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.