Chu Language

The Chu language is now lost, a casualty of massive Sinicizing replacement. Only a few Chu words still survive, as quoted in Warring States and Han texts. As far as we know, no systematic effort has been made to collect a Chu lexicon from these sources. The melancholy truth is that all of the undoubted Chu words will fit on one page. Here they are, along with some claimed Chu words that do not seem convincing:

BEAR:  [non-Chinese character]; cf Chinese syúng "bear." SJ 40 gives Mî as the name of the Chu ruling clan, but cites some of its members as having the surname Syúng "bear." We suspect that Mî and Syúng are, respectively, the original and the assimilated versions of that clan name, and that they mean "bear" in Chu and Sinitic, respectively. In modern Siamese and Lao, spoken not far south of the former Chu territories, hmi is one word for "bear" (thanks to Guillaume Jacques, GPG 4 Jan 01, and to Alexander Vovin, NEAS 6 Jan 01).

MONSTER: Tau2wu4 , said in Mencius 4B21 to be the name of the Chu chronicle, and defined by commentators as the name of a bad tree or animal, the latter further said to have the body of a tiger but the face of a man and the teeth of a boar. We presume that it symbolized the terrifying aspect of the Chu armies, and that the Chu chronicle, which being inspired by the Chun/Chyou does not go back beyond the year 0312, was meant to be an account of Chu military triumphs. That record was in fact mixed from the beginning, and ultimately successful, but that is not the fault of the symbolism. It is the fault of incomplete social modernization along northern lines. The word also occurs in DJ Wvn 8:7 as a popular description of the defective son of an ancient emperor (Jwan-syw): a moral monstrosity.

STRIPED: Ban (more exactly ). The Ban family of Han was supposedly descended from the Chu minister Guk-utu (see under SUCKLE), and their surname, conventionally "striped," is sometimes said to mean "tiger." In support, we have modern Vietnamese f so, it represents an adoption of the leading element of the ancestor's personal name as a surname. We don't find "ban" convincing as another Chu word for "tiger."

SUCKLE: Guk ; cf Chinese rû "suckle." Given in DJ sv Sywaen 4 as part of the Chu name of the famous Chu minister Dz-wvn (see LY 5:19a). The name as a whole supposedly meant "suckled by a tiger" [see below for "tiger"]. The story is that he was abandoned as a baby, and raised by a wild tiger. Jyau Sywn suggests that the name instead meant "Suckling Tiger," that is, Tiger Cub. This spoils the abandonment motif, but since the abandonment motif is a standard folklore element, and turns up in many Chinese myths, it may be a literary elaboration. Yang Bwo-jywn rejects Jyau Sywn's suggestion, but we think it has the merit of sobriety. Story or no, the semantic area "suckle, nurse at the breast" is clear. See further under "tiger."

SUN: Mìk The Chinese graph for "sun" was used in the graph devised for the name of the Mìk River, in Chu territory. We assume that the phonetic value of the "sun" graph in this case was not the Chinese word for "sun" (in our period, nyìt), but the Chu word for "sun" (presumably mìk). In an enigmatic line of the Yi divination text (Yi 16:2), the word "sun, day" [nyìt] apparently rhymes not with words in -t, but with "stone," which ended in -k. The Chu word for "sun" may thus be implied in that line.

Was the Yi originally a Chu text? We don't know. But the Yi transmission genealogy in SJ 67 [eliminating Confucius and a spurious disciple from the list as mere pious myths] begins with a man said to be from Chu. If this first supposed transmitter had anything to do with the formation of the early Yi, it might not be surprising if that text, especially in its rhyming portents, contained a few Chu words. The eventual standard text of the Yi is highly assimilated to Chinese culture, and often refers to ancient Chinese history. But for that matter, so does the Chu text Tyen Wvn. It remains to be seen whether Chu deities and the like may be embedded in the earlier layers of the Yi.

SWORD: Glap [Pk jyá]; cf Chinese glam4 [Pk jyèn]. These look like the same word in two related languages, rather than two words for the same thing in different languages. We thus do not believe that glap is a Chu word. The matter is complicated; see our separate Sword page.

TIGER: Utu4 , compare Chinese hû "tiger." This is the other element in the 07c Chu personal name whose first element is glossed above under SUCKLE. The first character, normally Pekingese yw2, is here supposed to be read as wu1 (that us, as pure "u") in this and other cases where it is used to transcribe foreign words; another example is the non-Chinese state of Ywe (often written "Yw-Ywe"). A Chinese reader influenced by the meaning of "yw" as a Chinese word, however, might construe it i the name Utu as the "by" term of an agent of passive voice construction. That one seemingly transparent element would suggest the grammatical construction "X'd by Y." The additional information that the main semantic elements, as it were the X and Y of this equation, are "suckle" and "tiger" would then lead to the interpretation "suckled by a tiger." On that interpretation, in turn, the romantic story about this Chu minister's early abandonment and nurture in the wilds might easily have been founded. We prefer Jyau Sywn's QH theory [see under "suckle"] about the meaning of this name, and regard the other as a translation error.


Information about other Chu words from viewers will be most welcome.

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8 Jan 2001 / Contact The Project / Exit to Results Page