This article looks at the Shuowen Jiezi radical number 435 (Kangxi radical number 197) lǔ . In Cave Script Project terms, that might seem to be too modern to be relevant. However, it is important to remember that no one knows the true age of Chinese script. Moreover, I think that what Xu Shen has to say about lǔ, meaning rock salt is truly fascinating.

Images: Ben Mills: Annotation: Lynn Fawcett
Images: Ben Mills: Annotation: Lynn Fawcett

The chemical formula for sodium chloride is NaCl. It is an ionic compound wherein the individual atoms stack to form a cubic crystal structure.

Sodium Ion
Sodium Ion
Chloride Ion
Chloride Ion

I have added a cross to the diagram. Now compare the diagram to the two dimensional character lǔ. Coincidence? Not according to Xu Shen. He gives the etymology of lǔ as: xiàng yán xíng 象鹽形, meaning that the character resembles the shape of table salt. In other words, Xu Shen stated that lǔ is a pictograph of salt.

It gets even more interesting if we look at another character zhān , for which Xu Shen gives three possible meanings:

shì , meaning look at, or inspect, or observe;

zhào , meaning sign, or million, or foretell, and;

wèn , meaning ask, or interrogate, or question.

I think that zhān could be interpreted as scientific analysis. Perhaps the character is a pictograph of a scientific instrument.

Author's Note

Xu Shen’s etymology of rock salt throws accepted history into question. Did we really, only acquire the ability to see very small things a few hundred years ago? Perhaps we had the ability at some point much earlier, but then lost it.


Image Credits:

Ionic structure: Ben Mills, 2010:

Sodium ion: Ben Mills, 2010:

Chloride ion: Ben Mills, 2006: