enter image description here

why some Chinese words don't use the rule of prefix?

  • 3
    the first 2 suggestions seem to make some sense, but not the last one, b/c the radical 反犬旁"犭" occurs in the characters of many land-living mammals (besides 豸 in e.g. 豺,豹,貂,鹿 in 麂 and some legendary animals e.g. 麒麟),鸟 is the bird radical e。g。鸡,鹅,鸭,鸦,隹 for short-tailed birds e.g. 雁,雏,although 隹 occurs mostly in characters not denoting birds.
    – user6065
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 7:31
  • also note radical 马 in 驴,骡(子),骆驼 but apparently not used for more mammals ,a few mammals have simple (独体) characters (老)鼠(mammals with radical 鼠:鼢(鼠)鼬(鼠)),虎,牛、羊、兔,犬、鹿、马、象,犀(牛)most others use left-right composite (左右合体) characters (熊)or more than 1 character (复合词),斑马,河马,刺猬,松鼠,蝙蝠,狐狸,白熊,棕熊,浣熊,驯鹿,麋鹿,臭鼬,长颈鹿
    – user6065
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 20:54
  • @user6065 The character 熊 is of up-down and not left-right structure, 尽管其上部就是说"能"字为左右结构,可是"熊"字属上下结构,而且上下结构通常不受基于其上或下部结构的加以细分。
    – user6065
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 13:43
  • Same reason as "why are there irregular verbs". Languages do not follow rules. Rules are just a summarise of what are common in the language.
    – jf328
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 10:37
  • Please see original glyph carved in bone & shell, at zdic.net/z/29/zy/9E21.htm Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 4:53

4 Answers 4


There are mainly four ways how a Chinese character is created:

  1. 象形 The character is drawing of the object (牛 羊)
  2. 指事 ideograms express an abstract idea through an iconic form (一 上)
  3. 会意 compound ideographs, also called associative compounds or logical aggregates, are compounds of two or more pictographic or ideographic characters to suggest the meaning of the word to be represented. (森 休)
  4. 形声 these are often called radical-phonetic characters. (狗 猪 猴)

See this wiki article for details. (Note: The other two mentioned in this article, 转注 and 假借, are ways of giving an existing character a new meaning)

I'm guessing your "rule of prefix" refers to the radical-phonetic characters. Most Chinese characters falls into this category, but there are still a lot of characters that do not.

btw: The character 鸡 went through a more complex process to get the current form. I do not know the details.


Although @Colin's answer has touched on this, I feel like this needs to be emphasised more, especially for learners of Simplified Chinese.

「犭」only means dog or a dog-like creature. It was originally a graphical variant of「犬」, as seen with the following ancient forms for 犭/犬:

enter image description here

To emphasise, these were originally derived from a picture of a dog; they did not mean animal in general. However, usage of「犭」was sometimes flexible for non-dog-like animals, but only when there was no other component were deemed suitable, and thus may also appear in characters describing uncivilised people e.g. 狄. This is also true of some other components such as「豸」and「虫」.

Simplified Chinese has forced several characters which didn't originally use the「犭」component to use it, e.g.:

  • 貓, originally used the component「豸」
  • 豬, originally used the component「豕」

In general, the structure or history of the characters for animals and mythical beasts can be categorised as either 'basic' animals, which were derived from a picture, and 'other', which are mostly phono-semantic compounds and which use one of the basic animals as a component. There are a large number of basic animal or beast characters which can't be broken down further at all:

  • 鳥/隹 (bird)
  • 象 (elephant)
  • 魚 (fish)
  • 鹿 (deer)
  • 馬 (horse)
  • 龜 (turtle)
  • 能 (bear, now written as 熊)
  • 虫 (poisonous snake, now written as 虺; 虫 is now mostly used for insects and arthropods)
    • For reference, a bronze script variant:
      enter image description here
    • This is also the reason why「蛇」(snake) uses the「虫」component.
  • 牛 (cow)
  • 羊 (sheep/goat)
  • 鼠 (mouse/rat)
  • 龍 (dragon)
  • 豕 (pig)
  • 犬 (dog)
  • 虎 (tiger)

Many animals are specific kinds or similar to the above, and are mostly phono-semantic compounds which consist of the components「虫」,「魚」,「鳥」, or「豸」, not just「犭」. The other animal components that appear are:

  • 「隹」; occasionally used for birds, e.g. 雞, but mostly phonetic loan characters for what were originally names of different types of birds that are not used in that sense anymore, e.g. 舊, 雚.
    • Sometimes used in characters with the meaning of capture, extended from capturing a bird, e.g. in the characters 獲, 隻, 穫 (to harvest), through the addition of 「又」(a hand).
  • 「馬」, used for characters like mule (驢) and camel (駱駝), but otherwise mostly appear in characters describing swiftness (as in swiftness in war), or characters describing horse-related equipment.
  • 「鹿」, appears in 麒麟 (The mythical beast Qilin/Kirin); occasionally seen in some other characters, e.g. 麗, 塵.
  • 「虎」, not really used for animals; variously used as a phonetic component in 處, 虛, etc.
  • 「羊」, describes sheep/goats in general; 羊羔 (lamb),羶 (smell of mutton).
    • Occasionally appears in characters to do with docility and morality, sometimes as the component forms 𠁥, 𦫳, e.g. 義, 乖.
  • 「牛」, mostly used in characters to do with animal farming, e.g. 牧 (shepard), 牝 (female animal), 犧/牲 (sacrifice). Originally also used as part of characters which were names for different types of cows, e.g. 物 (cow with multiple colours/patterns), 特 (male cow/bull), but these characters are not used in this sense anymore.

In short, please don't get the impression that「犭」is used to describe most animals!

  • It is not the fault that simplified Chinese forced characters to use this “simplified component”. What you said on this point would confuse others to think simplified Chinese is worst. They need to know the reason of evolution then to understand the original question. I’ll update my answer for you with respect.
    – Hao FU
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 0:52
  • 1
    @HaoFU People need to be very wary of the weaknesses of some Simplified Chinese characters. There is always a tradeoff between saving strokes in writing and a loss of information. The questioner's confusion arose because common characters for animals like 'pig' and 'cat' used「犭」, so he/she thought that「犭」was for all animals, so I don't think it is wrong to say that this confusion arose because of these simplified characters. If the questioner was exposed to many different components for animals from the beginning, he/she wouldn't have been confused about this point.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 1:21
  • But the truth is, the questioner indicates a few animals but every answerer including you give more. The confusion still exists.
    – Hao FU
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 1:52

Some Chinese characters are pictographs. For instance 牛 and 羊 come from pictographs of animals.

By contrast, many other Chinese characters are composites of a "meaning part" and a "sound part". 狗, 猪, 猴 have as meaning part an alteration of 犬 "dog" and sound parts 句 (compare 够), 者 (compare 煮, 著, 诸), 候 respectively. 鸡 has meaning part 鸟 “bird”. The left hand side, 又, is an elision of the sound part 奚 (pronounced xi1).

There is no rule that all characters must have both a sound part and a meaning part. Many besides 牛 and 羊 do not.

However some characters originated in a way similar to your suggestions. For instance 萬 is from a pictograph of a scorpion. At some point a scribe added the common meaning part 虫 "bug", yielding the character 蠆 "scorpion". This was probably more as a disambiguation than out of any desire that all bugs have 虫 in their character for the sake of consistency.

  • 1
    bkrs:蠆 Simplified:虿 (from 萬->万)(chài a kind of scorpion; a sting in the tail,MDGB adds "an insect"(imprecise language?),scorpions 蝎(子),are arachnids 蛛形纲 (或蜘蛛纲) (not insects 昆虫)现代汉语词典:虿: 蝎子一类的有毒的虫:蜂~,also note 天蝎宫 Scorpio (astrology),天蝎座 Scorpius (constellation)
    – user6065
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 16:23

First you should know 犭 is not the meaning of all animals but some.

In one hand, 犭 means dog or a dog-like creature.

In another hand, 犭 is simplified of 豸 and 豕 as a radical. It replaced the other two in most of characters in simplified Chinese. BUT here’s an inconspicuous fact that 犭 replaced the other two before the appearance of simplified Chinese. In ancient China, traditional Chinese is official among the publications. In contrast, there is a kind of running write, a cursive script in Chinese so-called 草書. The replacement of 犭 does exist in this cursive script so that simplified Chinese carries on. That is why most of 豸 and 豕 as radicals disappeared in simplified Chinese.

Now the question is, what do 豸 and 豕 mean? And what the relationship between the meaning and the original question?

豸zhì (犭) are kinds of vertebrate beasts with a wiggle to tuck their legs in and hunchbacked when hunting, like worms without feet (lions 獅, wolves 狼, leopards 豹, etc.), or specially the primates (猿) or some beasts with furs (cats 貓, foxes 狐, sables 貂, etc.).

Except 貌 (face), it is double of 皃.

豕 shǐ (犭) is pig (豬) or animal looks like pig (badger 獾).


In another question I answered, the ancient scholars wanted the name (名) to fit on the form (形) and reality (实). The appearance of 豸 and 豕 reflects this idea. So you can easily distinguish different kinds of animals. Since that, you would understand why do 牛 and 羊 and 鸡 not use 犭.

  • 1
    犭 is simplified of 豸 and 豕, of course. It replaced the other two in simplified Chinese. This is not true. There are quite a few characters which still use 豸 and 豕 in Simplified Chinese, e.g. 豹, 豚; Simplified Chinese only replaced some components which used 豸and 豕 with 犭. It was a decision made because 貓 and 豬 were high-frequency characters, not because all 豸and 豕 turned into 犭.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 1:50
  • @droooze The last sentence you say doesn’t make any sense. As I indicated (maybe forgot to emphasize) 犭 was a running writing when it was a radical. And 犳 is equivalent to 豹. It has two pronunciation, one is bào, the other is zhuó, an animal looks like panther.
    – Hao FU
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 2:05
  • 1
    「貓」、「豬」改爲「猫」、「猪」是 (1) "Cat", "Pig" 二者在書寫中常見,(2) 「豸」、「豕」在「貓」、「豬」裏簡化爲「犭」不會產生閲讀困難,因此這兩字才可从俗寫或草書當爲簡體字的正體。您所說的原因是「豸」、「豕」被 「犭」replace,就說明「豸」在偏旁部首中被廢除;非。不知您从哪裏看到「犳」有「豹」之義,至少在汉语大词典中查不到「犳」字這種異體或多意用法,簡體字也不會正寫「豹」爲「犳」。
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 2:41
  • @droooze 在讨论繁简体演变和异体字的时候您手头的资料似乎少了些,我替您随手查了一个,chinese.exponode.com/9_2.htm 请阅。至于简体字正写,可以理解为犳有二音,从此与豹音分离,不再作为异体字。
    – Hao FU
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 3:55
  • 1
    (1) 釋繁簡演變之時只可考慮 (a) 最初字形字義,(b) 中華人民共和國國務院《漢字簡化方案》;除非前二者有另外的參考文獻,不可參考中華歷史中的數多古籍而以之釋大陸簡體字,也未必提出中華民國《國字標準字體》。古籍中必有數多罕用罕見的省略簡體字,隨便亂寫都可能在其找出,所以《漢字簡化方案》不提出的參考文獻就不可用之當爲簡化方法。(2)「犳」、「豹」二者皆本爲正字,後世在某區域「犳」混用於「豹」而產生這種異體用法,見 i.sstatic.net/OL5uO.png;既然《漢字簡化方案》不提出「豹」簡化爲「犳」,說明這種混用在歷史上並不常例,更不可用之而作爲「豸」常簡化爲「犭」之例。(3) 不會產生閲讀困難是指簡化委員會考慮的簡化方法及定字過程,而不是說「猫」等是新字。大陸簡體字中甚多字還可從某古籍找個簡化字而代替,簡化過程時不簡化其字是爲了免閲讀困難。(4) 總體來說,「貓、豬」簡化成「猫、猪」未必以「豸、豕」簡化成「犭」解釋。「豸、豕」本來在簡體字中就沒有廢除,而其他含「豸、豕」之字也大部分都沒有簡化成「犭」。二字在簡體字取俗子爲正是因爲文書中常見此字,而不是因爲「豸、豕」常簡化成「犭」,這種說法不太符合語文的來歷。
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 5:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.