The character that starts following you the moment you’re born

A growing population is generally seen as essential for us to survive as a species, a concept deeply engrained in early human civilization. The worship of fertility-inspired art and religion dates back 30,000 years, specifically to a fertility goddess sculpture with exaggerated female reproductive anatomy—the famous Venus of Willendorf.

Today, we think of ourselves as less of a gift from the goddess and more the legacy of our parents, but we are so much more than their chromosomes. Environment, or nurture, plays a big role in shaping us into the people we are. Our character of the day is 育 (yù), meaning both “to give birth” and “to nurture, educate”.

As you might imagine, the linguistic aesthetics of birth are as old as human history. On the oracle bones, the character for “birth” is quite self-explanatory. On the top of the character is the shape of a woman, on the bottom is an upside-down baby. Together, it creates the scene of a woman in labor.

Sometimes, in the top half the woman takes the simplified form of “人” (rén, people), other times it is the complicated “ 每 ”(měi, here indicating a woman wearing hair accessories, a usage lost in modern Chinese). Three dots were later added at the bottom of the character, which refer to the spilled blood of labor.

Later still, as the characters developed, their pictographic quality gave way to evolved forms that were more standardized and easier to write.

The simpler version of the word became 后 (hòu); a character that evolved to have the meaning of both birth and a title—equivalent of that of sovereign. This as well as the fact that 后 was the title of the chief of a matriarchal tribe has led scholars to believe that there was a connection between fertility and power. This usage is still in today’s language, as in 王后 (wánghòu, queen) and 皇后 (huánghòu, empress).

Beware that in simplified Chinese 后 also means “after, back” or “behind”, as in 先后 (xiānhòu, before and after); but in traditional Chinese, the different meanings are represented by two different characters: 后 and 後 (hòu).

The more complicated version of the word became 毓 (yù), in which the 每 radical was moved from top to left and the upside-down baby to the top right while the three dots of blood were elongated and positioned at the bottom right. 毓 means not only “to give birth”, but also “to nurture”, as in the phrase 钟灵毓秀 (zhōng líng yù xiù), which means “a good environment nurtures good talent”.

However, the most commonly used word for “birth” and “to nurture”, 育 , has a much later origin. It was in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) that the character first appeared in seal script. This time, the upside-down baby was put on top of the character, while the bottom radical, 月(yuè), indicated its pronunciation. Together, they formed 育 (yù), meaning “to give birth”, “to raise”, and “to nurture, educate”: ie. 生育(shēngyù, to give birth), 养育 (yǎngyù, to raise, nurture), and 教育 (jiàoyù, to educate).

First and foremost, 育 is related to birth and fertility and can be exemplified by words such as 育龄 (yùlíng), or “childbearing age”; 节育 (jiéyù), or “birth control”; 绝育 (juéyù), or “to sterilize”; and 不育 (búyù), or “infertility”. As the country with the largest population, China implemented (计划生育 jìhuà shēngyù) or “family planning”, as one of its national policies. Recent changes to this policy allow a second child for a couple and no longer encourage late marriage and late childbirth, or 晚婚晚育 (wǎnhūn wǎnyù).

Secondly, 育 is related to “nurture”. To cultivate is 培育 (péiyù); to feed and foster is 哺育 (bǔyù). child care is 保育 (bǎoyù), nursing a baby is 育婴 (yùyīng). Of course, such care in not limited to children. For instance, 育苗 (yùmiáo) means “to grow seedlings”.

Finally, the most frequent combinations of words with the character 育 are related to education. For instance, physical education is 体育 (tǐyù), 智育 (zhìyù) is “intelligence education”, and 德育 (déyù) is “ethical education”. When you add in the ubiquitous 爱国主义教育 (àiguózhǔyì jiàoyù)or “patriotic education”, it is indeed a lot to learn.

Throughout the journey to adulthood, 育 seems to be a constant theme in our lives. It makes us who we are, and, for better or worse, our species marches on.

“On The Character: 育” is a story from our newest issue, “Family”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.


author Huang Weijia (黄伟嘉)

Dr. Huang Weijia is a senior lecturer in Chinese language at Boston University and a distinguished research fellow at Shaanxi Normal University. He has taught courses in modern and classical Chinese and Chinese culture at Harvard University, Brown University, and the Middlebury College Summer Program. Dr. Huang has authored a series of successful textbooks and reference books in the US, Chinese mainland, and Hong Kong, including the Readings in Chinese Culture series. He has also written numerous articles on cross-cultural and Chinese studies for newspapers and magazines in the US and China.

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