Mysterious Chinese Characters (5): Shan

August 1, 2008 11:17 am Last Updated: October 1, 2015 10:59 pm
The Chinese character for compassion,
The Chinese character for compassion,

The Chinese pictograph 善 (shàn) is comprised of the ideogram 羊 (yáng) and 言 (yán), where 羊 signifies a sheep, and 言 means “that which is spoken,” or simply the noun “word.”

A sheep in ancient China was a fixture in every proper household. Because of its obedience it was an especially favorite house pet. A sheep always bleats, whether people treat it well or mistreat it. That is, a characteristic of sheep is to react kindly under any circumstance. The Chinese therefore assigned the pictograph character 善 for “kindness”.

Many religions, Buddhism included, consider compassion one of the major tenets of the belief system. It could be considered empathy for one’s fellow man. A Buddhist recognizes other people’s sufferings and attempts to alleviate them. That means he must think of others first before thinking of himself.

Buddhism considers others’ sufferings more important than one’s own. Human existence alone means suffering; humans are restrained by the physical body, and have to endure age, illness and death. By constantly raising standards for conduct, and assimilating to compassion, Buddhists hope to bring an end to earthly suffering. The goal is to reach enlightenment and return to one’s origin.

The opposite of 善 is portrayed in the symbol 惡 (è) meaning malice. 惡 is composed of the two pictographs 心 (xīn) heart or mind, and  亞 (yà) weakness or inferiority. The 心亞 combination therefore signifies “weak mind.” Ancient Chinese considered malice a sign of a weakness coming from the mind.

By contrast, those who demonstrate compassion show their true inner strength, in spite of those who might berate or humiliate them.