Of kings ‘王’ and jades ‘玉’ in Chinese writing

Image courtesy of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Last updated: 14 Feb 2021

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In this article, we study a radical that takes on 2 different meanings, often interchangeably. While this radical may seem to have an “identity crisis” at times, the concepts it stands for — “royalty” and “jewelry” — are closely related in Chinese culture.

We start with character ‘王’ (“king”, character 75). But first, a brief visual peek into the history of kings’ relationship with jade. (I know you all like videos. ;-) )

Video courtesy of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Character 75, ‘王’

As a character, ‘王’ always means “king”. As a historical development, ‘王’ points to a primitive and decidedly less graceful origin.

One of the earliest forms of ‘王’ looked like an axe, a weapon of great lethality capable of efficiently slaughtering a great number of people.

An old form of ‘王’. Image courtesy of zdic.net.

With such great power — that axe must have been cutting edge technology then — the weapon naturally became a symbol of authority. (While we would hope that only the worthy can wield such power, reality isn’t always a Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Whosoever holds this hammer, IF they be worthy … Image courtesy of disney.fandom.com.

Character ‘王’ has an old form that resembles an axe, a cutting edge technology of the time which consequently symbolized power and authority. Today, character ‘王’ means “king”.

One possible etymology for the character ‘金’ (character 1166) involves the production of an axe from copper ingots. See Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies, section “Linguistic drift, semantic drift → Shifting etymologies”.

Character 190, ‘玉’

Pictorially, the character ‘玉’ is supposed to look like a string of jade pieces (3 pieces strung together), with the single “dot” signifying, without unnecessary clutter, a jade piece.

An early form of the character is a lot more cluttered, but better resembles a string of jade pieces.

An early form of ‘玉’. Image courtesy of zdic.net

As the Chinese writing system developed, that early form became simpler to facilitate easier use (in writing), and eventually became ‘王’.

During the Warring States period, the form for “jade” that is ‘王’ was found to collide with the form for “king” (also ‘王’), and a differentiating “dot” was added to the effect of ‘玉’.

(There’s a larger arc of a story involving consolidation of political powers and writing forms during and immediately following the Warring States period, if you’re interested in understanding why such writing form collisions can occur. But that’s beyond the scope of this article.)

As such, it is evident that character ‘玉’ developed quite separately from character ‘王’, though they look very similar. Or were their evolutions really separate, given that Chinese royalty of old had a longstanding relationship with jade?

In any case, we’re now availed many options for extracting useful mnemonics for character ‘玉’. As mentioned in Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies:

The character ‘玉’ (“jade”, character 190) can also be imagined as depicting a noble (‘王’, “ruler”, character 75) wearing a piece of jade right under his belt.

The multiple meanings of radical ‘王’

As a radical, ‘王’ (radical 61) can serve as:

  • An indexing radical that means “king” (eg. in ‘皇’, “royal”, character 1571)
  • An abbreviated radical of character ‘玉’ (“jade”, character 190)
  • An improvised radical that means “axe” (eg. in ‘金’, “metals”, character 1166)

To be “king”

The character ‘皇’ (“royal”, character 1571) is constructed by a crown (pictorially ‘白’, though that form means “white”) on top of a king (‘王’, “king”, character 75).

To be “jade”

When the radical ‘王’ is packed to the left, such as in ‘珍’ (“precious”, character 1358), it means “jade”. Note the radical’s bottom stroke “right” is slanting upwards. Another example is ‘玩’ (already covered in Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies).

However, even when it isn’t packed into an abbreviated form, it can also mean “jade”, such as in ‘弄’. (See The story of “hand” (‘手’) in Chinese writing to know why ‘廾’ means “both hands”.)

To be “axe”

The radical seldom features as an axe in character construction, except in older etymologies such as in ‘金’.

The radical ‘王’ it can be “king”, “jade” or even “axe”, depending on etymologies. Your own creative mnemonics can certainly use this radical with its varied semantics.

Now that we’ve explored how ‘王’ and ‘玉’ contribute to character construction, we should be ready to take on any character construction that involves the concept of “king” or “jade” or even “axe”.

Learn more Chinese characters at our compendium of 3500 characters!

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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).