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I see (Wiktionary..) that 赤 can refer either to the "red" or "empty/bare". Is there a relationship (or proposed relationship) between these two meanings?

2 Answers 2

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赤 - 会意字(word categorized as formation through "Compound Ideograph" and having "joind meaning") 。甲骨文(Oracle Bone Script, see figure below),从大(人)从火。人赤身在火上,被烤得红红的。- a person whose bare body/skin turned to red when baked/burned over fire.

enter image description here

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  • "Baked person", now there is a new dish! Cannibalism in Ancient China? But it won't stay red, will go black! Just a guess: maybe the meaning was originally "大 big 火 fire" -> red -> after the fire, nothing left -> empty, bare??
    – Pedroski
    Commented Apr 26 at 6:58
  • @Pedroski considering how old oracle bone script is, cannibalism is not off the table, or some form of sacred ritual killing. however, its also possible its just recognizing the red color when burned by fire or the sun, rather than a roasting like a pig or something.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Apr 26 at 7:23
  • Well, I wouldn't eat people: we are at the end of the food chain, all the chemicals in plants and other animals end up in us!
    – Pedroski
    Commented Apr 26 at 7:48
  • @Pedroski Man standing over/on fire can be an old ritual/punishment for every conceivable reason, especially in ancient times.
    – r13
    Commented Apr 26 at 13:05
  • Another possible explanation: face red -> totally embarrassed -> "face" (honour) gone -> empty, bare. The human brain can make all kinds of associations, associate all kinds of ideas!
    – Pedroski
    Commented Apr 26 at 14:17
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Since this question focuses on the meaning of this character, I will start off by giving it's glyph origin for some context on the origin of 赤.


enter image description here

(chì; red, bare) [Baxter-Sagart OC: /*t-qʰAk/] was originally a picture of a person (大, now written as 土) being burnt on fire (火, written into enter image description here), to indicate the color red, since red was said to be the color of burnt skin.

An alternative explaination some scholars have proposed for this character is that it depicted a "big (大) fire (火)" to also indicate the color red since the color of fire, by definition, were red. Either way, these two explanations make sense.

The meaning later shifted from "red" to the definition in the question, "bare; naked". Now, why this association?

It's because when babies are usually born, they're appearance is usually red in color, so therefore the term 赤子 (chìzǐ; newborn baby, the people (of a country)) is used to refer to newborn children. And also because children are usually naked when they are born, the meaning therefore shifts to "bare; naked". It's pretty interesting to find this association honestly but there you go, that's the connection between the meanings! :)

I hope my answer helped you!!


Sources used:

  • Outlier Linguistics Dictionary of Chinese Characters
  • Wiktionary
  • zdic (漢典)
  • zi.tools
  • 小學堂
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》p.763
  • 李学勤 《字源》p.907
  • 漢語多功能字庫

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