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One popular explanation for the origin of the 士 character is that it originally shared virtually the same form as the 王 character (see forms circled in red below), where 王 depicts a broad axe and symbolizes political power.

More importantly they also explain that 士 is actually a drawing of a farming tool and NOT an axe despite their similar early forms, because it's associated with a lower rank not comparable to that of a king. And therefore an additional stroke was added to distinguish 王 from 士.

(王 character evolution)

enter image description here

(士 character evolution)

enter image description here

However the farming tool explanation for 士 still seems a bit confusing to me, assuming it does actually represent a hoe. The blade is clearly shown by the bottom horizontal stroke, but I'm not sure what the top horizontal stroke is supposed to portray.

Since a hoe differs from an axe in that its handle is actually perpendicular to the length of the blade instead of parallel to it, it would seem odd for the upper horizontal stroke in 士 to represent the handle. Being perpendicular, the handle would actually be going into the plane of the page (or, alternatively, sticking out of the page towards the viewer in 3D space). Which obviously isn't feasible to draw. So you'd expect a pictograph of a hoe would have been better represented from a side view, much like 斤 shows the side view of an adze, and much like the depiction of a person's belly in the character 身 can only be clearly shown from the side and not looking head-on.

Having said that, can anyone offer any insight as to what the top horizontal stroke in 士 represents? Is it just a decorative stroke? And where/how would the handle attach to the blade, assuming they deemed it important enough to include a handle in most other weapon-related Chinese characters?

Or is 士 just a picture of an axe all along?

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  • I will write up an answer for your question later but in my opinion, 士 and 王 seems to represent an axe head, however the forms of the two axes both serve different purposes. 王 shows a ceremonial axe (presumably sideways) used by a king which probably served for ritual purposes while 士 maybe shows an axe that soldiers would use in battle.
    – prismcool
    Nov 2, 2023 at 22:35
  • While both 王 and 士 depicts an axe, 王 was not created from 士 but rather both of these characters represent a different kind of axes that served different purposes. So from there, the horizontal stroke in 士 could probably depict the axe's long handle if you look at it from sideways.
    – prismcool
    Nov 2, 2023 at 22:38
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    the first paragraph of the elaboration, in section etymologies of 漢語多功能字庫 stated: “ 《詩.小雅.采芑》鄭玄箋:「士,軍士也」。「士」取象於斧頭,大概是因為士是經常要執斧做事的人,所以把斧形轉向,分化出「士」字。斧鉞是王權的象徵,故又可表示「王」。甲骨文「士」、「王」同形,既可以讀為「士」,也可以讀為「王」(林澐)。參見「王」。後來「士」又用作男子的通稱,又泛指讀書人、辦事人、卿士、官吏。《說文》:「士,事也。數始於一,终於十。从一从十。孔子曰:推十合一爲士。凡士之屬皆从士。」” 😸 humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk//Lexis/lexi-mf/search.php?word=士 Nov 3, 2023 at 0:11

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enter image description here Note: The following illustration that shows how the ancient form was made is just a proposed illustration on how the inspiration might've looked like.

(shì; scholar, gentleman; soldier) (Baxter-Sagart OC: *[m-s-]rəʔ) depicts an axe-like weapon or tool that is presumably used by a solider/warrior, in which the original meaning of this character is "warrior".

Later, the meaning was extended as shown by the following process:

warrior/soldier -> scholar -> gentleman


Looks like judging from many sources I've read, 士 depicts an axe that was used by soldiers in war. As to clarify your other concerns, I personally don't think 士 depicts a farming tool since the person that probably analyzed it's bronze inscription form may have viewed it from a "top-to-down" styled image, therefore making the appearance looks slightly like a farming hoe. 王 didn't certainly came from 士 as well since both 王 and 士 does look visually similar, both of these characters were created with different kinds of axes in mind to represent certain axes used by kings, or high ranking people, and soldiers, or low ranking people, respectfully.

So from there, 王 and 士 both are axes, it's just illustrated in a way where I assume they are different kinds of axes that serve different purposes.

Also just to clarify about the top stroke on 士 as shown by my propsed illustration, it may have to depicted the axe's handle if you look at it sideways. This also goes for the second horizontal stroke of 王.

I hope my explanation can clear things up for you! :)


Sources used:

  • Dong Chinese
  • The Outlier Linguistics Dictionary of Chinese Characters
  • Wiktionary
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》p.59-60, 51-52
  • 小學堂
  • 漢語多功能字庫
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    Thanks for your response. However, I actually used the Outlier Dictionary and 季旭昇 as a basis for my question, since they both hypothesize about 士 being a farming tool and not an axe. Specifically, 季旭昇 mentions "從字形來看, 王取象於鉞形, 士則可能是鎡的象形." Or in English: "王Personally I agree with you that it looks more like an axe, but apparently according to this theory the character 士 "should" represent a hoe so that's why I was confused
    – JJ W
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:04
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    The passage roughly translated in English: "From observing their forms, 王 resembles an axe while 士 is possibly a hoe."
    – JJ W
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:14
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    I can see what you mean, after all creating characters in oracle bone script and bronze script based on weapons don't always have a clear resemblance to what something should look like you would see in ancient China. If this the case where Ji Xusheng thinks 士 possibly depicts a hoe, I think he might've made that statement since if you see the ancient form for 士 in another perspective where the second horizontal stroke isn't a handle but rather some of mark, I can definitely see where he got the possibility for that from.
    – prismcool
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:17
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    Your point about different axes serving different purposes (ceremonial, functional) and equating to different ranks is interesting though and does make sense. I was under the impression they were exclusively status symbols and hadn't really considered that possibility. And even the experts aren't exactly 100% sure. So your explanation could be correct, much appreciated again!
    – JJ W
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:24
  • Thanks! :) My explanation isn't probably true but I'm just taking a huge educated guess at it based on what I've seen with other characters that either look similar in its ancient forms or their usage.
    – prismcool
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:26

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