The Nanbanjin Nikki


List of resources on Chinese “character etymology”

As a Japanese student, I wanted to know the truth about kanji (hànzì). Not made-up mnemonics to aid learning, but the messy, ugly, and infinitely more interesting truth. When one compare sources, however, it quickly becomes apparent how much of this work is still tentative—and, given the sparse early evidence, perhaps will always be. But—that only make matters more fascinating, as far as I’m concerned. These little jumbled squiggles really come alive with their myriad histories and stories.

This post lists a few resources I like when investigating characters. Most of them are in English, and easily avaiable to the student; though, of course, nothing compares with the wealth of native material in languages from the “hanzisphere”—Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. These pointers should be considered a first step in the world of character history. My primary intention is to illustrate how diverse the theories can be, as a counterpoint to the self-assured rhetorical style of most dictionaries.


Chinese-oriented sites tend to expect Chinese simplified characters (简体中文簡体字) or traditional characters (繁體中文旧字体), while Japanese sites often expect simplified Japanese (新字体). There are several tools to convert between these character forms.

For your convenience in comparing approaches, I made a simple tool to search several of these sites simultaneously:

Offline dictionaries:

See also

A few short reviews

Further suggestions are welcomed.


Much appreciated. Bookmarked. :)

By mkrause on .

Bookmarked as well. (I actually like using Henshall as a guide to remembering characters through the etymologies — that works better for me than invented mnemonics.)

漢字字原入門 by 王宏源 (The Origins of Chinese Characters by Wang Hongyuan) is interesting although not comprehensive. Published by Sinolingua, Beijing, first edition 1993. ISBN 7-80052-243-1.

By Bathrobe on .

Thanks Bathrobe!

Matt Treyvaud at no-sword also brought to my attention the ideas of Shirakawa Shizuka, a Japanese scholar with a very idyosincratic theory that seems to downplay language and fonetics in favor of religio-mystical traditions (for example, instead of saying was a pictograph for “mouth” like everyone else, he thinks it was “a vessel for prayers”). I’m skeptical of the extent to which the evidence support his claims, but they’re certainly interesting.

By leoboiko on .

Just saw this book: Looks interesting, but don’t know how it compares to others you quoted.

Also, Kanji Networks has an offline book:

By Max on .

Wieger’s Chinese Characters (1927) is outdated, but serves as an enjoyable introduction to the traditional, now partly discredited but historically important, Shuōwén etymologies. Be sure to read the Amazon reviews.

By leoboiko on .

An example of disagreement: The Shuōwén has a (minority) category for characters that combine two (or more) components by semantic value, the notorious example being 明 “bright” made of 日 “sun” and 月 “moon”. But some recent scholars (Boodberg, DeFrancis) hold that this category is mistaken; such characters would also be phonetic-semantic compounds like most others; it’s only that by the time of the Shuōwén the phonetic relationship had become obscured, leading to the creation of folk-theories. Notice the same thing is still happening: as the sound changes destroy phonetic relationships, semantic folk-theories become more common.

By leoboiko on .

Guys, I’m buying everything you recommend as soon as I find them affordably in my corner of the world; whenever I put my hands in a new dictionary, it will be added to the list.

By leoboiko on .

Outlier Linguistics is working on an etymology dictionary that will collect the latest academic work on character etymology. David Moser has spoken favorably of them, as well as reddit’s /r/linguistics /u/keyilan, who I take to be a PhD student in Sino-Tibeten linguistics, or something like that.

By Ian Dalton on .

@Ian Dalton: Thanks much for the heads-up! It definitely looks promising, and I’ll check it out when I get the monies.


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