1. Please show pictures of these banners? I am curious how they look.

  2. What "type of work" and "work" would these banners display?

  3. Why would the Chinese hold up "a banner displaying the type of work a person was undertaking" with a hand? This procedure feels inefficient and grueling!

  4. Wouldn't the Chinese's hand ache and twinge from lifting up a banner for a long time? Instead of heaving a banner with your bare hand, why not erect and hang it up somewhere, like a tree? Why not improvisate a flag or banner pole?

Christopher Seely and Kenneth G. Henshall, The Complete Guide to Japanese Kanji, page 622. OBI = Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Late Shang Dynasty) dates to 1766 - 1122 BCE.

  • 1
    Is this a history question? May 15 at 0:20
  • 1
    Welcome to our forum. I hope you find the help you are looking for. That being said, I believe you will get much better help in the Japanese Language Stack Exchange. So, I suggest you copy this question, then close it, then paste it over there. I will vote to close this in a few days if it receives no help. Again, though, I suspect you will get much better and more prompt help over on the Japanese Stack.
    – Jimmy G.
    May 15 at 0:46
  • 3
    Please provide a little more context. For example, when? Is this 1930s? May 15 at 1:52
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    @JimmyG. As I read it, OP has a text saying a certain kanji character is a stylised representation of a hand holding a sign showing the holder's profession. They're assuming that this must mean that people used to actually do that, and they want to know where/why that was.
    – Toby Y.
    May 16 at 4:05
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    Much as I hate to state the obvious, the fact that artwork includes a banner indicating what work a person does doesn't mean they actually did it. Realism in arts is relatively recent, and lots of paintings depict people doing symbolic things that they wouldn't have actually done in real life. May 16 at 16:37

1 Answer 1


Re. points 1 and 2: These characters appeared about 3000 years ago, and there are few primary sources from that time. So it is hard to tell how exactly such banners would have looked or what would have been depicted or written on them.

Re. points 3 and 4: yes, this would be hard and not really productive, but that might be part of the point? That you can have a servant who holds a banner with a job description like "Important boss who will make the peasants work"? There are actual (though much more recent) depictions of people doing similar kind of work, i.e. holding stuff up for people far above them in social hierarchy. Therefore, someone holding a banner for an official does not sound implausible at all.

Another great source of depictions with people holding things to make their bosses look more prestigious are the Ming and Qing era versions of the "Along the river during the Qingming festival" paintings. In the Song era version it is not so apparent for some reason. However, keep in mind that these are only 300 to 500 years old. In European terms that would be like using paintings from 17th century Greece to illustrate points about the Mycaenean civilation. But I think they can be used to prove a general point: If you are high enough in the hierarchy, you can have people doing stuff that serves no real purpose except representation.

From one of the Ming era versions: Official at the entrance of his house

From one of the Qing era versions: Official travelling

One particularly striking example is from the same Ming dynasty version as above, but (I am guessing) seems to involve foreigners rather than an official: Group on horseback with camels

That said, Chinese internet sources usually give a different explanation for that character: that it depicts a hand holding a hunting net (for hunting birds maybe?), and that the character originally meant "to hunt". According to these sources, the meaning of "to administer" only came later.

Chinese characters acquiring a new and unrelated meaning is actually not that rare. One well-known example is 象, which originally means elephant, but because being pronounced exactly as 像 has taken a lot of that other character's meaning (i.e. "shape" or "to resemble").

  • This is all the way back in the Shang dynasty or earlier, hence the reference to Oracle Bone Inscriptions.
    – Spencer
    May 16 at 17:50
  • @Spencer fair enough. I have changed my answer a bit.
    – Jan
    May 16 at 21:31
  • It's even common today. In Holland we have Sophie Hermans, whose importance is in carrying the office bag of the prime minister.
    – Jos
    May 17 at 8:21
  • I mean, I see people on street corners spinning business signs for minimum wage TODAY. Why would it be so difficult to believe they have had something similar for much longer.
    – Jimmy G.
    May 17 at 21:58

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