The meaning of "negative" contradicts the "Formation Method" of "person carrying a lot of money" in Yellowbridge below. Unquestionably, if a person carries a lot of money, their net worth is NOT negative! So

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Above is Yellowbridge. Below is Oxford Chinese Dictionary (2010), p 226.

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    Quote:- " if a person carries a lot of money, their net worth is NOT negative!" That is assuming one is carrying one's own money. What if you are carrying someone else's money; isn't that a "responsibility, a burden, a load" to bear? Commented May 3, 2021 at 4:33
  • In any case, a person's "net worth" is not necessarily about how much money a person has but how much debt he or she has relative to his assets, liquid or otherwise. Commented May 3, 2021 at 4:38

3 Answers 3


I think it's a mistake to rely too heavily on the glyph origin to interpret meanings of a Chinese morpheme.

  1. It's easy to confuse the origins of Chinese characters and the origins of Chinese words. One is a question about a writing system; the other is a question about etymology and of (primarily spoken) language. In this particular case, the original word pre-dates the entire Chinese writing system. In fact, it can be traced back to before Chinese and Tibetan split! There is still a cognate word meaning "to carry" in Tibetan today. So, the original meaning was "to carry", and the character was invented to convey that meaning. The use of money in that depiction is presumably incidental.

  2. Even when characters make sense when they're invented, language continues to change. No one goes back and changes the character to match. In this case, I would propose the following chain of meanings:

  • To (literally) carry something
  • To (metaphorically) shoulder something, e.g., a burden
  • To owe, e.g., a debt
  • Negative number (e.g., a debt on a ledger)

Perhaps that chain of meanings is chronologically incorrect. But if so, the right way to answer the question is to start with the original meaning ("to carry") and trace (through literary sources) when the other usages came about and in which order they did so. The original construction of the character is only really helpful in terms of understanding the original meaning, not the subsequent chain of extended meanings.

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    This is what I wanted to say about etymology questions. We can't rely on learning the original meaning to help our understanding of the modern Chinese, chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/22253/…
    – Tang Ho
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 15:18
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    In a sense, carry a load has a negative effect on the body, as well as carrying debt (負債), which essentially represents a negative number (負數) on the wealth.
    – r13
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 19:56
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    For reference, the cognate Tibetan word is འབའ་བ་ ('ba' ba, in the nominal form), but this is rare in Classical Tibetan, where the most common word [in my experience] is འཁྱེར་ 'khyer.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 21:27

Fu4 has the main connotation of 'responsibility'. A man with wealth, with money, has much responsibilities.

As for C in your quote, you need to show that this character glyph was the one that was consistently used for this meaning since the beginning of the common usage for this word. I am Chinese and although my Chinese is pretty rusty and I don't use it for business, it's not a very common usage in my mind. It might come from the meaning of 'credit' though. Think accounting.. The first connotation is responsibility and payment.


In my opinion, the reason why 负 is negative is that there is too much stuff above 人. Even though you get a huge amount of cash, it is still tired to bring all those money around you all the time, not to mention other things.

Something interesting comes to my mind. If a person carries a log of money, the corresponding Chinese character can change 负 to 富, which has the same pronunciation. As for 富, it is a positive character in most cases.

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    While this is good as a mnemonic for personal use, this does not answer the question. This certainly is not loyal to etymology / glyph origin, either.
    – L Parker
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 5:24