Ever dreamed of overnight success? Probably you’ve at least once imagined winning a million-dollar jackpot or inheriting a fortune from a distant relative. The concept of sudden effortless wealth was expressed in ancient China by the term 摇钱树 (yáoqiánshù, “shaking-money tree”), a legendary arbor that showered gold coins on all those who shook its trunk. As one ballad put it, “The money tree and treasure-gathering basin drop gold in the daytime and amass silver at night.” (摇钱树，聚宝盆，日落黄金夜装银。)
The tree’s mythical history dates back at least as far as the 3rd century, as evidenced in the hundreds of cast-bronze statues of money trees unearthed from Han dynasty tombs in southwest China. At the time, these were considered auspicious objects and, even now, some people keep a type of chestnut tree also called “摇钱树” at home or at work in hopes that it will bring good fortune.
According to the Eastern Han dictionary Explaining and Analyzing Characters, the pictophonetic character 摇 (yáo) means “to move” or “to sway.” The “hand” (手, shǒu) radical gives clue to this meaning, while the 䍃 (yáo) radical indicates pronunciation.
By itself, 摇 can serve simply as a verb preceding a subject, as in 摇头 (yáotóu, to shake [one’s] head) and 摇铃 (yáolíng, to ring the bell). It can also be coupled with other verbs to suggest similar movements in different contexts: tables and chairs 摇晃 (yáohuàng, shake) during an earthquake, boats 摇荡 (yáodàng, rock from side to side) in choppy waters, and candles 摇曳 (yáoyè, flicker) in the wind. Meanwhile, 摇摇晃晃 (yáoyáohuànghuàng, staggeringly) serves as an adverb, as in 病人摇摇晃晃地站起来了。(Bìngrén yáoyáohuànghuàng de zhàn qǐ lái le. “The patient staggered to his feet.”) In contrast to physical movements, 动摇 (dòngyáo, to vacillate or undermine) is mainly used to refer to psychological uncertainty. For example, 她的决心不会动摇。(Tā de juéxīn búhuì dòngyáo. “Her determination will never waver.”)
Idioms with the 摇 character are often used metaphorically. For instance, 摇旗呐喊 (yáoqí-nàhǎn) derives from ancient battlefield techniques, when soldiers waved their flags and shouted battle cries to boost morale, but now refers to “drumming up support” (often in a pejorative sense): 他们还在为封建思想摇旗呐喊。(Tāmen hái zài wèi fēngjiàn sīxiǎng yáoqí-nàhǎn. “They are still trying to drum up support for feudal thinking.”) 地动山摇 (dìdòng-shānyáo, “The Earth moves and the mountains shake”) describes a movement as strong as an earthquake.
Because 摇 implies instability, which has extremely negative connotations in Chinese culture, phrases that use the character are often demeaning, especially when applied to people. Waverers are those who 摇摆不定 (yáobǎi-búdìng, “sway continuously”); to show off is 招摇 (zhāoyáo). Likewise, physical swaying is often symbolic of an unpleasant bearing or personality. For instance, 摇头晃脑 (yáotóu-huàngnǎo, “wagging [one’s] head”) suggests an air of conceit or self-satisfaction, and 摇尾乞怜 (yáowěi-qǐlián, “wag [one’s] tail and beg”) describes an obsequious person, as in 他只会向领导摇尾乞怜。(Tā zhǐ huì xiàng lǐngdǎo yáowěi-qǐlián. “He is capable of nothing but fawning on his superiors.”)
In Chinese fantasy novels, characters with supernatural powers can often change their form with a simple shake (摇身一变 yáoshēn-yíbiàn). The best-known and most powerful of these shapeshifters, the Monkey King Sun Wukong from Journey to the West, has 72 transformations. Nowadays, the idiom refers to a villain who adopts a pleasing appearance in order to deceive.
But 摇 does not always have a negative or uncertain meaning. For instance, a cradle rocking (摇篮 yáolán) to the sound of a lullaby (摇篮曲 yáolánqǔ) conjures a peaceful domestic scene, as does the rocking chair (摇椅 yáoyǐ), which is traditionally favored by elderly people for its soothing rhythm. In rock ’n’ roll music, translated quite literally as 摇滚乐 (yáogǔnyuè), the character had a mix of good and bad connotations. When the genre arrived on the mainland in the 1980s, conservative listeners were unsettled by its strong rhythms, but many youths embraced it as a symbol for an uncertain decade, and the term is now neutral.
A common modern use of the character is in 摇号 (yáohào, “rocking the numbers”), referring to the lottery (摇奖, yáojiǎng) systems often used to allocate limited social resources, such as license plates for drivers or enrollment spots at the best schools in densely populated cities. Due to traffic and environmental concerns, eight cities in China currently use a lottery to issue license plates. Accordingly, 据说，有人可能一辈子都摇不上号。(Jùshuō, yǒu rén kěnéng yíbèizi dōu yáobushàng hào. “It’s said that some people will never have their number picked in their lifetime.”)
Acquiring the license plate is one thing; affording it is another. In Shanghai, where the license lottery includes an auction portion, the average price of a plate has risen steeply (扶摇直上 fúyáo-zhíshàng) from 13,000 RMB to 90,000 RMB over the last 17 years, in spite of strict anti-inflation measures. It’s enough to make one give up, put on some headphones, and rock out to some Earth-shaking bass and guitar riffs. After all, in the words of Pete Townshend, “Rock ’n’ roll might not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.”
“On the Character: 摇” is a story from our issue, “Tuning Up”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.