Chinese characters – week 2 (了, 子, 好, 口, 十, and 田)

Let’s get straight into characters one and two for this week, which are 了, and 子. They are noticeably very similar, with only one stroke difference between these two characters.

The first character, 了 ( le ), is often now used as a modifier for verbs to indicate a completed action. For example, to have eaten could be written as 吃 . The second character is 子 ( , zi ). This character means “child”. Despite the vastly different meanings nowadays, 了 actually used to mean “child” as well. Certainly both characters in their ancient forms did bear some semblance to a picture of a child or a baby.

The third character this week is 好 ( hǎo ), meaning “good”. This character is made up of 女, and 子. You may recognise 女 from last week’s post. The etymology of the character is pretty obvious though if you just break down the two characters: a woman with a child. I mean, that’s a good thing in any culture, right? In some of the ancient forms for the character the position of the woman and the child were the other way around.

The forth character this week is 口 ( kǒu ). This character means “mouth”, and the etymology of this character is from a picture of a mouth. The modern character 口 can be used as a standalone character, or as a radical. It is also very similar to 囗 ( wéi ), the old form of 圍, which means “to surround”. Okay, so I say it is very similar, but it is practically very hard to distinguish the 口, and 囗. Their similarities mean that it is practically a “buy one get one free” character. Luckily for modern day readers 囗 ( wéi ) is not used as a standalone character anymore, and so you won’t get confused between 口 ( kǒu ), and 囗 ( wéi ) in modern texts.

Just out of further etymological interest: if you mix the 囗 ( wéi ) radical with 人 ( rén ), which we looked at last week, you get 囚 ( qiú ). Breaking down the character, what would you get if you trapped a person within an enclosure? A prisoner, of course, which is exactly what 囚 means.

The fifth character this week is 十 ( shí ), meaning the number “ten”. The original character for ten was the vertical stroke. This is one of those characters which is easier to just remember by rote rather than delving back into etymological past.

The last character for this week is 田 ( tián ), meaning “field” or “farm”. The reason I wanted to discuss the previous two characters is that in terms of modern writing, this character is made up of 口 ( kǒu ), or 囗 ( wéi ), with 十 ( shí ) inside it. In truth, those two characters have nothing to do with the etymological root for 田 ( tián ), which originates from a pictogram depicting a picture of a field with partitions in the middle of it.

Skitter users will probably recognise the character 田 as the character which is the surname of Skritter’s own Fiona (Fiona’s name being 田欣 - as a recap although I’m sure most of you know: we put our surnames first).