Words like 司机,司令,司仪,司炉,司法,司线(员) have the core 司, which, if deemed to be a verb, can form a verb-object group with the subsequent noun to mean one is acting on the object, so 司机 means the man is doing something (controlling) the machine (vehicle), 司令 that he is giving orders, 司仪 that he is holding services, 司炉 that he is taking care of the stove, 司法that he is enacting the laws, 司线 that he is watching the landing or falling point of the ball in a sports game.

But 施工 or 施工员 is another case,it should have been 司工 or 司工员 to comply with the above criteria of word-forming.

What is the difference?

  • 1
    Check the dictionary, 施 as a verb mostly mean 'apply; carry out' , 司 as a verb mostly mean 'in charge of; manage' . Example: 各司其職= Everyone manages his own duty/post. 施工 = carry out the work. We say 施暴 ( apply/ carry out violence) not 司暴 (in charge of violence)
    – Tang Ho
    Jun 13, 2021 at 0:36

2 Answers 2


I think Tang Ho's comment explains the difference between and very well. Usually 司~ describes a person by their job title (equivalent to saying 掌管~的人), whereas 施~ describes an action.

I'd like to provide some examples where both 施X and 司X exist:

  1. 司法 means the judiciary, literally 'one who is in charge of the law'. 施法 however, can either mean 'to enact the law' (in classical Chinese), or 'to perform witchcraft'.

    司法機構 the judicial body

    When Wey Yang first implemented the new laws for Ch'in, the laws could not be put into effect. (The Grand Scribe's Records, The Ch'in, Basic Annals, tr. Cheng)

    施法招魂 to perform witchcraft and summon the spirits

  2. 司政 means 'one who is in charge of the government' (presumably in classical Chinese), but 施政 means 'to implement a policy':

    The king said, 'Ah! you who direct the government and preside over criminal cases through all the land, are you not constituted the shepherds of Heaven?' (Zhou Shu, Marquis of Lu on Punishments, tr. Legge)

    施政報告 policy address (lit. report of the implementation of policies)


  1. Ssu-Ma, Ch’ien. 1995. The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume I: The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China. Translated by Tsai-Fa Cheng. 2nd ed. Bloomington, MN: Indiana University Press.

  2. Legge, James. 1865. The Chinese Classics, volume III: the Shoo King or the Book of Historical Documents. London: Trubner.

  • 施工员is also a person with job title, he is the engineer in charge of the work, and according to your explaining, it should be 司工. Jun 14, 2021 at 2:32
  • @NanningYouth true, although 司~ words descend from classical Chinese, and 工 in classical Chinese does not refer to 工程 (wyw.hwxnet.com/view/hwxE5hwxB7hwxA5.html) in any way, so 司工 meaning 'one who is in charge of construction' is non-existent. // Personally, I think 施工員 is a misnomer. The majority of 施~ words don't work this way.
    – L Parker
    Jun 14, 2021 at 2:53

What is the difference?

Where the word comes from.

Sitting auspiciously, dressed in funny clothes and a weird hat is the 皇帝, officially the boss.

皇帝, temperamental, spoilt, lascivious, hedonistic.

In China, you may have noticed, women, especially at home, loom large.

后,a person facing right, the queen on the left behind 皇帝,running the show.

To the right of 皇帝, a counterpart and reverse of 后, 司 a prince or minister, 皇帝's right-hand man, facing left towards the bossman, 皇帝。

As 皇帝 was fairly pre-occupied, what with 3000+ wives and new clothes to try on every 5 minutes, 司, always helpful, did what he could to a) sabotage the plans of 后 b) make the country run.

皇帝, 后, 司:the 3 pillars of state, hopefully making it stable!

施 shī,yì,shǐ
from flag 㫃 yǎn
and phonetic snake 也 yě.

说文解字: 旗貌從㫃也聲齊欒施字子旗知施者旗也


ensign wafting appearance.
字形采用“”yǎn 作边旁,
Character form uses yǎn as one side
也 yě as phonetic

Qi Luan Shi character Viscount flag

thus can know shi is a flag

Maybe, just a guess, 施 acquired the meaning of 'put into practice, carry out' because, before doing anything, the Chinese like to put up many many flags and banners!

Build a new building?
Well, first we need at least 1000 flags, banners, ensigns and standards!

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