喪 (beta readers version)

◇ Errors to kornelis@xs4all.nl (problems, changelog)
喪失 sōshitsu loss; forfeit
喪中 mochū in mourning
喪服 mofuku mourning dress
Old forms look like and show mulberry tree(modern 桑) acting as phonetic,¹ with two, three or even four times added.² The latter is not mouth /口 but a receptacle that here symbolizes ritual. This allowed 喪 to point to a word for a kind of ritual, perhaps ritual concerning deceased. The second meaning of lose and loss may have been derived from that (its use in that sense was most often related to war, specifically referring to soldiers fallen on the battlefield). As time went by the scribes made the lines in 喪 quite geometrical, with first four boxes placed symmetrically (as in 噩) and later two. Additionally, they added escape/lose/die /亡³ at the bottom to reinforce the intended meaning of 喪. However, in the development of clerical script was fused to the top part and got rendered in slanted strokes as in clothes 衣.

Mnemonic: mourn the loss of two boxes of strange clothes

1. Schuessler (p. 450) has identical readings for 桑 and 喪. Even in modern Mandarin 桑 is sāng and 喪 in at least its first reading also sāng. The second reading of 喪 (with the meaning “to lose”) is sàng, i.e. only a slight difference in pronunciation.

2. The developmental description in this box comes from Ochiai (2016, pp. 115-116)

3. Unicode has created space for the old form of 亡, which is 亾. However, most fonts will show it as a standardized post-Han period character shape, rectangular, unlike the earlier more rounded forms.

4. The primary meanings of 亡 in Schuessler (p. 507) are “to lose,disappear” and “to have none, there is not”. It’s not clear to me which meaning of 喪 this added graph was intended to reinforce.

5. This involved a process of abstraction in which a lot of graphs changed significantly: “...in the transition from the ancient script to the clerical script [...] most characters totally lost their pictorial character and became symbols comprised of dots and vertical leftward and rightward strokes” (Qiú, p. 45).

6. The mnemonic is from SH. I’m not sure I can come up with something better. Please let me know if you can—I feel rather exposed to the copyright police, copy-pasting it like this. 😱

Verbose explanation and references

Before 喪 was conclusively identified among oracle bone inscriptions (OBI) researchers had to do with bronze engravings that were not very clear. In addition to that, Xǔ Shèn 許慎 had written that according to him 喪 consisted of 哭 with 亾/亡 added as phonetic with also semantic value (亦声). Some scholars followed Xǔ Shèn, others proposed different interpretations. In the end it seems that having much clearer OBI available makes all those interpretations obsolete.

Mizukami identified one or more OBI for 喪 in 1995, while Gu included a few in his 2008 book, identifying its main element as “mulberry tree.”¹ Below a bunch of impressions of OBI by Ochiai.


SH writes: “Gu notes that in ancient times there was an association between the mulberry tree and the grieving process when someone died.” That seems to indicate that Gu analyzed the OBI for 喪 as a combination of semantic elements only. Ochiai suggests that 桑 “mulberry tree” acts as phonetic, which seems persuasive given that according to Schuessler (p. 450) the reconstructed readings for 喪 and 桑 are identical (as are the modern Mandarin readings).

However, Schuessler continues to write:

This word [sāng 喪] is prob[ably] not related to sàng 喪 ‘lose, destroy’ (under → wáng₁ 亡 ‘lose’), although these two words share the same graph due to similar sound and mental semantic association.(ibid.)

As it happens, exactly 亡 was added to 喪 in bronze inscriptions for clarification. 喪 has kept its two different readings and its two different meanings into modern times. I take this to mean that early on 喪 was used as a loan graph for ‘lose, destroy’ and that the two words kept sharing the same graph until today even.

With 桑 “mulberry tree” as phonetic, the symbol /𠙵 fulfills the role of signific. While for convenience sake it is possible to distinguish 𠙵 from 口 using modern fonts, in fact already at the OBI stage the two had the same shape in regular writing. While 口 concerns strictly matters of the mouth, the mouth cavity, and speech, 𠙵 can be a general receptacle, or a symbol for ritual. The latter is the case here.³

Transformation of the shape

The modern form of 喪 can no longer be sensibly analyzed without knowing its development. Already at the time of Xǔ Shèn 許慎 (who lived around the first century CE) it was no longer known what the lines in the top of 喪 originally represented. In the seal character shape the added symbol of 亾/亡 was still recognizable, but became distorted with the development of the lìshū 隷書 (Japanese: reisho) style of writing. As a result of the necessary simplification (rendering the shapes using a limited range of brush strokes) and confused standardization (instead of standardizing 亾 to 亡, as in the top of 忘, the scribes chose to make 亾 look like the bottom of 衣) 喪 became an unintelligible sign.

Perhaps that some learned readers assumed (wrongly) that the graph 哭 (“weep... lament... bemoan the deceased”) was a meaningful element of 喪 (as suggested by Xǔ Shèn). That could have made some sense to them. However, for most people 喪 ended up as a sign, certainly with no obvious relation to 桑, its mostly likely original phonetic. For the lay person mouth 口 should be a clearly recognizable element—but in this context not very useful as a semantic hint (and originally it was 𠙵). Also, a common variant of 喪 was (where 人 replaces 口) and currently the PRC has simplified 喪 further as 丧.

1. Mentioned in SH (p. 486).

2. Impressions of OBI characters of 喪 by Ochiai (2016). My main reason for including them here is that I find Ochiai’s renderings amazingly beautiful. 😮 The Sinica database has 39 images of OBI for 喪 here.

3. Ochiai (2016, p. 105; pp 115-116). The researcher Shirakawa Shizuka 白川静 also assigns a ritualistic value to these receptacles, but interprets them in a more concrete way, while Ochiai thinks that they symbolize ritual in an abstract sense (Ochiai, 2014, p. 189).

4. Kroll, p. 243.

5. Yuen Ren Chao, Liansheng Yang, Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese. Harvard University Press for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 1947, p. 42.

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要求 yōkyū demand; desire
求職 kyūshoku job hunting
探求する tankyū suru investigate

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

1. Until recently scholars judged 求 to be a depiction of animal fur, based on the assumption that 求 was the protoform of 裘 (fur clothing). However, 求 functions in 裘 purely as phonetic, only lending its sound (Ochiai, 2014:222-223). More on this below.
2. Ochiai, 2014:224.

Verbose explanation and references

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., 1983:348; [image source])

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″ ″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.

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. 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.

(impressions of OBI by Ochiai, showing 求 being offered and planted, Ochiai, 2014:223)

Concluding remarks

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. 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).

• For an alternative mnemonic, how about: Holy plant demands water?
• Or (exploiting the similarity of 求 vs 来/來): We come in supplication.
• 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).


1. More specifically Katō et al. write: “The OBI are pictural representations of fur clothing. The bronze and the ancient writings are pictural representations of suspended fur.” (契文は、毛皮の衣(裘)の象形字である。金文と古文は、毛皮を釣り下げた象形字である。1983:348-349). This suggests a transition from OBI to bronze inscriptions that does not fit with the examples they themselves give, because these show variation within the sets of OBI and bronze inscriptions separately as well.
2. Note that Xǔ Shèn always starts his entries with the seal form of a graph, not with the contemporary forms that make up the rest of his text. Modern impressions of his work do not always follow this rule for practical reasons.
3. Qiú, 2000:222. My emphasis.
4. Ochiai writes: “古文は衣を省く” (2014:224), but he does not include 求 in his translation. TODO which versions of the Shuowen have this note? It is not in the version of ctext.org. Ochiai names 許慎 explicitly, which would seem to exclude a later addition. Multi-function Chinese Character Database has the version Ochiai uses.
5. 『説文解字』の「裘」の項には、仮借の用法で「求」だけの字体の古文が挙げられており、そのため誤解が生じた。 (Ochiai, 2011:183).
6. SH:478.
7. Henshall:455
8. Triggered by the memory of Anyanka’s words in the crypt scene, episode 9 from season 4 of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (00:36:04).
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