Etymology of the Chinese Ideogram for ‘Virtue’ (德)

Virtuous Simplicity

Virtuous Simplicity

The earliest known examples of the Chinese ideogram ‘德’ appear on cast bronze artefacts produced during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) such as:

de1 de2 de3

This character evolved over many hundreds of years, and by the time of the development of Seal Characters (initiated during the Qin Dynasty 221-206 BCE), it had taken a recognisable form very similar to its familiar contemporary structure:

de4 de5

The modem Chinese character for ‘virtue’ is written as:

Within the pinyin system of mainland China, the character ‘德’ receives the phonetical designation of ‘de2’, to distinguish it from other characters.

The ideogram ‘德’ is comprised of the left-hand particle ‘彳’ (fu2) which specifically denotes the left side of a road (when written as ‘行 [xing2] the right-hand side of the road – ’ 亍’ [chu4] is also indicated). The two diagonal-lines represent feet travelling along a road or path (the vertical straight-line), and symbolise a journey in progress, as opposed to a ‘theoretical’ journey, not yet undertaken, or that remains only in the planning stage. The journey implied here has already begun and is both highly vigorous and pro-active.

The right-hand particle is comprised of a lower and upper aspect – ‘悳’ (de2) which stands for ‘moral excellence’, ‘kindness’, and ‘ethical behaviour’, etc. – and is the phonetic designator of the ideogram ‘德’. The lower aspect of the right-hand particle is ‘心’ (xin1), which stands for the concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘heart’. It can also mean ‘conscience’, ‘consciousness’, ‘directed will’, ‘correct thought’, ‘centrality’, ‘balance’, and ‘moral nature’. The upper aspect of the right-hand particle is ‘直 (zhi2), which refers to behaviour that is ‘continuous’, ‘uninterrupted’, ‘constant’, and ‘just’. This particle (zhi2) also means ‘straight behaviour’, as it is written as an ‘eye’ over a ‘nose’. When the nose points in the right direction, the eye sees clearly.

The Chinese character ‘德’ (de2) represents a moral and upright character (or ‘mind’) that is cultivated through following a correct physical path. The correct physical path is the direction the body takes, and is reflected in its patterns of behaviour within society. A ‘straight’ mind generates correct thoughts and applicable behaviour premised upon those thoughts, whilst applicable patterns of behaviour – that is behaviour that accords with perceived spiritual and societal norms – strengthens and reinforces the correct inner thoughts. Therefore correct thought leads to correct behaviour, which in turn creates the positive conditions for further refined thought, and so on. Virtue in this sense is achieved through a psychological and physical reliance upon that which is believed to be both ‘correct’ and ‘true’. It is indicated that those who possess virtue, do so because they perceive and see things more clearly than those who do not possess virtue. Indeed, another interpretation of the ideogram ‘德’ (de2) is a follows: The right-hand particle ‘悳’ (de2) is that of a ‘mind’ (‘心’ – xin1), or ‘person’ that climbs (‘彳’ – fu2) a ‘tower’ (‘直 – zhi2), and as a consequence, gains a clear and panoramic view of his or her environment. As many other people did not possess this ‘higher’ perspective, those who did were venerated and considered ‘virtuous’ beings in ancient China.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2015.


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