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.

  • 1
    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 '20 at 16:49
  • Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. I edited to make the focus on the traditional character. – MikeLangStudent Dec 28 '20 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. – Wayne Cheah Dec 29 '20 at 2:24
  • Good point Wayne, thanks. I am going to always start with traditional characters in any future etymological research. – MikeLangStudent Dec 30 '20 at 15:23

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):



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」

字形 參考資料

𦰩 17.1
𦰩 堇鼎
難 「難」
𡎸 「堇」
漢 「漢」


「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.


  • 1
    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 '20 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 '20 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 '20 at 14:45
  • 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. – MikeLangStudent Dec 30 '20 at 15:11
  • Mo - thanks for your helpful comment as well. – MikeLangStudent Dec 30 '20 at 15:12

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