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.

Published by


After ten years working as database programmer in the Netherlands, I moved to China in 1991 and began to study Chinese. During my study of the language I started to develop my own character dictionary to help me with looking up and remembering characters. In 2016 it was self-published through Amazon. Since 2018 I have been living in Hong Kong, while still working on the dictionary and trying to get attention for it among potential customers.

Leave a Reply