Etymology of 四
四 is a special self-explanatory character. Its oracle glyph represents it is the twice of 二. The original idea of character construction: twice of 二. Its bronze glyph is derived from the oracle glyph. If we write the strokes of the bronze script vertically, it becomes ; and then combine and (two, meaning 4 is twice of 2), it becomes . Some bronze script is written as adding a two to , emphasizing the multiple relationship between "four" and "two" . The seal script omits in the bronze script .
My Annotation: note that there's NO or 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)
[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 (on 孟鼎 Meng cooking vessel), (on 牆盤 Wall plate) -- the same as oracle glyph. During the Warring States period / Spring and Autumn Period, bronze 四 became (on 郘鐘 Shao bell), (on 徐王子鐘 Prince Xu bell), (on 大梁鼎 Big Liang cooking vessel) -- they were the origin of the seal glyph 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 Meng cooking vessel. Kept in National Museum of China.
牆盤 Wall plate. Kept in Zhouyuan Institute of Administration of Cultural Relics, Fufeng Town, Baoji City, Shaanxi Province.
郘鐘 Lü bell. Kept in Shanghai Museum.
徐王子鐘 Prince Xu bell.
Let's play a game: can you find
四 in these rubbings? Open the links in a new window/tab to view full-resolution image
郘鐘拓片 (Rubbing of Lü bell).
徐王子鐘拓片 (Rubbing of Prince Xu bell).
大梁鼎拓片 (Rubbing of Big Liang cooking vessel).
The major points of statements for 四 in Dictionary of Pictograph are
亖 meant twice of two.
was the result of combining and , emphasizing four was twice of two.
(Though Dictionary of Pictograph doesn't clearly state that, it implicitly suggests) the bronze four came from .
For statement 1, it is OK to explain it like that. Either
counting strokes gives the correct answer. In 說文解字注 (Annotations on Shuowen) by 段玉裁 (Duan Yucai), it was
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, = 60
It was not necessary to make a specific rule for constructing
亖. So I would prefer the "counting strokes" explanation.
For statement 2 & 3, if there's any oracle scripts carving like , then no doubt it will be the correct answer. However, not only the oracle has never been found, but also, classical annotations by ancient scholars didn't support such a statement. The entry 四 in Shuowen says
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:
The ancient form was just like that. Seal script 四 modified it a little.
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 " was the result of combining and ". What's worse, the statement of Dictionary of Pictograph contradicts the bronze glyphs 𦉭 and (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。从，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。
四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
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
八 shape was just like the bottom of (只), which meant "leading breath / air downwards"; or like the top of , which meant "breath / air went upwards". In Lü bell's , the
八 was just like 's and 's
一 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.
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.)