I remember one of the things that I really enjoyed when I was still actively studying Chinese (as opposed to “learning by osmosis,” or being lazy, which is more or less all I do anymore) was finding new characters that were just flat-out cool. Wenlin helped with this, since its character dictionary has got all sorts of obscure, variant, mutant, and otherwise rare characters, characters that don’t get to play with the cool kids in the GB2312 charset, characters that nobody has paid attention to since the Kangxi dictionary, characters that drink store-brand cola, have glasses mended with electrical tape, are overweight and use inhalers and get called rejects by all the other characters, who never pick them to play kickball.

Some characters are cool by virtue of their composition – for example 肏 cào, “fuck,” which is formed by 入 plus 肉, i.e. “enter meat.” Some characters are cool because you think they’re one thing but they’re actually another — 曲 and 屈 are both pronounced qū in Mandarin, and both mean “to bend,” and so you might think that they were just cognates, but you’d be a total idiot, because in Cantonese 曲 is pronounced kùk and 屈 is wàt. Other characters are no longer cool, but were cool back when people used seal script, like 心, which I guess kind of looks like a heart if you really squint, but when written in seal script looks like an actual, gory depiction thereof. Others are neat just because they’re so incredibly specific in their scope, like 朕 zhèn, a personal pronoun used only by the emperor. Still others are fun because of their obscurity, like 嚏 tì as in 喷嚏 pēnti, “sneeze,” which no Chinese person I know can ever remember how to write from memory.

I was going to say that the more you learn, the less cool these things become, but that’s not actually true. It’s been a while since I came across a new character that floored me with its coolness, but today I happened across 鬻 yù, a character which began life as a humble variant of 粥 zhōu, “rice gruel.” Yù is simply 粥 “gruel” over 鬲 lì (also read as gé) “cauldron,” an expansion that added ten strokes to the character.
This kind of thing used to happen a lot: there are some characters that were basically perfectly fine, inoffensive, and not bothering anybody – 云, for example, which sat there meaning “cloud” without a care in the world until people started to borrow it for a homophonous word that meant “to say” and then distinguished the original meaning of “cloud” by adding the character 雨, “rain” to it for the resulting 雲, making a perfectly nice 4-stroke character into a top-heavy 12-stroke monstrosity.
Another example is 畺, which is now a dead character, having been replaced by 疆. 畺 is perfectly simple; it means “territory,” and is simply 田, “field, land” doubled and divided. (There was apparently an even older form without the divisions: 畕.) Then some genius apparently decided that 13 strokes really wasn’t enough, and that the meaning of the character was not totally obvious from its composition, and so he added 弓 “bow” and 土 “land” to the character to create its modern form 疆. (Why not just add “bow?” I’m glad you asked. It’s because 彊 was an older variant form of 强, “strong.”)

(粥 “rice gruel” is kind of a cool character in and of itself, by the way — 米 rice with 弓弓 steam wafting up from it. Ignore the resemblance to the character for “bow.” It’s different in the seal script form.) 

Anyway, so ages ago, some Warring States period Einstein decides that what the world needs is another 22-stroke character, and so he goes and smacks 粥 into 鬲 and produces 鬻. He writes it down and goes to show it off to all his literatus friends, all, “Yo Scholar Danqiu, you know how you and Master Cen thought that you were pretty cool with that seven-stroke expansion of 畺 the other week? Well, check this out, bi-atch!” And then Scholar Danqiu was like, “Yo, only losers still say ‘bi-atch,’ so why don’t you get your loser ass and your loser new character out of my face?” And so the scholar goes home, tail between his legs, and vows to find a use for this awesome new character that he’s created.

And he finds one! See, today, 粥 and 鬻 are pronounced pretty differently — zhōu and yù respectively — but back in the day, they sounded the same, or more or less the same. (Karlgren reconstructs the pronunciations as *tiuk and *diuk respectively.) Over time, the pronunciations and meanings diverged, and so the meaning of 鬻 evolves from “tasteless glop with the consistency of snot that nobody with functioning tastebuds could ever conceivably enjoy eating” to “to nourish” to “to sell food” to “to sell, particularly as an act of desperation in trying times” to “to sell one’s own child.” 

That’s right, there is a single-syllable word in Chinese that means “to sell e.g. one’s own child during e.g. a famine,” and in a delicious little irony, it’s derived from 粥 “gruel” which makes it cognate to 育, “bear/raise children.” It occurs in words like 鬻子 “a trader in children,” 卖妻鬻子 “to sell off one’s wife and son [in a famine],” and, most interestingly to me for personal reasons, 鬻文, or “to write for pay.”

Man, I love Chinese.

Comments (18)

  1. Max wrote::

    Haha, that’s amazing. I think they should hang that character outside of Chinese pawn shops.

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 6:18 am #
  2. Prince Roy wrote::

    do you use the bokane.org email or a different one? If a different one, please contact me; also check your bokane.org email.

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 10:28 am #
  3. Alainna wrote::

    There seriously needs to be more creation of impossibly large characters. Screw the simplification movement! :O

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 11:27 am #
  4. zhwj wrote::

    So I just went up to Jilin City and spent some time in a few places there that I hadn’t visited in several years. There’s tons of money being thrown around on public projects – there’s a massive new bridge over the Songhua River, a new expressway downtown that cuts a gash through a couple of undesireable lower-class neighborhoods, and tons of new buildings – never mind the fact that there are still empty shells lying unfinished from the building boom of five years ago.

    There was a road in the outskirts of the city that used to be hell to travel on – giant crevasses that bore only the slightest resemblance to normal potholes regularly swallowed taxis whenever it rained. But no, it wasn’t enough to simply resurface the road – the Public Works people launched a massive widening project to put three lanes in each direction.

    So as I was picking my way by bike through all the construction, I heard someone call my name. Turned out that my handwriting teacher from five years back was working on the road crew. He gave me his name-card.

    His name used to be 张适, except that in order to impress people with his knowledge of obscure Chinese characters, I guess, he pronounced 适 as “kuo” rather than “shi”. But, probably because he got tired of people calling him Zhang Shi, he had since changed it to Zhang Rongji. Rather than choosing a variant pronunciation, however, this time he created his own version of “rong”, written with a 鳥 next to the 谷 in 容. Not present in Unicode, needless to say. I neglected to ask him how his boss on the road crew wrote out his paycheck.

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 1:25 pm #
  5. 燕亭视野 wrote::

    In the oldest Chinese dictionary, 《説文解字》(AC122), 鬻=粥 (at least the meaning is the same, it is not possible for us to know exactly how was pronunced back then)

    After《康熙字典》(AC1717), the meaning of “sell” was included. (see 《词海》 and 《现代汉语词典》)

    However, “鬻子” was a name of book, suspected from Tang dynasty(唐朝).

    The percentage of use for “鬻” is about 2% in Taiwan. it is almost not used in China.

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 1:41 pm #
  6. 燕亭视野 wrote::

    zhwj wrote:

    …written with a 鳥 next to the 谷 in 容. Not present in Unicode, ….

    “鹆”? unicode: 9e46h, gb2312: f0c1h
    “鵒”? unicdoe: 9d52h

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 1:53 pm #
  7. Chen1 wrote::

    And do you know that 屌 (diao3) is penis? Who says the chinese are not creative?

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 2:37 pm #
  8. Magnus wrote::

    Thanks for a nice blog. I used to work with a Chinese-Swedish dictionary where we put cào as an alternative pronunciation to 操 since this is the euphemism for 肏 in many literary works (as in 操你媽). Also, I want to add my favourite character, which is 齄, with the pronunciation zha in first tone and the meaning “little red dots on the nose that you get from drinking too much alcohol”. It has only been used in the 唐史, but was included in the Guobiao set of characters for reasons to me unknown (maybe one of the editors had a drinking problem). Also, I want to recommend an article by 李榮 concerning foul language characters in 中國語文 concerning the characters 入 and 鳥 which acc to Li Rong have changed pronunciation from ri to ru and diao to niao respectively. Why? Because ri means “fuck” (at least in Nanjing) and diao is the Cantonese favourite invective diu which means “prick”.

    Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 7:26 pm #
  9. zhwj wrote::

    燕亭视野: nope. 宀 + 鵒

    Tuesday, August 8, 2006 at 1:32 pm #
  10. Magnus wrote::

    Small amendment to my comment: The 李荣 article is in 方言 1982.241-244 with the title论“入”字的音. A good and funny read by the late old grumpy professor 李荣.

    Thursday, August 10, 2006 at 9:19 pm #
  11. Magnus – cheers; I remember hearing something about that a while back. I’ll have to look for it – am planning a trip to the Beida library some time in the near-ish future anyway.

    Sunday, August 13, 2006 at 4:30 pm #
  12. Also, 燕亭视野: There’s a really handy online interface to the 説文解字 (and to scans of seal and oracle-bone forms of characters) at InternationalScientific.org. I use it all the time. Wish someone would do the same thing for the 辞海 – I have a copy of it, but it’s the 缩印版, and I haven’t gotten around to getting reading glasses, so looking anything up is a royal pain in both the eye and the ass.

    Actually, what I would really love to see is a version of the Cihai for Plecodict. Right now, Pleco does offer the Unihan character database, but that doesn’t give any etymological information. Actually, Pleco’s per-character (as opposed to per-word) definitions are the weakest point of the software.

    Monday, August 14, 2006 at 4:49 pm #
  13. Lu wrote::

    Nothing to add, just want to say that I love this post.

    Thursday, August 24, 2006 at 1:22 am #
  14. Great, great post! Keep up the good writing.

    Tuesday, September 5, 2006 at 2:59 am #
  15. chunmu wrote::

    Hello I readed your some articles that surprised me. I think, you are great man as a freign.Fighting!!!!!

    Sunday, September 10, 2006 at 8:16 pm #
  16. Erica wrote::

    I love the character for pregnant 孕 which combines the characters for uterus and child. I also use Wenlin and can’t imagine what I’d do without it. I use Wenlin more than any other computer software.

    Thursday, December 7, 2006 at 7:37 am #
  17. Minivet wrote::

    4 years after this was posted, but I’ll comment anyway…

    From your evidence and elsewhere, I don’t see any indication that 鬻 ever meant “sell one’s child” – in every compound you cite with that meaning, it’s in conjunction with 子, “child,” suggesting that on its own it’s just “sell,” possibly with a flavor of unsavoriness, but that could just be a result of the word passing out of use except in the unsavory compounds.

    Also, it seems more plausible that 鬻文 is simply “selling one’s writing” rather than “selling one’s child, which is a metaphor for one’s writing” – the latter multiplies entities unnecessarily.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 8:59 am #
  18. @Minivet – Four years! Wow. At any rate, you’re completely right; 鬻 means (mostly) “to sell” and I was getting more than a little bit ahead of myself when I wrote this post. Thanks for commenting.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

Trackbacks/Pingbacks (2)

  1. Unusual Chinese Characters by Asia Blog on Monday, September 4, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    […] If you thought you knew everything there is to express in the Chinese language, Bokane’s latest post will probably enlighten you.  It’s a delicious trek through linguistics and the derivation of characters as seen through a modern non-native viewpoint.  Warning:  salient language ahead. […]

  2. […] Then, in the course of my varied and meaningless reading, I stumbled upon a character that reaffirmed my belief that, for all its faults, simplification was the way to go. The new word I encountered was 抓阄, meaning “to draw lots.” I wasn’t familiar with the second character, so I looked it up only to discover that it was the simplified variant of 鬮, a 26-stroke monster that uses 龜 (simplified: 龟) as its phonetic component (according to Wenlin both 鬮 and 龜 are pronounced gau in Cantonese, but in Mandarin they are jiu and gui, respectively). I’d like to think this character was created to describe thrilling Han Dynasty turtle fights (鬮 = 鬥 (斗, “fight”) + 龜 (龟, “turtle”)) that were later banned by a turtle-loving Emperor, thus leaving people no choice but to draw lots when settling disputes, but more likely it was the result of one-upmanship by bored scholars. […]