Victor Mair has a fascinating post at the Log about the Chinese character 和 (“harmony, peace”). It starts from the relatively uninteresting fact that it has been chosen “The Most ‘Chinese’ Chinese Character,” as the title of Josh Chin’s Wall Street Journal story has it, but Mair goes on to point out that it is used to write at least five other words or morphemes beyond the one in question, and that the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese by Yuen Ren Chao and Lien Sheng Yang and the Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (Guoyu Cidian) give different sets of six pronunciations:

It is interesting that, on the Mainland, the language authorities have declared that the pronunciation hàn (“with, and”) no longer exists, and we cannot find it in even such unabridged dictionaries of record as Hanyu Da Zidian… and Hanyu Da Cidian…. Thus, on the Mainland, people do not understand me when I say the name of one of my favorite series in Taiwan, Shū hàn Rén 書和人 (Books and People), a set of books that I avidly devoured in Taiwan four decades ago, and can still today buy new volumes under the same title and with the same pronunciation.

Then he goes on to discuss the history of the character:

Even its graphic form is complicated by the fact that 和 is actually an early (probably more than a couple of thousand years old) simplified character. The original form — going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions 3,200 years ago — was 龢, with 22 strokes. On the left is a musical instrument, now called yuè, which depicts a mouth blowing over a row of windpipes — this is the semantophore, which conveys the notion of “harmony” or, perhaps more accurately, something like “consonance” (not of the verbal sort, but of the musical type), or just “having to do with a pleasant sound.” On the right was the phonophore, 禾 (“cereal crop, millet”), which functioned as the sound-bearing element. Later, people surely must have grown weary of writing all those strokes for the row of musical pipes and their openings at the top, and decided to dispense with them, leaving just the mouth that blew into the openings of the pipes. This (the mouth), somewhat surprisingly, got shifted to the right side of the character, hence the character was transformed from the cumbersome 龢 to the streamlined, but less explicit, 和. I say that the move of the mouth from the left to the right is rather unexpected, because usually characters with mouth radicals — of which there are roughly two thousand — have the mouth on the left side, where it began (top left) in the old form of 龢.

And for lagniappe he has an alternative candidate for the most “Chinese” Chinese character:

Charlie Clingen wrote to tell me that he personally would vote for biáng (a type of wide, thick, and long noodle popular in the province of Shaanxi; full form of the word is biángbiángmiàn) as the most “Chinese” Chinese character. I’m inclined to agree with Charlie, though for somewhat different reasons. Whereas Charlie decided to vote for biáng because “Its numerous components certainly cast a wide net – one way to be ‘most Chinese’,” I like the character for biáng because its sound doesn’t even exist in MSM, because its construction is obviously whimsical (e.g., a horse flanked by two “long” characters near the middle) — as though it were a playful Taoist talisman (Google on the last two words for images), and because it (with 57 strokes) all has to fit within the same size square as a character consisting of 1, 2, 3…, 12, 13, 14… strokes. For me, biáng symbolizes the difficulty of accommodating the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local / regional cultures and languages within the bounds of the standard writing system, which enshrines the elite, high culture, and now also the bourgeois, urban, national culture. In other words, biáng is well-nigh bursting at the sides of the scriptal and phonetic boxes within which it is constrained.
If you click on the third panel along the right-hand side (about halfway down this page), you can see the character for biáng being written, all 57 strokes, one after the other.

Wonderful stuff, and of course I heartily second his preference for “the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local / regional cultures and languages.” (And the picture at that Wikipedia page makes me hungry.)


  1. It is marvelous that, as plane points out, this would probably also win the “most JAPANESE Chinese character” contest too, not only because it stands for the nation (via replacement as Mair/Wikipedia explains) but also because of the same Confucian-influenced respect for group harmony. It’s even in the first article of the 17-article constitution attributed to Prince Shotoku in the 7th century AD:
    “Exalt harmony (和), honor non-wilfulness”
    Someone needs to make an image macro of that.

  2. “Exalt harmony (和), honor non-wilfulness”
    Could “non-wilfulness” be seen as a euphemism for “submissiveness”, something a prince expects from his subjects ? An elevated context – prince, constitution, Confucius – seems to require an elevated tone. Leaving that aside for once, we may conclude that “don’t rock the boat” renders the spirit of the article more clearly than “exalt harmony etc”.

  3. The discussion on the Log has now devolved into delightful absurdity, and I do think it would be a shame if the Hat discussion did not follow suit:
    “Following Kevin Iga’s reasoning, I nominate W as the most English letter, and G as the most Roman. Though I also want to nominate Q as the most Roman. Continuing on the theme, I’d nominate Ñ as the most Spanish, Č as the most Czech, and Ü as the most German letters. I’m having quite a hard time deciding which to nominate as the most Greek letter, though Υ and Ω are strong candidates.
    arthur waldron said,
    October 17, 2010 @ 3:07 am
    As a student of nationalism, I must know what is the most French letter (I mean of the alphabet). I would have thought V for the Romans, but can see Q. Now on to cyrillic. Which letter is most Russian? Bulgarian? Mongolian? Now how did this discussion start?”

  4. Trond Engen says

    “Stay calm, keep order”? I suspect that most of the depth attributed to the ancient wisdom of the Chinese, or the Indians, or the other Indians, or the Wise Ancients, or whoever, is due to the ancient craft of over-translation.

  5. michael farris says

    I’ll nominate ъ as the most (modern) Bulgarian letter of the Cyrillic alphabet since it’s Bulgarian value is so different from it’s value Russian (and other languages?)

  6. Super-agreed on Ъ for Bulgarian. Russian is obviously Я. I’d go with Є for Ukrainian, but I would settle for Ї.

  7. Russian doesn’t have any distinctive letters. It’s really too bad they got rid of Ѣ.

  8. Æ is the most Norwegian letter. Ø is the most Danish and Ä the most Swedish. Å is the most Scandinavian letter.

  9. michael farris says

    I would nominate ё or щ as the most Russian letter. The fact that almost no one uses ё sort of clinches the deal for me. On the other hand, the very distinctive switch in the sound of щ (from shch to a long soft sh) also makes it a contender.

  10. French: Ç ç ?

  11. I nominate ㅇ for Korean, especially in its role of indicating the absence of any consonant in initial position.

  12. I’ll second “ё” because it is an important component of one of Russia’s most important words, and is not used in Cyrillic alphabets for other languages as far as I know.

  13. Trond Engen says

    I’d propose Å for Swedish. If not for anything else so because the “ugly Swedish” Å is something of a hate object for nationalistically minded Danes. And the dignified double A is a symbol of a lost golden age for conservatively minded Danes. These gang up to change the spelling of their city’s name to, say, Aalborg.
    But I won’t give them that Aa. I agree about Ø being the most Danish letter, even if that would mean Norwegian gets the Æ. I have a distinct feeling that Æ is more common in Danish than in Norwegian, though.

  14. not used in Cyrillic alphabets for other languages as far as I know.
    It’s used in Belorussian.

  15. These gang up to change the spelling of their city’s name to, say, Aalborg.

    Point of order. Aalborg never switched to the reformed spelling in 1948.
    It’s Århus that’s gone mad(der) and is trying to set back the clock.
    I’ll let them, if they also return the silent “d” to the conjunctive forms of can, must and will.

  16. “Stay calm, keep order” and “Don’t rock the boat” are both good attempts, but I prefer “Save shit for after the gig, you dig?” as a plausible if irreverent rephrasing for the first 8 characters of that “constitution.” That is, it’s not so much a contract between state and citizen as it is a code of conduct for the people running the state; the idea is that if everyone acts like a professional and does what their position requires of them, everything will be harmonious and smooth. I.e. Confucianism.
    (In this particular case, of course, you can make a good argument for over-translating since writing in Chinese in 7th-century Japan was a sort of “over-writing,” intended to be grand and authoritative, and specifically not colloquial.)
    Also, I support Joel’s nomination for Korean.

  17. ё is also used in Mongolian.
    E.g., ёстой ‘must’, ёл ‘Lammergeier’.
    So is э. Indeed, it replaces е in all native words in Mongolian to represent the vowel /e/ (although in Khalkha Mongolian this phoneme has virtually merged with /i/). е is found mostly in (1) Russian loanwords (pronounced the same as э) and (2) native words like ес ‘nine’, where it appears to be intended to represent the sound /ji/. (Forgive me if I sound vague. This letter, its use, its pronunciation, and its place in the phonological system have all given me trouble. Often it seems to be used as a substitute for ё, and I’ve also been told that this letter is the cause of some rather bad spelling pronunciations in Mongolian).

  18. “Stay calm, keep order”? I suspect that most of the depth attributed to the ancient wisdom of the Chinese, or the Indians, or the other Indians, or the Wise Ancients, or whoever, is due to the ancient craft of over-translation.
    I disagree. The problem is not one of overtranslation but one of trying to capture the semantics of some of these terms in English.
    For example, I don’t think 和 (‘harmony’) just means ‘don’t rock the boat’. It can mean sinking differences in favour of the ‘group’. It can mean dropping opposition in order to ensure cohesiveness. I don’t want to sound Orientalist, but in many Asian cultures it’s important for those in power to ensure that there is a superficial appearance of agreement. Even if they succeed in getting their own way, they tend to be quite uncomfortable unless everyone expresses agreement. Great efforts will thus be made to bring this situation about.
    I suspect people translating these old concepts tended to go for elaborate translations that could be used to capture the concept in any situation. Sometimes it might have meant ‘don’t rock the boat’, but in many old texts I suspect it was difficult to come up with a unitary translation that would fit all occurrences of the word. And since many of these words embodied coherent concepts, if not coherent philosophies, it’s not necessarily desirable to vary the English translation based on the context.

  19. I nominate *R in Proto-Austronesian. It’s like a stem-cell consonant that can turn into almost any other.

  20. I think that most Japanese would also consider 和 to be the most representative kanji of Japan. We use it to refer to our country, as well as a number of cultural beliefs and traits.
    As such, it is used in many words to mean either Japan or Japanese (language). For example, 和歌, 和室, 英和, 和食, 和風, 和服 etc.
    It is also how I write my given name. My parents chose it in hopes that I would 1) be peaceful and 2) representative of Japan. It is commonly found in given names for both men and women.

  21. michael farris says

    I would vote for the hiragana ‘no’ as the most characteristic Japanese grapheme. Distinctive and frequent.

  22. Is that you, Dressing Gown? It’s a lovely site, and a great subject to write about!

  23. Yes, that’s me, and thanks for the compliment. Hat promised to feature the site a year ago, but it’s still not quite ready for a grand unveiling 🙂

  24. Just say when!

  25. ooh, B is still in UB! curse my shyness couldn’t meet you this summer :(, but nobody to blame except myself
    ё is pronounced like yo, very easy
    if you have any trouble with pronunciation just say so and i’ll supply the site with recording, forgot its name, forvo! with the words
    i hope you’ll enjoy these

  26. oh, you meant е, sorry, so yes that’s for loan words, or can be automatically read like ё, i for example am lazy to put dots on it and will write it like v, b/c it’s understandable, but there are native words too
    can’t recall any words with it right now though maybe just eeven – [yeven] or Esukhei, erdiin etc then they are pronounced like ye in yes

  27. not like v, but e

  28. in ec as nine it pronounced like yös, not like yo in ёc – custom
    is so now i think i told all its pronunciations as i could recall

  29. I hope this isn’t supposed to be a secret, but I seem to remember that Bathrobe also has a website with days of the week in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

  30. That site is semi-defunct. Meaning I don’t plan to add anything to it or revise it, although I don’t plan to take it down.

  31. Michael Everson constructed the Apple Last Resort font, which shows a representative glyph for all characters in a given Unicode block of characters. That way, if you’re looking at Devanagari text (say), and you don’t have a Devanagari font installed, you at least know what kind of font you need. In addition, in the border of each character there are tiny letters giving the name of the block in English. There are some additional characters for scripts not yet in Unicode. It’s interesting to look at his choices (PDF).

  32. The words ес ‘nine’ (which sounds like ‘yos’ and ер ‘ninety'(which sounds like /ir/) are both spelt with е, which represents (I am told) the combination /ji/. The Cyrillic script, with its adoption of letters for palatal vowels (я, ю, ё and е), can lead to phonological confusion over the main vowel.

  33. FWIW, uses Å to symbolise Swedish. (But that may be because Ä and Ö also occur in Finnish.)

  34. David Marjanović says

    I had no idea of biáng. The syllable, the character, and almost certainly the thing are awesome!
    Now I’m hungry, too…
    What I like best about 和 is that it can be interpreted as “harmony is when the millet (禾) isn’t too far away from the mouth (口)”. That’s what my textbook does. 🙂

    е, which represents (I am told) the combination /ji/

    Obviously it’s supposed to represent /je/, and the /e/-/i/ merger you mention (and of which neither I nor Wikipedia had any idea) has complicated this.
    ё is also used in Tajik and (formerly) Uzbek.

  35. Did Ulyanovskians ever do their statue?

  36. Apparently so; it says here that the winner of the competition to design it was Alexander Zinin, a local artist who decided to base his design on the form of the letter as it first appeared in print on page 166 of Karamzin’s almanac Aonidy in 1797 (in the word слёзы ‘tears’), and you can see an image here.

  37. I was hoping to be able to find the actual page and word, but Google Books has “No preview.”

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