When I was a kid learning Chinese, there were many similar looking words that often confused me. One pair was 体 vs 休. They look very similar, don’t they? One has a horizontal line on the bottom and the other doesn’t. 休 (xiū) means to rest.is a pictogram of a person, (is more abstract version) leaning against a tree. Doesn’t that just sound relaxing? 休 is not simplified, but 体 (tǐ), which means body or form, is.
體 is the traditional way of writing 体. You look at it and wonder, “How are they the same word?” As I have written before, the simplified form of the character isn’t completely random. There is reasoning behind the simplification. But you lose the original etymology with the switch. So let’s dig into the etymology of 體 and see what we can find.
Looking at, we can see that it can be split into left and right components and and both right and left can be split into even smaller parts, ,, . Let’s take a look at what each part is and then let’s construct the meaning as we put them back together.
丰 (fēng) is a pictogram of a plant. You can see the stem and the branches. 豆 (dòu) is a pictogram of a container on a stand. (豆 also means “bean”.) You might be able to see it better in this version: . So combined, we have . You can see that on the top is . There are actually two of them and they seem to be in their own containers. On the bottom you see .
豊 (lǐ) means a ceremonial vessel. It is a simple pictogram of plants, most likely harvested grains, placed upon a stand. As in many agricultural societies, people offered sacrifices and gifts to the gods and forces of nature for good harvests. But how does this have anything to do with the word for body or form?
骨 (gǔ) on the left side means bone. is actually a pictogram of a slab of meat, not the moon, although it closely resembles 月, whose pictogram is . You ask, how does look like meat? Take a look at this versionand now at a picture of meat.
So when we combine “bone” and “ceremonial vessel”, we get body, shape or form. I’m still trying to understand why this means body or form. I have a few interpretations. First, I feel that 體 originally meant form more than body. There is another word 身, which means more directly “body” because it is a pictogram of a person , with stomach and legs. 身 is definitely more “human” and less abstract than 體. The reasons why I think 體 originally meant form is the fact that it is coupled with . So I feel that there is an element of animal sacrifice. In these ceremonies, I’m sure that the shape of the particular animal was important for the ritual. The way in which the animal was sacrificed was probably also significant. Because of these ritualistic connotations in this word, I feel that it is more abstract than 身 is.
That gives us a little background into the traditional form of the word, but what about the simplified? Let’s look at 体. It can be broken into left and right. The left part is a person, as mentioned above when describing the word 休 (xiū), meaning rest. The right side is 本 (běn), which means root, source, origin.
is a pictogram of a tree with roots. You can probably see it better in this one: . So the new version of body can be interpreted as “the source or root of the person”. What makes a person a person? His or her physical body. The new character is not only easier to write and remember, but it also breaks from the “feudal” and “superstitious” past. It’s interesting that the meaning of the word hasn’t really changed, but through the simplification, it was ripped from its cultural past and redefined in modern context.