If you go around explaining to an average person over 40 what it means to be casually “seeing” someone, you might see their eyes dart open with the implicit implication that you are downright promiscuous. Three dates in without labeling your partner as “boyfriend/girlfriend” is considered, by many, to be kind of odd. Five dates later? They should have already met the parents and set the wedding date.
The Chinese phrase for “date” is 约会 (yuēhuì), with the character 约 having a less than casual original meaning. As a matter of fact, it’s exactly the opposite of casual. Like many other characters, 约 is connected to “silk”, or 丝, which you can see from the “silk” radical, 纟, on the left. In seal script, the silk radical appears as a bundle of tied silk treads. So, the original meaning for 约 is “to bind, to tie up”. Its right radical, 勺, was supposed to represent the character’s pronunciation, but the sound changed over time.
Later, 约 developed more abstract meanings along these lines. 约束 (yuēshù) means “to keep within bounds; 制约 (zhìyuē) means “to check, to restrict” as in 制约平衡 (zhìyuē pínghéng) or “checks and balances”; and 约 could also mean “limit” as in 节约 (jiéyuē), or “to economize, to save”. For instance, a common sign in an environmental campaign is 节约用水 (jiéyuē yòngshuǐ), or “save water”.
With 约, things often have a binding effect, from more serious international affairs such as international conventions (国际公约 guójì gōngyuē), treaties (条约 tiáoyuē), and legal contracts (合约héyuē)—to personal, quasireligious contracts like an engagement, or marriage contract as in 婚约 (hūnyuē). To honor an agreement is to 履约 (lǚyuē). To break one’s promise and violate the contract is 违约 (wěiyuē).
约 represents rules and regulations that are necessary for a group to function. A famous story in history gave rise to the term 约法三章 (yuēfǎ sānzhāng), or “agree on a three-point decree”. It was the great founder of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Liu Bang (刘邦) who coined this term when he overthrew the previous ruler and became the conqueror of the old capital. He then declared a threepoint decree to regulate his army and protect the civilians: murder is punished by death; causing harm is criminal activity; robbery is also criminal activity, and all will be punished accordingly. It may seem obvious today, but at the time and amidst the chaos, this simple decree won him enough public support to be the new emperor. Today, we often use this term to mean “lay some ground rules”, for instance, 他们约法三章，婚后家务一律共同分担。(Tāmen yuēfǎ sānzhāng, hūnhòu jiāwù yīlǜ gòngtóng fēndān. They made a basic agreement to share all house work after they get married.)
Unwritten rules are 约定俗成 (yuēdìng súchéng), meaning “drawn from popular usage or common practice”. In the case of “great minds think alike”, we use the term 不约而同 (bùyuē értóng). Because agreements involve previous arrangements, 约 also took on the meaning of “to arrange, to make an appointment”, as in 预约 (yùyuē). On diplomatic occasions, to make an appointment to see someone is 约见 (yuējiàn). The phrase 约会 (yuēhuì) began as a universal phrase for any appointment to meet, but in our modern society it just means the romantic kind—a date.
Failing to show up for a previous engagement is 失约 (shīyuē) or 爽约 (shuǎngyuē), famously seen in an 11th-century poem describing unrequited love. It starts with the memory of a happy scene from the previous year’s Lantern’s Festival when the couple went to the night market together: 月上柳梢头，人约黄昏后。(Yuè shàng liǔshāotóu, rén yuē huánghūn hòu. We arranged to meet after dusk, when the moon rose over the willow trees.) But, the guy never showed up: 不见去年人, 泪湿春衫袖。(Bú jiàn qùnián rén, lèi shī chūnshān xiù. Tears soaked the sleeves of her spring dress in his absence.)
Keen linguists might have noticed that 约 also has an alternative meaning that seems totally unrelated to the above: “approximately, by estimation”, such as in 大约 (dàyuē) and 约莫 (yuēmo).
Because it’s an estimation, 约 can also mean “unclear, unobvious”, such as in 隐约 (yǐnyuē, dim, vague). Mostly, 约 is something that brings people together under the same terms. As to the dating scene in China, though the power of tradition remains, the younger generation are actively redefining customs so that the concept of 约会 (yuēhuì) is a lot more 隐约 (yǐnyuē).
“On The Character: 约” is a story from our newest issue, “Romance”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.