Anatomy of “child” ‘儿’ in Chinese writing

From AngryAngryGuru.blogspot.com

Last updated: 02 Mar 2021

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The difficulty in memorizing ‘儿’ (“child”, er2, character 12) is that its character construction makes no sense. Also, the form means different concepts in different contexts: radical or character.

As a radical, ‘儿’ (ren2, radical 14) means “person”. As a character, ‘儿’ (er2, character 12) means “child”. In fact, radical ‘儿’ (such as in ‘竟’) is an abbreviation of character ‘人’ (“person”, ren2, character 10).

This difficulty is caused by China’s Chinese Character Simplification Scheme from the 1950s. (Still, a huge majority of the simplification effort is systematic and logical.)

As I had mentioned in Character Construction Strategies (section “Go Traditional”), the simplification of Chinese characters (from Traditional form) often removed so much detail that we can’t extract logical mnemonics.

To easily memorize “child” (‘儿’, er2, character 12), we need to first understand the different forms of “person” (‘人’, ren2, character 10).

In practice, it is more useful to first consider the form ‘儿’ (ren2, radical 14) as a radical that means “person”, and then traverse China’s simplification scheme to arrive at ‘儿’ (er2, character 12) as a character that means “child”.

The Simplified form for “child” (‘儿’, er2, character 12) makes no sense otherwise.

Different forms of ‘人’ (“person”)

There are two abbreviated forms of ‘人’ (“person”, ren2, character 10), both of which are official radicals in the Table of Radicals.

One is the abbreviated radical ‘亻’ (“person”, ren2, radical 10.a).

The other is the indexing radical ‘儿’ (“person”, ren2, radical 14) that actually serves as another abbreviated form of indexing radical ‘人’ (ren2, radical 12).

(Radical 12.a ‘入’ (“enter”, ru4) isn’t actually an abbreviated radical for radical 12 ‘人’ (“person”, ren2). The Table of Radicals system from China isn’t exactly robust; the few inconsistencies should have been cleaned up adequately by my 4-part revision. The current writing system was created during times of severe turmoil.)

Recall that abbreviated radicals have the same meaning as the radical or character they abbreviate. Character 10 (‘人’), radical 10.a (‘亻’) and radical 14 (‘儿’) all mean “person”.

Radical 10.a, ‘亻’

We start with the less contentious form ‘亻’ (“person”, ren2, radical 10.a) which usually adds the meaning of “person” in character construction. It can be seen in ‘信’ (“message”, xin4, character 1570), for example.

When “speech” (‘言’, yan2) is handled by “people” (‘亻’, ren2, radical 10.a), it becomes “message” (‘信’, xin4).

“Message”: when “speech” is handled by “people”. (zdic.net)

Radical 14, ‘儿’

The more contentious form is ‘儿’ (ren2, radical 14) because the radical, which means “person”, is visually identical to the character ‘儿’ (er2, character 12), which means “child”.

The radical ‘儿’ (“person”, ren2, radical 14) can be seen in ‘竟’ (“end”, jing4, character 2390). The top radical is ‘音’ (“sound”, yin1, character 1632).

When “sound” (‘音’, yin1) is seen atop a “person” (‘儿’, ren2, radical 14), the musical performance has “ended” (‘竟’, jing4). (Perhaps audiences close their eyes during the performance?)

This theory of ‘竟’ pictorially looking like a “person playing a musical instrument” can also be seen in ‘竞’ (“to compete”, jing4, character 2043). The Traditional form of ‘竞’ (“to compete”, jing4) features that same character twice, ‘兢’ which looks like two musicians battling with their musical skills.

Trumpet Battle
Traditional form for “to compete” (‘竞’, jing4). (zdic.net)

Now that we know that radical ‘儿’ (ren2, radical 14) means “person”, we can begin to construct the character for “child” (‘儿’, er2, character 12).

As you may correctly guess, the original character for “child” isn’t visually identical to radical ‘儿’ (ren2, radical 14). Simplification from Traditional form removed an important detail.

The missing piece in “child” (‘儿’, er2) is quite an interesting — and certainly logical and mnemonic — story of anatomy.

This story is relatable to people who have handled young babies — pediatricians, parents, or ancient Chinese — but you can listen in if you’re not squeamish about human anatomy (or about babies, in general)!

Fontanel, ‘囟’

Fontanel is the “soft spot” on a baby’s skull. Skipping through all the medical and early childhood parenting jargon, here’s a picture of a baby’s fontanel(s), top view.

Two fontanels visible here. Top view. (wikipedia.org)

As you may correctly guess, the earliest form for “fontanel” (‘囟’, xin4, character 3611) looked similar. Note the coronal (horizontal) and sagittal (vertical) sutures. (I hope no baby was hurt in the discovery of the calvarial sutures!)

Earliest form for “fontanelle” (‘囟’, xin4) (zdic.net)

Long curves are naturally hard to draw correctly. The earliest form consists of long curves and oblique lines (read: unclear curvatures and angles). The need to close the curves into a circular shape added even more difficulty in writing this earliest form.

So difficult to write (or draw, rather) was the earliest form, that an early development collapsed the top half of the bounding shape. The shorter curve at the bottom is easier to write than the former long curves.

Top half collapsed into short lines. Curves got shorter. (zdic.net)

By the time the early form evolved into the Chu dynasty, collision avoidance may have rotated the internal structure into an ‘X’, possibly to avoid collision with “(arable) field” (‘田’, tian2, character 244).

Internal structure rotated into an ‘X’. (zdic.net)

Collision avoidance may be evident when we note the striking visual similarity with the form for “(arable) field” (‘田’, tian2) at the time.

Early (Chu) form for “(arable) field” (‘田’, tian2). (zdic.net)

Standardized writing strokes evolved the character into clean lines today. Unfortunately, no doctor (nor parent, nor ancient Chinese) can recognize this form as anatomically indicative.

Current form for “fontanel” (‘囟’, xin4). (zdic.net)

The mnemonics for this character — if you decide to learn it even though it’s not part of the 3500 we aim to — functions like that for ‘刀’ (“knife”, dao1, character 18) in that we simply “reverse the mutation” to get an interesting, memorable story that describes the mutation itself (see Character Construction Strategies, section “It only gets easier → Reversing the mutations”).

Collision avoidance is also a good mnemonic tool, which allows us to learn 2 characters (that avoid collision) at once: “fontanel” (‘囟’, xin4) and “(arable) field” (‘田’, tian2), in this case.

With that crucial anatomy covered, we can now complete the construction of the character for “child” (‘儿’, er2).

Traditional form for “child”, ‘兒’

We now come to the pre-simplified form for “child”, the Traditional form ‘兒’ (“child”, er2).

Putting “fontanel” (‘囟’, xin4, character 3611) and “person” (‘儿’, ren2, radical 14) together is one possible semantic construction for the character for “child”. In fact, that is exactly what happened for one unused variant.

Unused variant for “child” (‘儿’), DO NOT use! (zdic.net)

Perhaps because ‘囟’ (“fontanel”, xin4) is the top view of a baby’s head, and the visual perspective for ‘儿’ (“person”, ren2, radical 14) is the side view, the above form didn’t take.

An early form shows an opening at the top, likely indicating “unfused bones” forming fontanel(s).

Early form for “child” (‘儿’) showing opening at top. (zdic.net)

Standardized writing strokes then evolved the character into clean lines today.

Traditional form for “child” (‘儿’, er2). (zdic.net)

Simplified form for “child”, ‘儿’

The Simplified form for “child” is ‘儿’ (er2, character 12), completely stripping away the concept of “fontanel” (‘囟’, xin4).

Although the Simplified form makes no sense in terms of character construction — a “person” is not specifically a “child” — the form still has an open top which can be considered indicative of “unfused bones” that form fontanels.

An open top for “unfused bones”? (zdic.net)

Also, knowing the evolutionary path of “child” (‘儿’, er2) — from “fontanel” (‘囟’, xin4) to “person” (‘人’, ren2) to simplification from Traditional form ‘兒’ — gives us a captivating and memorable story with which to remember how to write it.

Current form for “child” (‘儿’, er2). (zdic.net)

We have studied all the forms of “person” (‘人’, ren2, character 10), and have learned to first consider the form ‘儿’ to be a radical that means “person” (radical 14). We then discovered how the Traditional form ‘兒’ (“child”, er2) is constructed, and traced its eventual simplification to ‘儿’ (“child”, er2, character 12).

Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (in honor of ex-wife), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).

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