Dust, Earth, and Molecules

By Zhu Li
Zhu Li
Zhu Li
May 8, 2017 Updated: May 9, 2017

The Chinese character 塵 (chen) refers to dust. It is formed of two parts, each a full character.  The upper one is 鹿, a deer. In Bone Oracle Script, the earliest ancient Chinese writing, it was practically a full drawing of a deer, as below:


The lower part of the character 塵 is 土, meaning earth or soil.

塵 is called an associative compound character as it combines two already existing characters, deer and earth to show its meaning. It conjures up a mental picture of a group of deer running, causing dust to rise.


Chinese painting of a group of Deer. (Courtesy of Qiu Yan)
Chinese painting of a group of Deer. (Courtesy of Qiu Yan)

The character 土, for earth, is a pictogram. It has two horizontal strokes indicating the fertile topsoil going down to the subsoil with a vertical stroke symbolizing things growing from the earth.

Chinese legend tells us that the earth is not only the source of plants and food. It tells us that the goddess Nü Wa crafted humans from yellow earth using her own figure as a model. The Bible also tells of Man’s creation by God using clay.

In the past, I could not understand the literal truth of this. If my body was made of the earth or clay, how could I swim without dissolving in water?

Then I came across the writings of Mr Li Hongzhi, in “Zhuan Falun (Volume II)” that gave me an answer to this query.

From this text I understood that the earth referred to in Man’s creation is not the same as what we see with our human eyes. From their higher levels, celestial beings see the molecules of earth in the same way that we see dust or earth, but people only learned the existence of molecules about 200 years ago.

The simplified character for dust, 尘, is formed with the character 小, meaning little, on top of 土 , earth.  It is logical, but the poetic, vivid image from the original version of  “dust” is lost.

As one of the five elements, 土 , the character for earth, is also a useful radical. When you see it as part of a character, you can guess that character is related to earth. Here are some examples: 土地 land, 地址 address, 城 city, 堡 castle, 墻壁 wall, 壁壘 barrier, 坎坷 bumpy, 堵塞 blocked, 埋 burial, 堅 solid, 境 border, 坐 sitting, 場 field, and 基 base.

Edited by Damian Robin.

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