I wondered how a character originally representing animal skin could appear in words such as 沿革、革命、變革. Ripping off the skin from an animal, thereby "removing the old and getting the new" seems a little far-fetched. Or was there just a mechanism as profane as sound loan at work?

All ideas are much appreciated!

3 Answers 3




According to 说文解字, that is truely how it works.

  • Where did you find this quote? I can't find it here.
    – user4072
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 12:39
  • @songyuanyao, You can use Ctrl-F, It is in that page exactly.
    – sfy
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 17:30

Languages evolve over time, When a new character was coined for a simple definition, it only represented that particular definition.

By extension of logic, additional meanings can be added to that character.

革 was originally a verb for "remove animal skin". When people needed a word for ' leather', they put 皮(skin/ outer layer) and 革(removed skin from animal ) together and coined the word "皮革".

by association, the word "皮革" also gave '皮' and '革' the meaning of ' leather'

When people needed a word for 'cast out' they just borrowed the 'remove' meaning from 革, (to cast out someone, is to remove someone from his position) broaden the possible object from a specific one 'animal skin' to indefinite ones, thus 革 also carry the meaning of 'cast out' and 'remove'

變 means 'change'

革 means 'remove'

變革 means 'change' (by remove existing system or rules)


改 means 'alter'

革 means 'change'

改革 means 'reform' (by alter and remove existing system or rules)

Most characters went through evolution like this. I can list virtually thousands of examples. Take the character '日'. It was originally coined to represent only 'the sun'. Since people were using sun raise and sun set to mark passing of days, the character '日' was naturally given the meaning of 'day' as well.


the term "變革" is used in the book of rites (禮記), which was "published" several hundreds of years before the book 說文解字.

in 禮記﹒大傳



in which, "變革" means change

then, in the book of change (易經), the 49th hexagrams is 澤火革:

革卦 (䷰) is composed by a upper ☱ , with a lower ☲. the basic, core messages of 革卦 is change.


imo, if one need to speculate the etymology, using older materials is better.

have fun :)

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