character early writings is derived from the elephant by I can't find an explanation to why it became also use for this other meaning.

  • Why so many negative votes? What is the elephant in the room I am missing? Commented Jan 16 at 3:30
  • The lack of mention of the most obvious explanation - rebus borrowings - instead of contorting some kind of semantic extension. Only one answer mentioned phonetic loans.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 16 at 3:35
  • Yeah, unfortunately not every character has a logical connection with each other on meanings. Seems like some people doesn't really get the concept of rebus characters and instead tries to find a way to connect an unrelated meaning with another one. I know I said my answer that 象's meaning of "form" and "shape" is likely a phoentic loan but I'm just going off by what some other sources say about how 象 picked up those other meanings.
    – prismcool
    Commented Jan 16 at 3:40
  • @Wayne: you mean White is the elephant in the room I am missing? You can't see it because the walls are also white! The excrement may not be so pale however.
    – Pedroski
    Commented Jan 16 at 16:26
  • @Pedroski Could that be the reason by psychiatric hospital wards are painted white? Commented Jan 17 at 2:01

3 Answers 3


The explanation given in Wikipedia is from 《韩非子》: 人希见生象也,而得死象之骨,案其图以想其生也,故诸人之所以意想者皆谓之象也。

Wikipedia goes on to say: modern etymology studies on Old Chinese have challenged this opinion. However it does not give citations of competing theories.

The following theory comes from 高亨.

《吕氏春秋 古乐》 says: 商人服象,为虐于东夷,周公遂以师逐之,至于江南。乃为《三象》,以嘉其徳。(The Shang people tamed elephants and roared in the east, therefore Zhougong drove them away to the south of Yangtze river with army. Then people made a dance 三象 to commemorate this event.)

《礼记 内则》 says: 成童,舞《象》,学射御。 also mentioning a dance named 象.

Based on these quotes, 高亨《周颂考释》 says: 周公灭商,取其象而教之舞,配以人之歌舞,故名《象》舞。其后北方舞象,当以人饰象,如今之狮子舞之例也。 (When Zhougong conquered Shang, he took their elephants and taught them to dance to people's music, and this is called 象 dance. Then the elephants were replaced with people imitating elephants, just like the lion dances today.)

Hence the sense development is "elephant" -> "elephant dance" -> the abstract sense of "imitation" -> "form, shape, etc."

郭令原《“象”的含义及其在先秦文学思想中的意义》 believes that 象 in the sense of "imitation" is preserved in certain usages.

《礼记 王制》 says: 五方之民,言语不通,嗜欲不同。达其志,通其欲:东方曰寄,南方曰象,西方曰狄鞮,北方曰译。

Hence a translator who understood the languages of the south was named 象. 郭 goes on to say:


There is another theory that comes from 胡适, believing 象 and 相 are related, but this theory has been criticized as implausible by all sources I can see.

There are also theories that the sense of "shape" is an external borrowing. For example ABC Etymology postulates that the sense is derived from an ST root meaning "to imitate". This bears similarity to 高's theory, the difference being whether "to imitate" is internal derivation or external borrowing.

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  • thanks for your time. I appreciate it. Commented Jan 15 at 21:55

enter image description here (xiàng; elephant, shape, form) (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*s-[d]aŋʔ/) is a straightforward depiction of an elephant turned on its side, indicating the original meaning "elephant".

The other meanings "shape" and "form" for this character was either most likely a phonetic loan or an extension on meaning via in an abstract/figurative concept:

elephant --> appearance, shape, form

According to the Han Feizi (韓非子), an ancient Chinese book that was filled with essays published around 3rd century BCE by philosopher Han Fei, it was said that whenever men would pass by skeletons of dead elephants, they would imagine about how they would look like when still living. Therefore, they would refer to imagining if something was real as "象".

I hope I answered your question well! :)

Sources used:

  • Outlier Linguistics Dictionary of Chinese Characters
  • Wiktionary
  • Wikipedia
  • 小學堂 - 字形演變
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》p.739-740
  • 漢語多功能字庫
  • 1
    Thanks for your answer ! Commented Feb 2 at 23:52

Like most etymology, there is no firm answer as its an explorative study. However here is a common explanation thats logical:

Traditionally, the two senses are treated as related, with the sense of ‘to depict; to resemble’ considered a derivative of the sense of ‘elephant’. The derivation from the ‘elephant’ meaning to the ‘likeness’ meaning is explained in Han Feizi First attested in the ca. 221 BCE.: “Men rarely see living elephants. As they come by the skeleton of a dead elephant, they imagine its living form according to its features. Therefore it comes to pass that whatever people use for imagining the real is called 象.”

((in turn quoted from wikipedia page on 象))

  • Thanks for the answer ! Commented Jan 15 at 21:56

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