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Main Question: What is the etymology of the Chinese number characters (一二三四五六七八九十百千)?

Related question: Why isn't 四 four lines? (the origin of 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 九)

I decide to write a Q&A-style post to discuss this question. What motivates me to do this, is

  • In that brilliant question asked by @congusbongus, @congliu offers a good reference 象形字典(a literally translation would be Dictionary of Pictographs). The explanation of the question "where does a Chinese character come from" can be easily found on that site, so it is really convenient for those who are interested in the etymology of Chinese characters.

  • However, personally I cannot bear some subjective or illogical viewpoints on that site. It seems the administrator of 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs) hasn't make much efforts on historical issues.

Thus, in this post, I will

  • provide the mainstream viewpoints on the etymology of the Chinese number characters 一二三四五六七八九十百千;

  • criticize the subjective or illogical viewpoints on 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs);

  • post some rubbing pictures to prove my viewpoint.


Index


References

  • 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs).

  • 《甲骨文字典》(Dictionary of Oracle Scripts) by 徐中舒. Published in 1990. It is a dictionary epitomizing fifty-five important references of oracle scripts. The viewpoints on this dictionary are considered to be the mainstream, because most of them are supported by material evidence.

  • 先秦甲骨文金文簡牘詞彙資料庫 (Lexicon of Pre-Qin Oracle, Bronze Inscriptions and Bamboo Scripts). A useful online lexical search tool for Oracle, Bronze Inscriptions and Bamboo Scripts.

  • 漢珍資訊:甲骨文全文影像資料庫. A very good database supporting textual search of oracle scripts on rubbings. A special software is needed to view the rubbing pictures. Unfortunately it is not free now.

  • 《甲骨文合集》(Collections of Oracle Bones). Editor-in-Chief 郭沫若.

  • 《甲骨文合集释文》(Textual Research on 'Collections of Oracle Bones'). Editor 胡厚宣.

  • 《殷周金文集成》(Collections of Bronze Scripts in Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty) by Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

share|improve this question
    
writing a thesis? –  congusbongus Oct 12 '13 at 9:49
    
@congusbongus not rigorous enough to be a thesis, just some relatively comprehensive information. I am a little worried about the possibly misleading information in 象形字典. But now I find it seems too long :( Anyway, I would finish it. –  Stan Oct 12 '13 at 10:02
    
You should put the explanations for different characters in different answers, as they're very long, for example one answer for 一二三, one for 四 and so on. Then add links to those answers in the question itself, like in the Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese question. –  congusbongus Oct 13 '13 at 23:51
    
@congusbongus very good suggestion! –  Stan Oct 14 '13 at 0:56
    
Recently I have to write some papers for my boss, so I have not much time to compose this post currently. Anyway I will finish this post before the end of this year :D –  Stan Oct 22 '13 at 2:16

11 Answers 11

Etymology of 一, 二, and 三

  • Explanation of 一/二/三 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    “一”是特殊指事字,抽象符号“一”既代表最为简单的起源,也代表最为丰富的浑沌整体。造字本义:最小原始单位,最小的正整数。古人认为“道立于一,一生二,二生三,三生万物”。就是说,混沌太初的存在整体是“一”;然后由太初混沌的“一”,分出天地“二”极;天地二极之间,又生出人这第“三”部分;天地人三者,衍化出宇宙万物。一 ,代替混沌太初的整体;二,上面的一横代表“天”,下面的一横代表“地”;三,上下两横代表“天地”,中间的一横代表“人”。

    一 is a special self-explanatory character. The abstract symbol presents not only the simplest origin, but also the abundant chaos entirety. The original idea of character construction: the smallest basic unit, the smallest positive integer. Ancient Chinese people thought "Tao stands on (one), (one) bears (two), (two) bears (three), (three) bears everything". That is to say, the entity of original chaos is ; then the chaos origin differentiates into 二极(two extremes), the sky and the earth; and between the two extremes, there breed humans (the ); And finally, everything in the universe are derived from the sky, the earth and the humans. In conclusion, 一 presents the whole of the chaos origin; 二, the top bar stands for the sky and the bottom bar stands for the earth; 三, the top and the bottom is respectively the sky and the earth, the middle represents humans.

    My Annotation: The statement "道立于一" (Tao stands on one) is a little different from "道生一" (Tao gives birth to one) in Tao Te Ching. This paper “道生一” “道始於一” “道立於一” 合解 offers a further discussion on this issue.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典:一

    【解字】卜辭由一至四,字形作一二三亖,以積畫為數,當出於古之算籌。甲文金文均同。屬於指事字。從五至九,則利用假借字,其形作五1(或五2)、六1(或六2)、七八九,至十則為豎形。

    [Character Forming] The glyphs of one to four in oracle inscriptions are respectively 一, 二, 三, and 亖. The method of counting strokes is used for representing the number. It should originate from the ancient counting rods. Their glyphs in bronze scripts are the same to those in oracle scripts. And they belong to the self-explanatory characters. From five to nine, oracle script uses the loan characters: 五1 (or 五2), 六1 (or 六2), 七, 八, 九, and ten is a vertical shape.

    象牙算籌
    Ivory Counting Rods in Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -- A.D. 8). Photographed by maverwolf in Shaanxi History Museum.

    甲骨文字典:二

    [Character Forming] The glyphs of one to four in oracle inscriptions are respectively 一, 二, 三, and 亖. The method of counting strokes is used for representing the number. It should originate from the ancient counting rods. Note that, the two strokes of in oracle script should be of equal length. It is different from 上 (上) and 下 (下).

    甲骨文字典:三

    [Character Forming] See explanation of above.

  • Rubbings

    No. 032013: 貞(divine to predict) ?? 來(come),一(one) 羌(western shepherd) 一(one) 牛(ox)。

    一(32013,一羌一牛)

    No. 034575: 庚午(year of 庚午) 貞(divine to predict) 餗(food in a cooking vessel),餗 其(𠀠, a basket made by bamboo splits; it; its) 二(two) 牛(ox)。

    二(34575,庚午貞餗 餗其二牛)

    No. 032110: 其 一(one) 羌(western shepherd) 三(three) 牛(oxen)

    三(32110,其一羌三牛)

  • Criticism on "Explanation of 一/二/三 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)"

    The explanations of 一/二/三 in Dictionary of Pictographs are some concepts from 《周易》(I Ching), 《道德經》(Tao Te Ching) and 《淮南子》(Huainanzi). And such a statement for 一 is similar to that in 《說文解字》(Shuowen):

    惟初太始,道立于一,造分天地,化成萬物。
    

    But let's consider these questions:

    1. I Ching was one of the oldest Chinese classic text, written in Western Zhou Dynasty; Tao Te Ching was written in Warring States Period (newer than I Ching); And Huainanzi and Shuowen were even newer. So question 1: was it possible for ancient Chinese people to have such philosophical thinking, before the early period of Shang Dynasty when oracle scripts were invented?

    2. As number characters are very important in communication, they must appear at the early stage of oracle scripts. So question 2: at that early stage, would ancient Chinese people create 一/二/三 by such abstract thinking rather than by concrete images?

    Unfortunately these two questions are both based on conjectures. So there isn't a definite "yes" or "no" answer. For question 1, I would say the earliest evidence we have found today is I Ching, and personally I don't believe philosophical thinking like "道立于一" (Tao stands on one) can date from an earlier period before the creation of the writing system. For question 2, it was illogical to invent the "basic characters" utilizing very abstract concepts, or, it would very probably make the communication become more difficult.

    Besides, 算籌 (counting rods) were used by ancient Chinese for more than two thousand years. It was possible to appear during or before the creation period of oracle scripts.

    So in conclusion, for the explanation of etymology of 一/二/三, opinions in Dictionary of Oracle Scripts are more reliable: they should originate from the ancient counting rods.

share|improve this answer

Etymology of 四

  • Explanation of 四 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictograph)

    “四”是特殊指事字,甲骨文象形字典四1.gif的字形,表示其为“二”的两倍。造字本义:两倍于二的正整数。金文象形字典四2.gif承续甲骨文字形。将金文的横笔竖写,就成了象形字典四3.gif;将象形字典四3.gif象形字典四4.gif(二,表示4是2的倍数)合写,就成了象形字典四5.gif。有的金文象形字典四6.gif象形字典四5.gif的基础上再加“二”象形字典四4.gif,强调“四”象形字典四2.gif与“二” 象形字典四4.gif的倍数关系。篆文象形字典四7.gif省去金文象形字典四6.gif中的“二”象形字典四4.gif

    四 is a special self-explanatory character. Its oracle glyph 象形字典四1.gif represents it is the twice of 二. The original idea of character construction: twice of 二. Its bronze glyph 象形字典四2.gif is derived from the oracle glyph. If we write the strokes of the bronze script vertically, it becomes 象形字典四3.gif; and then combine 象形字典四3.gif and 象形字典四4.gif (two, meaning 4 is twice of 2), it becomes 象形字典四5.gif. Some bronze script 象形字典四6.gif is written as adding a two 象形字典四4.gif to 象形字典四5.gif, emphasizing the multiple relationship between "four" 象形字典四2.gif and "two" 象形字典四4.gif. The seal script 象形字典四7.gif omits 象形字典四4.gif in the bronze script 象形字典四6.gif.

    My Annotation: note that there's NO 象形字典四6.gif or 象形字典四7.gif in oracle scripts. Dictionary of Pictograph here discusses three types of scripts -- oracle, bronze, and seal. For more interesting glyph of 四, see the Chinese etymology site.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典:四.png

    【解字】甲骨文一、二、三、四皆以積畫成數,蓋取象於橫置之算籌。早期金文亦作孟鼎四.png(孟鼎)、墙盘四.png(牆盤),與甲骨文同。至春秋戰國時期四字作郘钟四.png(郘鐘)、徐王子钟四.png(徐王子鐘)、大梁鼎四.png(大梁鼎),為《說文》篆文篆文四.png所本。此形乃借為數名。丁山謂其本為呬息字(《數名古誼》),馬敘倫則說為涕泗字(《中國文字之源流與研究方法之新傾向》)。


    [Character Forming] The method of counting strokes is used for representing the number in oracle 一, 二, 三, and 四. Their glyphs originate from counting rods that are put horizontally. Early bronze scripts were also carved as 孟鼎四.png (on 孟鼎 Meng cooking vessel), 墙盘四.png (on 牆盤 Wall plate) -- the same as oracle glyph. During the Warring States period / Spring and Autumn Period, bronze 四 became 郘钟四.png (on 郘鐘 Shao bell), 徐王子钟四.png (on 徐王子鐘 Prince Xu bell), 大梁鼎四.png (on 大梁鼎 Big Liang cooking vessel) -- they were the origin of the seal glyph 篆文四.png in Shuowen. The bronze 四 was a loan character. In 數名古誼 (The Ancient Meaning of the Chinese Number Names) by 丁山 (Ding Shan), the origin of 四's bronze glyph is explained as "from 呬(breathing) in 呬息 (breathing)"; In 中國文字之源流與研究方法之新傾向 (New Trend of Research Methods of the Etymology of Chinese Characters) by 馬敘倫 (Ma Xulun), it is explained as "from 泗 (snot) in 涕泗 (tears and snot)".

    My Annotation: loan character / phonetic loan character / rebus character, as the name suggesting, are characters that are "borrowed" to write another homophonous or near-homophonous morpheme. So for the question "where did bronze glyph 四 come from", 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle scripts) adopts two viewpoints: it came from 呬 or 泗.

    孟鼎
    孟鼎 Meng cooking vessel. Kept in National Museum of China.

    牆盤
    牆盤 Wall plate. Kept in Zhouyuan Institute of Administration of Cultural Relics, Fufeng Town, Baoji City, Shaanxi Province.

    郘鐘
    郘鐘 Lü bell. Kept in Shanghai Museum.

    徐王子鐘
    徐王子鐘 Prince Xu bell.

  • Rubbings

    Let's play a game: can you find in these rubbings? Open the links in a new window/tab to view full-resolution image

    1. 郘鐘拓片 (Rubbing of Lü bell).

    2. 徐王子鐘拓片 (Rubbing of Prince Xu bell).

    3. 大梁鼎拓片 (Rubbing of Big Liang cooking vessel).

  • Criticism on "Explanation of 四 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictograph)"

    The major points of statements for 四 in Dictionary of Pictograph are

    1. meant twice of two.

    2. 象形字典四5.gif was the result of combining 象形字典四3.gif and 象形字典四4.gif, emphasizing four was twice of two.

    3. (Though Dictionary of Pictograph doesn't clearly state that, it implicitly suggests) the bronze four came from 象形字典四5.gif.

    For statement 1, it is OK to explain it like that. Either 2x2=4 or counting strokes gives the correct answer. In 說文解字注 (Annotations on Shuowen) by 段玉裁 (Duan Yucai), it was

    此筭法之二二如四也。
    
    This is a calculation "two and two make four".
    

    "二二如四 (two and two make four)" would support the "multiple relationship" viewpoint, but not necessarily be the truth. Because there is already a "multiple relationship" rule (we will discuss it in the Etymology of 十) for carving a number: >= 5 times of ten, combine the multiplication factor below the character ten. For example,

    50.png = 50, 60.png = 60

    It was not necessary to make a specific rule for constructing . So I would prefer the "counting strokes" explanation.

    For statement 2 & 3, if there's any oracle scripts carving like 象形字典四5.gif, then no doubt it will be the correct answer. However, not only the oracle 象形字典四5.gif has never been found, but also, classical annotations by ancient scholars didn't support such a statement. The entry 四 in Shuowen says

    说文四.gif象四分之形。凡四之屬皆从四。𦉭(古文四.gif),古文四。亖,籒文四。

    Like dividing a shape into four pieces. Characters that related to 四 have the radical 四. 𦉭 is the ancient form of 四. 亖 is the Zhouwen glyph of 四.

    Shuowen's viewpoint about the transformation from 亖 to 四 was then further confirmed in Annotations on Shuowen by Duan Yucai in Qing Dynasty:

    𦉭

    古文四如此。小篆略改之。

    The ancient form was just like that. Seal script 四 modified it a little.

    此筭法之二二如四也。二字㒳畫均長、則亖字亦四畫均長。今人作篆多誤。覲禮“四享”。鄭注曰。四當爲三。書作三四字或皆積畫。字相似。由此誤。聘禮注云“朝貢禮純四只”。鄭志。荅趙商問四當爲三。周禮內宰職注“天子巡守禮制幣丈八尺純四𦐖”。鄭志。荅趙商問亦云四當爲三。左傳“是四國者,專足畏也。”劉炫謂四當爲三。皆由古字積畫之故。按說文之例。先籒文。次古文。此恐轉寫誤倒。

    This is a calculation "two and two make four". Because the two strokes in 二 have equal length, the four strokes in 亖 should also have equal length. 覲禮 said "四享", and 鄭玄 commented on that: "The four should be three. Both writing three and four are all counting strokes, 三 and 亖 look alike, so it is misread." Similarly, for "朝貢禮純四只" in 聘禮注, 鄭玄 said "four should be three"; "天子巡守禮制幣丈八尺純四𦐖" in 周禮內宰職注, the same, "four should be three"; "是四國者專足畏也" in 左傳, 劉炫 said "four should be three". Thus, these mistakes were all because of the similarity of 三 and 亖: following the convention of Shuowen, when copy-writing a book, one should write Zhouwen first and then the ancient form, but the mistake would happen when messing up the order.

    In short, Duan Yucai's opinion suggests: "because 三 and 亖 can be easily mistaken, seal script 四 modified a bronze glyph 𦉭 a little to avoid that."

    So, now we can see, both Annotations on Shuowen and Shuowen didn't support the statement "象形字典四5.gif was the result of combining 象形字典四3.gif and 象形字典四4.gif". What's worse, the statement of Dictionary of Pictograph contradicts the bronze glyphs 𦉭 and 郘钟四.png (on Lü bell)!

    But how about the statements for "oracle 亖 => bronze 四" in Dictionary of Oracle Scripts? Are they more reliable? I would say both 丁山 (Ding Shan) and 馬敘倫 (Ma Xulun) had done much more research work on it, though whether they were correct or not has not been confirmed yet, they did provide brilliant opinions on how the transformation happened. And there's no contradiction between their statement and the bronze scripts we have found. Thus, the statement of Dictionary of Oracle Scripts for 四 is more reliable.

    Part of paper 數名古誼 (The Ancient Meaning of the Chinese Number Names) by 丁山 (Ding Shan)

    Click to view the scanning copy.

    四之見于卜辭金文者大抵與籀文同,惟郘鐘作,大梁鼎作;秦碣石頌始作;許君據秦書說象四分形,則將謂象五分,象六分乎?竊疑積畫爲者數名之本字;後之作者皆借呬爲之。秦權量刻辭凡云“不一”皆作“”(MY annotation: 不壹)其摹印“三川尉印”亦作“”(MY annotation: 叁川),凡數名之形體簡易者皆代以繁縟之文;許君知一壹殊文,三叁異義,而不知借爲者何也。蓋狃于所習而忘古義耳。,象口形,或作者,兼口舌气象之也;其中之八蓋猶下从八象气下引,上从八气象越于[亏];郘鐘八下之一,蓋猶之从一以像舌形,气蘊舌上而不能出諸口非呬而何;說文口部“,東夷謂息曰呬,从口,四聲。詩曰,犬夷呬矣”。“犬夷呬矣”今左傳引作“喙矣”,廣雅“喙,息也”,國語“余病喙矣”,韋注云“喙,短气貌”;以呬義證形,冥然若合符節,則四呬一字可以斷言。文字孳乳,有因借義習用已久,後人不復知其本義乃妄加偏傍以見之者,若加一中以指其爲株榦字,後人習用赤色意而增木其𠊓以爲株;叜本象持火室內有所𢯱尋也,後人習用尊老意而增手其𠊓以爲𢯱:雖無損本義,終病其繁複無理。四本从口,而復从口作呬,繩之六書,不又病衍複乎?自造字原則言之,四卽呬之本字,尤信而有徵。蓋自周秦之際借气息之四爲數名之,別增口四𠊓以爲气息字,漢儒習而不察,以爲四卽數名本字;于是正俗別爲異字,通叚輥于一文,四之形義旣荒而“陰陽四分”之說以起;此古誼失傳後儒皆不得其解者二也。

    s seen in oracle inscriptions and bronze scripts were almost the same as Zhouwen, only specially as in Lü bell, as in Big Liang cooking vessel. In Ode to Jie Stone in Qin Dynasty, it began to appear as . Xu Shen (the author of Shuowen) said was like "a shape divided into four" according to some reference in Qin Dynasty -- but following this opinion, would be "divided into five", and be "divided into six"? Thus I think the "counting stokes" character would be the original character of the numeral, and later were all borrowed from . All 不一s on the inscriptions on the Standard Prototype of Weight of Qin Dynasty were all carved as (MY annotation: 不壹), and its imperial seal script 三川尉印 was also carved as (MY annotation: 叁川) -- all numerals originally written in a simple shape were replaced by complex characters. Mr. Xu knew 一 and 壹 were different characters, 三 and 叁 had different meanings, but he didn't know why was borrowed as . That would be because he was blocked by what he had learnt and forgot its real ancient meaning. 's radical was , like a mouth, some others written as or included the tongue and the breath besides the mouth. The shape was just like the bottom of (), which meant "leading breath / air downwards"; or like the top of , which meant "breath / air went upwards". In Lü bell's , the below was just like 's and 's representing the tongue: the breath on the tongue that couldn't go out was exactly what 呬 had described. The 口 radical chapter in Shuowen said ", the eastern foreigners call breath (息) 呬. Radical 口. Pronounce like 四. Classic of Poetry said 犬夷呬矣." That "犬夷呬矣" referenced in Zuo Zhuan was "喙矣"; and Guangya explained it as "喙, is 息(breath)." Guoyu said 余病喙矣 (I have difficulty in breathing.) Annotations on Guoyu by Wei Zhao explained it as "喙, the appearance of breathing difficulty". Using the meaning of 呬 to explain , it coincided quite well, so we could assert that 四 and 呬 are actually one character. With the development of the writing system, some characters had been borrowed to indicate some meaning for a long time, so it was easy for later generations to forget the original meaning of a character and then to add radicals to it unreasonably. For example, 一 was added to to mean the trunk of a tree (), later the character 朱 was usually used to mean "red", so people added the radical 木, making "株" to denote its original meaning; 叜 (search) originally illustrated searching things in a room (宀) with a torch (火) held by a hand (又), and later the character was used to mean "old man", so people added the radical 扌, making "𢯱" to denote its original meaning. Though this would not distroy the original meaning, I was dissatisfied with its unreasonable complexity. 四 had already had the radical 口, but redundantly being added 口 to form 呬, even if it met the six writings, wouldn't it be too complex? According to the rules of making characters, it is well-documented to assert 四 is the original character of 呬. During Zhou Dynasty and Qin Dynasty, 四 was borrowed to be the numeral , and added 口 making 呬 to denote the original "breath" character. Students in Han Dynasty learnt it but hadn't noticed that, and then they considered it was the original character of four. After that, variants became more and more, the original meaning of 四 was forgotten and meanwhile the opinion "Yin-Yang divided into four" was developing.

    Part of paper 中國文字之源流與研究方法之新傾向 (New Trend of Research Methods of the Etymology of Chinese Characters) by 馬敘倫 (Ma Xulun)

    Click to view the scanning copy.

    說文裏四字是篆文,古文寫作,籀文寫作,其實四是兩個不同意思的字。四字曹籀以爲是泗的初文,象鼻子裏有涕。其實四字的確從鼻,鼻字的初文是自和白。(不是黑白的白。)說文疐字下說:“叀者,如叀牛之鼻。”(今本牛誤做馬。)王筠說:“叀中之,乃牛鼻也。”我看了郘鐘裏的字,大梁鼎裏的字,相信這話不錯。字從白,字從自,古文經傳裏寫作,是從也是鼻字,甲文有的。八是四所從得聲的,所以八四兩個字收音都在脂類。至於字卻是數目的四字。羅振玉對於古文籀文還沒有弄得明白,也不曉得四兩個不同意思的字,所以他以為是“晚周文字,錢先生所謂古文之別字。”(這是錢大昕的話,可是前人已經糾正過他的了。)

    四 in Shuowen is written in the seal script, its ancient form is , and Zhouwen is . In fact, 四 and are two characters with different meanings. Cao Zhou considered 四 was the origin of 泗, which looked like having snot in the nose. Actually, 四's meaning comes from nose (鼻), the origin of 鼻 is 自 or 白. (Here 白 doesn't mean white). The entry of 疐 in Shuowen says: "叀 is like the nose ring on an ox." (New versions of Shuowen mistakes 牛(ox) for 馬(horse).) Wang Jun said: "The part in the character 叀 is just the ox nose." When I saw Lü Bell's , and Big Liang cooking vessel's , I believed it was true. comes from 白, comes from 自. In canons written with ancient form characters, it is written as , which comes from -- also means nose, which can be found in oracle scripts. 八 is where 四 comes from, so when 八 and 四 are indexed by a dictionary, both are kept in the 脂 category (MY annotation: modern dictionaries don't adopt that method, if you are interested in how it was carried out in ancient times, you can read older dictionaries like 廣韻 Guangyun). As for that meant numeral four, Luo Zhenyu neither understood the difference between "the ancient form" and "Zhouwen", nor knew 四 and were two different characters. So he mistook for "character in late Zhou Dynasty, which Mr. Qian considered a wrongly written character of an ancient form." (This was what Qian Daxin said, but there had been somebody correcting him before.)

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Etymology of 五

  • Explanation of 五 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    “五”也是特殊指事字,“五”的甲骨文字形象形字典五1.gif用一个叉号寓意天、地万物的交汇,以表示大于“四”的正整数。有的甲骨文象形字典五2.gif在字形象形字典五1.gif(万物交汇)基础上加象形字典五3.gif(天地之间),造字本义:金、木、水、火、土等宇宙的构成要素,代表天地间万物构成元素的极限数,大于四,小于六。在造字时期的远古时代,一,二,三,四,五,六,七,八,九,十,都曾是极限数。

    五 is also a special self-explanatory character. Its oracle glyph uses a cross 象形字典五1.gif to imply "meeting of everything between the sky and the earth", indicating a number larger than four. Some oracle 象形字典五2.gif adds 象形字典五3.gif (between the sky and the earth) to the basic 象形字典五1.gif (meeting of everything). The original idea of character construction: ancient Chinese people thought 金 (metal), 木 (wood), 水 (water), 火 (fire), and 土 (earth) were the elements of the universe, so the number of the elements was used to imply an extreme, which was larger than four and less than six. In the period of the construction of oracle scripts, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten, all had been once used as an "extreme" number.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典:五.gif

    【解字】甲骨文子午之午作甲骨文字典五1.gif,本以束絲之交午形,會意為啎,借為地支之午。束絲表示交午之全形,具體之交午在束絲中部之二斜畫相交作甲骨文字典五2.gif形,故甲骨文借用為數詞之五,或啎逆之啎。又為明確表示交午之意,更于束絲之兩環形中部截除上下兩段,只保留中段,即由甲骨文字典五3.gif形而為甲骨文字典五4.gif形,或更於之交貫部位加指事符號甲骨文字典五5.gif而作甲骨文字典五6.gif,此二字形於卜辭中專作數詞之用。

    【釋義】

    1. 啎,相冓(遘)也,祭名。

    2. 數詞。


    [Character Forming] In oracle scripts, 午 in 子午 (meridian) was written as 甲骨文字典五1.gif. Its original meaning was "the shape of crossing two bunches of silk threads". And it was an ideogram for 啎 (meet), then borrowed by 午 in earthly branches. "Crossing two bunches of silk threads" showed the whole image, but the actual "crossing / meeting" was located in the middle by two slant strokes as 甲骨文字典五2.gif shape. Thus in oracle scripts, it was used as a phonetic loan character for "the numeral 五" or "啎 (meet)". To clearly indicate the "crossing / meeting" meaning, the head and the bottom were then cut off, i.e. the shape changed from 甲骨文字典五3.gif to 甲骨文字典五4.gif; and an indicating symbol 甲骨文字典五5.gif could be even also added to the exact point where "crossing" happened, so that the glyph became 甲骨文字典五6.gif. These two glyphs were specifically used as the numeral in oracle inscriptions.

    [Meaning]

    1. 啎, meet, name for the sacrifice.

    2. Numeral five.

  • Rubbings

    No. 029733. 今旬五雨 (During this period of ten days, it has rained five times).

    五:029733.gif

    From 殷契粹编 written by Guo Moruo, No. 1149: 癸巳卜王其令五族戍朕伐[??].

    五:郭沫若殷契粹编1149.gif

    From 殷契佚存 written by Shang Chengzuo, No. 224: 五鹿隻四鹿隻.

    五:商承祚殷契佚存.gif

  • Criticism on "Explanation of 五 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)"

    There is one point that the two dictionaries agree, "the glyph 甲骨文字典五4.gif has a meaning of crossing / meeting", however, they explain it in very different ways.

    The main opinion of Dictionary of Pictographs, though being not explicitly stated, is

    Crossing between the sky and the earth => Element of everything => 五行 (Wu Xing) => Five.

    However, the earliest record of Wu Xing found today can only date from the end of Western Zhou Dynasty (See Chinese wikipedia). Similar to the entry of 一/二/三, it was not so possible for ancient Chinese people to develop these philosophy ideas during the period of creating the writing system.

    Dictionary of Oracle Scripts says it is a phonetic loan character. That is more reliable, because there are some cases that 甲骨文字典五2.gif doesn't mean five but just the name of the sacrifice (see 【释义】1. / [Meaning]1.).

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+1 since it doesn't have 5 upvotes yet. No vote for the 四 answer because it already has 4 upvotes. Just kidding:) –  NS.X. Oct 16 '13 at 20:19
    
@NS.X. Thanks. But it is really difficult for to have one thousand +1s, so never mind XD –  Stan Oct 17 '13 at 3:18

Etymology of 六

  • Explanation of 六 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    “六”是象形字,甲骨文象形字典六1.gif像房屋的外形框架象形字典六2.gif,有立墙、斜顶,表示房屋的空间维度:四壁加屋顶地板两面。有的甲骨文象形字典六3.gif再突出了屋脊,像屋顶的烟囱。造字本义:庐,由四面墙,以及屋顶、地面两面构成的房屋。金文象形字典六4.gif承续甲骨文字形。有的金文象形字典六5.gif变形了墙壁形象。篆文象形字典六6.gif则将金文的屋顶形象象形字典六7.gif变形成费解的象形字典六8.gif 。隶书象形字典六9.gif继续变形屋顶形象。“六”作为单纯数字之后,后人再加“盧”(器皿中装着兽肉)另造“廬”代替,表示生活栖息的空间。


    六 was a pictographic character. Its oracle glyph 象形字典六1.gif looked like the frame of a cottage 象形字典六2.gif. There were walls and a slant roof, indicating the spacial dimension of the cottage: four walls plus one roof and one floor. Some oracle glyph 象形字典六3.gif stuck a stroke in the ridge, and it looked like a chimney. The original idea of character construction: 庐 (cottage) made by four walls, a roof and a floor. Bronze glyph 象形字典六4.gif was derived from the oracle glyph. Some bronze glyph 象形字典六5.gif deformed the shape of the walls. Seal glyph 象形字典六6.gif further deformed the roof 象形字典六7.gif in bronze glyphs to an obscure shape 象形字典六8.gif. Clerical scripts 象形字典六9.gif continued the deformation of the roof. After 六 being used only as a numeral, ancient Chinese people added 盧 (container with meat) and made a new character 廬 to represent the space for living.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典:六.gif

    【解字】甲骨文字典六1.gif象兩壁架有一極兩宇之棚舍正視形,此為田野中臨時寄居之處,其結構簡易,暴露於野,即古之所謂廬。《說文-广部》:“廬,寄也。秋冬去,春夏居。”廬六古音近,故甲骨文字典六1.gif得借為數詞六。而作甲骨文字典六2.gif甲骨文字典六3.gif形者乃象圓形或方形圍牆上架以屋頂,東西南北四方全為屋頂所覆,與甲骨文字典六1.gif之為兩柱屋,即左右兩壁上架棚,前後無牆壁遮阻之形有別。甲骨文字典六2.gif甲骨文字典六3.gif實為宀之初文。《說文》:“宀,交覆深屋也。”甲骨文字典六2.gif甲骨文字典六3.gif甲骨文字典六1.gif形近,故卜辭皆借為數目字六。


    [Character Forming] 甲骨文字典六1.gif looked like the front view of a cottage building with two roof sides and one roof beam on two walls. It was a temporary place for living on the field, had a simple structure, and kept open on the field, i.e. 廬 (cottage / hut). Radical 广 chapter in Shuowen said: "廬, temporary place for living, not for autumn and winter but only for spring and summer." The ancient pronunciations of 廬(cottage) and 六(six) were similar, so 甲骨文字典六1.gif was borrowed as the numeral six. Some glyphs 甲骨文字典六2.gif甲骨文字典六3.gif were the shape of building a roof on a round or a square fence -- the roof covered all directions -- it was different from 甲骨文字典六1.gif, which had only two uprights (two walls) and a roof but lacked walls in the front and the back side. 甲骨文字典六2.gif甲骨文字典六3.gif were actually the original glyph of 宀. Shuowen said "宀, house with all directions covered." Because 甲骨文字典六2.gif甲骨文字典六3.gif were similar to 甲骨文字典六1.gif, oracle inscriptions borrowed all of them as the numeral six.

  • Rubbings

    No. 032320. 上甲燎六羊...其有...丑 (Shangjia had roasted six goats ... [and some unrelated characters 其有...丑]).

    六:032320.gif

    No. 001374. 癸酉卜, 侑于(之)成, 六月 (Year of Guiyou, divine to predict. Sacrifice in Cheng. Sixth Month.)

    六:001374癸酉卜,侑于成,之,六月.gif

  • Criticism on "Explanation of 六 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)"

    Both the dictionaries consider the oracle six was the image of 廬 (cottage / hut). The major distinction is "why it meant six".

    • Dictionary of Pictographs: the hut had six directions, front, back, left, right, up (roof), and down (floor), so the image stood for six.

    • Dictionary of Oracle Scripts: again, the oracle glyph of six is considered as a phonetic loan character. Though we might never know why the numeral six was pronounce in that way, but 六 (as the image of hut) sounded like the numeral six in the period of making characters, thus it was used to indicate the numeral six.

    The "phonetic loan character" opinion actually has some variants, e.g. Ding Shan said "古皆借入为六" (ancient Chinese borrowed to indicate six) in 数名古谊. This is quite reasonable, because an oracle glyph of is , which is exactly the same to some oracle inscription six (and they also sounded similar). But personally I believe the 廬 (hut) opinion is more convincing, because in oracle bones found today, the number of appearances of 甲骨文字典六1.gif is greater than that of . Besides, 甲骨文字典六1.gif was very similar to the top of the oracle glyph . This would be a circumstantial evidence. Anyway, whichever "phonetic loan character" opinion is easy to be self-consistent.

    How about the "six directions" opinion? Yes it was also possible to be true. But the most serious problem is, like rubbing No. 001374 above, the oracle glyph six could be like . Archaeologists have found that in the early period of Shang Dynasty, people lived in caves. The would just mean some coverings as the shape of the roof, there wasn't any "wall" like the modern concept. So, how could ancient Chinese people count directions to six?

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Etymology of 七

  • Explanation of 七 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    “七”是特殊指事字,甲骨文[1]jia(1).gif写作“十”。一横代表全部、一切;一横加一竖,表示对全体进行切分。金文[2]jin(1).gif承续甲骨文字形。有的金文[2]jin(2).gif为了区别于“十”,将竖笔转折。造字本义:古人认为需要切分的极限数,即比六更大的数,六与八之间的正整数。篆文字形[4]zhuan(1).gif基本承续晚期金文字形。在发明十进制之前,一,二,三,四,五,六,七,八,九,都曾是古人认识中的极限数字:一,混沌宇宙,代表全部;二,天地或乾坤或阴阳,代表一切;三,天、地、人,也代表一切;四,超越“三”的数,“二”的两倍,也是极数;五,天地交汇,也代表一切,中国珠算采用五进制;六,房屋的四壁及顶和底,也代表宇宙空间的一切;七,需要切分的极限数,也代表一切;八,分,与“七”相同,表示需要细分的极限数;九,用手极力地抓,表示数多至极,中国珠算亦采用九进制。当“七”的“切分”本义消失后,篆文再加“刀”另造“切”代替。


    七 is a special self-explanatory character. Its oracle script is written as [1]jia(1).gif, just like the modern Chinese glyph of the numeral ten (十). One horizontal stroke stands for whole/all, and plus one vertical stroke, the combination means "dividing the whole". Bronze script [2]jin(1).gif inherits its oracle glyph, and some of them are written as [2]jin(2).gif for clearly distinguishing it from the numeral ten (十) by bending the vertical stroke. The original idea of character construction: ancient Chinese people thought there should be a divided "extreme number" between six and eight. Seal glyph [4]zhuan(1).gif basically inherited its late bronze glyph. Before the decimal system being invented, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine, had been once considered as "extreme numbers" in ancient Chinese people's view: one, "chaos universe", stood for the whole; two, "the heaven and the earth", or "yin and yang", stood for everything; three, "the heaven, the earth, and the human", also stood for everything; four, larger than three, double two, thus was also an "extreme number"; five, "intersection of the heaven and the earth", also meant everything (the Chinese abacus adopted the quinary system); six, "four walls and one roof and one floor of a house", stood for everything in the universe; seven, "the extreme number that needed segmentation", again, stood for everything; eight, "dividing", the same as seven, stood for the extreme number that needed subdivision; nine, "trying hard to grab things by hand", suggested the number is very large (the Chinese abacus also adopted the novenary system). When the original meaning of "dividing" in 七 disappeared, the seal script made the character 切 (cut, divide) by adding 刀 (knife) to it.

    My Annotation:

    1. The explanation of the "extreme number" here appears to be ill-logical and far-fetched. On the one hand, I haven't seen any archaeological findings or ancient literature supporting that claim. On the other hand, as basic numerals, 1~9 were very probably invented at the same time, how could ancient Chinese people consider they are all "extreme numbers"?

    2. The claim "the Chinese abacus adopted the quinary or novenary system" is wrong. It should be decimal system, or hexadecimal system (rarely seen now). See the Chinese Wikipedia page and English Wikipedia page for details. What's more important, the abacus was invented after characters, so it is an unrelated topic in the explanation.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典7.gif

    【解字】於橫畫中加一小竪,會切斷橫畫之意,丁山謂甲骨文字典7-1.gif本象當中切斷形,自借為七數專名,不得不加刀于七以為切斷專字(《數名古誼》)。按其說可從。甲骨文七字橫畫較長,後因十字由甲骨文字典7-2.gif甲骨文字典7-3.gif漸譌為甲骨文字典7-4.gif甲骨文字典7-1.gif甲骨文字典7-4.gif二形易溷,篆文七字乃彎曲竪畫而作甲骨文字典7-5.gif以與十區別。


    [Character Forming] Adding a small vertical stroke on the horizontal stroke, this associative compound character meant "cutting off the horizontal stroke". Ding Shan said in his paper 數名古誼: "甲骨文字典7-1.gif was originally a pictogram meaning cutting off in the middle. When it was borrowed to mean seven, a new character for the meaning cutting off had to be invented by adding 刀 (knife)." His view appears to be true. In oracle scripts, the horizontal stroke of seven was quite long, however, because later the numeral ten 甲骨文字典7-2.gif or 甲骨文字典7-3.gif was gradually mistakenly written like 甲骨文字典7-4.gif, the seal script seven then bent the vertical stroke as 甲骨文字典7-5.gif to be distinguished from ten (十).

  • Rubbings

    No. 12606.

    • (Upper part) 丙戌卜貞今夕亡𡆥七月. Year of Bingxu, devine to predict, showing it has no 𡆥 tonight, the seventh month.

    • (Lower part) 貞今夕不雨七月. Show it won't rain tonight, the seventh month.

    No.12606-丙戌卜貞今夕亡jiu七月.貞今夕不雨七月.gif

  • Criticism on "Explanation of 七 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)"

    Both the dictionaries agree on the original meaning of the oracle glyph seven 甲骨文字典7-1.gif being cutting off. However, for the question why it stands for seven, they explain it in different ways:

    • Dictionary of Pictographs: it is an extreme number, the cutting meaning is embodied in "cutting between six and eight".

    • Dictionary of Oracle Scripts: again, the oracle glyph of seven is considered as a phonetic loan character.

    As mentioned above, Dictionary of Pictographs considering all integers from one to nine as extreme numbers is quite illogical and far-fetched. But how about the "phonetic loan character" explanation? Yes, it looks like a free riding -- it just explains how it came but bypasses the question why it came. Anyway, maybe, naming a thing (including numerals, of course) didn't have to have a concrete reason in the very early ancient times.

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Etymology of 八

  • Explanation of 八 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    “八”是特殊指事字,甲骨文[1]jia(1) (1).gif用相背的两条弧线指事符号,表示物体被分离为两部分。造字本义:切分。金文[2]jin(1).gif、篆文[4]zhuan(1).gif承续甲骨文字形。楷书[6]kai(1).gif承续隶书字形,写成一撇一捺。当“八”的“切分”本义消失后,篆文再加“刀”另造“分”代替。古人认为“八”是极限数,曰:“七乱八糟”。在发明十进制之前,一,二,三,四,五,六,七,八,九,都曾是古人认识中的极限数字。


    八 is a special self-explanatory character. The oracle script [1]jia(1) (1).gif uses two detached arc as the simple ideogram symbol, representing an object is divided into two parts. The original idea of character construction: dividing. Bronze script [2]jin(1).gif and seal script [4]zhuan(1).gif inherit its oracle glyph. Regular script [6]kai(1).gif inherits the clerical glyph, writing it as a left-falling stroke and a right-falling stroke. When the original meaning of "dividing" in 八 disappeared, the seal script made the character 分 (divide) by adding 刀 (knife) to it. Ancient Chinese people thought eight was an extreme number, so there was an idiom "七乱八糟". Before the invention of the decimal system, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine, were all extreme numbers in the view of ancient Chinese people.

    My Annotation:

    1. The part being struck out is the "extreme number" explanation, which appears to be illogical and far-fetched. For details, see Explanation of 七 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs) and My Annotation in the entry Etymology of 七.

    2. The motive of putting the idiom "七乱八糟" ("乱七八糟", more commonly) in the explanation is unclear. It hasn't offered any support to the "extreme number" claim. The etymology of this idiom was once guessed as: 七乱 originated from the "Rebellion of the Seven States" in Western Han Dynasty; 八糟 originated from the "Upheaval of the Eight Princes" during the Western Jin Dynasty. Although this etymology of the idiom is highly doubted by a famous historical scholar Jin Wenming in his paper, anyhow, the idiom is hardly related to "extreme numbers".

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典8.gif

    【解字】《說文》:“八,別也,象分別相背之形。”甲骨文乃以二畫相背,分向張開,以表示分別之義。卜辭中借用為紀數之詞。

    [Character Forming] As said in Shouwen, "八, being parted / leaving each other, is a pictograph showing being parted in different directions." The oracle glyph used two parted strokes in different directions to mean being parted. Then oracle inscriptions borrowed it to mean the numeral eight.

  • Rubbings

    No. 1014. ...貞(divine to predict)...伐(send armed forces to suppress)...用(can be carried out)...室(room)...八月(eighth month). (This is not a sentence, just part of an oracle bone.)

    No.1014-己...貞...伐...用...室...八月.gif

  • Criticism on "Explanation of 八 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)"

    Like the entry "Etymology of 七", both Dictionary of Pictographs and Dictionary of Oracle Scripts agree on the original meaning of the oracle glyph of eight, but just explain it respectively as "an extreme number" and "a phonetic loan character". See the entry "Etymology of 七" for the details of criticism.

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Etymology of 九

  • Explanation of 九 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    九,甲骨文[1]jia(1).gif是“厷”(肱、臂)与“又”(抓、掏)的组合,表示伸出手掏摸、探究,力求确定内部情况。造字本义:伸手往洞里掏摸、试探,以求确定情况。金文[2]jin(1).gif承续甲骨文字形。篆文[4]zhuan(1).gif淡化了手形。当“九”的“掏摸、力求确定情况”的本义消失后,篆文再加“穴”(未知空间)另造“究”代替。


    The oracle script of nine [1]jia(1).gif is a combination of 厷 (arm) and 又 (grab), and means "stretch out a hand to grab" and then extends to "explore", "try to make inside information clear". The original idea of character construction: stretch a hand into a hole to grab, in order to explore inside. The bronze script [2]jin(1).gif inherits its oracle glyph, and the seal script [4]zhuan(1).gif fade out the shape of a hand. When the original meaning "grab, explore" of 九 disappeared, the seal script added 穴 (hole, unknown space) to make it 究 instead.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典9.gif

    【解字】象曲鉤之形。鉤字古作句。內公鐘句作甲骨文字典9-1.gif形,羅振玉云其狀正為圓環,下有物如蛇狀,尾上曲為鉤(《貞松堂集古遺文》卷十一)。句九古音同,故句得借為九,復於句形上加指示符號而作甲骨文字典9-2.gif甲骨文字典9-3.gif


    [Character Forming] It was a pictograph of a hook. 鉤 (hook) was written as 句 in ancient times. On the Ruigong Bell, 句 was carved as 甲骨文字典9-1.gif. Luo Zhenyu (an important Chinese classical scholar, philologist, epigrapher, antiquarian and Qing loyalist) said "its shape was exactly a ring with a dangling snake-like object; the tail curled upwards as a hook." (in 貞松堂集古遺文, volume 11). 句 and nine pronounced the same in the ancient times, so 句 (hook) is borrowed to mean the numeral nine as a loan phonetic character with an indicative symbol on it as 甲骨文字典9-2.gif or 甲骨文字典9-3.gif.

    My Annotation:

    The indicative symbol is a symbol on a pictograph character, which aims at making a new character to have new meanings. For example:

                                        indicativeSymbol.png

  • My Analyses

    First, let's summarize the major points in the two dictionaries:

    • Dictionary of Pictographs

      1. The oracle nine is a combination of 厷(arm) and 又(grab). (Implicitly, it suggests 九 was a loan phonetic character, as 厷 and 九 sounded alike in the ancient times.)
      2. 九 is the origin of 究. (It's unlikely to be true, because 究 isn't only written as the glyph that Dictionary of Pictographs has analyzed, but also as 𡫄 in ancient forms.)
    • Dictionary of Oracle Scripts

      九 is a loan phonetic character. It is formed by a hook (句) and an indicative symbol.

    Second, let's consider the difference in these two explanations. The core problem is then clear:

    upper.png
    Is the upper part (colored blue) of nine an indicative symbol (shape of a bar) or a hand (shape of the oracle glyph 又)?

    We will compare the oracle glyphs: 九, 又, and 厷.

    Now we can see, the characteristic of the pattern of 又 , the "hand part", is written in broken lines or an arc. However, the key part in most character forms of 九 is not written like that but just a straight bar. Only few of them are written like an arc.

    What's interesting, the entry of 厷 in Dictionary of Oracle Scripts says:

    甲骨文或省指事符號作厷like九.gif,致與九字形近。

    ... Some oracle glyph of 厷 would omit the indicative symbol to be written as 厷like九.gif, which makes it look like 九.

    In conclusion, although the comparison result supports the opinion of Dictionary of Oracle Scripts more, as this ambiguity actually exists, I won't negate the opinion of Dictionary of Pictographs, but would like to consider the opinion of Dictionary of Oracle Scripts more reliable :D

  • Rubbings

    內公鐘(Ruigong Bell, 內 is an interchangeable character for 芮)

    Ruigong Bell

    內(芮)公乍(作)從鐘,子孫永寶用。

    (On the hook) 內(芮)公乍(作)鑄從鐘之句(鉤)

    No. 1055.

    No.1055.gif

    四日乙酉...九人...在...

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Etymology of 十, 廿(niàn), 卅(sà), 卌(xì)

  • Explanation in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    十 (ten)

    “十”从金文开始成为指事字。“十”的甲骨文[1]jia(1)(1).gif是象形字,像一根用于纪事的垂悬的绳子。古人用结绳纪事、计数,一根绳子代表一个纪事主题,代表全数。造字本义:一根用来打结纪事的绳子,代表满数、全数。金文[2]jin(1).gif承续甲骨文字形。有的金文[2]jin(2).gif在绳上加圆点指事符号[2]jin(2)jian(1).gif,表示结绳纪事。有的金文[2]jin(3).gif误将圆点[2]jin(2)jian(1).gif(绳结)写成短横[2]jin(3)jian(1).gif。篆文[4]zhuan(1).gif承续金文字形[2]jin(3).gif

    十 had become a simple ideograph character since he bronze script age. Its oracle glyph [1]jia(1)(1).gif is a pictograph character, and looks like a hanged rope for recording events. Ancient people tied knots on a rope to keep a record of events or numbers. One rope might stand for a subject, meaning "all". The original idea of character construction: one rope with knots for recording events, stands for the "whole number". The bronze glyph [2]jin(1).gif inherits the oracle glyph, and some of them [2]jin(2).gif was added a round point [2]jin(2)jian(1).gif as an indicative symbol to mean "tying knots to record"; while some [2]jin(3).gif mistook the round point [2]jin(2)jian(1).gif (knot) for a short bar [2]jin(3)jian(1).gif. Its seal glyph [4]zhuan(1).gif inherits its bronze glyph [2]jin(3).gif.

    廿 (twenty)

    廿,甲骨文11jia00.gif像两根纪事的绳子,一根绳子[2]jin(2).gif代表数目“十”,两根绳子[2]jin(2).gif[2]jin(2).gif代表两个“十”。造字本义:二十,十的双倍。金文[2]jin(1) (1).gif将两根有绳结的绳子相连接。有的金文[2]jin(2) (1).gif将绳结连成横线。篆文[4]zhuan(1) (1).gif承续金文字形[2]jin(2) (1).gif

    廿's oracle glyph 11jia00.gif looks like two ropes, one of which stands for the numeral ten, so two ropes [2]jin(2).gif and [2]jin(2).gif make twenty. The original idea of character construction: twenty is double ten. The bronze glyph [2]jin(1) (1).gif shows two ropes with knots are tied together. Some bronze glyph [2]jin(2) (1).gif replaces the knot with a bar. The seal glyph [4]zhuan(1) (1).gif inherits the bronze glyph [2]jin(2) (1).gif.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    十 (ten)

    甲骨文字典十.gif

    【解字】丨為古代之算籌,竪置一籌表示數量十,以與橫置之算籌一區別,卜辭中十之五倍以上數字皆置倍數於十之下合書,如五十作五十,六十作六十等。

    [Character Forming] 丨 is an ancient counting rod. Placing it vertically means the numeral ten, so it can be different from the numeral one that is placed horizontally. In oracle inscriptions, numbers that are larger than fifty are written as "joining the multiple under ten 丨". For example, fifty is written as 五十, sixty is written as 六十.

    廿 (twenty)

    甲骨文字典廿.gif

    【解字】并連兩枚竪直之算籌以表示二十之數。《說文》:「廿,二十并也。」周金文作廿1.gif(宰椃角),廿2.gif(戊辰簋),與甲骨文同,後漸譌廿3.gif(伊簋),廿4.gif(曾姬無卹壺),廿5.gif即為《說文》篆文所本。

    [Character Forming] Placing two vertical counting rods side by side means the numeral twenty. Shuowen says: "廿 is two 十s placing abreast." In Zhou Dynasty, the bronze scripts were written as 廿1.gif (on Zaihao horn), 廿2.gif (on Wuchen vessel), the same as oracle scripts. After that, mistakenly, it was gradually written as 廿3.gif (on Yi vessel), 廿4.gif on (Princess Zeng No Worries kettle). So the glyph 廿5.gif is the origin of the seal script of Shuowen.

    卅 (thirty)

    甲骨文字典卅.gif

    【解字】并連三枚竪直之算籌以表示三十之數。《說文》:「卅1.gif,三十并也。」金文作卅2.gif(昌鼎),與甲骨文同。

    [Character Forming] Placing three vertical counting rods side by side means the numeral thirty. Shuowen says: "卅1.gif is three 十s placing abreast." The bronze script is written as 卅2.gif (on Chang cooking vessel), the same as the oracle scripts.

    卌 (forty)

    甲骨文字典卌.gif

    【解字】并連四枚竪直之算籌以表示四十之數,《說文》所無,見於《廣韻》。漢孔龢碑有之,作卌1.gif

    [Character Forming] Placing four vertical counting rods side by side means the numeral forty. Not found in Shuowen but in Guangyun. In Han Dynasty, there was one on Konghe Stone Tablet, written as 卌1.gif.

  • Rubbings

    No. 10103: 年于[目口]...受年 一月...不其受年...

    No. 17489: 婦井示 二十(廿)

    No. 1513: 甲申卜乙酉侑祖乙三[宀羊][冊口] 三十(卅)

    No. 33371: 丙戌卜丁亥王陷[凶十]允[凶十]三百又 四十

    No. 11055: 五十

    No. 11054: 六十

    No. 20723: 鹿 七十 一,豕四十一,麑百

    No. 27512: 妣戊于翌日 七十

    No. 37471: 貞王田于雞往來亡災,弘吉茲御獲狐 八十 又六

    No. 10407: ... 九十 又九 ...

  • Criticism

    Besides the two explanations in these two dictionaries, there are also some other conjectures. For example, Guo Moruo said (in 古文字诂林 volume 2):

    中国以一掌为十,故金文十字(像掌),…一竖而鼓其腹,亦象形也。 A palm in China means ten, so the bronze glyph (like a palm) ... one vertical stroke fat in abdomen, just a pictograph.

    Personally I think they all make sense, that is to say, they don't contradict current archaeological findings. So before getting further evidence, they are all acceptable.

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Etymology of 百

  • Explanation of 百 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    [1]jia(1)jian(1).gif像是在舌头[1]jia(1)jian(2).gif上再画一个舌尖[1]jia(1)jian(3).gif,表示不断鼓舌说话。百,甲骨文[1]jia(1).gif在(不断鼓舌说话)上方加一横指事符号**,造字本义:说不完道不尽。有的甲骨文[1]jia(2).gif[1]jia(1)jian(1).gif写成[1]jia(2)jian(1).gif,像舌头[1]jia(1)jian(2).gif伸在嘴巴[1]jia(2)jian(2).gif之外,表示张口鼓舌,力图说明。金文[2]jin(1).gif[2]jin(2).gif、篆文[4]zhuan(1).gif承续甲骨文字形。隶书[5]li(2).gif有所变形。


    [1]jia(1)jian(1).gif looks like drawing the tip [1]jia(1)jian(3).gif besides the tongue, it means "endlessly talking with the tongue". The oracle glyph [1]jia(1).gif puts an indicative symbol above it. The original idea of character construction: endlessly talking. Some oracle glyph [1]jia(2).gif writes [1]jia(1)jian(1).gif as [1]jia(2)jian(1).gif, looking like the tongue [1]jia(1)jian(2).gif is put out of the mouth [1]jia(2)jian(2).gif. It would mean "trying hard to illustrate something". Bronze glyphs [2]jin(1).gif, [2]jin(2).gif, and seal glyph [4]zhuan(1).gif inherit its oracle glyph. The clerical glyph [5]li(2).gif changes a little.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典百.gif

    【解字】從一从甲骨文字典百1.gif(白),甲骨文字典百1.gif為古容器,復加指事符号**,遂為表示數目之百。《說文》:「百,十十也,从一白。」

    [Character Forming] Its radical is 一 or 甲骨文字典百1.gif (白). 甲骨文字典百1.gif is the ancient container, adding the indicative symbol , it becomes the numeral hundred. Shuowen: "百, ten times ten, radical 一 or 白."

  • Rubbings

    No. 50: 百

    No. 50.gif

  • Criticism

    Both explanations can justify themselves. So both are possible to be true.

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Etymology of 千

  • Explanation of 千 in 象形字典 (Dictionary of Pictographs)

    千,甲骨文在人的小腿部位加一横指事符号**,表示不停地行走。造字本义:不停地走,跋山涉水,即“迁”的本字(当“千”由本义“不停地行走”引申出数量词“十个一百”之后,甲骨文将“二千”二字写成“二”、“千”重叠的一个字;将“五千”二字写成“五”、“千”重叠的一个字)。金文、篆文承续甲骨文字形。隶书变化较大,失去甲骨文、金文、篆文字形中的“人”形。当“千”的“不停行走”本义消失后,后代再加“辵”另造“迁”代替。

    The oracle glyph of 千 adds an indicative symbol on the man()'s shank. It means "continuously walking". The original idea of character construction: continuously walking, crossing mountains and rivers, it's the original character of 迁 (move). (When 千's original meaning "continuous walking" extended to "ten times of one hundred", the oracle script wrote "二" as one overlapped character ; and wrote "五" as .) Bronze script and seal script inherited the oracle glyph. The clerical glyph changed a lot, lost the shape of a man (人). When the original meaning "continuously walking" of 千 disappeared, later 辵 was added to make it 迁 instead.


    Discussion:

    The conjecture "千 was the original character of 迁 (move)" on that website was made before the author knowing there were combined oracle glyphs like and . A visitor with the nickname "熊猫" left his brilliant comments below that entry as

    熊猫 2012-12-22 5:43:30 说「千」为「迁」的初文,似不妥。甲骨文中还有「人」字腿上两横,「人」字腿上三横的字,就是两千和三千。所以「千」上的一横似没有更深的意思。况且小篆里面都没有「迁」这个字,只有「遷」。而且「遷」的异体字里,并无一个类似「迁」的字,可见「迁」本就是后人的俗字,无字理可言。以「迁」来附会「千」,实不妥。

    2012-12-22 5:43:30 Saying 千 is the original form of 迁 appears to be improper. In oracle scripts, there are also characters like "two strokes on 人" and "three strokes on 人", which respectively mean "two thousands" and "three thousands". So the one stroke in 千 shouldn't have a deeper meaning. Furthermore, in seal scripts, there isn't a character like "迁" but only "遷"; besides, in all the variant forms of 遷, there's no one like 迁. Thus essentially 迁 should be the folk form in the later times, without the principle of character forming as what the author has stated. Drawing a far-fetched conclusion for the false evolution "千=>迁", is really not proper.

    This comment has pointed out all the potential mistakes in Dictionary of Pictographs's theory, I fully agree with it. And the author replied:

    2012-12-26 3:32:07 感谢熊猫的批评与分享!“千”的甲骨文、金文字形十分丰富,绝大部分字形是“人”字加一横;至于极少数加两横、三横的,说明在造字时代“千”已经引申出了数词(十个百)的含义。

    2012-12-26 3:32:07 Thanks for the criticism from 熊猫. The glyphs for 千 in oracle scripts and bronze scripts are very abundant, but almost all of them are "one stroke adding to 人"; for those tiny minority with "two or three strokes on 人", it just suggests 千 had extended to a numeral in the character making age.

    However it hadn't refuted 熊猫's criticism well. So I left a comment:

    2013-10-7 14:42:43 赞同网友熊猫的意见。管理员所说“至于极少数加两横、三横的”,单论甲骨文,给人字加二加三的非常常见,甚至还有一些加四横和加“五”字的。在《甲骨文合集》里面如果我没数漏的话,有千字的甲骨一共101片,里面出现的合体千字一共51个(有些一片里面有多于一个),所以用【极少】来形容之,显然不妥。

    2013-10-7 14:42:43 I agree with 熊猫's criticism. For "those tiny minority with "two or three strokes on 人", alone in oracle scripts, they are quite common, even you can find some of them with four strokes or oracle five on it. In Collections of Oracle Bones, if I don't miss any, there are 101 pieces of bones with the character 千, 51 pieces of which have the "combined character 千" (some pieces contain more than one). Thus, using "tiny minority" to describe it, obviously, is not proper.

    And the author replied:

    2013-10-8 2:29:24 感谢溯度的批评!是的,“极少”的说法不妥!在“千”(并非“人”)字上加“二”或加“三”或加“四”或加“五”,本站以为这是古人对“二千”、“三千”、“四千”、“五千”简便合写,而这并不排除“千”的本义为“迁”:正因为“千”有“千万步不断前行”的本义,才引申出数量巨大的“十个百”的含义;而所谓“人+二”或“人+三”或“人+五”的字形,则是以“千”的引申义(数量词)为前提创造的字形。……今人未发现“迁”的金文、篆文,并不说明古代一定没有“迁”的金文、篆文,因为唐代楷书“迁”的字形,或许是全新创造,也可能是有所依循。“迁”强调长距离位移;“遷”强调为移居而转移。

    2013-10-8 2:29:24 Thanks for the criticism! Yes, I admit the "tiny minority" description is not proper. But I think adding "二", "三", "四", or "五" to the character 千 (not 人) was a convenient combining writing for ancient people. It doesn't exclude the original meaning of 千 is 迁. Just because 千 has an original meaning "continuously walking forwards with thousands of steps", it can extends the large numeral meaning "ten times of one hundred"; The glyphs "人+二", "人+三" or "人+五", are based on the extended meaning of 千 (numeral). ... Although we cannot find any bronze script or seal script for the character 迁, it doesn't mean there mustn't be any in the ancient times, because the regular script 迁 in Tang Dynasty might be a new invention, and might be following something. (I think) 迁 emphasizes a long-distance displacement; and 遷 emphasizes "migration".

    Well, although this reply might be able to answer why in seal scripts, there isn't a character like "迁" but only "遷" (without support of material evidence, though), it hadn't explained one crux: why in all the variant forms of 遷, there's no one like 迁. Thus, personally I haven't been convinced yet.

  • Explanation in 甲骨文字典 (Dictionary of Oracle Scripts)

    甲骨文字典千.gif

    【解字】《說文》:「千,十百也。从十从人。」甲骨文從一,(人)聲。以一加於人,借人聲為千。又甲骨文以加數目字於千字中表示數千,如二千作,五千作,等。

    [Character Forming] Shuowen said: "千, ten times of one hundred. Radical is 十 and 人." For the oracle script 千, it's radical is 一, sounds as (人). Adding 一 to 人, borrowing the pronunciation of 人 as 千 (MY annotation: so it is a loan phonetic character). In oracle scripts, numerals can be added into the character 千 to mean several thousands, e.g. two thousand can be written as , five thousand can be written as , etc.

  • Rubbings

    No. 17909: ...七...白

    No. 17909 - 千...七...白.gif

    No. 7771: 八日辛亥允伐 二千 六百五十人在...

    No. 7771 - 八日辛亥允伐二千六百五十人在.gif

    No. 33182: 召方 二千

    No. 33182 - 召方二千惟.gif

    No. 6640 & 6641 & 6642: 三千

    No. 6640-6641-6642 - 三千.gif

    No. 6175: 人 四千 呼...貞共人呼見...

    No. 6175 - 人四千呼...貞共人呼見.gif

    No. 7317: 人 五千

    No. 7317 - 人五千呼.gif

    No. 17913: 六千

    No. 17913 - 六千.gif

    No. 31997: 八千

    No. 31997 - 八千.gif

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Summary: Etymology of Number Characters

  1. 一(one), 二(two), 三(three)

    Simple ideographs / Self-explanatory characters. Originate from the ancient counting rods. (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

  2. 亖 and 四 (four)

    • 亖: Simple ideograph. Originate from the ancient counting rods.
    • 四: Phonetic loan character. Come from 呬 or 泗. (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)
  3. 五 (five)

    Phonetic loan character. Originate from 午 in 子午 (meridian). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

  4. 六 (six)

    Phonetic loan character. Originate from 廬 (cottage/hut). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

  5. 七 (seven)

    Phonetic loan character. Originate from 切 (cut). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

  6. 八 (eight)

    Phonetic loan character. Original meaning is 分别 (being parted). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

  7. 九 (nine)

    Phonetic loan character. Original meaning is 鉤 (hook). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

  8. 十 (ten), 廿(niàn, twenty), 卅(sà, thirty), 卌(xì, forty)

    • Simple ideographs. Originate from counting rods. One vertical rod stands for one ten. (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

    • Pictographs. Originate from the rope for keeping records by tying knots. One rope stands for one ten. (Explanation from Dictionary of Pictographs.)

  9. 百 (hundred)

    • Phonetic loan character. Originate from 白 (a kind of ancient container). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)

    • Simple ideograph. It means "endlessly talking with the tongue" and then extends to one hundred. (Explanation from Dictionary of Pictographs.)

  10. 千 (thousand)

    Phonetic loan character. It borrows the pronunciation of 人 (human). (Explanation from Dictionary of Oracle Scripts.)


Note: As the number characters can date from a very ancient age, the research on their etymologies can hardly be a rigorous science -- it inevitably involves subjective conjectures. The explanations I picked above are the ones I consider "appearing more reliable", i.e., for which less contradiction are found among archaeological findings. However, I don't mean they are the very truth. I will appreciate comments and edits that would refine these answers. Thank you!

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