Currently right now, I'm researching about the origins of the character 襄 (xiāng; to help, to assist) and the component that's presumably part of 襄 as sound component, 𤕦 (níng; unidentified meaning). This character is sort of hard to look for the origins on because just at taking a look at the ancient forms of this character, I can't really draw a conclusion to what the character 𤕦 is supposed to depict.

From taking look at 𤕦's ancient forms on 小學堂, it seems like the original shape of this character in oracle bone depicts a man (人) with something on top of his head. However as seen in the bronze inscriptions, 攴 (hand holding a whip or staff) and 土 (dirt; earth) were added later to the character. enter image description here

I've actually taken a look at what some sources say about the origin of 𤕦 and only found two sources on the explaination of the character, this is what both of them suggested:


"It can be analysed this character is composed by 吅, 土 and 攴 but with unknown origin."

許進雄《甲骨文字典》p.241 (2020 edition to be more specific)

"金文的字形很像一人手拿木棍,在監督著另一個頭上頂著一個籃筐要運土塊的人。" / "The bronze inscription depicts a man holding a wooden stick in his hand supervising another man carrying a basket of dirt on his head."

On the other hand, when I looked up some origins for 襄, a few of time suggested 襄 is a phonosemantic compound composed of meaning component 衣 (clothes) and sound component 𤕦. As shown here:


"「襄」字的構形初意不明。甲骨文從◎(所象形不明)從「卩」或「大」,疑象人伸手解衣,致力於耕作之形(許慎、劉心源、高鴻縉)。" / "The original meaning of 襄 is unclear. The oracle bone script is composed of ◎ (the object depicted is unclear) and 卩 or 大. It has been speculated that it may depict a person using their hand to loosen their clothing to put more effort into farming. (Xu Shen, Liu Xinyuan, Gao Hongjin)"

Outlier Linguistics Dictionary of Chinese Characters, Wiktionary and zi.tools:

Suggests it's a phonosemantic compound composed of meaning component 衣 (clothes) and sound component 𤕦 with Outlier explaining the original meaning is "to roll up the sleeves and stretch one’s arms out".

許進雄《甲骨文字典》p.241 (2020 edition)

"雙手扶住一把犁,前頭有一隻牛拉著,揚起灰塵的耕田景象。" / "It depicts two hands pulling a plow that is pulled up by an ox in front of them, with dust being thrown into the field." (Extra note, the oracle bone as shown is this one as shown in the book: enter image description here)

Whatever the case might be, I'm still having a harder determining what the character is supposed to pick so if I can have some info, what is the original depiction of 𤕦 and 襄 and what was the original meaning used for both of these characters? Was 襄 a phonosemantic compound or originally a depiction of something? How did the process of the 𤕦 component made it's way into 襄?

This is something I need help on since I have no clue on the actual origin whatsoever about both the characters 襄 and 𤕦 since I'm pretty confused about these two characters' origins.

(Btw also, I don't really see the depiction of a man loosening clothing on his body in the oracle bone script. Maybe it's drawn in a stylized way?)

  • 1
    Unfortunately I think this is a time wehre the fact that etymology is a reconstructed history shows through, there just isn't enough evidence known to answer your question, the evolution of this vocab hasn't been reasonably reconstructed yet. I can tell you that many of the occasions of 襄 in oracle bone script are as a proper noun place name, which would lend to the fact its used for its sound originally even more.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Feb 2 at 7:45
  • 1
    Also I have seen the etymology of it being two people helping each other with clothes, but that would be an etymology for the modern form, not the ancient ones.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Feb 2 at 7:46
  • @zagrycha Yeah, looks like the context I'm reading this character in seems to be that way. I don't really believe the interpretation for "two people helping each other with clothes" since 吅 wasn't really present in the character during the older forms (Well maybe expect on 樂子簠 inscription where 口 was added and 土 transformed into a circle (〇)).
    – prismcool
    Commented Feb 2 at 15:38
  • 1
    Within books I can see, there is no recent discussion over 襄. There is a 2020 conference paper 吴良宝《秦文字“襄”地补说》 which is about 襄 as a place name (not about glyph origin), but I do not have access to it. (fdgwz.org.cn/Web/Show/4682) Commented Feb 2 at 19:05

1 Answer 1


This is a case that there is no complete answer. Some clues:

  • The 金文 glyph is somehow different than the 篆文 glyph. The 金文 glyph enter image description here shows a person digging holes and putting seeds in, as well as covering with earth. So it is related to farming. This can also be seen from meaning of derived characters. E.g.

    • 壤 means earth/soil
    • 穰 means straw of rice/wheat. Derived to mean bumper harvest.
    • 攘 means to plow. Derived to mean to push, to disrupt, etc.

    And, when used as 谥号, it says "辟地有德曰襄", meaning if the leader extended the land (like plowing) and get fruitful results for the people, he/she can be named 襄 after death. So, 襄 also has derived meaning of "achievement". Also "to manage", "to assist (the king)", "to harness"

  • However, in the 篆文 glyph, it became a 形声字, composed of 衣 and 𤕦, where 𤕦 is the sound component. It is unclear what 𤕦 really is, as it is a rare character. According 说文/漢令,the 篆文 glyph of 襄 character is interpreted as 解衣耕, which is to take off cloths to plow, which tried to explain why it used the 衣 component as the meaning note.

    • If you look at the 籀文 glyph of 𤕦, the cross in the middle looks a bit like a plow. A wild guess is that it was mistakenly messed up with that character, and then the wrong one became the right one.
  • The character was also borrowed to mean other words as they have the same pronunciation. e.g. to be used instead of 向/曏, which means in-direction-of /face-to.

    • The meaning of 上 (high, rise) may also be a borrow, as 襄 and 上 could have sounded similar in the early days. And at that time, the character of 上 and 二 look almost the same. It is easier to read if a different character with the same sound is used. No proof though.
  • Well that makes kind of sense on why I see the glyph 襄 appearing in farm-related characters. And I guess now I know that 𤕦 just existed when 襄 became a phonosemantic compound character. The bronze script of 襄 is really tough to see though, I can't really see the resemblance of a person digging up a hole and placing seeds into it. Maybe the 攴 component in that form is supposed to represent the person using some kind of digging tool to dig up a hole with?
    – prismcool
    Commented Feb 10 at 20:31
  • 1
    There are multiple glyphs which look some how different. I added the picture of the one I copied explanation from. I'm not sure that's the correct interpretation either, as it cannot explain the other forms. Personally, I'd interpret the middle component as a plow, which then can provide a consistent interpretation to other forms. But I'm no expert on these scripts.
    – Dudu
    Commented Feb 11 at 13:51
  • It's fine, I think the interpretation seems kind of plausible looking at the bronze script but hard to make out. For me, I would probably explain the oracle bone/bronze script as depicting a person with some kind of headwear on them to indicate some sort of inferior person or slave who'd assist the superior people (Followed by the addition of adding in dirt (土), because slaves would work for their masters, and a hand with some kind of stick (攴) to keep the slave in following order)
    – prismcool
    Commented Feb 11 at 17:07
  • Well, that's very a western way of thinking. Chinese culture is an agriculture one, where earth/soil is precious. There is even an ancient tradition that the king/emperor would do some plow in a spring sacrifice event, to pray for good harvest. So 土 would not be used for bad meaning.
    – Dudu
    Commented Feb 12 at 2:34
  • 1
    Personally, I'd not interpret 民 that way. Because slaves were not counted as 民. 民 was similar to citizen. The formal definition was people who were not smart/educated, thus they should follow orders. The character was interpreted as 萌 (meaning the early stage just after birth) in ancient "dictionaries", which was also sometimes substitute as 蒙 (which is 朦 later, meaning not seeing clearly). So, I'd interpret the bronze script as not able to see clearly.
    – Dudu
    Commented Feb 13 at 14:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.