I recently bought the book ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese in an effort to get minimally smart about old phonology. But the #1 character I'm curious about, with regard to old poems, is 兮 - Mandarin xi1 - and it's missing from the dictionary! Which is weird, because the character is seen ALL the time in classical poetry, especially very old poetry from Jin all the way back (I believe) to 诗经, and appears to be used phonologically as an interjection like "oh!" or "ah!".

Does anyone know what the reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation of this character is? Alternately, does it sound radically different (perhaps, at least subjectively, more like an exclamation "should" sound like) in dialects other than Mandarin?

  • 1
    Most characters in Old Chinese sound radically different even from Middle Chinese, let alone modern mandarin...
    – user58955
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 17:36
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    The Old Chinese pronunciation is thought to be /*ɡe/ where the /g/ is a pharyngealized sound
    – user58955
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 17:38
  • 2
    Baxter-Sagart Old Chinese construction: ocbaxtersagart.lsait.lsa.umich.edu/…
    – user58955
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 17:42
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    apparently Middle Chinese it was pronounced "hej" in phonetic alphabet - so like "hey"? Sounds a LOT more like an exclamation. Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 20:27
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    Viêtnamese hề, Cantonese hai4.
    – dda
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 7:27

1 Answer 1


There is already a good discussion going below the original question. I'll just strip the Wiktionary link and put it down here:


字   Mandarin  MiddleChinese  OldChinese  Cantonese
兮   xī        hej            /*ɡˁe/      hai4       

And also:

Japanese   Korean   Vietnamese
kei        hyey     hề

So the consonant is along the line of g and h, something down the throat, unlike xi which is in the mouth.

While I don't agree with Phil on "兮 is nothing but a punctuation" and "Dialects were totally unintelligible so people had to write to each other even if they met face-to-face", I agree with him that a standard classic Chinese dialect didn't really exist. There could be many ways to read 兮 in ancient times, especially the vowel, although it's thought to be e, I wouldn't be surprised if it was shifted to a, o or any strange diphthongs in a local dialect.

  • agree on all points - i didn't mean to imply otherwise. mainly concerned with how to deal with the poetry as it was spoken, as impossible a task as that is given the distance in time. knowing how characters 兮 functioned is certainly relevant to that, so thank you for putting together an answer. Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 15:04

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