In Chinese, the character “家” (jiā) means “home” or “family.”
Home is a warm harbor, a cherished dream for wanderers, and an eternal concern. From a small family to a vast nation, even to our planet Earth, our entire lives are closely intertwined with the concept of “home” from birth to death. Now, let’s explore the origin of the Chinese Symbol for Family “家” (jiā) from the perspective of its evolution in ancient writing.
Origin of the Chinese Symbol for Family “家” (jiā)
The character “家” (jiā) can be traced back to the oracle bone script, the earliest form of Chinese writing. Its structure consists of “宀” (mián) on top, representing a roof or dwelling, and “豕” below, depicting a pig. Excavations at the Jiahu site in Wuyang County, Henan, have revealed the earliest evidence of domesticated pigs in China, dating back to around 9000 years ago. This discovery indicates that our ancestors began domesticating pigs in ancient times.
Pigs were the most frequently sacrificed and abundant animals in prehistoric times, suggesting their widespread use in ceremonial activities as the primary offering for ancestral and divine worship.
In the oracle bone script, the character “豕” originally took the form of a pictograph of a pig, depicting its large mouth, ears, body, prominent belly, legs, and tail. Some even included the male reproductive organs of the boar, indicating the use of male pigs for sacrificial purposes. In some instances, “宀” contained two pigs. Over time, “豕” gradually became more stylized.
During the Shang Dynasty, bronze inscriptions became a more convenient medium compared to turtle shells and animal bones for writing, leading to a more vivid and lively representation of the pig in the character. The pig was depicted with bristles standing upright, portraying a fierce appearance. As time progressed, it became increasingly stylized, and in the bronze inscriptions of the Zhou Dynasty, it retained only the outline of the pig.
The original strokes representing the pig’s hind hoof and tail were combined into one stroke. Some bronze inscriptions continued the representation of the male reproductive organs of the boar from the oracle bone script, emphasizing the use of male pigs for sacrificial ceremonies.
People raised pigs inside their houses, making the presence of pigs in a house a symbol of a family. Hence, “家” (jiā) became a compound ideogram or “会意字” (huìyìzì), representing the concept of “home.”
Throughout the development of the written script, “豕” transformed from a pictograph of a pig into a more abstract and symbolic representation of the animal. The character “家” (jiā) has continued to be used to denote “home” in modern Chinese.
Meaning of the Chinese Symbol for Family “家” (jiā)
The character “家” (jiā) is a compound ideogram and also a phonetic loan character. In the “Shuowen Jiezi,” an ancient Chinese dictionary, it is explained as “居也 (jū yě),” meaning “to dwell.” It is composed of the radical “宀” (mián), representing a roof or dwelling, and the phonetic component “豭 (jiā),” pronounced as “jiā,” which originally referred to a male pig, specifically a boar. In “Li Ji – Zaji,” it is mentioned that for all the vessels used in ancestral temples, those that have names completed must be consecrated with a boar or a male pig. The term “豭豚 (jiātún)” specifically referred to a young male pig but later came to be used more generally for a boar.
The primary meaning of “家” (jiā) is a dwelling or living place. In the “Book of Songs – Zhou Nan – Tao Yao,” it is stated, “室为夫妇所居，家谓一门之内 (shì wèi fū fù suǒ jū, jiā wèi yī mén zhī nèi),” indicating that “室 (shì)” refers to the place where a husband and wife reside, while “家 (jiā)” denotes the household or the family within one’s door. “有夫有妇，然后为家 (yǒu fū yǒu fù, rán hòu wéi jiā)” signifies that a family is formed when there is a husband and wife. In the “Book of Han – Sima Xiangru’s Biography,” it mentions “家徒四壁立 (jiā tú sì bì lì),” describing a person standing alone in an empty house. Over time, “家” (jiā) has also taken on extended meanings, such as settling down and establishing a home, signifying “to be able to call it a home.” Additionally, it can refer to one’s own family’s residence or the interior of a house.
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