This word exists in Japanese as well as 綿蛮, but as far as I can tell the compound just carries the meaning of "cotton barbarian". I am completely stumped as to how this in any way means "a small bird" or "chirping". Does anyone know what's going on?
Better ask this question at Japanese Stack Exchange– Tang Ho ♦Dec 30, 2019 at 12:03
Firstly, some conceptual advice on interpreting characters: Please keep in mind that characters are not words; they only represent words. Character phonology is very important when interpreting pre-Qin texts, of which the Shijing is one.
You should always be mindful that a character has both meaning and sound, and sometimes, characters are only used for sound.
If you're a Japanese learner, you should be aware of ateji, which is based on the same principle.
「綿」(Zhengzhang OC: /*men/, thin, fine threads) is comprised of semantic「糸」(silk threads) and semantic「帛」(silk/fabric).
「蠻」(/*mroːn/, Southern ethnic tribes) is comprised of semantic「虫」(poisonous snake, now written「虺」, the cultural symbol of some ancient Southeastern Tribes) and phonetic「䜌」(/*b·roːn/).「閩」( /*mrɯn/, /*mɯn/, Min ethnicity), with the same semantic「虫」, is almost certainly cognate to「蠻」.
Stringing the above together, you get a reading which is approximately /*men mroːn/, where「蠻」is almost definitely only used to represent sound.
綿蠻 /*men mroːn/ come to mean “(the chirping of) a small bird”?
Two interpretations, which may be related to each other:
綿蠻 (/*men mroːn/) is short for 綿綿蠻蠻, where
綿綿 means fine, delicate.
蠻蠻 (/*mroːn mroːn/) is the topolectical name of a bird.
Together, this forms delicate > small + bird, i.e. small bird, extended to mean chirps of a small bird.
綿蠻 (/*men mroːn/) is a phonologically-shifted reduplication of「微」(微微, /*mɯl mɯl/).「微」means tiny, slight.
王國維《觀堂集林・爾雅草木蟲魚鳥獸名釋例下》：“蟲之小者曰蠛蠓 (/*meːd moːŋ|moːŋʔ/)，鳥之小者亦曰綿蠻，殆皆微字之音轉。”
Small insects are called 蠛蠓 (/*meːd moːŋ|moːŋʔ/), small birds are called 綿蠻 (/*men mroːn/), they are both phonological shifts from「微」(/*mɯl/).
Contextually, the reduplicated word meaning small was only used to describe birds, hence it became associated with birds to get small birds > chirping of small birds.
in the book of odes (詩經), there’s a poem named 綿蠻:
“綿蠻黃鳥” is translated to “little oriole” in ctext.org
however, the scholar 朱熹 suggested that “綿蠻” is the sound of birds (鳥聲)
if you have difficulty, trust him at this moment :)
It appears to have originated from a poem of the same name 緜蛮 in the Book of Songs 诗经.
Chinese poetry is exceptionally hard to read (for me at least), but fortunately Baidu Baiku has a 白话译文 "Spoken language translation":
So the bird is 小黄雀 (see Baidu Image Search) which I think is a type of finch. And each line begins:
That beautiful small finch, ...
(Here I use "finch" to mean something like "black-headed yellow Eurasian siskin" which makes the poem too clunky.)
It seems to be also used in subsequent poetry, e.g., 晦日宴高氏林亭 (Tang Dynasty) and 啼鸟; 次余仲庸松风阁韵十九首其一 (Song Dynasty).
Here, 緜 = 绵 meaning "cotton", while 蛮 = "barbarian". Pinshiwen explains this imagery as:
緜蛮: bird feathers [鸟羽] rich and bright in color [文采] numerous and close together [繁密] appearance [样子]
However, there appears to be multiple interpretations of how to interpret 緜蛮 (zdic.net): small birds appearance (小鸟貌; 文貌), bird sounds (鸟声) and smallest birds (鸟之小者亦曰绵蛮).
Judging from Baidu
绵蛮, this term is normally only mentioned in the context of poetry.
When quoting original texts, it's advisable to use the oldest form of the text with the original characters (as much as possible), because the oldest text reflects the author's intention most accurately. Simplified Chinese makes interpreting texts very difficult - everything from character structure analysis to phonetic loans to phonetic components which play a large part in phonology become either opaque or lost. This is part of the reason why resources in popular (non-academic) Simplified Chinese don't explore phonology at all, and try to interpret characters based on their meaning.– dROOOzeJan 1, 2020 at 2:39