The Profound Chinese Language (Episode 16): Hand (手) (Part 1)

Da Qiong (Colossal Firmament)

PureInsight | January 30, 2006


Watch Online (5:05) | Download (7,387KB)
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.

Teacher Wang: Children, hold up your hands like this. Doesn't it look like a flying bird? Does this look like a bunny? If you put your hands together like this, they look like a dog. You can form the shape of different animals with your hands. Isn't it fun? Have you heard of the expression, "With two hands, one can work miracles?"

Ying Ying and Yuan Yuan: Yes! It means we are capable of doing lots of things with our hands.

Teacher Wang: You are very smart! In our daily life, we have to rely on our hands to do a lot of things. As long as we are willing to work hard with our hands, we will have good lives. When ancient Chinese people created Chinese characters, they also created a lot of related characters. Why don't we ask Grandpa Brush Pen to give us a lecture now?

Grandpa Brush Pen: Children, hold out your hands and clap your hands. There must be hundreds of Chinese expressions related to hand. Look up your Chinese dictionary. There are three word roots that are related to hand, which are hand (手), claw (爪) and again (又). Let's start with the word root hand (手). Imagine how you would draw a character to represent hand? A hand consists of five fingers and a palm, but one has to convert the pictograph into an actual character. To do so, one has to simplify the shape. At first, the fingers were represented by five lines. But it was not aesthetically pleasing to have five lines in one row, so they were broken into two rows with a thumb and a pinkie at the bottom and the rest of the fingers on top. This was the character for hand in bronze inscriptions. One variation had the middle finger tilted to the right and the other variation, to the left. The character for hand in Small Seal assumed the same form, except that the middle finger always tilted to the right. In the modern form, the middle finger always tilts to the left. This is the modern character for hand that we are familiar with. If the lines for the middle finger, the palm and the wrist are merged into one, it becomes a word root for hand and is no longer a standalone character for hand.

Yuan Yuan: What is the difference between these two?

Grandpa Brush Pen: They both refer to hand, except the former is a standalone character for hand and the latter is a word root for hand and is always used in combination with other word roots to form other characters. For example, the word root for hand, if combined with the character for work (工) becomes the character for carry (扛). If it is combined with the character for attendant (丁) becomes the character for hitting (打).

Ying Ying: What does the word root for claw (爪) have to do with hand (手)? They do not look alike at all!

Grandpa Brush Pen: The character for hand is based on the shape of an upward hand and the character for claw is based on the shape of a downward hand. What do you think a man is doing when his hand points down? Likely he is taking or grabbing something. Therefore, the character for claw also means grabbing. In oracle-bone scriptures, the five lines for fingers were reduced to three to form the character for claw. The character in bronze inscriptions basically assumed the same form, except the lines for fingers were dramatized and looked more powerful and vivid. In Small Seal, the three lines were extended as though they were grasping something really heavy and the palm and wrist became shorter. In the modern form, the fingers, palm and wrist become separate. All the Chinese characters containing the word root for claw have to do with hand, such as the character for contention (爭.)

Yuan Yuan: Claw is related to hand in Chinese language, but why does contention have to do with hand?

Grandpa Brush Pen: Ha! Ha! Ha! We don't have time to address the question today. Why don't you give it some thought? I will explain it for you in our next class. Goodbye!

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