“Knife” radical ‘⺈’ in Chinese writing

Is that a knife? Or something else? (www.asmc.com)

Last updated: 28 Apr 2021

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How ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) is an abbreviation of ‘刀’ (“knife”, dao1, character 18) is clearly evident. In this article, we will discuss the various semantic and pictorial constructions provided by this radical; it isn’t always a “knife”.

Although ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) is semantically a “knife”, it seldom features as “knife” in character construction. Instead, this radical’s use in character construction is often due to coincidental similarity resulting from character simplification over time; simplified from forms for concepts such as “person”, “hand” and “head” (of an animal).

When it is a “knife”

The only character we need to know that features ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) as “knife” is ‘负’ (“to suffer”, fu4, character 503).

The semantics of this character is difficult to remember because its character construction describes a different verb from an opposite perspective: “to rob”. Presumably, a person would hold a “knife” (‘⺈’, radical 12.b) to obtain “(ancient) currency” (‘贝’, bei4, character 114).

“Knife” to obtain “currency”. (zdic.net)

Along similar lines to “to suffer”, a more common sense of ‘负’ (fu4) is “to bear” (responsibilities, burdens, etc). It might be easier to think of “bearing responsibility” (“负责任”, fu4 ze2 ren4) as an endeavor done under duty (“on pain of legal punishment”) and sacrifice (“offering of coin”).

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘贝’.)

When it is a “person”

The radical ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) can pictorially represent a “person”, since ‘人’ (“person”, ren2, character 10) also has 2 strokes and is somewhat similar in shape.

The earliest forms for ‘人’ (“person”, ren2) did not resemble a “walking person”. Instead, they were a “standing person slightly bowing with arms down”. This form is pictorially similar to ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b). Note the similarities in “arms down” (red highlight) and “bowing” compared to the radical ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b).

Earliest form for “person”. Arms (red) handing in front. (zdic.net)

In ‘危’ (“danger”, wei1, character 499), the top radical is actually a “person” (red highlight) “leaning over or towards” the edge of a “cliff”.

The bottom of the “cliff” features ‘㔾’ (jie2, radical 26.a), which is the alternative form of ‘卩’ (jie2, radical 21). Since ‘卩’ (radical 21) is an old form of ‘节’ (“joint”, jie2, character 209), ‘㔾’ (jie2, radical 26.a) in ‘危’ (“danger”, wei1) semantically suggests “broken bones or joints”.

“Person” (blue) and “joints” (red). (zdic.net)

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘节’.)

Altogether, the image presented by ‘危’ (“danger”, wei1) is “a person leaning over a cliff, potentially risking broken bones”.

Another character that features ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) as “person” is ‘急’ (“anxious”, ji2, character 1609). To decipher the character construction for ‘急’, we first need to see how ‘刍’ (“to scythe”, chu2, character 3550) morphs into ‘及’ (“to catch up with”, ji2, character 52) for collision avoidance.

First, we consider that “a knife in hand” indicates “scything”, and that is all there is to the character construction for ‘刍’ (“to scythe”, chu2). In this case, ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) represents a “knife”, not a “person”.

Now we look at ‘及’ (“to catch up with”, ji2). In an older form for ‘及’ (“to catch up with”, ji2), the ‘刀’ (radical 22) or ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) are readily apparent (red highlight). The ‘又’ (radical 24) represents “hand” (blue highlight).

Older form. “Person” (red) and “hand” (blue). (zdic.net)

From the old form above (before calligraphic acceleration), it is clear that someone is holding out a “hand” (blue highlight) trying to “catch up with” a “person” (red highlight).

Current form for “to catch up with”. (zdic.net)

The character ‘及’ (“to catch up with”, ji2) is hence a pictorial equivalent of ‘刍’ (“to scythe”, chu2), but morphed for collision avoidance. Recall that ‘彐’ (radical 50) also refers to “hand”.

In character ‘急’ (“anxious”, ji2), the frantic nature of “catching up with” someone is combined with ‘心’ (“heart”, xin1, character 174) to refer to an emotional state.

Emotional state (“heart”) when “catching up with” someone. (zdic.net)

(TODO: Link to character construction for ‘心’.)

When it is simplified from “hand”

The radical ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) can pictorially represent a “hand”, simplified from ‘爫’ (radical 87.b).

A good example is ‘争’ (“dispute”, zheng1, character 508). In its Traditional form, ‘爫’ (radical 87.b) (red highlight) and ‘彐’ (radical 50) both indicate “hand”. For calligraphic balance, the central “right” stroke of ‘彐’ (radical 50) is extended to fill horizontal space. The 2 “hands” dispute a tool (blue highlight), possibly a plow, represented by ‘亅’ (radical 2.a).

Traditional form for “dispute”. (zdic.net)

Current (Simplified) form simplifies the “hand” on top.

Current form for “dispute”. (zdic.net)

Another example is ‘色’ (“color”, se4, character 509). However, studying its character construction requires an analysis of collision avoidance with another character ‘印’ (“print”, yin4, character 285), as well as a deeper study of ‘卩’ (jie2, radical 21) and ‘㔾’ (jie2, radical 26.a). We will cover this in another article.

(TODO: Link to character construction of ‘色’ and ‘印’.)

When it is a “head” (of an animal)

The radical ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) can pictorially represent the “head” of an animal.

Take ‘兔’ (“rabbit”, tu4, character 1195), for example. An early form shows a rabbit head with big ears. (Standing on tail, legs facing left, ears hanging down.)

Early form for “rabbit”. (baike.baidu.com)

The current form has the legs facing down, the hind legs pushing right (probably a sprinting rabbit). The tail has become a detached dot (red highlight). The big ears are possibly represented by a box (blue highlight). Note that the “head” simplifies into ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b).

Current form for “rabbit”. Ears (blue) and tail (red). (zdic.net)
Writing strokes for “rabbit”. (zdic.net)

Another example is ‘龟’ (“turtle”, gui1, character 808). An early form shows a shell pattern produced by scutes.

Early form for “turtle” shows shell pattern. (zdic.net)

The shell pattern is brought to the current form. Note the “head” and “tail” of the turtle, above and below the shell, respectively.

Current form for “turtle”. (zdic.net)

Other body parts

Another character of note with ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) is ‘象’ (“elephant”, xiang4, character 2361). As discussed in another article, on improvised radical ‘豕’ (“pig”, shi3, character 3688), ‘⺈’ (radical 12.b) represents the elephant’s trunk in this case.

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Jon Wong

Jon Wong

Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (a dream), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).