Is (chuán, boat) composed of the characters for vessel, eight, and person? Is this the etymology of 船?


3 Answers 3


Unfortunately the glyph origin is not correct. It seems like the method you are using is more aligned into the "break every component down into parts you can recognize" way of memorizing characters which is not really efficient for remembering characters with. If you need the actual glyph origin, allow me to explain it.

visual etymology (chuán; ship, boat, vessel) [Baxter-Sagart OC: /*Cə.lo[n]/] is a phonosemantic character composed of two components.

  • was originally a pictograph of a boat viewed from a bird's eye view, indicating the original meaning "boat". Here, (boat) is a meaning component. The connection should be quite obvious.

  • currently has an unclear origin with no conclusive original meaning. However though some scholars have theorized that it was likely a pictograph of a marsh at the bottom of a hill with a drainage hole at the bottom. Here, (yǎn) is a sound component. You may have noticed that the sound component does not sound exactly like how the character is pronounced. This was because the pronunciation of these two were more similar in old Chinese.

For comparison:

  • in Zhengzhang OC: /*ɦljon/
  • in Zhengzhang OC: /*lon/

The original meaning of this character is "boat" which later extended to "ship" and "vessel".

I hope this will clear things up to you! :)

Sources used:

  • Dong Chinese
  • Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters
  • The Digital Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese
  • Wenlin Dictionaries
  • Wiktionary
  • zi.tools
  • 小學堂
  • 漢語多功能字庫

Sagart (1999) interprets Old Chinese 船, semantic 舟 (“boat”) + phonetic 㕣, as a nominal derivate of the verb 沿 (“to go downstream a river”). https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E8%88%B9#Chinese

㕣(八口) - marsh at the foot of the hills. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E3%95%A3#Chinese

enter image description here

  • So 船 means a small 舟 that can go down a river 㕣? What about 㕣?
    – Geremia
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 2:04
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    @Geremia 船 is composed of the meaning of 舟 (pronunciation irrelevant) and the sound of 㕣 (meaning irrelevant). If you analyze the subcomponents of 㕣 to find the meaning of 船, then you have some misconceptions about how Chinese characters work. Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 2:50
  • That's called 形聲 in Chinese, one of the Six Ways (six different approaches for creating Chinese characters). 形 is shape or form (which is the root of the character), and 聲 is sound. In this case 舟 is the root, which gives you a general idea of what the character is about. Some refer to 形聲 as phonosemantic, but that doesn't seem right. Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 4:07

It is incredibly strange and coincidental that the 3 characters that compose the character 船 so greatly resemble vessel, eight, and mouth. Maybe the ancient Chinese knew more about history than modern skeptical ethmologists give them credit for.

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    The "Origin" of this "Theory" ocf.berkeley.edu/~wwu/chinese/bible.shtml You make up your own mind. Commented Jan 26 at 11:11
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    It took thousands of years of study and thought to achieve the level of appreciation of nuance, detail, and specifics that we have in the modern age, for us to be able to really understand the past and build for the future. The incoherent ramblings of pre-scientific, ancient mediterranean goat-herders, or those seeking to emulate them in the modern age, have absolutely no place here.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 26 at 18:34

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