I'm trying to understand what 识 means and why 认识 is different from 知道.

As far as I was able to gather the information on 戠 is a depiction of an armed group of people which, while in battle, should be recognized and diffirentiated from other groups by the general.

Now, 识 is 言+戠 and the explanation goes two ways:

  1. The relevant oracle bone form of 戠 combines 弋 stake + an abbreviated form of 辛 needle/cutting tool → use a sharp implement to notch a stake, creating a marker. 戠# replaces 辛 with 音 sound → mark/pay attention to a sound. And to obtain knowledge by marking another person's words. You can read more about this view here.

  2. But the best explanation I've come across is this: 识 is to recognize and it has a connotation "to recognize (battle groups) by own eyes (what is needed of you on the battle field while operating your troops) or to see".

If 2-nd theory/model is right, then it should explain a series of characters below (I need some help filling this list, I don't know all the meanings and maybe you know more characters with 戠):

  • 幟 - a cloth + conspicuous group = military standard which serves as a battle field marker.
  • 嬂 - it's a woman's name and, I guess, being conspicuous or differentiable in the crowd is a plus for a female. In other words 戠 should posess some positive connotation in order to be incorporated in a name for a woman.
  • 樴 - adding a stick to 戠 - group of people with stakes (battle group), or a single stake (chinese does not differentiate between plural or singular).
  • 膱 - dried meat? Well, I'm at a loss here, can't explain, maybe it has something to do with strong/conspicuous flavor.
  • 旘 - banner of a group of people (same as 幟) but here the banner is flapping on a wind.
  • 熾 - bright/conspicuous fire so you can see it from afar.
  • 職 - can't explain it.
  • 蟙 - google shows a spider for this character. Maybe it has smth to do with with marks on some spider. Can't explain according to the model.
  • 織 - to weave. I don't know how this fits in to the model.
  • 軄 - I don't know what this character means.

Again, if 2nd theory is true, then 认识 can be easily explained as "admit seeing". This also explains why 认识 is used mostly for "I have met(seen) him" or "I know him (he is my friend i.e. I've seen him)"


  1. As a native, does 识(to know) and 认识 convey "sensual, seeing" connotation to You, while 知道 does not convey this, as being more abstract "to know"?
  2. Can you help fill the gaps in the list?

P.S. Please, don't provide answers like "认识 is for people and 知道 is for facts because it's the way it is". I seek explanation, logic ect., not a "rule of thumb".

  • 4
    Etymology and/or mnemonics presented as etymologies will not necessarily leave you with a clear picture of the distinction between the two words.
    – Elliott B.
    Dec 20, 2016 at 21:34
  • @coobit: are you trying to say that the phonetic part of a character may also contribute to the meaning of the character? I have often wondered if that is so. Maybe you know Tang Ho?
    – Gangosa
    Dec 20, 2016 at 23:47
  • 1
    Why would you think coobit knows me? I never suggested the phonetic part of a character contributes to the meaning of the character. It mostly doesn't.
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 21, 2016 at 4:01
  • 2
    When we say phonetic part, we are referring to the phonetic part of 形聲字(radical plus phonetic / Phonogram). Most of the time, the phonetic part is there for phonetic reason only. For example 晴(sunny). Since the term 'sunny' means the sun is shining, the 日 radical is used as the meaning part, and 青 is there for phonetic reason. Similarly, 青 in the character 情 is also the phonetic part, while the 心 radical being the meaning component.
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 21, 2016 at 6:27
  • 2
    @coobit Etymology is NOT the way to study differences in meaning of modern words. For example, the English word recognise comes from a word that originally meant "resume possession of land". Do you think that can be used to understand the details of its modern meaning? If you want to know the logic behind the difference between 認識 and 知道 you shouldn't study etymology, but morphology, and in particular, look at how 識 works as a word-building morpheme.
    – 米好 '-'
    Dec 22, 2016 at 6:28

4 Answers 4


I stated in my comment that I don't think study the etymology help you understand a character as much as cross reference the roles of a character in different compound words.


[1] recognise; identify; make out

[2] admit; acknowledge; agree; accept

[3] enter into a certain relationship with

[4] offer/undertake to do sth



[1] [v] know; recognize; discern

[2] [n] knowledge; opinion; view


For 認識 = to know, to recognize.

The logic behind it came from the meaning 'to recognize' in 認 and "to know" in 識. You recognize something, to know it


見識: experience(v) = (see + know) *'to see to know'

見識: experience(n)= (see + knowledge) knowledge from what you had seen

學識: knowledge; acquirements (n) = (learn/study + know) knowledge from what you had studied

常識: common sense; general knowledge(n) = (common + knowledge) knowledge that is common

Back to 認識, you know 識 is a knowledge you gain by '認' and from all the meanings 認 contained, only "recognise / identify" make sense, thus we know 認識 means "knowledge gained by identify something" or " to identify something to know it."

As for 知道 (to know about something)

[1] [v] know; understand; be aware of

[2] [n] knowledge; learning

[3] [v] to inform; notify; tell


[7] [v] think; suppose; wonder


知道: to know about something

you 知 (know; understand; be aware of) and 道 (think) - "you know and think of/suppose something as~"

From the information above, we can discern the difference between 認識 and 知道 :

認識 = 1.(v) to recognize to know 2.(v)know (someone/ something you recognize/ identified before)

you have to meet someone, or come across something to recognize and know him or it.

知道= to know (be aware of someone/something)

You don't have to meet a person to know him, you can know or be aware of someone by reading about him or heard of him.

  • Upvoted, for X識 serie. 知道 is a bit of a strech (to know the way/method) it still does not easily explain the application of 知道. Ancient protocharacters do not help either, i agree here with you.
    – coobit
    Dec 21, 2016 at 15:01
  • regarding the meaning of 道 in 知道,if 道 is taken to mean a noun (road,way,method,etc) so that the compound is of type V+N/动宾 (Yip Po-Ching: governmental type), how can it be transitive (the object usually is clausal)? Examples of 动宾 type: 说话、唱歌、跳舞、鞠躬、磕头,note these are all intransitive, i.e. cannot be followed by an object. On the other hand if 道 is taken to be a verb, in the Middle Chinese meaning ⑿<动>以为。《灌园叟晚逢仙女》:“他还~略看一会就去,谁知这厮故意卖弄。”bkrs:4) среднекит. знать, ощущать, чувствовать, рассчитывать, думать(know, feel, consider, think) then 知道 would be of juxtaposisional (并列)V+V type,
    – user6065
    Dec 23, 2016 at 16:32
  • agreeing with the possible structure of transitive verbs. The corresponding question has been submitted to the bkrs forum which seems to agree with the conclusion that 道 should be considered as verb in the Middle Chinese meaning: bkrs.info/taolun/thread-33973.html
    – user6065
    Dec 23, 2016 at 16:32
  • 道 as a verb can also mean " speak, describe. explain" Therefore 知道 could be [知(know)+道(explain)] , but "think" is the obvious best choice. [知(know)+道(think)] - "you know to think of something as~" I would edit my answer.
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 23, 2016 at 16:38

As for your second question, the problem with the etymology of Chinese characters is that most sources just give folk etymologies, which are very often completely bogus, according to serious paleographers. I'm not a paleographer myself, but I'll try to give a few pretty reliable sources so that you can investigate on your own.

The most likely explanation for the structure of the characters with the component 戠 is that they are semantic-phonetic compounds (形聲). All theories of character structure, from the traditional 六書 up to the modern 三書 proposed by Qiu Xigui (2000), recognise 形聲 as the largest category of characters, so you need to have strong arguments if you want to claim that some character groups were created in a different way, especially if they have clearly similar pronunciations.

Chen Zhiqun wrote a very interesting dissertation (2009, available online) about the origin of semantic compounds. Her most important point is that the vast majority of semantic compounds were not created by combining meanings of two components, but were rather depictions of prototypical situations related to the meaning of the character. Another way of formation of such compounds was reclarification, the process of adding new compounds that did not change the meaning of the character.

I looked up some of the characters you mentioned in Pulleyblank's (1991) dictionary, and they had similar pronunciations in Early Middle Chinese (which we know from the Qieyun 切韻 rhyme dictionary, 601 CE):

織職 tɕik
織識幟 tɕɨʰ/tɕiʰ
識 ɕik
熾 tɕʰɨʰ/tɕʰiʰ

It looks like most likely explanation is that 戠 was used to write a similarly pronounced word, which might or might not have been semantically related, and later it was reclarified with an additional component, such as 糸, 耳 or 言.

Other good sources to learn character etymology are 說文新證 by Chi Hsiu-Sheng (I think it's possible to find it online) and the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters (an initial release is expected in a few days, though we may need to wait for more detailed etymological explanations).

  • Chen, Zhiqun. 2009. Compound ideograph: a contested category in studies of the Chinese writing system. Monash University. Faculty of Arts. School of Languages, Cultures & Linguistics PhD thesis.
  • Chi Hsiu-Sheng 季旭昇. 2010. 《說文新證》,海峽出版發行集團
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. 1991. Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation: in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin. UBC Press.
  • Qiu, Xigui. 2000. Chinese writing. The Society for the Study of Early China & The Institute of East Asian Studies. Original version: 裘锡圭,1988,《文字學概要》,商務印書館出版
  • what do you think about this article: blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_60069d920102wlbz.html it can explain 蟙 (as spiders weave their webs). Would appreciate your comments.
    – coobit
    Dec 22, 2016 at 9:55
  • Sorry, I'm not qualified to assess that. But I added two more good sources of etymology to my answer.
    – 米好 '-'
    Dec 22, 2016 at 10:32

Q1: 我认识他=I know him(in person, maybe have some relationship with him), I have seen him before, I can recognise his face. These explanation could be all correct, depends on the context. 我知道他= I have heard about him, I know which guy you talk about. 知道is a bit vague, 认识 is for sure that you have some kind of relationship with someone or something. However, people wouldn't mind if you use either one in oral Chinese. Q2: Don't worry about them, as a native speaker, I know none of these words.


认识是可以通过外观辨别客体,客体多为人,也可以为其他实物。 知道是全部或局部了解客体的特性,客体可以是实物,也可以是虚物,例如道理。对于客体的外形却未必了解。如:可以说知道一个没见过的人。

  • Thanks for the attempt. But the question is WHY there is difference and what are the sources of that difference. The etymological information will be much appreciated.
    – coobit
    Dec 27, 2016 at 18:48

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