in the west. What people in western countries consider as cruel and immoral is almost always exactly the same as in China (with the possible exception of the death penalty). It is also good to note that norms change over time. In my own country, the Netherlands, we had pretty cruel customs when it came to, for example, punishing people for things that at present we may not approve of, but would not punish at all, or at least not in a cruel manner. Amsterdam is a city with history, and people have found reasons to establish museums dedicated to all kinds of things. Even to things like sex, and, yes, to torture. Such museums with rather extreme topics are located at spots mostly frequented by tourists. No doubt to make money, but maybe it helps to keep us humble about our past, and not to condemn other cultures without knowing the background.

Let’s talk about punishment

It’s very likely that you have never seen the character at the top left, or its seal original below that. But most will have seen it in contracted form as a part of some very familiar characters, such as 新 (xīn; new) and 親 (qīn; family), also written 亲 in simplified form. It’s original meaning is quite interesting, and may make it easier to remember these important derived forms.

From the figure at the top left it is easy to see that it consists of 辛 (xīn; spicy) on top and 木 (mù; tree) below. What does that add up to? It becomes clear if you look at the original meaning of 辛, which was based on 干, which most people may know as meaning ‘dry’, or ‘to do’.  It’s original meaning was, however, ‘to grind’, as it represents a pestle. It’s extended meaning was ‘to oppose; to offend’. To this another stroke was added, and the meaning changed to ‘a repeated or very serious offense’. The third change was the placement of ‘二‘ on top, to indicate that a serious or repeated offense was made against a superior. ‘二‘ originally referred to ‘above’, or ‘heaven’. And this brings us to 辛, which is the modern form. The meaning became ‘chastisement; bitterness; pain’.

And on who was the pain inflicted, and how? According to Leon Wieger the character stands for the wood of the hazel tree that was used to beat criminals, or suspects during interrogation. When it was made part of 新 and 親 it was contracted by merging the lower horizontal stroke of 辛 with that in 木.

So, 新 is the combination of – at the left side – young branches, and at the right is 斤 (jīn, axe), and therefore: young branches just cut off, or new, fresh.

親 (simplified: 亲) is a combination of the same young branches with 見  (jiàn; to see) (simplified: 见) at the right-hand side. It is explained as: the people who are constantly within one’s view, or family, relatives. The left-hand 亲 would then serve as phonetic. Maybe that sounds a bit as a stretch of the imagination? At least, that was what I thought. And considering that phonetics were often not only chosen for the sound, but also for the meaning, I came up with another explanation. Maybe 亲 should be taken in its original sense: young branches, cut off from the tree, but still within view, within reach. Like young people who were once children with a close relationship with their parents. When becoming adults they are becoming more independent, like branches being cut off. While branches have no connection anymore with the parent tree after being cut off, children always remain within reach, emotionally or even physically. And so, we are all branches cut off from a tree, but still within its view.

Well, let me know if you think that makes sense, or that you prefer the explanation of the experts. Anyway, I hope it helps you to remember their sound and meaning.

In the CCD you can find these characters, and other characters that have them as phonetic, in the first section, and all the etymological explanations I have discussed. Not only for the phonetics I mentioned, but for all phonetics discussed in the book. Just check the phonetics table at the beginning of the section to find out where they are.

Let’s talk about war!

Do you remember 阝, a radical which I discussed in an earlier post. It appears in hundreds of characters, and when it stands to the left of a phonetic it usually indicates that the character has something to do with walls. However, its original meaning was “earth works”, “mound’, “dam”, etc. This important radical also plays a role in a now obsolete character: 隓, pronounced as duò and shown above in its seal script shape. According to Leon Wieger in his book Chinese Characters, 阝 here stands for a line of fortifications built by the besiegers of a town. At the right-hand side is twice the character 左 (zuǒ), which usually means left, but is here used in another meaning: ‘unconventional’, or ‘against’, and indicates that the actions of the besiegers were directed against the town. It is doubled to indicate that the actions of the besiegers were repeated. So, the complete character means “to attack”, or “to destroy”.

Though not being used anymore in its original form, in contracted form it still is, like in 隋 (suí), in which the lower 左 was replaced by “meat”. The meaning of the character became “meat cut up”. Later this meaning was not used anymore, and instead, as often happened with characters, it came to represent something else, in this case the name of the Sui dynasty, which ruled the country from 581 to 618. 隋 can also be seen infrequently as a surname.

隋 can more often be seen as phonetic in several popular characters. One is 墮 (duò, fall, sink), in simplified script written as 堕. Here the 土 (tǔ, ground) radical was added to indicate the idea of falling, or sinking. I can only remember having seen this character in 墮胎 (duòtāi), which means ‘induced abortion’. It also appears as phonetic in 隨 (simplified: 随), pronounced suí, in which the well-known radical for ‘to go on foot’ was added. 隨 stands for ‘to follow’. The first time I learned it was in the expression 隨便 (随便), meaning: ‘casual’, or ‘as you like it’. For example, if you ask another person where they want to go for lunch, they might answer with this expression, meaning that it’s up to you. 隨(随) is also used in a phrase like: 我随我爸爸 (I take after my father). If you’re a beginning student of Chinese, then you may want to remember these two characters: 墮(堕) and 隨(随), and the expressions I mentioned.

A completely new way of arranging characters

In the CCD, all characters are grouped into series, and each series is headed by an identifier called the series header (or just ‘header’), which is the part that characters of one series have in common.  For most characters this header is just what is commonly called the phonetic part of the character, the part that indicates the sound.

For example, take a look at these two series, one is headed by 夗, (yuān), the other by 宛 (wăn).

I always had difficulty distinguishing between characters like 怨, 宛, 碗, 婉, which are all used quite frequently. But with this arrangement I can find them quickly and compare them and refresh my memory. So you’re not studying one character at a time, but several over a space of time. Learning about the meaning of phonetics and radicals can also help.

In all there are about 1800 series, with 1800 headers. These headers are combinations of a total of 393 different components. Series are clustered into 393 character tables (CTs), based on one of the components that headers have in common. The example above was taken from the character table of 夕, and therefore, all other headers  in that CT also contain this component, such as 舛, 桀, 粦, 外, 岁, 名, 罗, et cetera. In all there are 19 series headers in this CT, each of which is at the head of one series consisting of a number of characters. If you want to find a character in this CT, then you have to look for the header that forms part of the character you are looking for. At the beginning of each CT is a list with all headers that can be found in that particular CT.

In their turn, character tables are bundled into 17 sections, based on a common feature of the component they have in common. For example, the CT of  夕, can be found in section 2, because that is the section with components that consist of two slanting strokes to the left connected by a horizontal one, such as  勹 , 勿, 芻,  夕, 歹, 夂, 攵, et cetera.

All 393 components that define a character table have been gathered in an ordered list, called the Main Components Table (MCT). This table consists of 17 categories, and each category corresponds with one of the 17 sections with CTs. The MCT defines a certain order among the 393 components, which is important for locating headers and characters. For example, 匐 consists of 勹, 口, and 田 . In which CT should it be located, in that of 勹, 口, or 田? Or in all three? The rule to be used here is simply to take the component that is first in the order established by the MCT, because in that CT header and characters that have 匐 as header can be found.

See also:

Background of the MCT for more information about how this list was set up, and more details about its role is for the arrangement of characters in the CCD.

How to use the CCD for information on the role of the MCT for looking up characters and some examples.

Representatives for details about how to know in which category a particular component can be found. Once users are familiar with these they do not longer have to reference the MCT each time, but can go directly to the section containing the character.

Header tables for an example of the tables with header lists that can be found at the beginning of each section. With the help of these tables users can quickly find any character within a particular section.

 

About the origin of respect (敬 jìng)

Pronounced: jìng. At the left-hand side of the modern form 敬 is 苟 (jì), which in this case is derived from 勹 (envelop), 口 (mouth), and the component on top of 勹, which stands for the horns of a goat. The first two should be taken together: a mouth that is enveloped, or restricted, not being able to speak freely. This meaning is emphasized by the horns on top, which were changed into 艹 (grass), and is a plant that goats love to munch, preferable while staring into the distance. Maybe they are having some deep thoughts, maybe about how simple and wonderful life can be if you are a born goat. Sometimes it’s what I also like to do: stare in the distance, munching something, and having some deep thoughts. Usually I’m sitting, though. So there’s at least one difference between me and a goat. Most important is that they are not running around, but standing still. And that is what the meaning is in this character: to stand still. By the way, 苟 has also another pronunciation (gŏu), which has a different origin. See the CCD for details.

Therefore, the combined meaning of the components that make up 苟 is: somebody who is standing still, not being able to speak freely or to move freely. The reason for this is provided by the element at the right, which is the radical 攵, which stands for ‘stick’, but should here be taken in its extended meaning ‘authority’.

So, the person from the character doesn’t dare to speak freely or to move because of some kind of authority. Could be a parent, or a teacher, or the government. In any case, this person is  fearful, or at least respectful, of the authority. And that is the meaning of 敬: respect.

While slipping into my goat-like nature munching a sandwich while sitting still on a bench in a park in Hong Kong I was musing about the connection between ‘respect’ and ‘authority’. I wondered whether they always go together. Here on the subway for example, people tend to give up their seat for an elderly person or a pregnant woman. Clearly, they do that out of respect, though they are not fearful of that person. Can we still say that such an elderly person or pregnant woman has ‘authority’? Maybe not. On the other hand, suppose you are aware of somebody who is pregnant, but do not stand up, how would you feel? You are not sitting as peaceful anymore as before. You would feel guilty, you are not doing something that most people in society hold for the right thing to do. So, in fact, these people are having a certain influence, or power, granted them on account of their situation by the society. Sometimes, their authority can be awesome.

Well, that was a lot of ado about one character. Hope you like it.

Origin of 危: danger

危 is used a lot, in words like 危险 (wēi xiǎn, danger). But what is the origin of this character? Looking at the ancient seal character, it is not hard to distinguish the character for “man” (人) on top. The man stands on 厂, which here represents the steep slope of a mountain. Experts do not agree about the form below. According to Baidu.com it represents a part of a bone of a human leg, and the character should be explained as: somebody standing on a high cliff, and with the extended meaning of “high, dangerous”. Leon Wieger, however, who based himself on unspecified Chinese sources, says that it represents the ancient form of 卩 (seal).  The extended meaning of that is “authority, rule, just measure”, to name a few. In this case it should be interpreted as “to restrict”. The combined meaning would then be: somebody standing on the edge of a steep cliff and restricting their motions. In other words: dangerous.

A book is like …

     Ancient wisdom:

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

In traditional Chinese: 書是隨時攜帶的花園

In simplified Chinese: 书是随时携带的花园

In pinyin: shū shì suí shí xié dài de huā yuán

These and other old and modern Chinese sayings you can find in the Chinese Character Dictionary:

www.chinesecharacterdictionary.nl

 

 

 

 

 

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The origin of 敬 (jìng, respect)

At the left-hand side of 敬 is 苟, which in this case is derived from 勹 (envelop), 口 (mouth), and (horns of a goat). The first two should be taken together: a mouth that is enveloped, or restricted, not being able to speak freely. This meaning is emphasized by the horns on top, which were changed into 艹 (grass), and is a plant that goats love to munch, preferable while staring into the distance. Maybe they are having some deep thoughts, maybe about how simple and wonderful life can be if you are a born goat. Sometimes it’s what I also like to do: stare in the distance, munching something, and having some deep thoughts. Usually I’m sitting, though. So there’s at least one difference between me and a goat. Most important is that they are not running around, but standing still. And that is what the meaning is in this character: to stand still. By the way, 苟 has also another origin. See the CCD for details.

Therefore, the combined meaning of the components that make up 苟 is: somebody who is standing still, not being able to speak freely or to move freely. The reason for this is provided by the element at the right, which is the radical 攵, which stands for ‘stick’, but should here be taken in its extended meaning ‘authority’.

So, the person from the character doesn’t dare to speak freely or to move because of some kind of authority. Could be a parent, or a teacher, or the government. In any case, this person is  fearful, or at least respectful, of the authority. And that is the meaning of 敬: respect.

While slipping into my goat-like nature munching a sandwich while sitting still on a bench in a park in Hong Kong I was musing about the connection between ‘respect’ and ‘authority’. I wondered whether they always go together. Here on the subway for example, people tend to give up their seat for an elderly person or a pregnant woman. Clearly, they do that out of respect, though they are not fearful of that person. Can we still say that such an elderly person or pregnant woman has ‘authority’? Maybe not. On the other hand, suppose you are aware of somebody who is pregnant, but do not stand up, how would you feel? You are not sitting as peaceful anymore as before. You’ll feel guilty, you are not doing something that most people in society hold for the right thing to do. So, in fact, these people are having a certain influence, or power, granted them on account of their situation by the society.

Well, that was a lot of ado about one character. Hope you like it.