Etymology of 白
There exist two different theories regarding the etymology of the character 白.
The more reliable or popular explanation is that the character originally represented two tongues, one on top of the other, and meant to talk unceasingly. It also meant to do one’s best to explain or persuade. Therefore, we see from this that 白 was originally used as a verb.
Following this explanation, the evolution of 白 would be:
- (v.) To report or to talk >>
- (v.) to do one’s best to explain >>
- (adj.) clear and understood (清白) >>
- (adj.) the colour when it is bright (白天 / 雪白) >>
- (adj.) empty or does not exist (空白) >>
- (adv.) worthless (白活 / 白做)
According to 說文解字 (which is the authority of Chinese characters, by Xu Shen from Han Dynasty) 白 also represents the west. Chinese believe that the dead go to paradise, located in the west (西方極樂世界), which is why we mourn in white to calm or comfort the spirits.
Present day examples of 白 to form verbs would be:
- 告白 to announce publicly, to reveal one’s feelings to
- 旁白 narrative
- 對白 dialogue
- 辨白 to defend/explain oneself
- 坦白 to confess
- 表白 to explain oneself or to reveal one’s thought or feelings
A second theory
However, a second theory was that 白 was the image of a candle flame, with the centre stroke representing the wick. In this case, 白 means the colour white, or clear, as it does in 白色. Some also theorised that it was the shape of sun rays, coming from the top of the character. However, this theory does not explain the many other uses of 白.
Words formed with 白
白 is one of the most common words in everyday use and also one of the first words that a child learns. Its basic meaning is the colour white, as in 小白兔 [the little white rabbit]. In the Basic Chinese 500 course, children also learn the words 明白 [to understand] and 白天 [day time].
Here is a list of some more common words containing the character 白that children can easily understand:
|白菜||bok-choi (Chinese cabbage with green leaves and white stem)|
|白吃||eat without paying|
There are also a few common words which are less relevant to children:
|白話||(1) Cantonese; (2) vernacular|
|白手||empty handed, commonly used to describe a self-made person without money being handed down to him/her|
|白眼||supercilious look, contempt|
As we can see from the list of words, 白 is a very useful character indeed.