Does anyone has a good model of the origin of 施?

As far as I know the common ground in deciphering this character is:

  • On the left - flag pole.
  • On top - flag cloth.
  • On the right-bottom - snake or, in unconventional reading, character representing "being low on the ground".

The problem with this decoding is that it does not explain all the usage of 施. If the "Flag spreading on the ground like a snake" can explain

  • "to spread" a life form or plant, 施于中谷

  • "to last" (in time or space). 鳥獸安施

    but the same etymology model can't explain

  • "to donate" - 冬天施粥, 夏天施茶

  • "to give" - 施綿衣

  • "to use" - 無計可施

  • "to teach" - 施之為孫

  • or, my favorite: 殺而施之 - "to execute and to show a body of a criminal to the public" (makes you doubt the correctness of the whole "flag+snake" model.

  • 3
    也 is phonetic, it doesn't carry any meaning. 蛇, 他 and 也 originally had a similar pronunciation.
    – user4452
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 2:59
  • Let me quote one guy's thoughts on "meaningless of 也": 同意评友呵呵“也”是“匜”的初文的观点。认为“也”表示低的意思:匜,古代洗手用具,有低凹面可盛水;池,存水的低处为池;地,地面以上的疙瘩墩为土,土以下即低于疙瘩底面为地;弛, 张弓即拉紧弓弦则弓背高,放松弓弦则弓背低为弛;驰,马飞奔则头与身段表现为低;扡同拖,把物体从低处拉出;他,认为比我们低一级的第三人称,古含贬义。猜:低凹的可存水的洗手用具是共用必须品,你洗手,我洗手,使得“也”有了“同样的并列的”意思。
    – coobit
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 21:01

3 Answers 3


well, according to 說文解字, 施(u+65bd)﹒从㫃﹒也聲, it should be "chopped" into 㫃(u+3ac3) & 也(u+4e5f).

is a main component of oracle bone script.

so, 施 is a 形聲字 (Phono-semantic compound character), to decipher the meaning, i would suggest starting from 㫃, which is 旗在竿上飄游之形 (roughly, a flag flying on a pole).

㫃 i oracle bone script

amongst usages listed, my opinions:

殺而施之, 施 is "exhibit the corpse".

施之為孫, well, this one, do you mean the verse of 禮記﹒學記 "不陵節而施之謂孫".

if yes, 施 is "carry out" teaching, or make it simpler, "teach".

have fun :)

ps: may i ask why & how do you choose these usages of 施?

  • there is a good russian web 2.0 dictionary www.zhonga.ru. Some characters are thoroughly described: zhonga.ru/chinese-russian/%E6%96%BD/vlb8q all those usages were taken from this website.
    – coobit
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 20:54
  • How does a "flag waving"-model explains "to apply", "to do", "to use" meaning of 施?
    – coobit
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 21:03
  • 1
    The original meaning is to bestow or give, which in ancient China often involved banners as a ritual etiquette. Other meanings are derivative, that is, applied in a similar but on identical context. This is how all languages work, words take on new meanings all the time.
    – user4452
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 23:47

Based on answer of @水巷孑蠻 and 象形字典汉典, "施" originally means flag.

旗皃。从也聲。亝欒施字子旗,知施者旗也。式支切 -- 《说文解字》

But why it contains meaning of "spread, give" as well? I GUESS: because of wind. It's wind let flags waving, so a waving flag can be reflected to wind easily. Wind spreads tiny things, so it derive to the meaning "spread". Spread implies that something goes from one place to another place, so if someone spread goods or foods, seems like wind spreads seeds. So 施 contains the meaning of "donate".

Back to your examples, they are all the derivative meaning of 施, "to spread / expose / donate / to use"

For 殺而施之, I think 施 here originally means "don't bury the corpse, expose the body to public, to spread the message( that a cruel punishment happened)".

  • Do you feel any special poetic connotation in 施? Let's consider all the "to give" verbs: 施 "to give" 给 "to give". 予 "to give". 赏 "to give" What is the difference between them?
    – coobit
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 20:58
  • Sorry, I don't know. I think you can ask a new question about that.
    – thinwa
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 5:00

I've found an article but can't translate it to human language. Please, help to translate since it's 文言文 and I don't know it! Here should be some good info about etymology evolution of 施. enter image description here

  • it's from 說文解字注 by 段玉裁 the chinese text project has <a href="ctext.org/… page</a> this explanation quoted samples from "大人賦", "說文解字", "毛傳", "大雅", "呂氏春秋", "韓詩外傳", "上林賦", & "左傳"; all these are in 文言文. imo, if you don't understand 文言文; how can you provide / prove any evidences. etymology maybe too difficult at this stage. Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 2:12
  • it is difficult. I can provide and prove (based on english and other sources I understand) and your job is to debunk.
    – coobit
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 5:04

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