Earlier forms like and show a plant with visible roots.¹ The same plant can be seen in for example (modern 奏) which shows the plant being offered with two hands. In ancient times plants often figured in rituals, specifically rituals where favors were being asked. One theory about how 求/ got its meaning of seek is that it was not used as a direct representation (i.e. a plant), but as a symbol for the act of the ritual in which it was used: seeking help from the gods.²
Mnemonic: Offer a plant in a request
For a long time the standard explanation for 求 has been that it is the predecessor (protoform) of 裘 “fur clothing”. In its earliest known form it would have expressed the meaning of “fur” or “fur clothing” pictographically. In this explanation at a somewhat later stage 求 was borrowed for its sound to express the meanings “to seek for, to ask for”. More or less at the same time a new graph 裘 was created to carry the original meaning of “fur clothing” through adding the signific clothing 衣 to the original 求 for clarification.
This is a common enough scenario, but in this instance it does not seem to fit, because it persuaded scholars to group together graphs that look very different. Take a look at the variant forms that Katō et al. display in their entry for 求.
Katō et al. use the term 契文 keibun for 甲骨文字 kōkotsu moji (oracle bone inscriptions, short: OBI), the oldest known forms of the graphs. The first two OBI are different from the third. In the row for bronze inscriptions (金文 kinbun) the first looks like the first and the second OBI (except that a sign for hand seems to be inserted in the middle). The second and third of the bronze inscriptions look like the third OBI. Katō et al. explain these remarkable differences as alternating between “pictural representations of fur clothing” and “pictural representations of suspended fur”.¹
In the third row we see an example of a seal character. It consists of clothing 衣/, with the seal form inserted. Xǔ Shèn 許慎 (c. 58 – c. 148 CE) analyses this graph in his famous dictionary of graphical etymology as follows:
means fur clothing. It has 衣 with 求 as phonetic.
That means that according to Xǔ Shèn the function of 求 is to add a hint for the pronunciation of 裘. Qiú Xīguī explains the entire development of 裘 from OBI to seal.
(bone) (bronze) (bronze) (seal) ″裘″ qiú ″fur garment.″ The protoform of ″裘″ qiú ″fur garment″ was a pictograph; later the phonetic symbol ″又″ yòu was added. Still later the pictographic symbol that represented a fur garment was changed to the component ″衣″ yī ″clothing″ and it became an ordinary phonogram. Probably in order to accommodate a change in pronunciation, ″又″ was later changed to ″求″ qiú ″seek.″ ³
In other words, Qiú thinks also that 求 only comes along as a phonetic in building 裘. The OBI (a variant of clothing with strokes added to indicate fur) was the predecessor of 裘, but not of 求. Only the odd, supposedly “suspended” variants (like and, probably a depiction of a plant) are the predecessors of 求.
According to Ochiai scholars confused and in trying to identify the protoform of 求. He suggests that the reason for that can be found in a note that Xǔ Shèn added to his entry on 裘:
求，古文省衣。 As for 求, ancient writing omits 衣. ⁴
Ochiai thinks that when Xǔ Shèn stated that the ancients wrote 裘 as 求, omitting the signific 衣 of contemporary usage, this meant that 求 was used only for its sound, as a loan graph. However, other scholars may have taken this as an indication that 求 was the protoform of 裘. ⁵ All things considered, I think the viewpoints of Ochiai and Qiú are more plausible.
Looking at 求/ disentangled from instances of 裘/, we can see that both OBI and bronze inscriptions of 求 look not unlike 来/來 (a representation of wheat). Ochiai thinks that 求 is actually a variant of 来/來 that emphasizes its roots. Further, looking at how 求 is used in the earliest compound characters, like for example 奏, where 求 is being offered with two hands, and another graph (no equivalent modern form, see below) where 求 is being planted in the ground, Ochiai writes that it is valid to conclude that 求 on itself was used as a symbol for the religious act in which it was being offered and/or planted.
The graph 来/來 (depicting wheat) was simply borrowed for its sound to convey an ancient Chinese word meaning “to come”. Many scholars think 求 was also borrowed for its sound.⁶ Ochiai thinks it depicted a plant and was used as a symbol for the expression to seek help from the gods. In its modern form 求 doesn’t look a lot like a plant any more (although it does resemble possibly related 来/來 still somewhat). Henshall creates a mnemonic by comparing 求 to 水 (water) (but adds a confusing reference to fur).⁷
• For an alternative mnemonic, how about: Holy plant demands water?
• Or (exploiting the similarity of 求 vs 来/來): We come in supplication.⁸
• Finally (not depending on other graphs, but perhaps blasphemous): To seek Jesus (a cross, arms and legs left and right, head to the right, 求).
Consists of house/roof 宀 and the element 夗. The latter probably lent its sound, and had perhaps the connotation of to bend (one’s body). 夗 can be analysed as night/moon 夕 and bent body 卩/㔾 but the element on the left side may have been different at an earlier stage. Scholars disagree about the original meaning of 宛 (hemispherical roof and turn in one’s sleep are two suggestions).¹ In classical Chinese 宛 was loaned to write a word with meanings pliant, supple; yielding. In Japanese it also came to be used for ate, specifically in the meaning addressed to, which according to one scholar may have been derived from the older meaning yielding.² Suggest to take 宀 simply as house, 夕 as night and 㔾 as curved up body.
Mnemonic: Your address is the home where you curve up in bed at night
The original function of 宛 (or its likely phonetic 夗 for that matter) is unknown. However, it is interesting to note that a lot of words that are written with graphs that have 宛 or 夗 as an element have connotations of round, bend, yielding, etc.
Most scholars think that 㔾 in 宛 depicts a bending person. Ochiai insists that the oracle bone shape depicts a person with its head hanging down and only later the exaggerated head was separated and redrawn as night/moon 夕, and the person as bending person. As often a lot of confusing variants have been found, among them bronze graphs that show meat 月/肉 instead of night/moon 夕.
Scholars trying to get at the original meaning of 夗 have suggested bend the body, fall down, turn in one’s sleep. For 宛 they have suggested hemispherical roof, again bend the body and again turn in one’s sleep (the latter takes 宛 as “an embellished variant of 夗”).
宛 was loaned to write other words later on. In classical Chinese it pointed to a word “pliant, supple; yielding.” In Japanese there still exists enten 宛転/宛轉 (a compound borrowed from classical Chinese) with meanings like “eloquent; fluent; smooth-spoken” and “nicely shaped eyebrows.” The word enzen 宛然 (“as if; the very thing itself”) comes from an another expression in Chinese that 宛 was used to write for.
In Japanese one is most likely to see 宛 being used to write ate, in its meaning “address; addressed to.” Ironically 宛 is also used to write the expression ateji 宛て字 (also 当て字), which indicates either a character that is used only for its sound to use a different word (a loan graph, like 宛 itself in Chinese) or used more or less arbitrarily to write a different word (its use in Japanese to write 宛 for ate feels arbitrary, as it does not seem to derive from usage in Chinese; however Henshall suggests it could be a derivation from the meaning “yielding”).
For its modern Japanese meaning of “address” 宛 can be reinterpreted to make more sense. The element house/roof 宀 has obvious relevance for “address”. Further, there is someone at home (curved up 卩/㔾 in bed at night 夕 ?). Subsequently a mnemonic could be: your address is the home 宀 where you curve up 㔾 in bed at night 夕.