The etymology of 白

White is the most basic of colours, and plays an important symbolic role in almost every society. In ancient civilizations, such as in Egypt or Rome, white was commonly worn by priestesses, a practice which came to associate purity and chastity with the colour. Today in the United States and many European countries, white is seen to represent perfection, neutrality, chastity, innocence, and many more. It is also the colour of many religious and governmental buildings – take the White House, for example.

How might the colour white represent something different in Chinese culture? In China, white (白) is the colour associated to metal (金), one of the five elements. By extension, white represents purity, righteousness, and confidence. However, white is also a colour associated with death and ghosts, and therefore traditionally is the colour used for mourning and funerals. This is a polar opposite to Western customs!


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:

  1. (v.) To report or to talk >>
  2. (v.) to do one’s best to explain >>
  3. (adj.) clear and understood (清白) >>
  4. (adj.) the colour when it is bright (白天 / 雪白) >>
  5. (adj.) empty or does not exist (空白) >>
  6. (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)
白白 in vain
白吃 eat without paying
蛋白 egg white

For a more comprehensive list of words please click here.

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
白果 ginkgo
白眼 supercilious look, contempt

For a more comprehensive list of these words please click here.

As we can see from the list of words, 白 is a very useful character indeed.


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