In the early days of imperial China, iron and salt were the most profitable commodities. Iron could be forged into armour and weapons, then used to expand a ruler’s territory. Salt could be used to preserve food and give nutrition to a vast empire.
Such was the importance of salt that the Chinese government established a monopoly on its trade – an arrangement that has persisted for over 2,000 years, although it has recently been disbanded (see WiC363). Salt and the government were considered so inseparable that even the Chinese character for salt depicts a government official.
The Chinese word for salt is yan. As with many Chinese characters, the simplified version (盐) has lost some of its pictorial meaning but in the traditional character (鹽) still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the story is more apparent.
The base of the character is a depiction of a shallow basin. The same symbol can be found in words like “plate” (panzi, 盘子／盤子) and by itself means dish or vessel.
The character above and to the right is the symbol for salt, or more accurately brine (鹵). The roof-shaped marking above the brine appears to have derived from the symbol bao (勹) which means to wrap, suggesting perhaps that the raw salt has been processed and packaged for use, or that it is under control.
And then to the left is the figure exerting that control: the government official. This character by itself is pronounced chen (臣) and means “minister” or “an imperial official”. It is present in the traditional character for “supervise” too (監). This character has a similar structure to salt, yan, suggesting the similarity in pronunciation (“supervise” is pronounced jian).
But how does 臣 depict an official? The Chinese empire was too vast for the emperor to have knowledge of its every facet, and so he relied on his ministers to relay information to him. They were his eyes and ears. The character chen is a modern rendering of a pictogram for an eye, which originally looked more like the current character for eye, mu (目).
However, it is not so much that the ministers were the emperor’s eyes that gave chen its shape. When the officials went to see the emperor and relay their information to him, they would bow their heads and look down at the ground. Thus their eyes, if viewed in a profile position, became vertically aligned. So chen is inspired by the shape of a minister’s eyes as he is looking down, averting his gaze from the emperor.
With so much of the feudal system incorporated in this one character, perhaps that is why when the Communist Party simplified the written script they decided to replace the symbol for official with the character for “soil” (土).
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