Recently for a while now, I've been debating for a long time now on what 白 (white, clear) is supposed to depict. I've heard from a lot of sources that it could be either a rice grain, a thumb, an acorn, candle light etc.

The thing is, I cannot determine what this character is originally supposed to represent.

I did research on my own figuring out what this character depicts and in my opinion, I think it might possibly depicts a human's skull noting the character's use in 皃 since in that character, it was used to emphasize the face/head of a person. I also took note that it was almost similar to 囟 in ancient form since they seem to share the same shape expect 囟 had a vertical line through it. However, when looking at the old Chinese pronunciations for 白 and 囟, they were completely different. So I'm doubting that it probably depicts a stylized human skull.

If anyone can, some help on finding the origin of 白 would be nice since I cannot come to a conclusion on what this character is supposed to be.

  • 1
    Very unfortunately, large swathes of written texts from the Shang and Early Zhou period are lost, and so there may not be enough evidence to determine what 白 is supposed to be. It may also originally have been multiple characters that have now merged into one. Maybe some time in the future, archaeological discoveries can concretely describe the identity of 白 and other characters, but for now, it's best to treat it as "unknown".
    – dROOOze
    Jul 10, 2023 at 6:42

2 Answers 2


From 百度:

白(拼音:bái)为汉语一级通用规范汉字(常用字) [9] 。此字始见于甲骨文 1 ,其古字形有多种解释,一种解释称白为太阳初升指状,另有一种解释为大拇指之状,还有一种解释为白色谷米。“白”的基本义指白色,由白色引申为纯洁。白又表示明亮,进而又有了清楚的意思,

....用“白”作意符的字大都和白色、明亮有关,如:皎、皙、皑、皓。 [20]

From 汉典:

(1) (象形。甲骨文字形,象日光上下射之形,太阳之明为白,从“白”的字多与光亮、白色有关。本义:白颜色)

(2) 同本义 [white] 古人用以代表西方、

《說文解字》- 白的古字

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說明: 西方色也。陰用事,物色白。

To sum up the above explanations, I believe in the very beginning, 白 was used to describe the color of daylight - the period of the day with light was called 白日/晝 (daytime). In contrast, the period of the day in the dark was called 黑夜 (night).

  • If this is the case, I'm still wondering what kind of object or idea the oracle bone inscriptions use to represent the meaning "white". I know for sure that it's possible a white colored object was used to represent the original meaning of the sky same color as rice. I'm still not completely sure yet.
    – prismcool
    Jul 9, 2023 at 22:02
  • 日 plus sun-ray is a possible explanation.
    – r13
    Jul 9, 2023 at 22:10
  • I've seen a few theories state this. However though, some ancient forms I've seen contradict this theory as shown by the following ancient forms I could find: xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/jiaguwen?kaiOrder=273, xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/jinwen?kaiOrder=273
    – prismcool
    Jul 9, 2023 at 22:13
  • It is clear to me then, that the word 白 was evolved from the word 日.
    – r13
    Jul 9, 2023 at 22:57
  • Then I'm thinking that in the ancient forms of that character, it's maybe likely that 日 is highly stylized in the oracle bone inscription and bronze inscription characters to give off an appearance of a shining sun in a way. If that's what I'm getting here.
    – prismcool
    Jul 9, 2023 at 23:01

its old shape has various explanations,
one explanation states it represents the rising sun,
another explanation says it represents a thumb,
yet another explanation says it represents white rice.

I have watched the sun rise many times. The sun is always red or yellow. The sky is generally blue. Clouds may be white, but often appear black or grey, maybe with a pink tinge.

The moon is white in the night sky and 白道 means "the path of the moon".

Perhaps the original meaning was "clear" as in "the clear light of day" and "white" is the extended meaning. from "clear".

  • So I'm guessing from this explanation, 白 probably originally depicted a type of moon? That's what I'm getting here.
    – prismcool
    Jul 9, 2023 at 22:56
  • Well, I think we can agree that the sun is yellow, and was also yellow in ancient China! If the original meaning was white, then the moon is a prime suspect! My thumbs are kind of pinkish! White rice is a modern product I believe. I don't know if the ancients knew how to husk rice.
    – Pedroski
    Jul 9, 2023 at 23:58
  • Me either tbh. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be a rice grain or not but I'm assuming not because I don't think rice grains are pictured like that? Also, i'm guessing that thumb is connected to white either by sound loan or maybe by a very complicated extension (white is the color of your thumb nail).
    – prismcool
    Jul 10, 2023 at 0:07

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