Chinese characters - week 6 (夫, 天, 夭, 尢 / 尤, 兀, and 元)


This week, we're going to have lots of fun with some very similar looking characters. It's probably easier to just remember how different they look rather, but I'll hopefully be able to give you some tips along the way. These characters are all based on 人 from week 1, and 大 from last week's lesson.

The first character this week is 夫 (), which means "husband", "adult", or "man". In older times, 夫 also be used meant "an important man". The character derives from the character 大 in the old sense of a pictogram of a person. The added horizontal line in this character, some say, is a depiction of a hat.

If you look at the ancient form on the right, above, you can see how it looks like a person with a hat. It might help to think of the old hats which were worn by the Emperors and officials of the Song Dynasty Court, which had long "wings" protruding out to the sides. You can clearly see this in the palace portrait of the Shenzong Emperor from the Song Dynasty. Think of the vertical but jutting out above the first horizontal line as the main body of the hat, and the first horizontal line as the wings of the hat.

The second character is 天 (tiān), meaning "sky", or "heaven". Very similar to 夫, but without the vertical jutting out above the first horizontal line. The original character was a depiction of a horizontal line above a person in an enclosure, 人 within a 囗 (wéi) radical.

The first horizontal line is the part of the character which imports the meaning, namely something that is above people and enclosures (maybe buildings?) being the "sky", or the "heavens".

A way to assist in remember the character may be to start with 大 as "big", and think if something were to be the biggest / grandest thing, then the next best thing would be "heaven" itself, hence another horizontal line above 大.

The next character is 夭 (), meaning "young", "fresh looking", or "to die young". The ancient character was written as a person (but in the 大 form) slumped forwards. Maybe think of the origins as someone who has not grown to be an adult might not be able to hold themselves up in the same way as an adult.

Learn to differentiate this character from 天 is that the top of this character is NOT a horizontal line, but a stroke written from right to left, falling slightly as it ends on the left. We call this stroke a 撇 (piē), whereas the horizontal line is called a 橫 (héng). 

Try to remember 天 (the sky / horizon) as the character having the horizontal stroke, the 橫 (héng) stroke. The youth, in the sense of 夭, are less rigid, and therefore you want a more flexible 撇 (piē). Also works in the sense of 夭 meaning "to die young", as dying means you're falling away, hence the stroke which falls away from right to left.

The forth character used to be written as 尤 or 尢, and can also be pronounced as wāng or yóu. When pronounced as wāng it means lame. No, not lame as in "not cool", but lame as in "crippled". When pronounced as yóu it means "outstanding" as in "best", or "especially". It is more common to see 尤 used when the character is intended to be pronounced as yóu, and 尢 used when the character is intended to be pronounced as wāng.

In terms of the original meaning of the character (wāng) the main body of this character is made up by the character 人 (really, no pun intended there), but with one leg longer than the other, hence it is a person who is "lame", or "crippled".

The fifth character this week is 兀 (), meaning to "cut off the feet". It can also mean "to rise to a height", or "to tower over". Whatever meaning you need this character for, the symbolism behind the character is quite helpful to help remembering this.

The original pictogram of this character was said to be to a man (you can see something more akin to the ancient form of 人) lifting up a table, depicted by a horizontal stroke. Hence the meaning of "to rise to a height", or "to tower over".

In the other sense of the character meaning "to cut off the feet", again, refer back to the man, the 人 element with the character. Remember that 人 is a depiction of a man's legs / feet. Imagine the horizontal line as a blade, cutting it off from the rest of the man. Hence the character just looks like a line with two legs under it.

The last character this week is that of 元 (yuán), meaning "head", "origin", "first", or probably the most common usage as "dollar". It can also be used for the Renminbi (人民幣 / 人民币). The two horizontal strokes of this character signify a "generic thing" which is above a man (人), hence the idea of the word meaning "head". In terms of writing, you would write the two horizontal lines first, and therefore this "generic thing", coming before a man, might lead you to think of "first", or "origin".