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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