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:

  • Kanjigen, a comparative Chinese “character etymology” tool.

Offline dictionaries:

See also

A few short reviews

  • Sear’s Chinese Etymology: Scholars have questioned some of the explanations, but the most interesting feature of his site are the scans of oracle-bone, seal script, and other ancient forms; a truly commendable public service! It’s also a convenient tool to find out what are the phonetic and semantic components of a given character. Victor Mair has reviewed it.
  • Zhōngwén is an old site, and annoyingly stubborn in using images for text, but it packs a lot of traditional-style info. Even though the search page says Big5 and GB, you can just input or paste Chinese text and not worry about ancient character encodings.
  • I added ja.wiktionary as a representative of the typical unsourced explanations we find in monolingual dictionaries—except when the “character origin” (字源 jigen) section happens to be empty. Oh well. There are English and Chinese versions, but at least from my cursory overview, they seemed to be even less populated. The Japanese sometimes cite Shirakawa, whose analyses are controversial, but they’re tagged as such.
  • Howell/Morimoto’s phonosemantic method is nonmainstream; it has been discussed at length on the Language Log.
  • The Daikanwa is the Bible of character studies in Japan (and, I hear, it’s pretty respected in China too); but it’s expensive as hell, weights like fifty kilos, and your library won’t lend it.
  • Henshall’s book is confused about its nature: it’s really much more useful as an introduction to character etymology than as a guide to remembering them, but because of its confusion it skimps on quoting sources (it’s always “some scholars” who think this and “others” who think that). At least it presents alternative theories, which is a Good Thing.
  • Hongyuan Wang’s is short and grouped by theme, being intended to be read from cover to cover; it doesn’t work as a reference except for a few very common characters. Like Sear’s, the sweetest thing are the pictures of ancient forms—but be careful, since he sometimes uses cave drawings and such as random illustrations; don’t confuse prehistoric Australian art with hànzì forms!
  • Karlgren’s a classic in Chinese philology, but his phonetic reconstructions are now considered outdated. Nonetheless, it’s still an interesting dictionary to see the phonetic correspondences of characters in convenient lists of “sound series”. There’s an update/errata of sorts by Schuessler, the respected author of the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (which is about the language itself, not characters).

Further suggestions are welcomed.

14 thoughts on “List of resources on Chinese “character etymology”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! With only 1100 characters Williams must be aimed at beginners; I see Henshall et al are in the list of references. It seems that, after the Heisig-heavy period of the past few years, Western laypeople’s interest in kanji etymology is now growing. From my point of view, the more the merrier—a high number of resources will make the tentativeness of this area all the more evident.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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