Dangerous heights and tipping vessels

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Chris Button says that he was looking at the oracle-bone form for wēi 危 ("precarious, precipitous; perilous; high; ridge [of a roof]; dangerous") and noticed that Huang Dekuan (2007 mammoth dictionary of ancient forms of characters) treats it as depicting a qīqì 欹器 ("tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel").  This was:

…an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.


The terminology for such vessels mentioned in six received texts in the Chinese classics is quite complicated:

"Phonetic loan characters", using an existing character to be read as a substitution for another of similar or identical pronunciation, have complicated interpreting several "tilting vessel" names. Prior to the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE) when the process of standardizing Chinese characters began, scribes would use a current Chinese word and character to write another (near-)homophonous word without a standard written form, which often subsequently resulted in the creation of a new character to write the original word and meaning. For example, yāo from Old Chinese *ʔew (要, "waist") was borrowed to write yào from *ʔew-s "important; want" and the original "waist" sense was later written yāo (腰) semantically clarified with the addition of the "flesh" radical.

The word (, "implement, utensil, instrument; vessel, utensil used as a container or receptacle", Kroll 2017: 357) is a recurrent linguistic element in Chinese names and descriptions for tilting vessels. What became the most common tipping-vessel name qīqì (欹器) is a linguistic compound with (, "exclamation of admiration"), which was a phonetic loan character for (, "slanting, canted, leaning to the side; inclined; oblique; askew; unstable, unsteady", Kroll 2017: 352). Both these logographs are classified as radical-phonetic characters, combining the same (, "uncommon") phonetic component with two different semantic components or radicals, called the "lack" radical () and "branch" radical ().

Another name with ("utensil"), yòuzuò zhī qì (宥坐之器, "vessel on the right of the seat" or "urging vessel"), is written as (宥坐之器) in the Xunzi and Kongzi jiayu, (宥座之器) in the Han shi waizhuan, or (右坐之器) in the Shuo yuan. The first word yòu (, "generous, indulgent, magnanimous; lenient, to pardon") was a phonetic loan character for yòu (, "urge to eat or drink"), yòu (右, "right, right side"), or yòu (囿, "circumscribed area; confine", Kroll 2017: 565). Bernhard Karlgren's classic Grammata Serica Recensa dictionary glosses yòu (宥) as "to be large-minded; to pardon; remit taxes; aid, encourage; mitigate" and yòu (侑) as "assist; encourage to drink; forgive" (1957: 261). The second word is written with the related textual variants zuò (坐, "sit") and zuò (座, "seat", 2017: 636). The Wenzi has a final qi name, jiè zhī qì (戒之器, "warning vessel") using jiè (, "take precautions against, put on guard; warn(ing), monition", 2017: 210).

Yòuzhī (宥卮 or 侑卮, "a goblet for urging wine on a guest") is a "tilting vessel" name with zhī ( or , "an ancient wine goblet") instead of qi (器), written with the yòu (宥, "lenient") loan character (Huainanzi) or yòu (侑, "urge to drink") clarification (Wenzi). Modern scholars such as D. C. Lau (1966) have connected this Daoist tilting goblet name with the zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical tactic found in the Zhuangzi.


Chris says that the broader word families associated with wēi 危 ("precarious, precipitous; perilous; high; ridge [of a roof]; dangerous") makes him think Huang is probably correct.

This also reminds me of our many posts about wéijī 危機 ("crisis") where things reach a tipping point that makes them perilous / dangerous.

And then, for extra-Sinitic associations, there's this:

Starostin reconstructs Proto-Sino-Tibetan *ŋō̆j (~-ō̆l) (high, rise) and compares to Burmese ငွား (ngwa:, be large, great, be high, to project prominently above and beyond others), Jingpho [Term?] (ŋoi, to rise, as a hill); & possibly Proto-Kiranti *ŋo-.

Schuessler (2007) notes that Chinese and Written Burmese can be reconciled by assuming an ST final *-l; furthermore, (OC *ŋoi) may be a vocalic variant of (OC *ŋui), which in turn is related to (OC *ŋuih).


VHM:  I'm always pleased to come across Kiranti, since I lived among these eastern Nepal hill people for two years (1965-67).

In terms of broader connections, it also ties into the basket on head in guǐ 鬼 (and wèi 畏) that we discussed here.

Selected readings


  1. Nick Williams said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    This also comes up in Tom Mazanec's article on Right-Hand Inscriptions (zuoyou ming 座右銘), basically admonitions originally inscribed on these right-hand urging vessels, in the latest issue of Tang Studies:

  2. Chris Button said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 12:07 am

    To be clear, the interpretation of the oracle-bone form in question is by no means unequivocally accepted as 危. For example, Ken-ichi Takashima (whose findings I rarely have cause to challenge) tentatively prefers Chow's analysis of the form as depicting the word represented by 觽.

    The connection of 危 danger with the basket-on-head ("porter") forms of 畏 fear (associated with 威) and 鬼 spirit, demon, to which may be added the phonologically related forms of 貴 precious, notable and 過 pass, transgress, is really one of "peril", "fear", "fere" (= companion), "price/precious" and "ford/port" from the Proto-Indo-European root *per- "pass over" (representing common semantics between the OC and IE forms, not common origin).

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