Chinese Character for Origin, First: Yuán (元)

By Cindy Chan
Cindy Chan
Cindy Chan
September 24, 2014 Updated: May 7, 2022

The Chinese character 元 (yuán) stands for the beginning or the origin, and the quality of being original, first, primary, the eldest, or the leader.

 元 is formed by the two characters/radicals一 and 兀, according to the first comprehensive Chinese etymological dictionary, “Shuo Wen Jie Zie” (說文解字), or “Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters.”

一 (yī), the number one in Chinese, originally referred to the idea of the simplest and earliest origin, from which the world was divided into heaven and earth, and then was transformed into all things in the universe. 

兀 (wù) consists of 一 (yī) above the character for a human being, 人 (rén), according to “Shuo Wen Jie Zie,” conveying the meaning of a towering and outstanding appearance.

Examples of terms that use 元 (yuán) include 元老 (yuán lǎo), the aged, an elder, or a founding member or senior leader; 元氣 (yuán qì), vitality, vigour, or energy; 元件 (yuán jiàn), a component; and 元素 (yuán sù), an element, such as in the periodic table of chemical elements.

元宵節 (yuán xiāo jié), literally “first night festival,” refers to the Lantern Festival, which concludes the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year. It occurs on the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar, which is also the first night of the year when a full moon can be viewed.

The month of January is called 一月 (yī yuè) as well as 元月 (yuán yuè), while New Year’s Day is called 元旦 (yuán dàn), where 旦 (dàn) refers to dawn, morning, daybreak, or day.

一元復始 (yī yuán fù shǐ) refers to the beginning of a new year, literally “a beginning (一元, yī yuán) again (復, fù) begins (始, shǐ).”

It is often followed by the phrase 萬象更新 (wàn xiàng gēng xīn) to form a New Year greeting. 萬象 (wàn xiàng), literally “10 thousand (萬, wàn) manifestations/appearances (象, xiàng) are renewed (更新, gēng xīn),” states that “all things are renewed.”

壽元無量 (shòu yuán wú liàng) is a phrase used to wish someone the blessing of longevity, literally “a life (壽元, shòu yuán) that is boundless 無量 (wú liàng).”

The phrase 元首特權 (yuán shǒu tè quán) refers to the right or privilege (特權, tè quán) of the head of state (元首, yuán shǒu), such as a ruler, emperor, or president. 權 (quán) means authority, power, or right. 

元 (yuán) is also used to refer to a unit of currency, and is a synonym of 幣 (bì) in this context.

The Canadian dollar is called 加元 (jiā yuán), the American dollar 美元 (měi yuán), the euro 歐元 (ōu​ yuán), the Australian dollar 澳元 (ào​ yuán), and the Hong Kong dollar 港元 (gǎng yuán). 

The first character of each of the above currencies refers to the respective country or region: 加拿大(jiā ná dà), Canada; 美國 (měi guó), the United States of America; 歐洲 (ōu​ zhōu), Europe; 澳大利亞 (ào dà lì yǎ), Australia; and 香港 (xiāng gǎng), Hong Kong.

Cindy Chan