The Profound Chinese Language (Episode 17): Hand (手), Left Hand and Right Hand (Part 2)

Da Qiong (Colossal Firmament)

PureInsight | January 30, 2006


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Chinese version (English caption yet to be added)

An opening poem recitation by a group of children:

With two hands one can work miracles.
Friends shake hands when they meet each other.
A man and a woman hold hands when they are in love.
A married man works hard with his hands to provide for his family.
Extend a helping hand to save a man from drowning as though you were the one drowning.
It is difficult to let go of your hand and end a relationship.

(During class)

Teacher Wang: In last class, one of you asked about the relationship between the Chinese characters for contention (爭) and hand (手)? Before Grandpa Brush Pen answers the question for us, let's review what we have learned from the previous class. We have talked about the character for hand (手) and the word root for hand (扌). Which character is based on the portrait of a downward facing hand?

Class: Claw (爪)!

Teacher Wang: Very good! Which character is made of two characters for hands?

Class: Contention (爭)!

Teacher Wang: The character for contention is based on a portrait of two hands fighting over something. What does the image look like? It's time for Grandpa Brush Pen to explain the character for us.

Grandpa Brush Pen: In the oracle-bone scriptures, the character for contention consisted of three parts, a hand on the top, another hand on the bottom and a line in the middle. The top hand was in the form of the character for claw. It was pointing down to grasp the object being contended for in the middle. The bottom hand was a right hand also trying to grab the object in the middle. The line between the two hands represented the object of contention. Perhaps two children were fighting over a toy or two adults were fighting over fame or wealth.

Yuan Yuan: I can tell the top hand was the character for claw, but I cannot tell that the bottom hand is a right hand!

Grandpa Brush Pen: In the oracle-bone scriptures, the right hand was overly simplified. Perhaps the men who inscribed the character were dodging work, so it is difficult for us to identify that it was a right hand. That's all right. Why don't we look at the character for again (又) in bronze inscriptions first? It will help us learn the ancient Chinese character for right hand (右手). In bronze inscription, the character for again (又) had a thumb, an index finger and a middle finger that were fully extended, as though the hand was ready to catch a baseball. In Small Seal, the character shows the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger pointing to the left with the arm being very thin and long. In the modern form, the thumb is merged with the palm, which becomes the character for again (又) that we are familiar with. That is why the character for "again" actually was supposed to mean "right hand" in ancient times. It was during the period of the bronze inscriptions that the character was given an additional meaning of "again." In order to differentiate "right hand" from "again," a word root for mouth (口) was added to form the character for right (右) that we know today. Actually, the character for again (又) and the character for right (右) both meant "right hand" (右手).

Ying Ying: Since "again" and "right" resemble a right hand in Chinese, does it mean "left" resembles a left hand?

Grandpa Brush Pen: Ha! Ha! Ha! You are getting smarter every day. The character for left (左) is based on the image of a left hand with the thumb stretched as though it were about to grab something. In oracle-bone scriptures, the lines were simplified. That's why it is not easy to identify the character. In earlier bronze inscriptions, it was easier to identify the left hand because it had a thicker palm. Later on, the lines became thinner and an object was added to the bottom, as though to support the left hand. The character for left hand in Small Seal inherited the second variation in the bronze inscription. In modern form, the fingers were merged into one line. This is the character for left (左) that we know of today.

Teacher Wang: Wow! The ancient Chinese people were really thoughtful when they created Chinese characters. Let's thank Grandpa Brush Pen for teaching us so many interesting Chinese characters today. This concludes today's lesson. See you in the next class.

Translated from:

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