Wiktionary explains the two glyph origins of 「兹」 as the following:

  1. Unorthodox variant simplified from 茲 with 䒑 as the top component instead of 艹 found in the Ming dynasty orthographic dictionary 《俗書刊誤》.

  2. Variant form of 玆 with 䒑 instead of doubled 亠 as the top component. Found in the Tang dynasty orthographic dictionary Ganlu Zishu 《干祿字書》, which lists both 兹 and 茲 as unorthodox forms of 玆.

For characters in the phonetic series 「兹」, most sources (from my experience) explain the characters as semantic 「X」 + phonetic 「茲」. To illustrate, here is a part of the entry for 「滋」 from Chinese Linguipedia:


And below is the entry for 「滋」 in 說文解字:


However, it seems that there are two seal script forms; one that matches the structure 「水」 + 「茲」 (left), and the other matches the structure 「水」 + 「玆」 (right).

Compare the seal script forms of 「茲」 and 「玆」 respectively:

It also appears that abbreviated 「絲」 was the original phonetic component in older forms like oracle bone script, and was later replaced with 「茲」 or 「玆」. Both of these characters have the Fanqie spelling of 子之切, but seem to have different origins.

As a phonetic component, were both 「茲」 and 「玆」 used, and later converged into 「兹」? Or is there a different story behind it?


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The character was originally「𢆶」, largely used as a phonetic loan for Zhengzhang OC: /*ʔsɯ/, meaning this (now written as「茲」).「𢆶」came from a variant way of writing「絲」(/*slɯ/, silk).

Later on, horizontal lines or「U」shapes as differentiating marks were added to the top portion of「𢆶」, just below the notches, possibly to differentiate the original character from a myriad of other uses in the Zhou period (proper nouns and other phonetic loans). These additions ambiguously formed what is now written as「玆」or「茲」, which are really just variant shapes of each other:

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Some other readings associated with「𢆶」or「玆」to note:

  • Reading「𢆶」as「幽」(concealed > dark) is either an erroneous interpretation of「𢆶」as the phonetic component of「幽」, or saying that originally「𢆶」had another pronunciation.
  • Reading「玆」as black should be a phonetic loan for「緇」(/*ʔsrɯ/, black silk).
  • Reading「玆」as「玄」(/*ɡʷeːn/, black, dark) is the association of「玄」with「玆」. In this sense,「玆」can be viewed as another character, formed by reduplicating「玄」to also represent /*ɡʷeːn/, and unrelated in sound etymology to /*ʔsrɯ/.

Continuing on for the morpheme /*ʔsɯ/ (this), the two「亠」on top of「玆」were sometimes joined to form「䒑」:

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Alternatively,「䒑」is also a brush calligraphy variation of「艹」. Today, several character variations are due to swapping「艹」with「䒑」or vice-versa, the most prominent being「著」and「着」which were both originally corrupted from「箸」.

The character development timeline should then be「𢆶」,「玆・茲」,「兹」. Although this cannot directly answer the question as to why sometimes「茲」is preferred over「玆」or vice-versa as a phonetic component, from the historical development it is possible to see that the facts behind character structure and development was very concealed to later writers, influencing the muddled choices.

If you really had to choose one component or the other out of「茲」or「玆」, then pending on the character, that choice is sometimes quite easy.「茲」is defined in Shuowen as


while「玆」is defined as


So, for a character like「滋」which is defined as


The obvious choice is「茲」.


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    Thank you for the incredibly detailed response as always. A follow-up question: If the U-shaped mark was added to 「𢆶」, then that implies the intended functional structure of 「茲」 was not 「艸」 + 「𢆶」. How did Shuowen get its definition for 「茲」? Was it related to one of the meanings 「𢆶」 represented? – wang_xiao_ming Jul 13 '19 at 5:11
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    @wang_xiao_ming there's something to be wary of: Shuowen sometimes defines things into existence without prior reason or evidence, and later dictionaries quote Shuowen quite often. Nevertheless, I believe that Shuowen's definition of「茲」has some basis, although it is a very long stretch. Try starting off with either (1a) dark/concealed (「𢆶」's "other pronunciation" 「幽」) or (1b) black 「緇」, then (2) deep (e.g. deep water) > (3) fill, multiply 「滋」> (4) Use a「艸」variant of the character to describe specifically 艸木多益. – dROOOze Jul 13 '19 at 5:28
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    Basically, there was something that sounded roughly like 子之切 that meant fill, multiply, and maybe Xu Shen found a Warring States inscription that had what looked like「艸」on top of a phonetic「𢆶」, then created the definition. – dROOOze Jul 13 '19 at 5:30

In Oracle Bone Script, it is 𢆶 and very close to 絲. They are both two bundles of silk. 絲 has some threads below while 𢆶 has none. They are probably used interchangeably later but eventually 𢆶 got the meaning of fine and small from the fine threads of silk.

艸 is added to 𢆶 lately in during the Age of Warring State to differentiate its meanings from 絲.

Starting from Oracle Bone Script, 𢆶 is used to write 此 for the sense of pronoun this. This preserves in the common meaning of 茲.


Would this variation belong to a certain dynasty or time period? I cannot find an example of this and that leads me to believe it was created and used only by the individual who had it made.

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