is an ancient character that has roots in an oracle bone pictogram, but according to this, the rice radical was added in the Tang dynasty to form 氣.

What were the reasons for this? What does 气, meaning gas, air or life force, have to do with rice?

Note: this question is not about traditional vs simplified.

  • You can see the 说文解字 tab on that page.
    – Stan
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 10:29
  • Ha ha, @Stan the mighty sometimes make mistake :D Your reference treats 氣 as different meaning as modern 气. There's some merging story behind. See my answer later.
    – George
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 15:58
  • @congliu actually I was conscious of that. I didn't put it as an answer because I didn't know when 餼(饩) and 氣(气) were merged XD
    – Stan
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 1:47

5 Answers 5


說文解字 has both references for and .

Put simply, 气 and 氣 comes from different origin and somehow merge together into one stream later.

In detail: 米 is not added to 气 to get 氣 in Tang Dynasty. Long time ago, 氣 appears in the form of Bronze inscription, though different meaning as 气. 氣 is originally designed to mean the "air generated from digesting food". While 气 is originally designed to mean the physical gas. In the reference of 氣, "饋客芻米也" means "氣 is a verb, showing the action of giving guest fodder (芻, chu2) and rice (米) as gift." 饋 (kui4) is "to give someone gift". 氣 with this meaning later becomes to clarify the action relating to food.

So nowadays, in Taiwan, 氣為餼之異體 (氣 is another non-standard variant of 餼). Also, according the 教育部異體字字典 气為氣之異體 (气 is another non-standard variant of 氣). In China mainland, 氣 is replaced by 气 as standard.


The original character for the meaning gas, atmosphere is 「气」, while using 「氣」 for this meaning is strictly a phonetic loan.

「氣」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*qʰ(r)ə[t]-s/) originally meant gifting food to someone, comprised from semantic 「米」 (rice) and phonetic 「气」 (/*C.qʰəp-s/). This word is now written as 「餼」.

「气」 was originally a picture of thin clouds.


The stylisation that occurred to form the modern shape of 「气」 was firstly to differentiate the character from the similar-looking 「三」.





Later on, the character became used as a phonetic loan for a word /*C.qʰət/, to beg, request, and thus the meaning gas, atmosphere 「气」 started to be written differently from the meaning beg, request 「乞」.

  • 「气」




  • 「乞」





「氣」 was first created to represent the unrelated word now written as 「餼」. Probably, due to the potential confusion caused by 「气」 and 「乞」 being the same character,「氣」 became used as a phonetic loan for the word meaning gas, atmosphere, and eventually became the overwhelmingly preferred way of writing this word.

To write the word originally written as 「氣」, semantic 「食」 (food) was later added to form 「餼」.



I remember reading somewhere that it's a pictograph of the steam or vapor 气 coming from boiling rice 米. But here's what wiktionary says about its etymology: Original form of 餼/饩 ("to present rice as a gift"), which is from the same source as 乞 ("to endow, to beg"). Current meaning came from phonetic loan. Cognate with 愾/忾 ("anger, hatred").


Wiktionary says:

  • 氣: Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *kʰɯds, *qʰɯds): phonetic 气 (OC *kʰɯds) + semantic 米 (“rice”) – to give rice as a gift.
  • 气 (OC *kʰɯds) is a pictogram (象形) of clouds flowing through the sky. In the oracle bone script, it was represented by three horizontal strokes, expressing the "feeling" of the sky. However, in order to avoid confusion with the number 三 (OC *suːm, *suːms), the current 气 (OC *kʰɯds) was changed to draw a small stroke from top to bottom. The glyph of 氣 (OC *kʰɯds, *qʰɯds) and 乞 (OC *kʰɯds, *kʰɯd) comes from the same ancient form.
  • 乞: Variant of 气 (OC *kʰɯds), distinguished to indicate a phonetically borrowed meaning “to beg”.

For some reason, later 氣 came to take 气's meaning of air, possibly to distinguish it from 乞.

In the creation of Simplified Chinese, 氣 was changed back to 气.


In my opinion,the rice is a kind of food. If someone don't eat anything,he will dead,and no longer breath. So, if no food,then no breath. My english is not good. Hope to help you .

  • 1
    Welcome to Chinese SE. This question is seeking evidence/facts for why the radical was added, and not an opinion. Please provide some sort of research to back up your claim. Thank you.
    – user3871
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 19:46

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