If you don’t read Chinese, it may take a bit of imagination to figure out what the character sam1 (心) refers to. Compared to the very first character for “heart”—a pictogram on oracle bones featuring the shape, curve and four valves of a human heart—the modern version is substantially more oblique.
The earliest Chinese characters, known as hon3 zi6 (漢字) were created using pictographs or pictures. These symbols developed in the neolithic era, with geometric symbols and shapes imitating the shapes of mountains, rivers or animals inscribed or painted on crags and pottery. Some of the earliest examples discovered by archaeologists are more than 8,500 years old. By the early Shang Dynasty, beginning in 1600 BC, these symbols had evolved into a script that was inscribed on animal bones or turtle plastrons used in pyromantic divination, known as the oracle bones (gaap3 gwat1 man4 甲骨文). This is generally considered to be the earliest known form of Chinese writing.
The character for “heart” underwent several transformations. These include bronze inscriptions known as gam1 man4 (金文), which were found on bells and cauldrons from the mid-Shang Dynasty to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). These early inscriptions still retained the valves depicted on the oracle bones, but with an additional element added to the top. The character continued to evolve, adding an elongated bottom stroke during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BC).
This was the era of seal script (syun6 syu1 篆書), which was used during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) as a standard script. It soon spread to every corner of the Qin empire and it became the basis of the first Chinese dictionary, which was produced during the the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). After that, the script evolved into eight sub-branches, one of which, known as clerical script (dai6 syu1 隸書) became popular. Clerical script allowed for a greater degree of freedom in creating characters, instead of following the rules set down during the Qin dynasty. Clerical script is the form of ancient Chinese that most closely resembles the traditional Chinese writing used in Hong Kong and Taiwan today.
Through all of these historical transformations, the character for “heart” has always meant more than just the organ. People in the past believed that emotions were determined by the heart, and thinking was a function of the heart instead of the brain. Embedded in the character are elements of desire, thoughts and the mind.
The character also plays an important role in other words. For instance, taai3 (態) is the combination of “heart” (seen in the bottom of the character) and “ability” (the top part). Blended together, they mean “attitude.”
The character for “heart” can also be paired with other characters to convey different meanings and add liveliness to the situations being described. According to the Multi-Function Chinese Character Database set up by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, sam1 has some of the most combinations of all Chinese characters.
Here are some examples. In English, an adored person is called the apple of one’s eye. The Cantonese equivalent is sam1 soeng1 jan4 (心上人, “heart top person”). Since heart conveys desire, the person on top of one’s heart is always on one’s mind. This phrase is commonly used in Chinese literature and songs due to its figurative language. Writer Eileen Chang applied this term in her most celebrated work, Love in a Fallen City, when a character in love compares the girl “on top of his heart” as the unreachable reflection of the moon at the sea.
Heart-related terms can also be adjectives. Sam1 heoi1 (心虛, “heart weak”) describes the phenomenon in Chinese medicine when one doesn’t have good blood circulation. But the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean that one has a failing organ. The second character, heoi1, connotes being hypocritical or deceitful. The combination of the two characters becomes an adjective to describe how one is fearful of exposing his or her deeds. For instance, a cuckold can probably tell the partner is being unfaithful if he or she is “heart weak.” In the past, it was more common to present the two characters in reverse order (虛心), but in modern times, this version has come to mean something completely different: that one is being humble and modest in listening to and learning from others – something the unfaithful partner should work on.
Another more recent saying is bo1 lei4 sam1 (玻璃心), literally “glass heart.” This phrase first appeared in Taiwanese online discussion forums where people mocked mainland Chinese nationalists for quickly taking offense whenever somebody was critical of China. Subsequently, the term has been expanded to include anyone who takes offense too easily.
It has been a long journey from the days when the heart was represented by an instantly recognisable pictogram. The origin of today’s character isn’t quite as clear. But that is just as well, because matters of the heart are always more complicated than they may seem.
This article makes use of the jyutping system of Cantonese romanisation.