Monday 16 July 2012

Chinese Brushstrokes 1, No Dog in Cat

Sometimes the simplification of characters can be deceptive: the traditional form of māo (貓) is built on zhì (豸) whereas the simplified form reduces the number of brushstrokes by substituting the contracted form of quǎn (犬 vs. 犭) --but quǎn (犭) is not actually equivalent to zhì (豸).  Quǎn is commonly called "the dog radical" and appears in numerous words, such as gǒu (狗); it is also an example of a character with no clear resemblance between its full-width form (犬) and its corresponding half-width pictogram (犭).  Zhì (豸) is commonly called "the badger radical", but it actually depicts a mythological beast with no English name.  Whereas most simplifications result in mutually-exclusive sets of glyphs (one traditional, the other simplified) the mainland Chinese continue to use zhì (豸) to form simplified characters (other than māo); thus, e.g., the word for panther (bào, 豹) is the same in Taiwan and in Communist China (the left-hand side being the compressed form of zhì, 豸), while the word for cat is different.  Note that zhì (豸) does not contain any horizontal brushstrokes moving from left to right (only sweeping or diagonal lines, drawn from right to left); this is not obvious in fine print.

The other half of māo (貓) is miáo (苗), most commonly used to mean "seedlings" or "sprouts" (e.g., 禾苗).  Miáo is itself an elaboration of the five brushstrokes of tián (田) meaning, "field"; the symbol above the field (艹) is the so-called "grass radical", i.e., the compressed form of cǎo (艸), "grass".