Thoroughly earthy

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Because I like the Chinese term tǔ 土 ("earth; soil; dirt; ground; earthy; rustic; colloquial") so much, I was going to add the substance of the remarks below as a comment to the "Fun bun pun" (4/9/17) post, in which we devoted a lot of attention to one of my favorite expressions, "tǔbāozi 土包子" ("earthy steamed stuffed bun", i.e., "country bumpkin, hick, rube, clodhopper, backwoodsman, boor, dolt, yokel").  But the ramifications grew to such large proportions that they merited their own post.

This was what I was going to append as a comment to the previous post:

I can't resist adding another of my favorite expressions based on tǔ 土, namely, "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial") — the "lǐ" would be pronounced in neutral tone by many speakers.  N.B.:  the two Sinographic versions of the expression separated by a slash are the simplified and traditional forms of the characters.

But then I started to think:  what are the lǐ 里 / 裡 (lit., "in") and qì 气 / 氣 (lit., "vapor; steam; gas")  syllables doing there?  What's their function?  What do they mean?

Before attempting to answer these questions, I'd like to say a few words about the character tǔ 土 itself.  The conventional explanation is that it is supposedly a pictogram showing a lump of clay on a potter's wheel.  See here and here.

Matt Anderson, a specialist on oracle bone inscriptions (obi), thinks that the most likely explanation is a depiction of a lump of earth on the ground, but many of the early forms have an additional element, viz., two, three, or four short, vertical strokes to the left and right of the upper part of the lump.  The character is most commonly used in obi for a recipient of sacrifice (the earth god) or the name of a sacrifice (to the above) or as the name of a fang*-country (the Tufang), rather than as simply "earth" (though it can have that meaning too). This form, with the added dots, may be a description of the act of sacrifice, among other things. Scattering dust? Pouring liquid on an altar to the earth? (I guess that could also conceivably be a drawing of some part of the pot spinning process.)  Some scholars hold that the obi graph represent a heap of dust, in which case the small strokes near the upper portion of the graph may represent dust particles drifting away from the heap.

[*Presumably non-Sinitic groups living in the various "directions" (the literal meaning of fāng 方, also "place; square; region")]

Back to "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial").  Basically what we have are two tǔ 土 ("earth") characters separated by a lǐ 土里 / 裡 (lit., "in") and followed by a qì 气 / 氣 (lit., "vapor; steam; gas").  Just the two tǔ 土 characters by themselves mean "very earthy".

Here's where it gets interesting.  According to my interpretation, adding the lǐ 里 / 裡 (lit., "in") and qì 气 / 氣 (lit., "vapor; steam; gas") conveys the notion of "thoroughly tǔ 土" ("earthy"), that is, "having the air or temperament of tǔ 土 ('earthiness') inside [and out]".  Others may wish to interpret the lǐ 里 / 裡 as having no particular semantic content but simply functioning as a modal particle for emphasis.  An argument in favor of the latter interpretation is that the 里 of tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气, etc. is pronounced as though toneless:  li.

One of my respondents offered this explanation for "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial"):

I think 里 means that the person is within the category of 土 or it literally means that the person is so 土 that he is blended with soil (considering the term 土里土气 originally means that the person is from rural area and has never seen the outside world).

You can form many other colorful expressions from disyllabic adjectives this way (X里XY, where Y is often 气 or a morpheme that doesn't really mean anything by itself), e.g.:

yángliyángqì 洋里洋气 ("thoroughly Western / foreign")

guàilǐguàiqì 怪里怪气 ("thoroughly strange")

luōlǐluōsuo 罗里罗嗦 ("thoroughly prolix / wordy / garrulous")

lālilātà 邋里邋遢 ("thoroughly slovenly / dowdy / sloppy")

and so forth.  See also this explanation (in Chinese).

It is said that the people of the city of Wuhan are particularly fond of this construction, but you can hear it elsewhere as well.

Here's an interesting sentence focused on tǔ 土, which comes at the very end:

Nǐ zhège rén zěnme nàme tǔ 你这个人怎么那么土? ("How can you be such a dolt?!") — grammatically speaking, tǔ 土 here is an adjective.

Cf. "zhèige rén zěnme nàme nèige? 这个人怎么那么那个?" ("how can this person be so [like] that?") in the last paragraph of this post:

"That, that, that…" (1/24/16)

Now for something really enigmatic and esoteric, yet extremely folkish, I will introduce two xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 / 歇後語 ("truncated witticisms") that are related to "tǔlǐtǔqì 土里土气 / 土裡土氣" ("countrified; rustic; uncouth; provincial").

Here's how xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 / 歇後語 ("truncated witticisms") work.  The person initiating such a truncated witticism says something that seems quite mystifying and even bizarre.  In doing so, they imply — but do not state — the concluding part, and the alert auditor knows at once what they really mean (the unspoken second portion).

1. qiūyǐn fàngpì 蚯蚓放屁 ("an earthworm farts")

2. qiūyǐn dài cǎomào 蚯蚓戴草帽 ("an earthworm wearing a straw hat")

Let's see how many smart Language Log readers can explain these two truncated witticisms in such a way that the unspoken conclusion follows from the first part of each which is written out at 1. and 2.  You don't have to be a Sinologist to reply, and you don't even have to know Chinese, because you can work from the English translations that I've supplied.

[Thanks to Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, and Liwei Jiao]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    April 13, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

    You can form many other colorful expressions from disyllabic adjectives this way (X里XY..

    The granddaddy of them all, 糊里糊涂 húli hútu 'confused'

  2. JB said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 12:28 am

    In other words, an out-and-out mucksavage.

  3. flow said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 5:44 am

    In reality, the Chinese character 土 is not derived from a potter's wheel; rather, its ancient form depicts the same thing as ⍜ and ⍚ do in modern maps, namely, a deciduous ⍜ or a coniferous ⍚ tree. Trees are always routed in the ground; hence the extended meaning, 'ground'.

    The modern form of 土 however originated around the time of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang. Tasked with delivering unified forms of characters for all of the Empire, the scribes felt that depicting deciduous trees was not befitting for a character that is used in words like 神州領土 'the divine realm's territory'; deciduous trees having the nasty habit of shedding their leaves ever so often and thus demonstrating impermanence, this might have been construed as a hidden mockery against the newly formed empire.

    Likewise, coniferous trees were seen by some as troublesome, as their needles evoked unpleasant memories from the time when the emperor's armies sowed together the vast lands in a war of ten thousand cuts.

    Instead, they turned towards a more scientific approach, and found their needs were answered by U+23DA "EARTH GROUND", ⏚, which became the Lesser Seal form. This over time then evolved into the Navy Seal form, ⍖, also known as downwards vane, and finally into the modern form. During the Tang, Empress Wu promulgated the use of 埊 to signify 'earth' and 'ground', but that did not catch on.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 8:53 am

    From Chris Button:

    I tend to go with the more standard interpretation of 土 as originally depicting an "earth(en) altar" which later came to be represented as 社. Keightley's "The Ancestral Landscape" (2000) book actually has a nice section devoted to 土 on pages 61-65.

  5. Ken Takashima said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

    What the Shang scribes think they were depicting when they inscribed the graphs on the bones? There are a few variants–see Li Zongkun, Wenzibian, vol. 2, pp. 439-40. In comparison with the graphs that contain the grapheme 木, none of the forms seen in Li Zongkun suggest any tree, let alone deciduous or coniferous. Most palaeographers think that the OBI graphs depict "earth, mound, soil." Although it is hard to explain the two variants that show typically three short vertical strokes above or below the "earth, mound, soil" graph ("hard" bec. the three short vertical strokes are most likely "symbolic" of something), I go along with the most prevalent interpretation. This interpretation makes sense in terms of comparative palaeography. The "earth, mound, soil" graph is also used in several other graphs accompanied by the "hand" graph which often come in a pair (i.e., both hands). To mention just one there is no doubt in my mind that one of these graphs represented the word ken 墾 'cultivate land'–you use both hands to do the work of cultivating the field. Keightly in his Ancestral Landscape (p. 62 [74]) transcribes, incorrectly I think, as pou 裒 'to gather' as it makes no sense, though he takes much liberty in giving a "functional translation": "to open up fields" when "to cultivate" with the signific 土 in 墾 should be the right choice. Also, Chris is not quite correct to say "an "earth(en) altar" which later came to be represented as 社." Both the physical meaning represented by 土 'earth, mound, soil' the metaphysical sense represented by 社 'earthen spirit', which are morphologically related, already existed in Shang OBI. I wrote a paper on this published in 2004 ("How to Read Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions: A Critique of the Current Method," Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 76, pp. 5-26).

  6. Chris Button said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 1:31 pm

    Also, Chris is not quite correct to say "an "earth(en) altar" which later came to be represented as 社." Both the physical meaning represented by 土 'earth, mound, soil' the metaphysical sense represented by 社 'earthen spirit', which are morphologically related, already existed in Shang OBI.

    Wouldn't it be fair to suggest that a depiction of an "earthen altar" was what was used more generally to denote the concept of "earth, mound, soil"? In that sense, both meanings can be attested in the Shang OBI, but the actual graphic depiction itself is of an "earthen altar". Later 社 was then used to specify the sense of "earthen altar", leaving 土 to retain only the "earth, mound, soil" sense.

  7. cameron said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

    Would the earthworm sporting the straw hat then proceed to call it macaroni?

  8. Chris Button said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    Rather that in the OBI, characters are not always used exclusively (e.g. 土), and are sometimes never used (e.g. 生 to name just one random example), to mean exactly what they originally depicted.

  9. flow said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    OK so I apologize for my April Fools Day account about how 土 came about. In hindsight it does read more plausible than I had thought.

    The explanation of 土 as a pottery wheel is certainly somewhat intriguing, especially considering the important role that vessels have played in this culture. However, browsing through the samples on Richard Sears' site one cannot fail to notice the overall striking uniformity in the attested forms of this character, and a certain paucity of features. In other words, it almost looks like a simple, conventionalized symbol already at the early stages, more than a recognizable picture like many other glyphs of this time.

    If these forms of 土 are really to depict a potter's wheel, shouldn't we expect to see some more traces of that object or the activity it was part of? Like a pair of hands here and there, or some kind of stand or support (for what is taken to be the rim of the wheel seen edge-on)? Both hands and supports are quite frequent in the ancient graphs. Likewise, no trace of an axle; instead, what is taken to depict a lump of clay—a malleable mass that can be bent and stretched by the potter at will and does not come in standard shapes—is in almost all instances a lozenge in the OBI samples. Worse, in many of the bronze inscriptions, what is supposed to be a potter's lump of clay is drawn as a vertical stick with a knot in the middle. Try to do that at home, on a potter's wheel! For those unfamiliar with the style of writing, tend to be rather more, not less pictorial than the (older) oracle bone inscriptions (presumably both b/c the writing technique allowed for that, and b/c circumstances called for a more decorated and maybe already at the time more dignified and archaizing form).

    Also missing, if the potter's wheel interpretation is to be followed, is any indication of the thing depicted (if it is a thing, indeed) being treated to once become a portable cavity—any kind of indenture or hollowness, with an opening near the top. In short, while the ancient Chinese were quite fond of depicting busy hands and all kinds of vessels, none of that shows up here; where we are supposed to see what hands are about to transform into a vessel there are no hands, no vessel.

    No doubt we're at a loss because whatever this is that gets drawn—as something that is rather upright or tall, with a pointed tip at the top, a wide swell or even protuberance in the middle, and a tapered base, standing on a flat line or plane—is alien to us.

    Come to think of it, I've never seen an actual Earth(en) Altar or Altar to/for the (Spirits of the) Earth; could anyone share pictures? Are there any?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    The following was sent to me by an anonymous commenter at 12:16 p.m., but — because I was in meetings — I didn't get a chance to post it until now:


    I did not see this until now — as I was afraid I had nothing to contribute re: the great mystery that is the depictive origins of 土. Looking at the thread now, I agree with Chris that some connection to 社 seems likely; the two words involved are often considered morphological relatives. As for deciduous and coniferous trees… I can only say that's a new one :D. Also not clear about Flow's developmental claims, as the form seems to proceed in an entirely linear manner from OBI to later 土, with the upper portions of the character following a similar trajectory to 十. But the "Navy SEAL" form?! Perhaps we are just being trolled…


  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

    I wrote this at 8:17 a.m. this morning, but didn't get a chance to post it until now because I was in meetings:

    I have not noticed anyone saying that the oracle bone inscriptional (obi) form of the character tǔ 土 depicts a potter's wheel. Rather, many paleographers say that it shows a lump of clay on a potter's wheel. But there are other ideas related to earth / soil / ground / dust / dirt (tǔ 土) that have been proposed, and I briefly discuss several of them in the o.p., mainly following Matt Anderson.

    If someone wants to assert that, "in reality", the obi form of tǔ 土 depicts a tree, then it behooves them to connect the form with the phonology of some Sinitic word that means "tree". Ditto for someone who might assert that the obi form of tǔ 土 depicts a house, or anything else that is anchored to or rooted in the ground.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2017 @ 3:51 pm

    April Fools' Day pranks are normally played on April 1.

  13. flow said,

    April 15, 2017 @ 4:55 am

    @VHM it was belated. More seriously, though, the lozenge forms do look like outlines of buxus shrubs (see I wouldn't have come up with that were it not for the one instance of Richard Searle's bronze forms that looks like ⿱本一 or 𣎶:⿱木一.

    Another surprise there is the seal form that looks like 𡗓:⿱大一. Is that maybe mixed up with 立 ( OTOH does list 𡗓 as a variant of 土.

    In other instances the knob-like mark on the vertical of the slender, linear bronze forms is omitted, making the character look like 丄 (conspicuously close to the modern symbol from electrical engineering, U+23DA EARTH GROUND). These are rather slender and stand tall, so certainly those writers didn't have 'lump' in their minds when writing it. Totem poles (, anyone?

    There are also forms without the lower, tapering part of a lozenge, making the shape an isosceles triangle on a bar, rather like the Egyptian hieroglyph for pyramid. A burial mound, then? The prevalence of the lozenge is evidence against that.

    When I said earlier that there are no hands to be seen in the ancient graphs of 土, I have to modify that somehow as there seems to be a obsolete character that looks like a pair of hands working on the lozenge part of 土, depicted at Had it survived, its modern form could be like ⿱𠬞土 (somewhat similar to 堅豎竖, but apparently unrelated). On that same page are also OBI forms of 圭, said to depict an ancestral tablet (as far as I remember), which has indeed in the old forms two triangles stacked on top of each other, like the modern form which uses two 土s.

  14. Chris Button said,

    April 15, 2017 @ 6:14 am

    @ Flow

    In hindsight it does read more plausible than I had thought.

    I think it's less about plausibility and more about no-one wanting to cause offence :)

    I've never seen an actual Earth(en) Altar or Altar to/for the (Spirits of the) Earth; could anyone share pictures? Are there any?

    The notion of an "earthen altar" is not something arbitrarily created for the occasion. I have no idea what they may have looked like in ancient China, although going by the OBI form probably a mound-like altar rather than a Christian table-like one as mentioned in the Exodus passage "Make an altar of earth for me…"

    … OBI forms of 圭, said to depict an ancestral tablet (as far as I remember), which has indeed in the old forms two triangles stacked on top of each other, like the modern form which uses two 土s.

    The character 圭 has not been reliably identified in the OBI. However, one thing that can be said for certain based on Jinwen forms is that it does not contain two 土. What it does appear to contain is two 士 whose later confusion with 土 is understandable.

  15. Nicole said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

    Chinese term "tu" does have many interesting meanings.This reminds me of culture differences of animal word between west and east. I would like to share some examples with you. In Chinese culture, we regard peacock as the symbol of luck, especially for the person who witnesses the peacock spreads its wings. However, in English, it has a total different meaning. "A: John is always proud as a peacock recently. B: He won the top scholarship this term. A: No wonder." In the conversation above, peacock is used to describe a person who likes to show off. Therefore, in English, words related with peacock contain negative sense, such as play the peacock.

    Another example is about bat. Bat, in Chinese, is "bianfu蝙蝠". The word "fu福" means happiness in Chinese. So Chinese like bat and apply good meaning to it. With this just the opposite is, in westerners' eyes, bat has bad characteristics. It represent the incarnation of evil. For example, "have bat in the belfry" is often used to describe a person who goes crazy.

    The last example is about dog.Although many Chinese people like dog, the word "dog" still has negative meaning in Chinese language."gou pi bu tong狗屁不通" means unreadable rubblish. "gou tou jun shi狗头军师" is a kind of person who always offers bad advice.And the most common one––"gou yan kan ren di狗眼看人低"means that a person of low position looks down upon everybody else. However, in English, the good image of dog can be observed in the usage of the word"dog".A lucky dog means a lucky me, love my dog––If you like someone,you should accept everything about them.

    Obviously, different animal words have different meaning in English and in Chinese.This reflects an aspect of the differences between Western culture and Chinese culture.

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