Chinese characters – week 8 (鼠, 牛, 虎, 兔, 龍, 蛇, 馬, 羊, 猴, 雞, 狗, and 豬)


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For this week, since we’re in the closing days of the Year of the Dog with Chinese New Year just around the corner on Tuesday, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s characters to the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Their order was ordained since time immemorial following a race across a river to the Gates of Heaven.

If you want to practice more of these characters, I’ve created a list for this week’s lesson featuring all 12 animals. You can access the list here: https://skritter.com/vocablists/view/5933294678048768/4642360950652928 .

First to cross the river is the Rat, who hitched a ride on the Ox across the river. Depending on the version of the story, this race is the cause of the enmity between cats and rats / mice. One version of the story is that the Cat asked the Rat to wake it up before the race started, which the Rat didn’t do. Another version is that both the Rat and the Cat were hitching a ride on the Ox to cross the river and the Rat shoved the Cat into the river just before they could make landfall.

The Rat hopped off the Ox just as the Ox was about to reach the shore, and raced on ahead coming in first.

The character for the Rat is 鼠 ( shǔ ). This character, despite the complexity of it, actually originates from a pictorial depiction of a rat, with its whiskers, feet, and tail.

Following Rat’s race ahead of the pack after jumping off the Ox, the Ox came in second. We actually looked at the character for Ox in week 1. The character for Ox, 牛 ( niú ), derives its form from a pictorial depiction of an Ox.

The mighty Tiger comes in third, after having struggled with the strong currents of the river. The character for Tiger is 虎 ( ), from a pictorial depiction of a Tiger. To be honest, I think the modern form has developed rather a lot past its pictorial form, so it might be one of those characters you just have to remember by rote rather than referencing any pictorial features, although I think you can still just about make out elements of the modern character when compared to the one of the ancient forms which I chose below.

The Rabbit comes in forth after the Tiger. The Rabbit managed to cross the river by hopping on stepping stones, and eventually a log, helped across in the final stages by the Dragon who was behind the Rabbit, giving a puff to safely blow the Rabbit and the log to the bank.

The character 兔 ( ) is another one of these animal characters which derived from a pictorial depiction.

The Dragon comes in at fifth, after helping the Rabbit. But before the Dragon got anywhere near the race, he also stopped to make rain for some villagers and other animals, and therefore was not able to come in first, despite the fact that it would have been a piece of cake for the Dragon, who was a flying creature.

The character 龍 ( lóng ) came from a pictorial depiction of a dragon. When I was doing my research for this, I couldn’t actually stop but chuckle at one of the ancient forms of the character, and it is this form that I chose to show you, as you can clearly see elements of the modern character from this ancient form… plus it will probably make you smile and chuckle like it did me.

Coming in sixth is the Snake. I know of two versions of the story as to how the Snake came to be sixth. One version is that the Jade Emperor, pleased with the Dragon and how beautiful he looked, offered sixth place to the Dragon’s son, but the son did not take part in the race. The Snake informed the Jade Emperor that he was the adopted son of the Dragon, and so came to be listed sixth.

Another version is that the Snake had, unknowingly to the Horse, hitched a ride around one of the Horse’s legs and hooves, and just before the finishing point, the Snake slithered in front, shocking the Horse causing the Horse to jump backwards, this the Snake comes in sixth ahead of the Horse at seventh.

The character for snake is 蛇 ( shé ). The character for snake was originally written as 它 (now used as a third person pronoun for inanimate objects – see week 1’s lesson. As the language developed, 虫 ( chóng ), meaning “insect”, was added as a radical to indicate that the new combined word, 蛇, relates to something insect-like (biologically a snake is not an insect, but a reptile, but you get the idea).

The Horse comes in seventh, according to one version of the story, after being scared by the Snake. The character for “horse” is 馬 ( ). The character, I think, still looks like a horse, with the mane, sweeping tail, and the four dots depicting the legs. The ancient form looked even more like a horse.

The Goat comes in after the Horse. A version of the story has the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster arriving together on a raft, working together to navigate the currents of the river.

The character for the Goat is 羊 ( yáng ). This character is another one of those that have derived its modern form from a pictorial depiction of the animal from ancient times.

The Monkey comes in at ninth place following the Goat and before the Rooster. The character for Monkey is 猴 ( hóu ), which is formed by the dog radical 犭 to show that the character is related to the animal world, and
侯 ( hóu ) for the phonetic component.

The character for Rooster is 雞 ( ). The character is formed by combining 奚 ( ) for the phonetic component, and 隹 ( zhuī ), meaning “short-tailed bird” for the meaning element of the character combination. In the ancient form of the word, you can see how the 隹 component actually looks like a bird.

The Dog comes in at eleventh place, having struggled with the currents of the river, despite being a very able swimmer. The character 狗 ( gǒu ) is made up of two components: the dog radical 犭 , and 句 for the phonetic element of the character. In this respects, the pronunciation of 句 which lends its sound to 狗 is gōu , rather than .

The last animal is across the river to the Gates of Heaven is the Pig, 豬 (). The character is actually made up of the word for pig already, 豕 ( shǐ ). 豕 is an old form of the character for pig, and in the modern character, is added with 者 ( zhě ) for the phonetic component of the character for 豬.