When I look up the etymology of 对象 on the internet, most of the answers (link1 link2) refer to an explanation from 《幽默与笑话》. The source makes me doubt if it's the real origin of the word:







Personally I've been interpreting 象 as 'feature' (like in 新年新气象), and 对象 as 'feature on a par'. I'm very interested in the real etymology of the word.

  • I think it's probably something like taking the original definition of 对象 as "subject", and using it as a euphemism for "dating subject" i.e. 恋爱对象. Feb 3, 2014 at 12:58
  • @congusbongus I can buy that, but why does 对 + 象 mean subject? Where and when did the word emerge?
    – NS.X.
    Feb 3, 2014 at 21:09

3 Answers 3


Wang Li (王力) in his 漢語史稿 (p. 532) lists 對象 as one of the many words that modern Chinese borrowed from Japanese; in this case, acc. to Wang, 對象 taishō was itself a Japanese translation for English "object", a case of 來自西洋,路過日本.

The use of 對象 to mean "steady romantic interest", "possible marital partner" probably came later, through the sort of transmogrification that these borrowed words often undergo. English has a similar sort of idea, when we speak of "the object of one's affections"

As a note, this seems to be a typical "neo-Chinese" word; a Japanese word that was created based on the semantics and morphology of Chinese formatives, so there's no reason one can't analyze it the same way: 對 = direct (attention, activity) toward, 象 = phenomena: the phenomena I'm directing my attentions or efforts toward.


I should say, in most cases (about 95% in Mandarin), 对象 means your girl/boy friend, or your wife/husband. It's not very formal compared to '男女朋友/丈夫/妻子'.

When you are studying Software development, 对象 == Object.

  • object oriented programming=面向对象编程 XD
    – ashbringer
    Feb 7, 2014 at 15:54
  • A joke: 面向對象編程。沒有對象怎麼辦?XD Feb 8, 2014 at 17:06

The ancient Chinese use single character as a word, but the modern usually use 2 or more characters. Some of the modern words come from the speech, have the meaning constructed by the characters which built up the word. But some are not.

Modern Chinese is not developed from the ancient. The ancient Chinese used only in written for dominators. Modern Chinese is developed from the mix of oral and written.

对象 can be translated in to Object, or Partner. In most case, Object should be correct. 对象 is imported from Japanese. You cannot translate it into 2 characters of Chinese, coz it's not a Chinese word. (http://baike.soso.com/v178317.htm)

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