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What's the glyph origin of 妖?

Why does it have a woman radical? Why is woman used in a word that means weird or supernatural?

Is there a website to look up the evolution of characters?

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《說文解字》沒有「妖」這一條目。
There is not an entry of 妖 in the 《說文解字》.

《說文解字注》對「𡝩」的解釋有提到「俗省作妖」。
The interpretation of 𡝩 in the 《說文解字注》 mentions 俗省作妖.

𡝩-01.png

𡝩 [ yāo | ㄧㄠ ]

意思是,民間習慣上,將「𡝩」省略為「妖」。 也就是,「妖」的本字是「𡝩」。
It means that 𡝩 is used to be simplified to 妖. That is, the original form of 妖 is 𡝩.

《說文解字》對「𡝩」的解釋如下:
《說文解字》 explains 𡝩 as follows.

𡝩-02.png

𡝩,巧也;一曰,女子笑皃。

皃 [ mào | ㄇㄠˋ ] 同「貌」。

所以,「𡝩」有兩個意思:一是「巧」,二是「女子笑的樣子」。 這應該也是「妖」的本義。
Therefore, 𡝩 has two meanings: "skillful or clever" and "the appearance of a female smile". This should also be the original meaning of 妖.

至於,「妖」會有「邪異」的意思,是來自「祅」字。
As for the "demon" meaning of 妖, it comes from 祅.

同樣的,「祅」的本字是「䄏」。
Similarly, the original word of 祅 is 䄏.

祅、䄏 [ yāo | ㄧㄠ ]

《說文解字》對「䄏」的解釋如下:
《說文解字》 explains 䄏 as follows.

䄏-01.png

地反物爲䄏也。

「䄏」是地上反常的物種。
䄏 is the abnormal species on the ground.

《說文解字注》在解釋此句時有提到「經傳通作妖」。
The interpretation of this sentence in the 《說文解字注》 mentions 經傳通作妖.

䄏-02.png

《說文通訓定聲》說這是一種假借。 (妖、𡝩、祅、䄏都是形聲字。)
《說文通訓定聲》 explains that this is a loan. (妖, 𡝩, 祅 and 䄏 are the picto-phonetic characters.)

𡝩-03.png

Conclusion:

「妖」的本義有兩個意思:一是「巧」,二是「女子笑的樣子」。 被「祅」假借,所以有「邪異」的意思。
𡝩 has two original meanings: "skillful or clever" and "the appearance of a female smile". It is borrowed by 祅, thus it also means "the demon".


Is there a website to look up the evolution of characters?

I recommend 小學堂-字形演變 to look up the evolution of characters.

小學:研究文字字形、字義及字音的學問,包括文字學、聲韻學及訓詁學等。
小學 does not mean the primary or elementary school here. It means the study of the glyph, meaning and the pronunciation of the word, including philology, phonology and exegesis.

(Input the character in the 字形 field.)

For example, 中.

中.png

  • If you cannot see some Chinese characters, I suggest installing the Hanazono font, 花園明朝體. – hinen Mar 8 '17 at 9:14
  • 1
    I suggest you are a genius! How do you know all this stuff? It is amazing! Do you ever forget anything? – Pedroski Mar 8 '17 at 9:43
  • Ah, so it seems that the female part of the word has nothing to do with the demon part of the meaning. Good to know. I always wonder if there's sometimes misogyny built into the Chinese language. – David Xia Mar 8 '17 at 15:16
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I recommend http://www.chineseetymology.org. They show the ancient forms of most characters.

There the author says "From woman (Chinese ghosts are women) 女 and phonetic 夭. Meaning female ghost."

Don't know where he's read that "Chinese ghosts are women", though.

Another great source is http://www.zhongwen.com. They even have a (very helpful) printed version. There they say "Modern form shows woman 女 with 夭 phonetic. Bewitching, demon."

Now if you look for a definition of "bewitching", you'll find "cast a spell on and gain control over (someone) by magic". Considering that most characters were developed by males (consider 他/她, in the first "person" means "male"; or 安, a woman at home meaning "tranquility"; etc), it's easy to understand how women are able to "cast a spell and gain control" over men by their simply nature. Perhaps there are parallels with the way women were treated as witches in Western medieval times. Remember how lipstick were once considered bewitching:

Rather than merely discouraging lip rouge through taxation, as done to hair powder, Parliament declared that women who seduced men into matrimony through use of lip and cheek paints could have their marriages annulled as well as face witchcraft charges.

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