Sunshine on runny snow banks, small buds rustling in the trees, the fresh smell of new grass, mud, squishy ground, rubber boots… don’t tell me you hate spring. Well, the charm of Chinese works its magic here again as it takes all the fun of this glorious season and bundles it up into one syllable. Three thousand years ago, in oracle bone inscriptions, the character 春 (chūn), or spring, was made up of the very elements of spring: 日 (rì, sun) and 草 (cǎo, grass), or 日 (sun) and 木 (mù, wood). 屯 (tún) was attached as a phonetic so 春 was actually originally pronounced tún.
During the Zhou Dynasty, from 1046 B.C. to 256 B.C., bronze inscriptions rearranged the character by putting “grass” on top, “tun” in the middle, and the “sun” on the bottom. The 屯 radical then took on a new look in seal script, developed during the 221 B.C. to 206 B.C. Qin Dynasty. The radical’s final stroke was curved to the right, and the whole character started to take on a much more symmetrical form.
During the transition from the ancient characters to the official script, to increase efficiency, the time-consuming curves were changed into straight lines. 草 and 屯 partnered up to become the head radical, combined with 三 (sān, three) and 人 (rén, human being), as it appears today.
While the character evolved, and lost its clear reference to grass, 春 still retained its original spring meaning. This can be seen in words such as 春光 (chūnguāng, spring scenery), 春意 (chūnyì, spring is in the air), and even in everyone’s favorite 春卷 (chūnjuǎn, spring rolls). Once known as 春饼 (chūnbǐng, spring pancakes), these are traditionally eaten on the first day of Spring.
Spring offers a fresh start, and brings smiles to faces, so the character resounds with positive connotations. 春风得意 (chūnfēng déyì) means “enjoying success,” while if someone is 满面春风 (mǎnmiàn chūnfēng), it means they are “radiating with happiness.” A miraculous cure can be described as 妙手回春 (miàoshǒu huíchūn), and 春心 (chūnxīn) refers to the feelings between two lovers.
Many characters do use the radical 春 as a phonetic, and have nothing to do with the season itself, such as 椿 (chūn, Chinese toon), 蝽 (chūn, a stinkbug),鰆 (chūn, mackerel), and 蠢 (chūn, clumsy).Also, keep your eye out for 舂 (chūn), or “to pound,” which bears a striking resemblance to 春. For a pleasant start to the year, you really don’t want to get these two mixed up.
Translated from Chinese English by Nicholas Richards (芮尼克).