February 24, 2019

Chinese character Zen storytelling

So an innocent question under one of my videos about Chinese character etymology
(https://youtu.be/Svb7rulL5aE) led me to about an hour of research and I wrote a reply to the comment which I thought was worth publishing as an entire article on my blog. Gotta love science :)

The main reason why I thought this comment was worth publishing as an article was (apart from the fact that it was hopefully good research and took some time), that it is absolutely paramount to understand that people should be scientific and very careful not to interpret the structure of Chinese characters purely based on what they see today and resort to or believe Chinese character Zen story telling. I really can't stress this enough.

As Wikipedia teaches us about the Scientific method: "It (the Scientific method) involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation."

This could not be more true when it comes to Chinese characters.

The character I analyzed 黎 (which is today pronounced lí and today means 'many, numerous') is today structurally made up of 禾 (grain) 人 (person) 水 (water) and a mysterious 勹 + 丿

I could come up with 20 different Zen combinations as to how grain + person + water + (勹 + 丿)  could mean 'many, numerous'. Try it yourself before you read the rest of the article and compare it to what I wrote. Just for the fun of it and just off the top of my head:

黎 character

Modern meaning: many, numerous
Modern pronunciation: lí

Structural composition today:

禾 (grain)
人 (person)
水 (water)
and a mysterious 勹 + 丿

Top of head, seemingly cool interpretation:

'It's a person having to endure the burden of a lot of work because he has to irrigate a lot of grain with a lot of water'. All pointing to the meaning 'many, numerous'.

Let's pretend the 勹 + 丿 is not even there.

It took me, as someone who has spent a lot of time researching Chinese characters, about 30-60 minutes of research with a lot of modern tools to really understand the structure of this character and there still are blind spots in the analysis as you will see. What I'm trying to say is that if someone gives you a cool, funny, mysterious, 'Zen' interpretation of a character (like: 'It's a person having to endure the burden of a lot of work because he has to irrigate a lot of grain with a lot of water' in the case of 黎), please be very skeptical. There usually is much much more to it. Based on the difficulty of researching only this one character hopefully you will be able to appreciate why being scientific is a good thing.

Here is the question asked:

The character 黎 has a 小篆 (seal script) . But the upper right component does not seem to occur as a character on its own, I haven't found any explanation or lexical entry for this component. Does it occur elsewhere but with a different shape?

Here is my response:

I researched the character a bit and it's an interesting case. Here's what I think is happening.

The basics:

First we need to establish what type of a character 黎 is.

黎 is a 形聲字 (phono-semantic compound character, meaning one part gives you the meaning another part the reading).

Meaning: 'numerous, many'
Pronunciation: lí

Semantic element (形符): the bottom 水 pointing to the meaning 'numerous, many'
Phonetic element (聲符): the top 𥝢 lì (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%F0%A5%9D%A2) pointing to the pronunciation lí

The way we establish that 黎  is a phono-semantic character is that we clearly identify one phonetic element and clearly identify one semantic element in the character (usually one, but in a few rare cases there can be more than one semantic element).

We first observe that a part of the character, in this case specifically the top 𥝢 lì matches the pronunciation of 黎 lí and we thus have a good hint that the 黎 character as a whole is a phono-semantic character and that 𥝢 is its phonetic element.

However we need to further confirm this as it may be a coincidence. There are several ways of doing this, but one of the ways is to look for other characters where 𥝢 is the phonetic element to establish that 𥝢 is used as a phonetic element in general (or at least in this particular character). In this case it was relatively easy to prove. There are plenty of other characters with the pronunciation of lì/lí where 𥝢 is the phonetic (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%F0%A5%9D%A2%2B).

We thus established that 𥝢 is the phonetic element in 黎 and we move on to check whether the remainder of the character (水 in this case)matches the semantic value of 黎 to see whether we have enough information to confirm that 黎 is a phono-semantic character.

水 points to the meaning 'many, numerous' ('water' does of course not mean 'a lot' but it roughly points to the meaning 'a lot' which is the general practice with Chinese characters) and personally don't think there is a need to prove this. we have thus confirmed that 黎 is a phono-semantic character with 𥝢 pointing to its reading and 水 to its meaning.

Structural explanation of 黎 :

When they were creating the Seal script version of 黎 (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%E9%BB%8E) for some reason, they looked at the character not as 𥝢 over 水 but rather 黍 and 勹 + 丿。 That is the reason for 人 over 水 in 黎 because if you look at the seal script of 黍 (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%E9%BB%8D) you can clearly see the 'legs' of 禾 'hugging' the bottom 水 so when they created 黎 they 'ripped' away the top of 禾 and placed it to the top left leaving 人  over 水 at the bottom and placed the 勹 + 丿at the top right.

Notice that the 'ripped away' bottom of 禾 is written as 人 (person) in 黎 but the meaning 'person' has nothing to do with the meaning of the 黎 character. It was chosen because Modern Chinese characters have a certain formatting and 人 best matched what was left of the ripped away bottom of 禾 and should be properly described as Cjk m str t.svg plus Cjk m str p.svg and not 人 to avoid the semantic misunderstandings I mentioned earlier.

So much for the structural part explaining why is 黎 made of 禾 人 水 and 勹+丿

Now for the mysterious 勹+丿

If you look at the 𥝢 entry (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%F0%A5%9D%A2) you see that 利 is listed as a variant of 𥝢 and if you then go and look at the 利 entry (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%E5%88%A9) you can see another variant of 利 which is 𥝤 (https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%F0%A5%9D%A4).

So now we work with the idea that the top of 黎 is actually 利 and we have to analyze the 利 character if we want to figure out what the mysterious 勹 +丿 thing is:

According to 說文新証 (a scientific publication about Chinese character etymology) in 甲骨文 (an ancient form of Chinese writing) in the 利 character the right side (today written as刂 which is 刀) was usually written as 刀 but later also with one ( 勹 +丿) or two (勹 +丿+丿) more strokes.

So the authors are guessing the right side of 利 might have been:

1) the modern 刀
2) the modern 勿 (meaning 'scrape with a knife' at the time)
3) the modern 爪 (not necessarily meaning 爪 at the time as it might have only been a simplified 勿
4) the modern 刃 (not necessarily meaning 刃 at the time as it might have only been an 'ornamented' 刀)

I'm undecided, but my personal take on this is that  勹 +丿is only a more fancy 刀 but still it's the 刀 character.

Finally, in case we wonder whether the 勹 +丿 in 𥝢  is not 刀 勿 爪 or 刃 but rather the modern 勹 character with an added stroke, it's very probably not the case, because 勹 is a variant of 句 which is an evolutionary branch of the 丩 character (all according to the researchers from 說文新証)



and 勹 and 句 and 丩 were all written very differently than 刀 or 刃 or 爪 or 勿  and 勹 +丿 in 𥝢 is thus one of 刀 刃 爪 勿.

So answer your question, I personally think that the 勹 +丿 in 黎 is just a variant of the 刀 character and if you want to see it as a standalone character just look at 刀 。

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