Chinese Corner

All Stick and No Carrot3 min read

How the ancients wrote (and enforced) “learning” – by Ash Henson


In the late 90s, there was a band out of Beijing called Cold-Blooded Animals that played a type of grunge music with Chinese characteristics. One of my favorite lyrics of theirs was, “No matter where you go, you can’t escape your own mind.” How true. In the same way, Chinese characters are also a product of a given cultural environment and a given mindset – an ancient Chinese hive-mind, if you will. As such, we can expect to see this reflected in the products of this culture. To put it more plainly, we can learn something about how the early Chinese viewed their world by studying the characters that they created.

After having studied quite a few early character forms myself, there is one word that readily comes to mind about them: violence. Apparently, violence played a larger role in daily life back then. In this case, their pain is our gain. Adding some violence to your Chinese character learning will help you remember them.

Well, not pure violence but its puny cousin, corporal punishment. We’ve all heard stories of kids being spanked for bad behavior, but what you didn’t know, perhaps, is that this goes way back. Take the character jiāo (also pronounced jiào) 教, “to teach.” In Shang dynasty (1556 to 1046 BC) oracle bone script, it looks like this:

which is composed of two fives

an unlucky child

and a right hand

holding a stick

“Hey kid! Add those two fives together or else!” They called that teaching. Learning how to count is a lot less fun when you’re doing it by adding up the bruises on your arms.

The double-five (yáo 爻) also indicates the pronunciation of the character. Since it may not be obvious at first glance how that works, let’s take a quick look into how pronunciation is indicated in Chinese characters. Many characters are compounds made of other characters, as we see above. In these compounds, pronunciation is usually marked by using a component that has the same or similar pronunciation as the character in question.

In my first Chinese Corner post, we saw how 馬 “horse” gives the sound in 媽 “mother.” Notice that the tones are different, so the sounds don’t have to be exactly the same. It’s also crucial to remember that the sounds being represented are not those of modern Mandarin, but are from a much earlier version of Chinese. In the case of 教, the sound relation is thousands of years old. Even so, yáo 爻 and jiāo 教 still rhyme in modern Mandarin.

Here’s an even scarier version of 教:

This neglects the child altogether, presenting the formula numbers + corporal punishment = teaching! Since characters were not standardized until 221 BCE, there were often many versions of the same character in existence at the same time.

But violent educational methods weren’t adored by everyone. This form is from the State of Chu:

Chu existed during the Warring States period (475 to 221 BC). At that time, China was not a single political entity, but a group of states constantly at war. Each state had its own writing system, though the different systems were related to one another to varying degrees. This form shows just the two fives and a child, so numbers + child = teaching. Gentler than the first form, but I’m not sure my third grade teacher would approve.

Then we have this, also from the State of Chu:

This variation is composed of the two fives and the component meaning “speech.” In the end though, corporal punishment won out. The standard character 教 retains the hand and the staff, while the more enlightened versions live on only in dictionaries of character variants. ∎


Lyrics from “Forever a Secret” (Yongyuan shi ge mimi) by Cold-Blooded Animals, translation by the author. Images of ancient character variants from Gao Ming, Guwen zilei bian zendingben (Shanghai Ancient Works Publishing House, August 2008).

Ash Henson

Ash Henson is a PhD candidate in National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of Chinese and the co-founder of Outlier Linguistics, a dictionary that explains how Chinese characters actually work.