Understanding Corruption in Chinese Characters (part 1) – Outlier Linguistics

Understanding Corruption in Chinese Characters (part 1)

Understanding Corruption in Chinese Characters (part 1) by

Looking at the Etymologies for 面, 友 and 匯

By Ash Henson

This is the first of several posts on the topic of character corruption. If you really want to understand how Chinese characters work, you cannot over look corruption and the role it plays. What does it mean for a character to become corrupt? Basically, it means that the character changes form in such a way that the original form intended by the inventor of that character is altered.

Take 面 miàn "face" for example:

The oracle bone form (a) is a picture of an eye inside of a larger frame -- a face. According to Lǐ Xiào-Dìng [李孝定], of the face's sensory organs, the most representative of a face is the eyes, hence form (a). Form (b) is from a Qín dynasty excavated text, where the eye [目] has been replaced with head 𦣻 (an earlier form of 首 shǒu). Forms (d) - (g) are from Hàn dynasty steles (stone tablets) (杜忠誥2002:138-143). In (d), you can see that the top line has really been exaggerated and this is the origin of the top stroke on the modern form for 面. Since this stroke was not intended by the inventor(s) of this character, it is a form of corruption. An uncorrupted form of 面 may have looked like this: 𡇌.

Sometimes these changes that occur via corruption are neutral; in other words, they don't affect the character's functional components (sound components or meaning components), but oftentimes corruption actually causes damage to a character's ability to express sound and/or meaning.

Why is this important?

Why is character corruption important? One reason is that if you're trying to understand a character form, and part of that character is corrupted, then any explanation you give to it (other than that it's the result of corruption) is going to be inaccurate. Another major reason has to do with being able to spot spurious etymologies (there will be a future post dedicated solely to explaining how to spot spurious etymologies). If any given author or book never mentions character corruption in their etymological explanations, chances are very good that you are reading or hearing spurious etymologies. That's not to say that all characters are corrupted, but a significant amount are. Let's take look at the etymologies of some common characters to better understand the different ways that characters can become corrupted.

I'm going to be following along Tu Chung-kao's [杜忠誥] book Examples of Corrupted Forms in the Shuōwén's Small Seal Script1 [《說文篆文訛形釋例》] 2 since he does an excellent job of outlining the different types of corruption. According to Prof. Tu, the main two reasons for character corruption are:

1. the actual process of writing characters and

2. misunderstanding their structure [書寫與誤解] (杜忠誥2002:32).

When manuscripts are being copied by hand, it is easy for mistakes to happen either because the manuscript being copied isn't clear to begin with or if the scribe isn't being particularly careful3.

Corruption by way of writing (i.e., copying manuscripts)

Prof. Tu gives an example related to 友 yǒu "friend(s)":

友, (甲骨文) 4 was originally a picture of two right hands together (two 又), indicating friendship. 又 yòu also acts as a sound component.

The Shuōwén [說文] lists 5 as one of 友's ancient forms [古文]6. Though it looks very similar to 習 "to review", the two are not related. actually evolved from this Bronze Inscription [金文] form 7, which was also used in the Chǔ script [楚系文字] of the Warring States period, as can be seen in these examples 8 (I love the Chǔ script!). According to Jì Xù-shēng (季旭昇), the bottom half of is 一 and 白 (but pronounced like 自, not bái), which is a corruption of an earlier 甘 gān.9 Had it survived into modern times, it may have looked like this image10, the 甘 gān "sweet" component presumably emphasizing the pleasurable feeling of having a good friend. Prof. Tu shows a possible path of the corruption from "two hand" to "wings" in the ancient [古文] form of 友:

Each step in this diagram shows a step towards corruption. (a) and (b) are still easily recognizable as a pair of hands, but then the roundness of the outer fingers becomes more and more square in (c) and (d), such that (d) is already completely square and looks like something in between the "two hands" form and the form for "wings" [羽]. Later scribes then interpret it to be something similar to "wings" and help it along by making it look more like "wings", until finally in (e) and (f), all resemblance to "two hands" is lost. This is one of the ways that character corruption happens (see 杜忠誥2002:33-34).

Character corruption by way of misunderstanding a character's form

An example of corruption that stems from misunderstanding a character's form would be 滙, which is a variant form [異體] of 匯 huì "gather together". The Shuōwén analyzes it as 从匚淮聲 (This is a common formula used by the Shuōwén. "从X" means that X is a meaning component; "Y聲" means that Y is a sound component). According to the book Tracing the Origins of Simplified Characters11 [《簡化字溯源》]12, the 滙 form is a very late form, appearing first in the Qīng dynasty [清朝]. It is most likely the result of someone not understanding that 淮 Huái "name of a river" is the sound component for 匯. Being used to seeing the meaning component 氵shuǐ "water" appear on the left side, that person got nervous by it being inside of the 匚, so they “helped” out by putting it on the left side (this type of process is called analogy)13. The modern simplified 汇 form goes a step further by getting rid of the 隹, which at this point was just hanging out not doing anything useful anyway. Here, we can see that 匯 loses its sound component to corruption.


By looking at parts of the etymologies for 面, 友and 匯, we learned a little about the most two common reasons for character corruption, the process of writing itself and the writer misunderstanding a character's form. Stay tune for our next post which will explore the various types of character corruption by way of explaining the etymologies of 黑、粦、折 & 制!


  1. The English translation here is my own.

  2. 杜忠誥,《說文篆文訛形釋例》,台北市:文史哲出版社,2002年。

  3. This obviously doesn't apply to the process of listening and copying, which is subject to its own set of problems.

  4. This oracle bone character form was taken from Academia Sinica's 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).

  5. This form was taken from Academia Sinica's 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).

  6. The Shuōwén defines ancient forms [古文] as all characters created before the forms that appear in the Shǐzhòupiān [史籀篇] (which according to tradition was written during the reign of King Xuān of Zhōu [周宣王; 827 to 782 BCE]).

  7. This character comes from the毛公旅方鼎. The digital image used here was taken from Academia Sinica's 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).

  8. #1 comes from 江陵天星觀1號墓卜筮簡, #2 from 荊門郭店楚墓竹簡‧六德 and #3 from 荊門郭店楚墓竹簡‧語叢3; their digital images come from Academia Sinica's 小學堂 (http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/).

  9. 季旭昇《說文新證》上冊,藝文印書館印行,第196-197頁。

  10. Note that the 甘 gān "sweet" and 曰 yuē "to say" forms are very similar and are often confused for one another historically. Both forms derive from 口 kǒu "mouth", showing something in the mouth; "something sweet and pleasant" for 甘 and a "symbol showing movement" for 曰。季旭昇《說文新證》上冊,藝文印書館印行,第379-381頁。The Chǔ forms show above are 从曰.

  11. The English translation here is my own.

  12. 張書岩、王鐵昆、李青梅、安宁 編著,《簡化字溯源》,北京:語文出版社,1997.11,256頁。

  13. This is my own explanation. Though I don't have any direct proof, it is nevertheless very likely this form came about by the process of analogy. Earlier generations understood it to be 从匚淮聲 which makes sense phonologically, meaning-wise and form-wise, while the 滙 form doesn't make sense from a meaning-component or sound-component perspective.

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