I've been trying to find a single-character translation of the word "freedom," but I can't seem to find one anywhere.

The best translation I can find is, of course, 自由, which seems to be a fairly modern thing.

My question has now become this: Is there an ancient word for "freedom"? Is there a 文言文 word? If not, why not?

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    文言文中表示 “自由” 据我所知没有单汉字的,“自由” 本身也来自古汉语(见 @Growler 引用的资源),此外表示这个意思的有 “逍遥”,“自繇(you)”,等等。补充一点,“繇” 是多音字,在 “自繇” 中和 “由” 同音同义。 Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 17:53
  • 那么,为什么没有单汉字?自由主义在古代中国不存在吗? Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 17:56
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    ,不是所有的意思都可以用单个汉字表示。用两个汉字表达的“自由”也是“自由”。见我的评论,和以下的回答,我们都引用了古代汉语中表示“自由”的文献材料,因此自由在中国很早就存在了。 Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 18:03
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    Alex, can you explain why you need to know a single character translation for freedom it may provide a better quality answer. Certain types of requests for single characters are also off topic unless there is a reasonable justification.
    – going
    Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 1:59
  • The answer I received was sufficient. I did, in my research, find this article that may be interesting to some: carlsensei.com/docs/essays/freedom-and-confucianism Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 20:35

2 Answers 2


Question: 古文中哪个字有自由不受约束的意思啊? (Gǔwén zhōng nǎge zì yǒu zìyóu bu shòu yuēshù de yìsi a) - Which word in Ancient Chinese means Free and/or Unfettered?

Source: Bai Du

It appears there aren't single words, in modern and ancient Chinese, that have a denotative meaning of "Freedom". There are however, connotative words that can mean "free" or "to set free" in context.

放 (Fàng) - Put, Release, Free, Lay

放出 (Fàngchū) - Release, Set Free

放心 (Fàngxīn) - Free your heart, don't worry

放松 (Fàngsōng) - Set loose, relax

More ancient words for "free":

恣 (Zì) - Do as one pleases, free (From: 恣肆 (Zìsì) - Unrestrained)

逍 (Xiāo) - Leisurely (From: 逍遥 (Xiāoyáo) - Free and unfettered)

逸 (Yì) - Free, Leisurely (Common in names)

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    逸 is another alternative for 'free' and is common in person names.
    – NS.X.
    Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 18:28

If not, why not?

There is no exact one-word equivalent of the concept of "freedom" in ancient Chinese, just as there are no exact one-word equivalent of 仁, 理, 道, etc. in Latin, Greek or any Western languages. That's not surprising: it is what makes our world an interesting world of differences.

It doesn't mean ancient Chinese did not have or need or seek such a thing as freedom; it means they divided their concepts differently.

In Confucianist context, you could find something related to the freedom of speech in scholars' duty to admonition the ruler when his conduct is improper. Confucius did it himself, at the risk of his life. It could also be said that the Confucian emphasis on "rites" over laws is a way to define free will: I do not steal my neighbour's possessions, not because I am forced to obey the laws for fear of the police, but because I have freely accepted and internalized the "rites" which equate stealing from fellow human beings with a great loss of self-esteem.

In Taoist context, there is an emphasis on spontaneous action done with a free mind, and on a refusal to be "used" (trying to be a twisted tree from which no furniture can be made) which relates to other connotations of our concept of freedom.

Buddhism has its hole concept of freedom too, but I know much less about it.

So to answer your "If not, why not?", I'd say that the lack of exact one-word equivalent of freedom in ancient Chinese do not mean that Chinese culture is missing an essential part. It covers the same human needs, but differently.

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    Thank you! This is more what I was looking for, though the accepted answer answers the title question better. Commented Oct 12, 2013 at 15:34

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