If you look at the character 姜, it seems like the top part is ⺷ and the bottom is 女, however some sources, Chinese-Characters, HanziJS and Wikimedia Commons show the phonetic radical as 羊.

I'm the creator of HanziJS and use the data created by Gavin Grover for decomposition. This is why I'm asking. I want to understand why there could be a discrepancy in the decomposition.

The Chinese Characters's page also mentions a term "apparent" components, which seems to refer to the original decomposition of the characters. However, in terms of phonetic radicals, it seems 羊 would be more suitable in determining the pronunciation than ⺷, which seems to be an archaic character. The Chinese wiktionary page says that, ⺷, is made up of 羊. Now it's getting confusing!

I have heard that some have also suggest that the top part is 美?

What would be the correct decomposition and why are there discrepancies? What will a native Chinese person say when asked what components 姜 is made up of?

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange, CL. The character you're asking about didn't seem to be encoded properly, so I guessed that it was ⺷. You can roll back my edit if I'm mistaken.
    – Don Kirkby
    May 4, 2012 at 16:56

3 Answers 3


I'm also finding conflicting sources. For example according to the reference work Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary it's also 羊 + 女.

Similarly, still in the same work, 美 is 羊 + 大.

Often when characters are combined they are slightly changed to make the character more compact and I think that is what has happened here.

However when I look at the following online Classical Chinese dictionary they say that it is ⺷ + 女. However if you look at the seal script of 羊 on the same site and compare it with the seal script of 姜 you'll clearly see the 羊. Also from the ⺷ page, one can interpret that the character ⺷ isn't that old. So it seems more likely that it indeed comes from 羊.

I could be wrong about this, but I think the average Chinese doesn't care about how the character is made up. Their way of learning them is to drill them (rote learning), not by trying to see how there are made-up.

EDIT: I have been doing some more searching and actually ⺷ is 羊, but in radical form. See for example unicodelookup.com. So it doesn't exist as a separate character, but is used when it is used as a radical. Similarly as 手 is changed when used as a radical in 打.

  • The link to unicodelookup is apparently altered automatically after submitting it and turns into an incorrect link. Is should be unicodelookup.com/#⺷/1
    – BertR
    May 4, 2012 at 17:07
  • I was able to correct it in the original submission
    – BertR
    May 4, 2012 at 17:09
  • BertR, I fixed the link and slightly changed one or two to make the text feel more fluid. :)
    – Alenanno
    May 4, 2012 at 17:14
  • 1
    I think it's worth pointing out that (and as well, I believe) were just pictograms of people with headdresses. The analysis of being 羊/⺷ + whatever is post-hoc. However, it's still a relevant what a.) regular people and b.) dictionaries usually say. Jun 20, 2012 at 17:53

In short, ⺷ could be a variant of 羊 in the past, and is the radical form of 羊 when written in the upper of a character.

Historically, ⺷ could be used as 羊 with the same meaning and pronunciation. 《字彙補》, a Qing Dynasty dictionary, gave the definition 『⺷,疑羊字之訛。』 that ⺷ could be a (possibly erroneous) variant of 羊. While Jin Dynasty's 《四聲篇海》 thinks that the pronunciation should be ren4 but still has the same meaning (『⺷,如甚切。稍長亦羊也。』).

As BertR has mentioned, ⺷ is the radical form of 羊. But it is only used when written in the upper part of a character, e.g., 美, 姜, 恙, and 義. It is not used in characters like 鮮, 群, 羚, or 羶.

Footnote: The definitions are from 《異體字字典》 published by the Ministry of Education of Taiwan. Please note that it's a traditional Chinese website in Big-5 encoding rather than Unicode.

  • Welcome to the site Hans! :) Really a good quality answer and from a new user! Hope you stick around with us!
    – Alenanno
    May 5, 2012 at 17:03
  • Glad to help. I just bumped into the site this week and found it interesting — sometimes hard, though — to discuss my language with people from different cultures. Please feel free to correct my sentences as I'm less skilled in English.
    – Hans Tzou
    May 6, 2012 at 8:12

The top part of「姜」is「羊」, serving as a phonetic component, and the bottom part is「女」, serving as a semantic component. It was originally used as a proper noun.

This is where the clarity ends if you rely on things like popular etymology or non-up to date resources to check up similar-looking characters, which will frequently provide conflicting or obscure explanations for glyph origins (although most resources will decompose「姜」correctly).

In general, Chinese character components have changed heavily over the years, with different components sometimes merging into one form. Most references that you'll see will not give you a clear breakdown of individual characters, and the times they get an individual component「X」right do not explain other components which have merged into the same shape as「X」.

As others have correctly stated, 「⺷」is how we write「羊」at the top in the modern form. There is one more (actually two, but they're very similar graphical variations of each other) shape morph of「羊」to be aware of, and that is how it's written at the top-left:

  • 「⺶」(PRC usually uses this form)
  • 「⿱𦍌⿰丿X」, where X is a placeholder (Other places usually use this form)

I won't talk about characters which contain the full form of「羊」here, like「咩」or「羶」, because they're fairly obvious. Characters which really contain the graphical variants of「羊」described above can be split into the following:

  • Characters which had a hint of the meaning sheep. Examples:

    • 「羔」, a lamb
    • 「義」, morality
    • 「善」, a meal (now written「膳」)
    • 「犧」, to sacrifice
    • 「羞」, (original meaning) an offering
  • Characters which had a hint of the sound ancestral to yáng. Examples:

    • 「姜」, jiāng
    • 「羕」, yàng
    • 「恙」, yàng
  • Characters which uses「羊」for both sound and meaning. Examples:

    • 「羌」, qiāng, the historical Qiang tribes which were constantly at war with the Shang dynasty. These people were perceived by the Shang to wear ram horns as a sort of decorative or ritualistic headwear.
    • 「養」, yǎng, (original meaning) to herd sheep

There are many other characters which don't really contain「羊」, but was something else that eventually morphed into「𦍌」, 「⺶」, or「⿱𦍌⿰丿X」. Examples:

  • 「着」, large graphical corruptions of what was originally「箸」
  • 「美」, top was originally a headdress
  • 「差」, top was originally「木」
  • 「盖」, top was originally「去」


  • 《古文字詁林》, 1999
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》, 2014

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