Quoting Wiktionary, the glyph origin of the character 「腺」 is as follows:

A 国字 (kokuji, “Japanese-coined character”) coined in the late 1700s–early 1800s by rangaku scholar Udagawa Genshin as a translation for Dutch klier (“gland”), as an ideogrammic compound (會意): ⺼ (“flesh; body”) + 泉 (“spring; fountain; source; producer of liquid”), together expressing the idea “part of the body that produces liquid secretions”.

And the origin of its pronunciation is described like so:

The reading sen is based on the kan'on of the 泉 base.

Which yields a 慣用音 of 「せん」(sen). However, it seems that other Sinitic and Sino-xenic languages' pronunciation of 「腺」 doesn't match with 「泉」, but rather 「線」. For comparison:

                     腺 / 線(私箭切)           泉(疾緣切)
標準漢語                   xiàn                    quán
粵語(廣州話)              sin3                   cyun4
閩南語(廈門話)    siàn(文)/ sòaⁿ(白)   choân(文)/ chôaⁿ(白)
日語(漢音)             せん(sen)              せん(sen)
朝鮮語                   선(seon)              천(cheon)
越南語                    tuyến                   tuyền

Japanese seems to be the only language where the reading is consistent across all three characters. Why is this the case? Is there a connection between 「腺」 and 「線」? Or was there simply an error when 「腺」 was introduced to China/Korea/Vietnam?

  • 1
    According to Shen (2011), it was the China Medical Missionary Association who adopted 腺 in Chinese in 1901, but they used the pronunciation "chüan", which would correspond to modern "quán" like 泉 not 線.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 16:45
  • That's interesting. I wonder then, how the pronounciation shifted from quán to xiàn, or if it was another source that popularized the usage of the character with the pronounciation xiàn in China. I'm also guessing that the term is first introduced in Mandarin, and then slowly propogates to other Chinese varieties. Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 18:19
  • Bar Japanese, in all of the Sinoxenic varieties, 線 sounds closer to Japanese せん than 泉. I'll bet that's the reason.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 20:19
  • what is 私箭切 and 疾緣切?
    – wada
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 1:14

3 Answers 3


We should first remember that「腺」's pronunciation derives from「泉」in Japanese (where both are pronounced sen), not Chinese. As far as I can find, Chinese sources never actually defined「腺」's pronunciation as being derived from「泉」in Chinese.

The source material from the Shen (2011) reference (First report of the committee on medical terminology appointed by the China medical missionary association: Terms in anatomy, histology, physiology, pharmacology, pharmacy) does not appear to be available on the web, but there is no explicit indication that they adopted the pronunciation 「泉」. This is what the reference actually says:

The terminology committee thought that the translation term used in Japan for “gland,” 腺, pronounced chuan in Chinese, could denote a “flesh spring,” and thus the committee considered it an appropriate translation term.

Or, in the Chinese reference (download link):

Gland 的译名,术语委员会认为来自日语的“腺”音 Chüuan,会意 flesh spring,是准确的

What's more, even though the committee report seems to have used the Romanisation Chüuan, the source material text smells more like an orthographic translation from Japanese.

enter image description here

Last part of the preface to the Japanese source text『西說醫範提綱釋義』by 宇田川 玄真 (Udegawa Genshin). The definition of「腺」is boxed in red:


Without paying attention to Japanese sounds, one might directly translate this as

「腺」 , newly coined character. Read as Chüuan.

by transcribing「泉」into Chinese sounds, because the target language is, well, Chinese. But First report of the committee on medical terminology is an English text!

You may have a look at Chinese materials which explicitly define the pronunciations:

  • 「線」in 《中華大字典》

    enter image description here

  • Or more rarely,「ㄒㄨㄢ」, which seemingly sounds closer to「泉」, but this is from the Taiwanese Hokkien dictionary 《彙音寶鑑》 (rather than the national language), and in Taiwanese Hokkien「線」may also contain an「ㄨ」(Hokkien, POJ: sòaⁿ / siàn).

    enter image description here

My explicit take on the questions:

Japanese seems to be the only language where the reading is consistent across all three characters. Why is this the case?

This is because Japanese is rather phonologically poor; the distinctions made in the other languages have merged in Japanese.

Is there a connection between 「腺」 and 「線」?

Not in terms of meaning. The original logic behind choosing「線」for the reading of「腺」may be lost; all we know is that Chinese dictionaries have defined this reading early on, and some Chinese topolects may pronounce them similarly.

Or was there simply an error when 「腺」 was introduced to China/Korea/Vietnam?

I have a few speculations but no hard evidence:

  • Chinese adopted an imitation of「せん」as the pronunciation of「腺」.「線」is not that far from「泉」in several topolects, so I doubt that it would have been seen as "weird".
    • An early definition like 讀若線 in an authoritative dictionary like 《中華大字典》 has large implications on later dictionaries, and may have influenced Korean and Vietnamese adoption of the term.
  • For Korean:
    • It may have adopted the Chinese definition (meaning & sound) directly
    • Interestingly, the 訓讀 of「腺」(샘, saem, also the native word for spring as in water source) is coincidentally close to Japanese sen in initial and vowel
  • Vietnamese may have adopted straight from Chinese (and please note, tuyến and tuyền only differ in tone; there is not as much discrepancy as in Mandarin)

泉 is pronounced as せん(sen) in Japanese. Many modern scientific terms were first translated into Japanese(in 19th centrury Japan was open to West World), and then some Chinese scholars just borrow the term from Japanese Characters.

氮 may be another case, where 炎 is read as yan(3),but 氮 read as dan(4)。

  • 2
    I am aware of 和製漢語, but I believe 和製漢字 is very rarely back-borrowed into Chinese. In the case of 「氮」, the composition is 「气」 + abbreviated 「淡」, where 「淡」 is also the phonetic component, and is generally not used in Sino-xenic languages (in Japanese and Korean, nitrogen is called 「窒素」). From Wikipedia: 中文名稱「氮」有沖淡氣體的意思。 Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 12:59

we just call it 「線」、「限」,no reason and no one ever think about question like this. never connect it with 「泉」,in our eyes they don't event look the same.

although we have a slang called 有邊讀邊,沒邊讀中間 XD

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.