I’ve been reading a Chinese novel titled 駱駝祥子 by 老舍. It’s been a while since I’ve read Chinese, but it’s also been a while since I’ve thought about Chinese etymology. While I was reading, a word popped out at me, and I realized I never wrote about it. The word is 护(s), 護(t), (hu4), which means “to protect.” I will reference two previous posts which will explain some concepts that I’ve written about before. “What is love?” talks about how when the Chinese Communist Party simplified the Chinese characters, they also changed the etymological structures of the words. “Pitiable Fish Scales” talks about how the sound component of the word can also provide meaning.
One of the first things you will notice is that the simplified version and the traditional version of this character don’t have any shared radicals. In fact, they are completely different words, etymologically. Let me explain what this means, and we will start with the traditional, then the simplified.
Above, I diagrammed the 3 components of the word. What we will do is start from the basic unit, and work our way back and put them together. According to chineseetymology.org, 雈 (huan2) means an egret, a bird 隹 with top notch. So let’s look at the character for it: . Doesn’t look much like a bird, huh? But in fact it is. (I explain it in this post.) A similar character is 隻, which looks like this . Still doesn’t look much like a bird, but look at another version of this word: . See where the bird is coming from? So here’s a picture of a snowy egret with head feathers: . I hope that this will provide some basis for why 雈 (huan2) is actually the pictogram of a bird.
The next level up, we add the character 又 (you4) which is the pictogram of a hand. (I explain it in this post.) Chineseetymology.org defines this combination 蒦 (huo4) as “to catch.” This makes sense because the pictogram of a hand under a bird signifies the capture of the bird. On a side note, the same exact combination happens with 隻 (zhi1), 隹 + 又. So why not use that one? The answer lies in the phonetics. Although these word combinations have the same primary meaning, they are selected for their phonetic properties. 隹(zhui1) + 又= 隻 (zhi1) vs 雈 (huan2) + 又 = 蒦 (huo4).
Taking it to the final level we have have the addition of 言 (yan2) which is the speech radical. It is most frequently used with words that have to do with language and communication. 言 (yan2) is actually a pictogram of a tongue. It’s hard for me to see it, but let me show you 3 version in succession, starting with the oldest: . Putting all the pieces together, what we get is something like “catching the tongue” or “holding the tongue” or “seizing the tongue.” So then the next question is how do we get from that to “to protect?” A guess that I have for this is that when this word was created, the emphasis was on relationships and community, hence the emphasis on language and words. Protecting someone may involve not slandering someone, not gossipping about someone, not ruining someone’s reputation, or keeping a secret or perhaps keeping bad words or news from someone. This may have been more of a priority when people lived and interacted in smaller and tighter knit communities. What you find interesting is that the simplified form of the character implies a completely different understanding of “to protect.”
The simplified version only has two components. So let’s start with the basic unit, 戶 (hu4). 戶 (hu4) means a door, a household, or a family. So I looked at some of the pictograms, and I couldn’t figure out how it looks like a door. But it does. I started with , which doesn’t look like a door for me. But then I saw an older version of the character, and it look liked this: . Getting closer. So I decided to look at the character that actually means door, 門 (t) (men2), which has the character: . So is half a door. And from there, it is used as a synecdoche for family. As the base, the simplified form is a door, while the traditional form is a bird. Notice the phonetics of the simplified form: they are identical. Compare it to the traditional form in which each of the 3 components has a different pronunciation. This is an indicator that the traditional form was organically developed over a longer period of time as compared to the simplified form which was created by a team of scholars. (And I wonder how much the selection for the simplified form was limited by the phonetics.)
The next level up, we add 扌, which is a modified version of 手 (shou3) which means hand. This radical is used primarily to indicate action and movement and force. What this combination then means is “action for the family” or “force and movement related to the household.” “To protect” then gets its derivation from a physical action and its relation to a family, household, or property. “To protect” is then connected to one’s own family or one’s own property, and it is a physical action. This is in contrast to the traditional form which involved language and perhaps a community. Could this indicate a shift from a communal and relational focus to a more individual and material focus?
What I find fascinating is that changes in culture are embedded in these words. The CCP followed the basic principles used in word formation, yet in the simplification process they injected their own interpretation into the meaning of an existing word. It just goes to show how much we are shaped by our culture, how we bring our own preconceived notions with us, and in doing so, nothing is purely objective: there is always an interpretive process at play when we engage the world around us.