I vaguely remember hearing somebody make observations about the word 奴隶 (slave). I would like to verify the impressions of the person who was speaking as being factual or just his impressions. What is the Cultural etymology of the word 奴隶 (Slave). More specifically I would like to know more about the use of the female character in the radical of 奴 (Nú). The observation I had encountered was that in the past women had no rights and were regarded as 'property' or if not property then working hands for the household of the husband. I am wondering if this 'servitude' was the basis of using the female character as a radical for this word, or if there is some other link between the two words.

  • Here is the pinyin for woman if you need it: nǚ
    – Alenanno
    Dec 14, 2011 at 20:32
  • @Alenanno Thanks, I mistook my tones though I meant second, or more specifically (in case I mess up again) rising tone. ^_^
    – Mallow
    Dec 14, 2011 at 21:40
  • Oh! I see, ok :D
    – Alenanno
    Dec 14, 2011 at 22:03

2 Answers 2


A personal experience, most etymology explanations of characters are not definitive. Explanations can be derived from theoretic work or maybe just personal imagination.

That been said, I searched in google and found:

Figures on how as written in ancient and modern times. Link from hkbu.edu.hk. Now, please look at the figure below, which is in its 小篆 form (the character written form standardized when China was first united in Qin Dynasty after 221BC).

As described in the same page, --> + --> 静坐的女性(Female seating courteously) + 手的象征 (Symbol of hands) --> Female who work with her hands (hope you can get this point from the figure below).

To go further, this explanation links to one of its main meanings -- 奴婢/奴仆/奴才, which is similar as servant or maid in English.

Here, there is nothing about the 'servitude'. But, of course, one can explain from another main meaning -- 奴隶\奴役, which means slaves or servitude.

This is really a side-proof that etymology of characters are open to ones' empirical/theoretical research or even imagination.

enter image description here


In Chinese society, most slaves were women. (Relative to it size and population, China fought and won few wars, and therefore did not "import" many male slaves.) That is why 奴 means (female) slave.

Poor families routinely sold their girls into slavery or concubinage in order to raise money (almost never boys), because girls were regarded as (socially) "expendable."

Even Confucian precepts regarded women as being "under" (or subordinate to) men. "Enslavement" was just taking it a step further. The 奴 character is one of putting one's (presumably a male) hand on a woman to force her to obey.

Only SOME women were made slaves. Those were usually poor, badly educated, badly connected women, who were either widows or orphans, or from a desperately poor family. A girl from an rich, well connected family was protected from being a slave, and may, in fact, have been given female slaves to take care of her.

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