From roof to taste

As a child, I was interested in etymology. Tracing words to their origins has helped me to understand and use them better. When I started to learn Chinese, this my hobby reincarnated. With all these Chinese symbols, the only way to learn them is to build memory hooks by accociating each symbol with a story. Preferrably with its own history.

In this post, I’ll tell you the story of

cháng meaning “to taste (food)”.

Several thousands years ago, one shaman wanted to ask gods about the mián “roof” of his temple. He has scribbed a symbolic representation of the roof, something like

and gods have understand and answered him. So everyone else also began to use the symbol.

Much later, one young scribe was given a task to write a letter including the word xiàng “direction”. He didn’t know any symbol for that word. So he has asked other scribes for help. They have searched through all the books they had, only to realize there really wasn’t a symbol for that word, and a new symbol had to be invented. Well, “direction” is a quite abstract term. It is hard to depict it directly, without being too specific about the concrete direction. So the only way to construct a new symbol was to depict something that can help building a logical chain to the word “direction”.

After a long discussion, or perhaps without any discussion at all, they have chosen to put the hole 口 in the roof:

I don’t know their logical chain, but I suppose they have already had this fengshui doctrine, and putting ventilation holes in the roof required exact knowledge of energy flow direction. Or something like this :)

Several hundred years later, some other scribe was looking for a symbol to write the word shàng meaning something like “esteem”, “uphold”, or some other good and high quality stuff. After consulting all other scribes, or may be without any consulting at all, he has decided to invent a new symbol for that. So he took 八 with its meaning “to separate” and put it above the 向:

The resulting symbol had probably to be read as separated directions, meaning there are good and bad directions, and after a separation process, only good ones will remain.

Afterwards, another couple of hundred years later, something interesting has happened. Somebody wanted to write the verb cháng “to taste (food)”. I imagine a foodie who had discovered a new restaurant in Beijing and who was writing a short note to his friend to invite him to go check the venue together, only to realize there weren’t any existing symbol for cháng.

Now, he could either gather a workforce of learned scribes to initiate the generation of the new logical chain-based symbol depicting the food tasting process. Or, he could trick and use a workaround. This foodie was lazy, so he has decided to trick, especially because Mandarin Chinese has provided him with a way to work around the issue.

In Mandarin, there are only around 1100 syllables (compared with the more than 80000 possible English syllables), and most words consist of one or two syllables. So, for many words, another similarly (or even exactly the same) sounding word exists. Chances are that this another word already has a symbol. So the way to write a new word would be taking existing symbol, and putting some additional clues in it, just to differentiate the two words in writing.

So our foodie took the similarly sounding 尚 shàng “esteem” and put 匕 “spoon” and 甘 “sweet” below it, to build a new symbol for cháng meaning “to taste food”:

We don’t know if his friend was able to decipher this charade, and we don’t know if there was a foodie at all.

But fact is, this hack, like all hacks, was an extremely popular method of symbol generation. Some accounts say around 80% of modern Chinese symbols are such phonetic charades. And fact is, that this hack, like all hacks, has long-term negative consequences. The spoken language is a dynamic thing, and pronunciation of words changes with time. The words 尚 and 嘗 may have sounded the same several hundred years before, but now they sound differently (shàng and cháng), which makes the charade guessing a very unreliable way to read Chinese texts.

But I digress. Those of you who has an extraordinary visual memory (or who just can read Chinese) may object that the cháng symbol above is different from the cháng symbol I’ve started this post with:


It is because I haven’t finished the story of cháng yet. In 1956, the communist government in China, pursuing the goal to increase the national literacy, has introduced the simplified set of chinese symbols. I suppose they have reasoned that because the charade principle didn’t always work good anyway, and pupil had to memorize the symbols by rote learning, it would make sense to reduce the number of strokes in the symbols, so that there was less to learn.

To my knowledge, the parallel simplified versions of symbols existed for several hundreds years before the word “communism” was conceived by Marx. But giving the communists due credit, it was their decision and their programme to switch the whole national printed language, including all the teaching in schools, all print media and so on, on to using these simplified symbols. There are different opinions concerning this, some would say the new symbols look too simple and not so beautiful, others would argue with increased literacy and economical benefits.

In any case, if you have learned the traditional symbols, you have to learn the simplified symbols almost anew (or vice verse), because, as you would almost expect, the simplification didn’t followed a limited set of formal transformation rules. No, the new symbols were built using another pre-existing simple Chinese symbols on the same charade principle. In the new cháng

we have the 尚 shàng “esteem” and 云 yún “say”. I suppose, Chinese students are free to think of any logical chain for the symbols. That may be “tasting the food and telling the cook good words to ensure his self-esteem”. I personally prefer to go deeper into the atomic components of the symbol, and deconstuct it as a hot tasty food, whose curved 厶 vapors go up 二 to the roof 宀 and the good smell is distributed 八 outdoors.

This is where the story of cháng ends, at least so far.

As a software developer, I find history of Chinese symbols simply hillarious. There are so many delicious parallels with software development, namely with maintenance of legacy systems. All these decisions that had made perfect sense several thousand years ago, but that had some overseen negative consequences leading to unlogical rules of the modern time. These periodical overhauls of the whole system (the switch of 1956 wasn’t the only one major change), that ensure some order for a limited period of time. This hidden knowledge helping the proficient pathfinders to navigate inside the system, while prohibiting newbies to use it (just try to look at any symbol above and intuitively understand its meaning, without apriori knowledge). And this inherent impossibility to keep simple new things simple, because there is such a huge set of principles and traditions that all have to be complied with. What symbol you would expect for the word “simple”? I bet anything but this 13-stroke monster:

Frankly, this was a simplified version. The traditional one has 18 strokes:

There is one huge difference though, between the Chinese symbols and a legacy software system. While legacy systems are always being hated equally by their users and developers, the Chinese symbols somehow manage to be likable and to be considered as art and valuable tradition by so many people in the world. May be we can learn from them. How do they do that?

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