Really weird sinographs, part 2

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Some of the commenters to the first part of this series seem to be making the case that many of the characters chosen by Scott Wilson for his SoraNews24 article are not so weird after all.  I beg to differ.  I think that all of the characters he chose are truly strange, awesomely odd.  Even those who are skeptics admit that the loopy and curvy ones are unusual.  But I think that Wilson has done a good job of picking out weird characters from Morohashi, and as noted in the o.p., there are thousands more that might be thought of as weird.

Of what does sinographic weirdness consist?  It's not just that some strange characters have a huge jumble of strokes and components / elements thrown together in unexpected ways.  A simple character may be weird because it looks like some common character, but with a part or parts missing, with a part or parts added, a part or parts written in unaccustomed ways, or is turned upside down (my favorite is liǎo / le 了 turned on its head) or backward.

A character may be weird because it is deformed or miswritten through scribal laziness or sloppiness.  Last Tuesday, Professor Dong Zhiqiao 董志翘 (of Nanjing Normal University) gave a talk in my seminar on Middle Vernacular Sinitic.  During the talk, he provided copious evidence of scribal errors that resulted in texts being egregiously misinterpreted during the course of the past thousand and more years.  One outstanding example he used to illustrate this type of textual mistake is guān 關 ("frontier pass; gate; barrier; close; shut; turn off").  This character has a total of 19 strokes, 8 for the radical / classifier / semantic and 11 for the residual portion in the center.

Since those 11 residual strokes are tiny and jammed into a small space, it's not hard to understand why scribes would want to simplify them by taking shortcuts that resulted in variants such as 閞 and 関 (the current official simplified form of guān 關 is 关).  The much consulted online dictionary of sinographs, zdic (Hàndiǎn 漢典) lists 闗 and six other variants that may not show up on many browsers if I tried to copy them directly into this post, but you can probably see them here.  Zdic is an easily accessible treasure trove for those who are interested in variant characters.  I personally enjoy consulting zdic and looking at the variants of common characters (sometimes there will be a dozen or more for a well-known character).  Many of these variants are truly weird and whimsical, as well as quite unnecessary, leading me to ponder why in the world anyone would ever have been prompted to create them.

With copious paleographic illustrations and abundant textual citations, Professor Dong demonstrated how in some texts 閞 gradually morphed into kāi 開 ("open [up]; turn on"), which is exactly the opposite of what was written in the original version of the narratives we were studying (the earliest Guanyin / Kannon / Avalokiteśvara miracle tales in Chinese).

This will not be the last episode in our ongoing saga of weird sinographs.  As an interim hypothesis, I would say that weird sinographs result from a number of causes, among them the following:  scribal sloppiness and laziness, scribal desire to write more efficiently, a wish (often perverse) to be unique, outright errors, ignorance, brain farts, sheer whimsy, etc.


  1. Chris Button said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

    my favorite is liǎo / le 了 turned on its head

    This makes me think of which in origin is 子 turned on its head.

  2. Chris Button said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 10:41 pm

    And of course the character did not show up. It should be U+20AD3 as what lies behind the symbol ㄊ for /t/ in bopomofo

  3. Tom davidson said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 10:56 am

    And in addition to Han Dian is Taiwan’s 異體字典 published online by the Ministry of Education.

  4. Jim Breen said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 8:05 pm

    The early JIS kanji standards introduced a few kanji which had people puzzled. The standards committee had collected the kanji from registration documents of town, people, etc. names.

    When the standards committee reviewed the kanji a couple of decades later it found that some of the strange kanji had come from artifacts in the documents. In one case a 弓 had come from a marginal scribble on a document. and in another, a horizontal stroke came from a fold in the paper.

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