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The Story of 字

The Story of 字

Resident language expert Michael Yang shares some history behind 字, a very basic, but important Chinese character.  

字 (zì) is a simple Chinese Character. It is one of the simplest characters in the Chinese language, and it also expresses what all of us think of as a simple idea: writing. The creation of this character though, was anything but simple. Here is the story of how the character字 (zì) came into the Chinese language.

The character 字 was created in the Xia dynasty. Although 字 is a very simple character, it was actually very difficult to create. After all, how does one create a picture of the idea of language? The people of the Xia dynasty considered 字 to be one of the most important Chinese characters, because not only did it represent writing, it also represented what was already one of the great achievements of their civilization. So, they tried very hard to figure out how to illustrate this character with lines.

Eventually, the scholars at that time came up with a great idea. The Chinese saw their children as being as valuable as gold, and they would do anything to protect them. So, using 子 (zi),the character for son or child, to indicate the significance of (writing) made sense. But how could people differentiate zi (child) and (writing)? That was a problem!

In the end, a 宝盖头 (bǎo gàitou), the top portion of the character 字, was used to show the difference between 子 (zi) and 字 (zì). In ancient times, 宝盖头 (bǎo gàitou) represented the idea of home, and since there weren’t any kindergartens at that time, young children stayed at home most of the time and studied there. For this reason, the idea of using the image of a child at home to represent the idea of writing made sense.



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