December 25, 2022

愛 爱 Love Chinese character etymology and structure

A friend of mine, a western native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, who grew up in Taiwan, recently embarked on the journey of learning how to read Chinese. He sent me a few pages of a book that he is reading to help him understand the Chinese writing system better and asked for my opinion. 

A few minutes of reading it turned into a few hours of thinking, writing and research and I thought I would publish my reply to him about one specific section in this book as an article on my blog as it covers a few interesting concepts and recurring themes. 

In the introduction, the author uses the character 愛 as an example to teach his students that quote "100% (not a single exception) of Chinese words is composed of root words. (sic)". The author's writing is a bit difficult to understand, and there was context before and after this sentence that would make it a bit clearer, but what the author essentially tried to say was that with every single Chinese character, it is possible to tell what this or that Character means just by understanding what roots it consists of, which can always be seen clearly in the character itself. A simple example would be looking at the Chinese character 人 and seeing that it is a person. 

The author then proceeds to further demonstrate this with the character 愛 and as we will see, his system unfortunately falls apart. He writes:

愛 (love) is the composite of (sic):

1. Top part of 受 (receiving) which means holding hands (sic)

2. 心 (hearts (sic))

3. Bottom part of 夏 (Summer) which means walking slowly (sic).

So love is that hearts hold hands and walk slowly together (sic).

I think it should be obvious that this is storytelling and not scientific research, and I think it is also important to prove why the author is wrong. 

First of all, arbitrarily deciding that the 愛 character is formed by ripping off the top of 受 and the bottom of 夏 and putting a 心 between them because it fits our explanation is like working with a completely faulty set of equations while solving a math problem and then arbitrarily changing the resulting number after the equal sign to the one we want manually so that it fits our teacher's correct result. 

As for the etymology of 愛 I never researched this character before, I convened my little etymology research team consisting of me and my TW friend:) and this is what we found out:

First, let's make the character a bit bigger:

Just by looking at it we cannot really tell what elements/roots/radicals/standalone characters etc. the character 愛 is made of, as the author says. We see 心 xin1 - heart in the middle, we see 夊 sui1 - walk slowly at the bottom. The top however is 爫over 冖 which is clearly a simplification/fusion of something that was there before but we cannot recognise it now. 

Next, we go to the 說文解字 dictionary and see that the definition of 愛 is 愛:行皃。从夊㤅聲。

The definition says: 愛 is a type of an appearance a person has when walking. It consists of 㤅 ai4 phonetic over 夊 "to walk slowly" semantic. 

There are two interesting things to notice here:

1) The claim of 說文解字 is that 愛 ai4 is a phono-semantic compound character consisting of a phonetic element 㤅 ai4 giving it its sound and a semantic element 夊 sui1 giving it its meaning.
2) Apparently 愛 originally did not mean 'love' and acquired this meaning later.

Since the 說文解字 dictionary can sometimes be wrong in its definition of characters, and since we do not see 㤅 over 夊 in 愛 but rather 爫over 冖 over 心 over 夊 we continue our research and do a cross-check with the Seal script version of 愛 and we see that in the Seal script 愛 was written as:

Another datapoint is to try to find a more conservative Regular script version of 愛 which we found:

Even though close, this however is still not  㤅 ai4 over 夊 sui1 as 说文解字 says, so we have to work with the Seal script as the elements seem to be well preserved in it. Searching old dictionaries we can see the components of the Seal script 愛 to be:


Doing a reverse search from the Seal script to the Regular script, we can see, that these really are the 㤅 ai4 phonetic over the 夊 sui1 - "walk slowly" semantic in the regular script as mentioned in 說文解字 so the definition is correct and we can say that:

愛 is a phono semantic compound character, which originally meant "a type of an appearance a person has when walking", now it means "love", how it got this meaning we do not know and it consists of 㤅 ai4 phonetic over 夊 sui1 - "walk slowly" semantic, which when combined, the top of 㤅 was simplified to 爫over 冖 arbitrarily so that the end result now is 愛. 

The simplified character 爱 is then a further arbitrary simplification of the elements in 愛 and it is fair to stress that the traditional 愛 is already a simplification of 㤅 over 夊. 

Interestingly, 㤅 itself used to mean 'love' and is formed by 旡 ai4 phonetic over 心 semantic. Btw, interestingly, the bopomofo for "ai" is ㄞ which is similar to 旡 ai4, but that's probably just a coincidence. 

This research took about 45 minutes and was done by me and my Taiwanese friend who have experience doing this, just to give you an idea about how difficult it is to prove the etymology of this or that character. Especially fused ones. I wanted to write this article also because face-value storytelling and poetic explanations of the structure of Chinese characters are commonplace among native Chinese speakers and foreigners alike and I would like to gradually bring awareness to the fact that Chinese character etymology is actually a real science and an established scientific field and shift the understanding of how Chinese characters actually really work from this sort of prolific storytelling to logical fact-based and rigorous science. 


  1. greetings from russia, your creativity is great!

  2. For some reason I stopped getting newsletters, but I resubscribed for good articles like this. Thank you

    1. Hi Bea. Thanks for the comment. I'll resend the newsletter again.

  3. Thank you - wonderful work !