The Many Ways to Write the Character ‘夫’

Emperor Qianlong asked: 'How do you write '夫'?' (Image: Secret China)
Emperor Qianlong asked: 'How do you write '夫'?' (Image: Secret China)

When I was a child, I learned that the strokes for writing any particular Chinese character had one unalterable order. Now, some 70 years later, I find a new dimension in writing — that the strokes of a character can be written several ways, which depend on the sense of meaning the character takes within a word. Here is the story I found on Weibo:

The story of the many ways to write the character ‘夫’

When the Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong, travelled to Southern China, he saw a farmer carrying a hoe. Qianlong asked Prime Minister Zhang: “Who is this person?” Zhang replied: “He is a farmer (農夫 nóng fū).”

Emperor Qianlong asked: “How do you write ‘夫’?”

The Qianlong Emperor in court dress. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

The Qianlong Emperor in court dress. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Zhang replied: “First write two horizontal strokes, then one left-falling stroke and one right-falling stroke down the center. It is the same whether writing the word for farmer, porter, Confucius, husband and wife, or strongman — all are nouns that contain the character 夫 (fū) within them.

Emperor Qianlong shook his head and said: “Farmers (農夫 nóng fū) are men who dig soil; here the character 夫 is written by writing soil “土” and then adding man “人” to it.

Porters (轎夫 jào fū) carry sedan chair poles. You first write man “人,” then add two poles “二” to it.

Confucius (孔夫子 kǒng fūzǐ) knows the truth of Heaven and Earth. In this case, the 夫 character is written by seeing Heaven “天” and extending upwards “夫.”

Husband and wife (夫妻 fūqī) are two people, so you write two “二” first, then add people “人” to it.

For a strongman (匹夫 pǐfū), you write “大” (big) first, then add “ 一” (one) to it.

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