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It appears that this character consists of a meaning part and a sound part: a water radical (i.e. section header for water in Kangxi dictionary) for meaning, and the character 𦰩 for sound.

Radical - Meaning Element

If the original "meaning" part of this character was meant to concern water, what does that have to do with Han people, culture, civilization, etc.? Is this possibly related to the original Han civilization beginning in a river location?

Sound Element

If 口 and 夫 can be considered decomposition components of 𦰩, did either play a role in giving the sound hàn?

Chinese Etymology notes:
"compound 漢, older 𤁉 ... 氵shuǐ and (rem- 堇𡏳 jǐn) from phonetic difficult (难)難 nán".

Wikipedia notes:
The Han people were named after a dynasty of the same name dynasty of the same name. Another Wikipedia page states that the Han dynasty was named after the fiefdom of "Hanzhong... [which was] named after its location on the Han River (in modern southwest Shaanxi)". Another page says of Hanzhong: "From 900 BC, the area has been called Nanzheng (Chinese: 南鄭; lit. 'southern Zheng')"*

If Wikipedia is correct, then it seems clear why we would have the "radical" for water.

However, I am wondering if either of the above sources is correct in noting the origin of the sound element "hàn" - or if there is some other source.

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    汉 is only used in the PRC spelling standard and comes from a cursive abbreviation of 漢. There is no 又 (right hand) in the character. Generally, start off analysing orthodox characters and not cursive abbreviations (which are largely irrelevant to the language).
    – dROOOze
    Dec 28, 2020 at 16:49
  • Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. I edited to make the focus on the traditional character. Dec 28, 2020 at 18:08
  • Reading the "simplified / abbreviated characters" exclusively is like learning / understanding the English language by writing and reading the Pitman system of shorthand used by company secretaries. Dec 29, 2020 at 2:24
  • Good point Wayne, thanks. I am going to always start with traditional characters in any future etymological research. Dec 30, 2020 at 15:23
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    Does this answer your question? Why is the character 漢 built in such a weird way?
    – user34929
    Oct 14, 2022 at 0:52

2 Answers 2

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A few points to start off:

  • Characters are not made up of radicals (which are strictly dictionary section headers); elements of characters which give meaning are called semantic components.

  • The phonetic part of 「漢」 is currently written as 「⿱廿⿻口夫」.


    enter image description here
     

    For brevity, this character will be referred to as 「𦰩」, but note that 「𦰩」 is actually a Japanese shape, with 「艹」 and not 「廿」 on the top, and writing it this way is incorrect in Chinese.

  • Chinese Etymology is wrong - there is no 「堇」 in 「漢」, and no 「難」 in 「漢」. This statement probably comes from older literature now known to be incorrect; both 「堇」 and 「難」 contain phonetic 「𦰩」, but most older dictionaries do not contain a definition of 「𦰩」, and so may make up character composition definitions based on circular logic.

  • 「難」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*nˤar/) did not originally sound like 「南」 (/*nˤ[ə]m/), so the name Nanzheng (南鄭) is not relevant.


Meaning of 「漢」

「漢」 indeed originally was the name of a river. From the Spring and Autumn Period artefact 《敬事天王鐘》(《殷周金文集成》73、74):

《殷周金文集成》73

《殷周金文集成》74

隹(唯)王㱏(正)月初吉𠩖(庚)𢑚(申)// (...) 𦣼(自)𠆦(作)永(詠)命(鈴),𢍌(其)// ⿵⿶⿱𦥑冖月頁(眉)𦓆(壽)𣞤(無)疆,𢿩(敬)事天 // 王,𦤴(至)于父⿰兄⿱𡳿土(兄),㠯(以)樂𠱭(君)// 子,江漢𡳿(之)陰陽,// 百歲𡳿外,㠯𡳿大行。

'Tis the day of gēngshēn of the first week of the first month of the King's reign*, (...) self-cast this ceremonial bell. Wishing for boundless longevity, respectfully serving the King and the Elders, letting the noblemen rejoice, across both sides of the Yangtze and Hàn Rivers; and beyond one's years, with this bell, setting off on the Grand Journey.

*This timekeeping record isn't necessarily from the start of the King's reign.
Inscription is faded out; this is expected to be someone's name.
Refers to the journey to/in the afterlife (death).

「漢」 was not originally associated with Chinese civilisation or ethnicity; rather, the first emperor of the Hàn Dynasty decided to name the dynasty after the river, simultaneously causing the entire unified nation to adopt the name of the 「漢」 ethnic group which originally resided around the river. Chinese civilisation, if it could be said to have a beginning, would have originated around Zhōngyuán (中原) rather than the Hàn River, and it is 「中原」 which gave rise to the name 「中或」 (central regions) >「中國」 (Middle Kingdom).

As one of the most prosperous dynasties in Chinese history, the adoption of the name 「漢」 eventually caused most long-standing notions of tribal boundaries and ethnic groups which have persisted all the way from the Shāng Dynasty to fade away, such that 「漢」 is now synonymous with Chinese.


Phonetic component of 「漢」

時期
字體
字形 參考資料

𦰩 17.1
合集12524
西周
𦰩 堇鼎
集成2703
戰國
難 「難」
中山王謱鼎
集成2840
戰國・
𡎸 「堇」
漢中守戈
集成11367
西漢
漢 「漢」
屯戍9.4
流沙墜簡

𦰩

「𦰩」 is made up of 「黑」 (picture of a person with criminal facial tattoos) with the addition of an exaggeratedly-drawn mouth 「口」 on top, depicting a sighing criminal, indicating related meanings of bearing hardship, suffering (now written 艱、難), to sigh (e.g. out of grief, lamentation, suffering, or desperation) (now written 嘆), and punishment (e.g. 熯, punishment by fire).

The bottom portion of 「𦰩」 was often corrupted into 「火」 or 「炎」, leading to extra marks in today's shape which causes the bottom of 「𦰩」 to look like 「夫」.

In addition to its meaning role, 「黑」 may also serve as a phonetic hint for 「𦰩」, but generally, characters should only be decomposed at a surface level, and so it is inappropriate to decompose 「𦰩」 to see what kind of hints the resulting components provide to 「漢」.

Please note that 「𦰩」 merely plays a phonetic role in 「漢」, not a semantic (meaning) role.


References:

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    In Chinese History: A New Manual, Endymion Wilkinson also notes that, "Nearly all the names of dynasties (guohao 國號) and polities up to and including the Han 漢 were taken from place names. Between the fall of the Han and the establishment of the Liao 遼 in the tenth century, these same names were used for dynasties over and over again."
    – Mou某
    Dec 30, 2020 at 9:53
  • @Mo. Indeed! I was careful to say: most long-standing notions...fade away. Even where nationalism has long-sinced waned, the names of their associated old Zhou-era vassal territories have continued to hold a degree of prestige, which is why Emperors commonly have granted titles like Prince of XX.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 30, 2020 at 10:29
  • I wasn't trying to add any corrections. I just came across Wilkinson's quote while looking up this question and though it was relevant. I figured it tacked on nicely at the end of your answer.
    – Mou某
    Dec 30, 2020 at 14:45
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    dROOOze - I very much appreciate all the information you have presented. This is exactly the kind of detailed explanation I was looking for. Linquistics, history, - your answer has it all! Thank you for your time and efforts. Dec 30, 2020 at 15:11
  • Mo - thanks for your helpful comment as well. Dec 30, 2020 at 15:12
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Victor Mair answered this on October 19 2017 in Guys and gals: Or, why the "Chinese" are called "Han".

In the comments to "Easy versus exact" (10/14/17), a discussion of the term "Hànzi 汉子" emerged as a subtheme.  Since it quickly grew too large and complex to fit comfortably within the framework of the o.p., I decided to write this new post focusing on "Hàn 汉 / 漢" and some of the many collocations into which it enters.

To situate Language Log readers with some basic terms they likely already know, we may begin with Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic", lit., "Han language"), Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic spelling"), and Hànzì 汉字 ("Sinograph, Sinogram", i.e., "Chinese character").  All of these terms incorporate, as their initial element, the morpheme "Hàn 汉 / 漢".  Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

"Hàn 汉 / 漢" is the name of a river that has its source in the mountains of the southwest part of the province of Shaanxi.  It is the longest tributary of the Yangtze River, which it joins at the great city of Wuhan.  The fact that Han is a river name is reflected in the water semantophore on the left side of the character that is used to write it.

The name of the river was adopted by Liu Bang (256-195 BC), the founding emperor, as the designation for his dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) — more specifically, the dynasty was named after Liu Bang's fiefdom Hànzhōng 汉中 / 漢中 (lit. "middle of the Han River").  After the Qin (221-206 BC), from which the name "China" most likely derives, the Han was the second imperial dynasty in Chinese history.  Because the fame of the Han Dynasty resounded far and near, it came to be applied to the main ethnic group of China, as well as the language they spoke and the characters used to write it.  Note that there could have been no Han ethnicity or nation before the Han Dynasty.

After the Han Dynasty fell, many of the dynasties that ruled in the northern part of the former empire during the following centuries were non-Sinitic peoples (proto-Mongols, proto-Turks, etc.) who actually looked down upon their Han subjects.  During that period, in their mouths, "Hàn 汉 / 漢" became a derogatory term, especially in collocations such as Hàn'er 汉儿 and Hànzi 汉子, which we might think of as meaning something like "Han boy / fellow / guy".  Such terms derived from "Hànrén 汉人 (漢人)" ("Han people"), which generally became a respectable designation again after the collapse of the northern dynasties.  It is remarkable, however, that during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the Mongols ruled over China, non-Sinitic peoples such as the Khitans, Koreans, and Jurchens were referred to as "Hànrén 汉人 (漢人)" ("Han people").

Here are some terms in Mandarin that are based on the Han ethnonym but refer to different types of people in various ways:

hànzi 汉子    39,300,000 ghits

1. man; fellow

2. husband

3. Historically, as mentioned above, during the Northern Dynasties (386-577), hànzi 汉子 was a derogatory reference for Sinitic persons used by non-Sinitic peoples (who were rulers in the north at that time).

nánzǐhàn 男子汉 ("a real man")    11,600,000 ghits

nǚ hànzi 女汉子 ("tough girl")    7,180,000 ghits

dà nánzǐhàn 大男子汉 ("a big guy; macho man")    53,100 ghits

Comments by native speaker informants:

  1. In terms of nǚ hànzi 女汉子, I think your translation "tough girl" sounds good! But sometimes it conveys a slight derogation to women with traits which are conventionally attributed to men, such as strong physical strength, independent mode of life, and tough personality, etc. In this sense, I would like to say "nǚ hànzi 女汉子" might also be "a masculine woman / female".

  2. I know all these terms and I agree with all your translations. However, I also think that nǚ hànzi 女汉子could mean "tomboy" (girls who can do things that men can do). I once saw a translation of nǚ hànzi 女汉子 as wo-man. I think that’s interesting too.

  3. I think the term nǚ hànzi 女汉子 emerged only in the last few years in the Chinese-speaking world. So it is a bit difficult for someone like me who has been living outside for the last forty years to accurately tell its exact meaning. If it applies to young women only, then "tomboy" may not be too far off.

See also:

"What does the Chinese word '女漢子' mean?" (Quara) [typo for Quora]

"Renewal of the race / nation" (6/24/17)

Joshua A. Fogel, "New Thoughts on an Old Controversy: Shina as a Toponym for China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 229 (August, 2012), 1-25 (free pdf)

Victor H. Mair, "The Classification of Sinitic Languages: What Is 'Chinese'?, in Breaking Down the Barriers: interdisciplinary studies in Chinese linguistics and beyond (Festschrift for Alain Peyraube), pp. 735-754 (free pdf), esp. pp. 739-741.

Reddit asked and answered this also.

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