Tuesday, 29 May 2018

红 | hóng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: hóng 🔊) is an adjective for (colour) “red”. Another meaning is “popular” or “in vogue”.

is a simplified form of the traditional character , which is a phono-semantic compound of semantic “silk” and phonetic (gōng 🔊), “labour”, “work”. Something to do with (textile) workers’ movement and, by extension, revolution, communism? Not exactly (although grew to represent all that too). Lawrence J. Howell explains in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

thread + here an abbreviated form of (gǒng) mercury → fabric/textiles dyed a deep red (compare ) → crimson; rougelipstick.
I presume that “mercury” here refers to cinnabar (mercury sulphide), a historic source for the red pigment vermilion. According to Wikipedia, in China cinnabar has been used for its colour since as early as the Yangshao culture (around 5000 BC to 3000 BC).

Interesting compounds of include

Wait a minute, I hear you saying, didn’t you just tell us that “black” is ? Yes, I did, and yes, you read that right: what in Europe we call “black tea” (because of the colour of the tea leaves), Chinese call 红茶, i.e. “red tea” (referring to the colour of the liquid). Conversely, what Chinese call 黑茶 (hēichá), literally “black tea”, means fermented tea such as Pu-erh, which in Europe is known as “red tea”, té rojo etc. I hope everything is red black clear now.

Incidentally, the symbols above were created using Pu-erh tea because I’ve already used the leaves of 红茶 to create the hanzi and . So there.

More photos related to safflower, tea and colour red @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

绿 | lǜ

In Mandarin Chinese, 绿 (Pinyin: 🔊) means “green”. Compounds of 绿 include

Incidentally, the symbols for this entry were created using green leaf tea.

绿 is a simplified form of the traditional character , which is a phono-semantic compound of semantic “silk” and phonetic ( 🔊). But what does silk have to do with colour green? Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

As per (pare/strip bamboo) + thread → threads dyed the vivid color of bamboo freshly stripped of its bark → greenlight green.

In Japanese, is pronounced midori. Apart from meaning colour green, Midori is a popular female given name.

More photos related to tea and colour green @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 25 May 2018

乌 | wū

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊 or 🔊) is either a noun meaning “crow”, “raven”, or “rook”, or an adjective for colour “black”. It looks like this latter meaning arose as a short for 乌黑, “black as a crow” (or a raven, or a rook, in Chinese it’s all the same).

is a simplified form of the traditional character , which evolved from a pictogram of a bird, just like (remember it?) is a simplified form of . Now to remember the difference between a crow and a horse...

Compounds of include

  • + = 乌木 (wūmù): ebony
  • + = 乌金 (wūjīn): “black gold”: ink or coal
  • + + = 乌龙茶 (wūlóngchá): oolong tea (literally, “black dragon tea”)
Incidentally, the symbols above were created using black leaf tea.

More photos related to crows, tea and colour black @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

黑 | hēi

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: hēi 🔊 or ) means “black”, “dark”, and, by extension, “night”, “secret”, “illegal”, “evil” and so on. It also means “to hack” (in computing), from 黑客 (hēikè), a phonetic rendering of English hacker.

Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

The relevant bronzeware inscription form is fire + an element combining a chimney along with specks representing soot → black/dark (soot).
However, Wiktionary calls the above interpretation “erroneous” and says that is a pictogram of a person () with a tattooed face,
depicting penal tattooing (), one of the five punishments of ancient China.
No, I don’t like this explanation at all. (Mind you, that was the least harsh punishment!)

More photos related to sesame, tattoos and colour black @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

荞 | qiáo

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: qiáo 🔊) is a word for buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). According to Wikipedia, the world production of this important crop is led by Russia (50% of the world total) and China (17%).

is a simplified form of the traditional character , which is a phono-semantic compound of phonetic (qiáo) and our old friend “grass”. The simplified version of is .

More photos related to buckwheat and noodles @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 13 April 2018

冰 | bing

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: bīng 🔊) could be a noun meaning “ice”, a verb “to freeze”, or an adjective for “freezing”, “frozen” or “ice-cold”. It is also a slang term for a recreational drug methamphetamine (probably from “ice”, one of its English synonyms).

looks very much like the character “water” with two additional strokes which, in turn, represent a radical form of , which is a pictogram of ice (also pronounced bīng). We also saw two (slightly different) strokes in “winter”, a season that has something to with “ice” and “cold”!

is an alternative form of featuring only one extra stroke; this form is more common in Japan. Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

The relevant seal inscription form shows cracks spreading over the ice of a river frozen in winter → icebe frozen; freezing cold.
Compounds of include The Chinese name of Disney’s animated blockbuster Frozen is 冰雪奇缘 (bīng xuě qí yuán), literally “Ice and snow romance”.

More photos of ice @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 2 April 2018

贝 | bèi

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: bèi 🔊) means “shellfish” or “cowrie”. In ancient China, cowries were used as money, therefore this symbol also has an ancient meaning of “money” or “currency”. According to Wiktionary,

Guo (1945) proposes that cowries used by the ancient Chinese dynasties in Central China must have come from the southeastern shores of China and areas further south, as the species of sea snail used as decoration and currency — Monetaria moneta (money cowry) — is not native to the eastern seashores of China.

is a simplified form of the traditional character , which evolved from a pictogram of a cowrie shell. Lawrence J. Howell writes in his Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters:

A depiction of a bivalve (one split open to reveal its contents) → shellfish; (sea) shelltreasure.

Unsurprisingly, there are many compounds of related to shellfish, for example 螺贝 / 螺貝 (luóbèi) “conch”, 贻贝 / 貽貝 (yíbèi) “mussel”, or 扇贝 / 扇貝 (shànbèi) “scallop”. is also used phonetically in words of foreign origin, such as 贝鲁特 / 貝魯特 (Bèilǔtè) “Beirut”, 诺贝尔 / 諾貝爾 (Nuòbèi'ěr) “Nobel”, or 分贝 / 分貝 (fēnbèi) “decibel”.

More photos related to shells and shellfish @ Shutterstock.