The character 世 (shi) has been moulded over centuries by countless generations. Its meaning is profound, and its beauty timeless. But 世 was not always as it is now. This is its story.
The first ever Chinese characters were created over 10,000 years ago. These ancient characters are called pictographs and are derived from drawings of objects in everyday life. They looked something like this:
A few thousand years later the pictures were augmented with indirect and abstract symbols.
Over time, diverse adaptations of the characters spread throughout the kingdoms of China and caused great confusion. It was not until around 1899 that a solution was found. The discovery of inscriptions on oracle bones from the late Shang dynasty (c. 1200BCE) finally put an end to the confusion.
Almost every single Chinese character in history has evolved over time to become what it is today.
The character 世 (shi) itself has gone through centuries of change and amassed meaning beyond just that of its foundation.
The 世 of today consists of 5 strokes. Its primitive form is a pictograph resembling 3 leaves on a branch.
Later derived from the character 葉 [see below] which means “leaf”, 世(shi) symbolises the cycle of life that a tree’s foliage undergoes. The birth of a leaf in the springtime before its death in the fall. This is extended to mean “generation”.
The penultimate adaptation of the character 世 was built by fusing three identical iterations of the character 十 (ten) together. Naturally, three tens make thirty and the following character which is already very similar to 世 was born - 丗.
But Why Thirty?
For the ancient Chinese, 30 years was considered a lifetime. Or in other words, the life of a generation. Finally, through all existing generations living together on this planet, the last of its meanings can be derived. 世 also means “world”.
世 means life, and the world.
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